We visit the densely packed city of Naples and go on a food tour to taste the best the city has to offer!
We visit the densely packed city of Naples and go on a food tour to taste the best the city has to offer!
Due to our Airbnb host getting back to us rather late on the morning we left, we were not able to take an early train to Pompeii.
We arrived at the main station in Naples at about 10am to find the platform rammed with people waiting for the notorious Circumvesuviana, the private train that runs around Mount Vesuvius from Naples to Sorrento, stopping at Pompeii Scavi (scavi means ‘ruins’) and about 30 other stops along the way.
It is an old dirty train and it was PACKED. We were standing up the whole way and it was hard to avoid knocking into other people as the train sped up and slowed down to stop at places where hardly anyone got on or off.
At Pompeii the train pretty much emptied and we’d read that the entrance to Pompeii was about 500 metres up the road. This wasn’t true – it was almost opposite the station. Super handy, as were the free bag lockers that were, quite miraculously, mostly empty. We’d brought along all our luggage and were a tiny bit concerned that our bags wouldn’t fit but they did, plus there was an office for super large bags near the ticket windows.
We put our bags in then sat at one of the two open air restaurants opposite the entrance to the site and had a sandwich and a drink. Even at such a touristy location the prices weren’t awful – we could have food and a drink from about ten euros each. The restaurant also had quite an interesting display of labeled herbs and fruit trees spread around the tables. Here’s some lemons that were on display. Huge!
Eventually we sucked up our courage (it was a very hot day) and ventured out. The ticket queue was long but moved at a reasonable speed and we downloaded a Rick Steves audio tour of Pompeii while we waited.
Eventually we got in and wandered around, stopping in shady spots (there aren’t many) to listen to the podcast tour. If you haven’t heard of Rick Steves and you like travel, he’s worth investigating. My friend Jess’ mother, Wendy, recommended him to us. He’s an American who runs tours and writes and makes travel videos about Europe. He talks to locals, promotes sustainable and low cost travel and has quite a nice accent and enthusiastic manner. We listened to quite a few of his podcasts and watched his videos before we left.
The audio tour was quite informative and we also listened in to a few bits of guided tours that happened around us. It did seem that a few of the major buildings were closed while we were there and so we didn’t see the public baths and a few houses.
We stayed for about two hours but eventually the heat defeated us. There are taps on many of the street corners and so I did what I do at summer music festivals and soaked a cotton scarf and wrapped it around my head and shoulders. It helped somewhat but the reflected heat from all the dirt and stone was intense.
I think my favourite part of the city was the mosaic of Alexander the Great – someone I studied in high school and found fascinating. The mosaic (a replica, the original is in Naples) depicts a battle between Alexander and Darius, who led the Persian army. The guide who was talking near us was asking his group if they knew about Bucephalus (Alexander’s horse – a legend in itself) and various other things and I wanted to butt in and show off but managed to restrain myself with great difficulty.
We left knowing we hadn’t seen it all and probably wouldn’t come back. I did enjoy getting a feel for the layout of the city and the technology and everyday life of people who lived so long ago. I would love to see parts of the city restored more fully – we didn’t see any actual work going on while we were there and weeds seemed to be taking over many of the central buildings, with ancient frescos open to the elements. Considering what a tourist draw and money spinner the place is, it’s hard to believe there isn’t money or interest in looking after it better.
We collected our bags and walked back to the station to find a sign being displayed at the kiosk saying that for the princely sum of four euros (rather than the regular price of two) we could buy a ticket on the express train to Sorrento. Yes please! When the train pulled up there were staff in the doorway making sure only the people who’d paid extra got on the express, which meant that we and perhaps another ten people got to enjoy a slightly newer and cooler train for the rest of our journey.
Why they didn’t offer this service (or perhaps didn’t advertise it) for the rush-hour period to get there I couldn’t say. That’s Italy for you.
Anyhow, we arrived in Sorrento to find that our next Airbnb was three flights up in a building right in the middle of the old town. One of those places that is an apartment block with a central atrium full of plants and laundry.
Our apartment had windows on three sides, a rooftop deck and a shower with disco lighting.
We celebrated our arrival with cool showers and then enjoyed wearing nothing but our undies and drinking some ice cold limoncello on the roof.
Since this is a part of the trip I’ve been looking forward to, I thought I’d write my own post about the experience. I imagine quite a bit of it will be doubling up on what Amanda has already written, so apologies for that.
Although I definitely appreciate pizza more than some others, I could never call myself an aficionado. Not when I know there are people out there that obsess over all aspects of pizza making. As Amanda mentioned previously, I was a kickstarter backer of a documentary focused on Scott Weiner, of Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York. Now THERE is a guy who is an aficionado. A flour company that specialises in products for pizza makers once flew him to Italy to consult on upcoming products before releasing them to market. The guys who make the pizzas say that Scott knows more about pizza than they do.
All this is to say, I’m just a guy who enjoys a good slice. (Also watch that documentary if you get a chance, it’s really fun and interesting!)
I’m not going to go too heavily in to the history of pizza (Amanda touched on it briefly), suffice it to say that Naples is the birthplace, so any pizza lover owes it to themselves to try the pizza here if they can.
They have two “traditional” pizzas in Naples:
Neapolitan pizza, or pizza Napoletana, is a type of pizza that originated in Naples, Italy. Neapolitan pizza is prepared with simple and fresh ingredients: a basic dough, raw tomatoes, fresh mozzarella cheese, fresh basil, and olive oil—no fancy toppings. One of its defining characteristics is that there is often more sauce than cheese, leaving the middle of the pie wet or soggy and not conducive to being served by the slice.
Because of this, Neapolitan pizzas are generally pretty small (about 10 to 12 inches), making them closer to the size of a personal pizza. Neapolitan pizzas are cooked at very high temperatures (800 F-900 F) for no more than 90 seconds.
I like cheese too much not to go for the Margherita, so that’s what I decided to try at each pizzeria…
…except for the very first one! The first pizzeria we went to on the evening we arrived in Naples was Pizzeria Starita, which, I’d discovered, is known for its fried-base pizza called the Montanara. Everyone said it was the thing to try, so we ordered one of those and a Margherita and ate half each.
It was honestly hard to say which pizza was better. The Montanara had a delicious light crispy crunch to the base due to the frying, and the sauce was wonderfully balanced against the cheese to make a sweet and tangy topping. I noticed the base wasn’t as heavily charred as it might have been, so the bitter smoky taste only came through around the edges of the crust. Contrast that against the Margherita, which was an explosion of rich, tangy tomato which complemented the more smoky dough. Both pizzas were exceptionally good! It was entirely possible we had just had the best pizzas of our lives…
The next day we went on a food-focused walking tour around Naples. Amongst other things, we tried one Margherita pizza from Antica Pizza Fritta da Esterina Sorbillo.
Overall I wasn’t super impressed. It certainly lacked the wallop of flavour of the pizzas from Starita. I’ve heard that Sorbillo is supposed to be quite good, so I’m not sure why we got something substandard. I think there’s three separate eateries all named Sorbillo, one of which is the really famous one you hear heaps about, and another which is the bit we were in. I suspect that if you went to the proper one during the “queue for an hour to get one slice” time rather than when we were there for our food tour, it might be quite different. They did, however, have a pizza (more like a calzone really) that was deep fried and filled with ricotta, buffalo mozzarella, provolone and ham. That was super good!
Our breakfast pizza the next day was from Antica Pizzeria e Friggitoria Di Matteo in the old district. One small Margherita to share between the two of us.
This was a classic Naples Margherita street pizza. Hot, cheap and served in some grease paper folded in to quarters. The ingredients were runny but not too soupy, and there wasn’t too much or too little of either sauce or cheese. There was evenly spaced charring across the base. There was the telltale tang of the sweet regional tomatoes mixed with the salty mozzarella. In a word, for a hit-and-run Naples street pizza, it was perfect. As you can see the ingredients had slipped due to being held sideways while we were walking, but you can eat the pizza sideways so as to mash everything together anyway. It certainly didn’t detract from the taste!
That evening we went out to dinner with some friends who also happened to be in Naples. We went to Pizzeria Trianon da Ciro as they had a good range of pizzas and had a large amount of seating, which made it good for a group. Again I ordered a Margherita, although this time I decided to try one with additional olive oil.
The extra oil didn’t make that much of a difference for me, so I probably won’t order that again, but the pizza certainly tasted good. Not as good as Starita, not even as good as the street pizza from Di Matteo, but it was certainly tasty. And huge! So much bigger than all the pizzas we’d had so far.
As we neared the end of our time in Naples, I’d only have time to fit a few more places in. So I chose Antica Pizzeria Di Michele for the next day’s first pizza. This is the pizzeria made famous (apparently?) in the movie “Eat Pray Love” but it was certainly very popular before then.
After we worked out that we had to go and collect a ticket from the doorman to secure our place in the queue, we waited for a table. Considering the amount of people there were, and how few spaces there are, it was surprisingly quick.
Di Michele only has two pizzas on their menu – the Marinara and the Margherita – and a very small selection of drinks. You’re there for the pizza, not a dining experience. The time we were seated to the time we walked out the door was less than thirty minutes. And at least half of that time was spent eating super delicious pizza.
Here was where our research bore some fruit. We could tell that the Di Michele Margheritas were very good, but we noticed some differences against the pizzas from Starita.
These were charred a bit more on the base, and either they were using different tomatoes, or the smoky flavour cut against them too much, because they didn’t have the same burst of flavour. But they were still excellent, delicious pizzas, and not even as soupy as I’d been expecting – although there’s no way I’d attempt to consume one without a knife and fork.
That night we were meeting up with another friend of ours for dinner, and because she was coming in via boat and only had a small amount of time to spare, I suggested an upmarket pizza restaurant called 50 Kalò, as it was close to the marina and I’d read that it was supposed to be good.
Although there were a great number of pizza toppings and flavours on offer, I decided to stick with the Margherita so as to make it a fair test against all the others. And despite the fact that the restaurant was clearly popular – it was teeming with people and there was a massive queue to get in by the time we left – my pizza left a lot to be desired.
I can’t even describe it to you. At the time, I remember thinking that it just tasted like… nothing. None of the flavours took centre stage, or were very bold.
If ever there was a clear marker of just how amazing pizza in Naples CAN be, this pizza, by failing to make any sort of impression, was it. I had been spoiled with amazing flavour up until this point. It was a bit of a rude shock, and a sad segue back in to non-Naples pizza.
That doesn’t mean I’m not going to angle for some great slice in other parts of Italy, of course! 😉
If I had more time in Naples, I would have liked to try the pizzas from El Presidente (owned by the brother of the guy who runs Di Matteo, so I’d hope the pizzas would be of similar quality), Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba (widely regarded as the very first pizzeria in the world – although apparently the quality has gone downhill) and Pizzeria Brandi, which is the Pizzeria that (allegedly) invented the Margherita. Maybe next time?
Round three of pizza this morning. Our first stop was Di Matteo’s, which was less than a kilometre from our accommodation. We got there so early that it hadn’t actually opened so we stopped at a cafe for a rather expensive cappuccino (Luke) and lemon granita (me).
I absolutely hate queuing for things and so I like to arrive, if at all possible, when an attraction or restaurant opens. We keep watching docos or seeing pictures of pizza places here that are swamped with people but so far we haven’t had to wait for a thing.
Di Matteo only have a serving window so we bought one Margherita then walked down the road to a church and sat on the steps. When they hand you the pizza here it is in a sheet of paper and they fold the pizza in half then quarters to make it easier to take away. It cost all of €1.50.
We took photos and video before we ate, which isn’t as annoying as it sounds because it takes a couple of minutes for the pizza to cool down to eating temperature. I had brought along my trusty scissors and cut the pizza in half. Luke thought it would drip everywhere but using scissors worked well and I’ve been glad to have them on me.
We both liked the pizza a lot – Di Matteo has an excellent reputation. The sauce was piquant and the crust had a good texture and char but I think I prefer my pizza served flat. Folding means the topping and crust get squished. Plus serving on paper means the oil does inevitably start to drip and you have to watch out or it gets on your clothes.
After the pizza we took the funicular up to the Castel san Elmo and admired the view. There’s not actually a whole lot to do there apart from a small modern art gallery in the centre but the view from the ramparts is 360 degrees and positively stunning.
Tonight we’re going to another restaurant so I look forward to eating my pizza on a plate and maybe having another Aperol Spritz. I think it is a drink that will now always remind me of Italy, much as peach iced tea now reminds me of Turkey.
I have never really heard anything good about Naples that wasn’t pizza-related. Perhaps a rumour about good museums, but when people talk about the city it is always as something of a cesspool of humanity and actual garbage.
To be honest, this photo could just have easily been taken in Rome or (language aside) London.
Perhaps it was to see if it was really as bad as people say that I decided I wanted to come here. I mean, could it really be more filthy than some Asian capitals like Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh? And of course with Luke’s pizza obsession we were going to come here eventually.
We arrived by train and I was surprised at how new and shiny the main station was and linea 1 was entirely air conditioned too.
Also can I just show you this outfit that I took a sneaky photo of as this lady was getting off the train? Totally irrelevant but what an amazing item of clothing. Where would you even buy something like that? Not that I need to know since I’d never do it justice but… wow. Also I’d have it soaked in massive and undignified sweat patches within about five seconds of getting off the train but that’s a different matter.
When we reached our Airbnb flat the owner told us that the station is so nice because it is only a year old and it wasn’t representative of the rest of the network. Too bad!
Our Airbnb has also recently been done up and has some rather interesting lighting features – three colour-controllable LED strips in one wall and strip lighting around the ceiling. It’s more tasteful than it sounds and it’s actually a spacious apartment too, with lots of food available for breakfast and snacks. Pastries, biscuits, milk and juices. Very nice! We bought a litre bottle of Bombay Sapphire in the Croatian duty free ($35 AUD – bargain!) that we are taking with us from place to place for our evening post prandial drinks.
Also the apartment is on the ground floor, which is always nice! Especially in Naples where there are miles of stairs everywhere anyhow.
The atrium of our apartment block.
Now I have a travel tip for you!
We have gotten into the habit, if there isn’t an ice cube tray in our freezer, of pouring water into the bottom of some glasses before we go out exploring then freezing the whole. This means a nice cold glass into which you can pour wine or whatever when you get home after a day’s hard sightseeing.
Luke had done some research and made a map of pizzerias that are generally considered top-notch. One was quite a walk from the others so we decided to hit that one first. Plus it had tables so we could dine in. Quite a few Neopolitan pizzerias are just grab-and-go storefronts.
It opened at 7pm so we had time to walk around a bit. Naples street art seems to be a cut above anything we saw in Rome. Which wouldn’t be hard since all we saw in Rome was tagging. Urgh.
We tried to find a bar for a drink but they all seemed to be stand-up affairs. I found a blog that said drinking isn’t big in Naples. What? Italians not big on drinking? This didn’t really fit all my stereotypes of Italian culture. More research will be required.
We got back to Starita as they opened and had already decided what we wanted. We were having their traditional Margherita and their specialty, a deep fried pizza. For this one the crust is deep fried until it is puffy then quickly baked with topping on.
I preferred the traditional, Luke preferred the fried crust but both were excellent.
While I would not go anywhere near so far as to say we are experts, we know a reasonable amount about pizza. Luke helped kick-start a pizza documentary that we have watched several times and if you read our entry on pizza in New York you’ll know how much we love it. I also like making my own from scratch at home so I was keen to get ideas on how to improve it.
Naples is the birthplace of pizza, but from Naples pizza spread via migrants to New York and Boston before being popularised in the rest of Italy. It began as a way for bakers to slightly cool the base of their ovens so that loaves of bread would not burn. To stop the pizza inflating like a balloon (as pita bread does), tomato sauce would be spread on it. This became a cheap early morning food for workers in Naples and then its popularity meant pizza was served all day. Putting cheese on pizza didn’t happen immediately – the Margherita was invented to honour a queen and the basil added to pay homage to Italy’s flag.
In Australia we think of ‘marinara’ as a seafood pizza but here it means a pizza with only tomato sauce and herbs, no cheese. Pizza here is very different to pizza in most other places. It is cooked unbelievably quickly – in as little as a minute – and the sauce is pure pulped tomatoes. The base is charred but the whole thing is a bit soupy in the middle and there isn’t as much cheese as we like to pile on at home. The joy of Neapolitan pizza is in the freshness of the ingredients. For the true traditional pizza the tomatoes must have been grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius. The tomatoes taste so tangy and salty-sweet that, combined with the olive oil and cheese there is a buttery-richness that is magical.
All styles of pizza are good and pizza is a dish that is reinvented over and over around the world. Experiencing it in Naples doesn’t mean you have had the world’s best, it means you have added a dimension to your appreciation of it. At least that’s my feelings on the subject!
I would love to know what other people have thought of pizza they have eaten in Naples – or anywhere around the world! Where have you most or least enjoyed it?