DOS HERMANOS GO NAPOLI: JUST ONE (MORE) CORNETTO
I’m used to bad driving - I’ve been to Spain - but Naples takes the art to a whole new and impressive level. Faded zebra crossings are an inconvenience to be ignored, traffic lights seem to be advisory and one way streets can be two-way at some indeterminate point in time, usually when you’re crossing. And once you’ve managed to avoid the cars then you have to deal with one of the many scooters which buzz noisily whilst weaving along the pavements.
All great fun of course and combined with the piles of rubbish, hawkers selling old tat and decaying buildings with washing hanging from every window put me in mind of a European version of Kolkata. Of course it’s not really the same, this is Europe after all, but that’s the first, vivid impression I got walking (and getting lost) in the streets between Stazione Centrale and my billet in the Centro Storico.
It does lend the city a certain frisson however and though I was only there for a few days I thoroughly enjoyed my stay, in no small part due to the friendly locals, lack of tourists and the good food. Speaking of which once I’d checked in I was desperately in need of some nosebag - a ham sandwich on EasyJet not being enough to keep this fine specimen of a man in good working order.
Not long after dumping my bags the Time Out guide led me to a little place a few minutes away from where I was staying and surprisingly it proved to be a bit of a winner. Piccolo Ristoro was indeed a piccolo gaff. Located near the port and consisting of not much more than four walls and a roof it accommodated just a few papercloth-covered tables occupied by local workers. There was no menu so it was basically yours truly speaking a mix of very bad Italian (with a few Spanish words thrown in when completely stumped) and lots of pointing. Somehow I managed to get fed.
A small primi of Spaghetti Vongole had good pasta cooked al dente and mixed with a little chilli and some of the smallest sweetest clams I’d ever had. Simple and very delicious.
I didn’t know what the catch of the day was although it looked like Sea Bass. In truth it wasn’t grilled as expertly as you would find in Spain but was still good and the fish of course was very fresh. With a big basket of country-style bread and a mezzo of the House White the bill struggled to break the 15 Euro mark for good, honest food served with little fuss, but made with a lot of heart. I turned down the offer of dolci and instead dipped into the nearest bar for my first taste of real Italian coffee.
Enter a bar in Madrid towards the end of a Friday lunch and people will be finishing their wine, lighting a cigar and pouring the Orujos and Pacharans. In Naples they’ll be lining up the espressos. I’m not sure what it’s like in the rest of the country but here un caffè is the drug of choice and predictably it’s great: delivered out of hand-pumped machines it’s intense and strong and always served with a little glass of water. It’s addictive stuff and I soon got into the habit of popping into one of the many hole-in-the-wall bars for a quick fix.
The other habit I got into was always starting my day/afternoon/whenever with one of the city’s signature cakes. Like Sfogliatelle Riccia for instance, which are crisp pastry shells filled with Ricotta. Best served warm and sprinkled with icing sugar they’re the perfect accompaniment to a strong coffee. Coming from the “Have two of these and you really will see Naples and die” category are the Zeppoli: a fritter-like construction topped with custard cream. Or Babas, which were imported by the French but which are frequently eaten on the hoof: an alcohol-soaked sponge of loveliness.
More street food from the savoury end of the spectrum is available from friggatoria which specialise in deep-frying, well, just about anything including pizza (and you thought this was a Scottish invention). My favourite of these places was a newish joint in Mergellina which in addition to the usual Arancini and Crocche did baby Squid, cooked to order, which you could
munch out of a paper cone whilst sucking on a cold one.
Da Dora, a seafood restaurant, seems to be a bit of an institution among the Neapolitans if my visit on a Saturday lunchtime was anything to go by. The nice staff found me a table in a packed dining room where an older, well-dressed crowd were tucking into pasta and grilled fish. A big bowl of their Vongole were good but these specimens were larger and not as sweet as the ones I’d eaten the day before.
The restaurant’s special Linguini was a plate of that pasta covered with various shellfish in a tomato-based sauce. Enjoyable, but hardly life-changing. Ad Dora is pricey as well and I’m sure you’d get meals which were just as satisfying in cheaper trattorias.
Of course there are two other food groups which are essential to maintain body and soul in Italy. The first, Pizza, is a Naples staple and places were you can get a slice are almost as ubiquitous as coffee bars. Made quickly, with decent ingredients and priced realistically they’re the real fast food of the people. Everyone here eats pizza and although there are one or two places that attract the queues at lunchtime I suspect that they’re not going to be significantly better than the others.
I tried the two signature varieties, Margherita and Marinara, and while I wouldn’t put eating them up there with the most memorable foodie experiences of my life they’re a cheap and fun way to grab a bite, no more so than when eating them at tables packed with Neapolitan families on a Sunday lunchtime.
The second essential of any Italian meal is Ice Cream and after a Pizza most people will toddle off to their favourite Gelateria for a tub. Although I visited quite a few (of course I did) my favourite was Gay-Odin’s. Name aside which made me think of camp Viking gods, the gelato was terrific and seemed much softer than the stuff we get over here. Cheaper too, and I got a mini cone wafer.
Unfortunately, it could only be a brief visit to Naples so I felt that I only scratched the surface of what is a fascinating city. Similarly, I didn’t try as much food as I would have liked but what I did eat seemed to exhibit a simple elegance which spoke of confidence in the raw materials used. In other words there’s no need for obfuscation.
The bottom line for any place I visit is whether I would contemplate returning and in the case of Naples it would definitely be a Ciao e a presto.