Napoli Ever After

"I'D love to go to Italy too," a deskbound friend in Milan remarked jokingly when I told him about my recent trip to Naples. For Italians as well as Italophiles, Naples is today the must-visit city -- the place where the arts are in the fullest flower, the food is exhilarating, and life pulsates. Like Barcelona in the eighties, Naples is taken with itself in a way that makes visiting it more exciting than it has been in decades -- maybe centuries.

Until very recently, saying that Naples was your favorite city and urging friends to visit was almost foolhardy. The churches and museums were among the finest in Italy, yes, but just try to see them. Guidebooks directed you down dark, menacing alleys to marvelous churches that turned out to be bolted shut. The city's star museum of art, Capodimonte, in a vast royal palace built by the Spanish Bourbons, who made Naples a capital rivaled only by Paris, was simply closed for years. Walking around Spaccanapoli,the quarter with most of the great churches and noble palaces, was so dangerous that you were warned to leave everything of value at your hotel before setting out.

The city has transformed itself with startling speed. Its modern rebirth began in 1984, when a group of citizens calling itself Napoli '99 took the destruction caused by a 1980 earthquake (and the subsequent pilfering of government funds earmarked for rebuilding) as the impetus for collecting private support to restore monuments and museums. Sculptures, portals, and palace façades emerged, cleansed, from scaffolding; whole museums were refurbished, and churches that had been closed for years reopened. During the G7 summit of 1994 the world saw that Naples could be clean and safe, and the main arteries passable rather than clogged.

Cynics accustomed to grime and chaos called it a modern Potemkin village. Rather, it was a preview of the plans of the city's newly elected left-wing mayor, Antonio Bassolino, who vowed to make Naples "livable" after years of civic neglect, corruption, and abandonment to the effective control of the Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the Mafia. Within months of his election, in December of 1993, Bassolino put traffic cops and patrolmen back on the beat (traffic policemen considered their jobs so hopeless that many would clock in and then go home) and set about cleaning up the city. Since then theft has decreased by 25 percent (it has not, of course, vanished) and tourism has increased by 40 percent. In the spring of last year it took me nearly an hour in a taxi to get from downtown to Capodimonte, which had just reopened to international fanfare. Last April, after the busiest portion of the city's main north-south route had been made one-way, the trip took less than twenty minutes.

Piazza del Plebiscito, the city's main piazza, previously a chaotic welter of vehicles, has been shut to traffic altogether and paved with new black cobblestones, and now it is among the country's grandest spaces. Grouped around the piazza are Teatro San Carlo, Italy's largest opera house, which some critics say lately surpasses Milan's La Scala; a vast royal palace, where you can inspect grandiose mid-nineteenth-century royal suites built by the Bourbons, reminiscent of the ones in Buckingham Palace; an 1887 shopping gallery more ornate than Milan's famous Galleria, restored by Napoli '99 to its gilt, stucco, and cast-iron splendor and now home to shops that display the city's internationally famous tailoring; Caffe Gambrinus, where seemingly half of Naples gathers twice a day for coffee, served in beautifully refurbished neoclassical salons; and, across from the palace, a sweeping semicircular colonnade to rival the one at St. Peter's. Once at 1:00 A.M. last spring I counted seven wedding parties posing for pictures.

And have I mentioned the city's food? It made me swoon.

TWO neighborhoods -- Spaccanapoli, at the heart of the city, and Vomero, in the hills above -- kept drawing me back to their streets, old and narrow and cramped in the first case, modern and wide and airy in the second. Spaccanapoli reflects the classic image of wily denizens living amid decaying glory. Vomero is an unexpectedly calm, prosperous neighborhood where in a small area you can find a selection of the city's best museums, shopping, and cafés.

It's easy to think of Spaccanapoli as the set for a melodrama, with Sophia Loren gesticulating out some back window, or for a postwar comedy starring Totò, the aristocrat whose rubber face immortalized the Neapolitan who knows how to "arrange himself," or sidestep every obstacle. The laundry flapping on balconies and old women hawking contraband cigarettes are picturesque reminders of a time when Naples lived entirely on the streets -- a time as recent as the late forties and the fifties, memorably described in Naples '44, by Norman Lewis, and The Gallery, by John Horne Burns.

The main entrance to the neighborhood is Piazza del Gesù Nuovo, which has what are considered the city's two finest churches -- Gesù Nuovo, named for the Jesuits who fitted it with richly hued frescoes and marble-inlaid floors, and Santa Chiara, which dates from the time of the Angevin domination, in the fourteenth century. I much prefer the vaulting Provençal Gothic simplicity of Santa Chiara, which was bombed and then almost entirely rebuilt after the war. Ian Thomson writes in his useful and entertaining guide in the Harper Independent Traveller series that its vast single-aisle interior "has been compared variously to a large banqueting hall, a ballroom and an indoor car-park." On two separate visits I've seen society weddings there; the well-turned-out local aristocracy did make the church seem like a ballroom, if a somber one, and so did the white-gloved footmen passing paper cones of sugar-coated almonds, called confetti.

Most tourists skip the church and head around back to the big, verdant cloister, covered with blue-and-mustard-colored handpainted majolica tiles from the eighteenth century. In an unmarked room to the right of the entrance you can see one of the densely populated crèches, or presepi, with the figures dressed like dolls in period costume, for which Naples is famous. The crèche beside the cloister has only 170 shepherds, but it will suffice if you can't get to San Martino, in Vomero, where crèches have hundreds of figures.

The segment of Spaccanapoli between Piazza del Gesù Nuovo and Piazza San Domenico is now tranquil enough to allow you to keep an eye on the Baroque palaces instead of on your wallet. In the courtyard of one palace is Simposium (at via Benedetto Croce 38), the headquarters of a winning young group dedicated to the city's historical cuisine. On most weekends the group, founded by Giovanni Serritelli, a food historian, and Barbara Alfano, his wife, stages dinners themed to different eras in the city's history, with accompanying musical or theatrical performances. At the dinner I looked in on, waiters were dressed as eighteenth-century courtiers and a better-than-competent troupe from the local conservatory performed excerpts from Don Giovanni. I very much liked a kind of pie filled with cooked greens and ricotta, called ravioli -- but not the kind we think of. Serritelli, dressed in tails, told the diners sitting at the long antique refectory table that in the eighteenth century pasta appeared chiefly in soups, and was in any case thought to be fit only for the poor. (Alfano will translate into English her husband's comments; for the schedule of dinners call 011-39-81-551-8510.) During the day Simposium sells handmade honeys, jams, pasta, wine, and limoncello, the region's lemon liqueur.

Piazza San Domenico, a square of imposing private palaces, is returning to its historic role as a salon, now that cars and scooters, notorious for carrying drive-by purse snatchers, have been banned there. Just beyond the piazza is via San Gregorio Armeno, a narrow street that offers the classic Spaccanapoli view: a fuchsia-painted stucco Baroque church tower, laundry strung between the buildings on either side, and shops selling clay and wood crèche figures, including tiny loaves of bread and baskets of olives and bunches of grapes. You'll also find carved figures of modern heroes such as Totò and Mayor Bassolino, crowned by a halo.

On the way out of Spaccanapoli is the quintessential Naples pizzeria: Da Michele, at via Cesare Sersale 1-3. Be prepared to wait in line at any hour for a seat at a communal marble table. This will give you a chance to watch the frenzied activity at the back. The chief pizzaiolo, Luigi Condurro, seventy-five years old and one of three grandsons of the founder who operate the restaurant, oversees the making of hundreds of pizzas every day. The dough is stretched onto wooden peels and thrust with a decisive jerk into the tiled beehive wood-burning oven, from which it emerges just ninety seconds later. Two humorous poems in Neapolitan dialect, posted in large script on the walls, explain the house policy of making two pizzas only -- one with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella, the other with marinara sauce, anchovies, and grated pecorino. It's possible that you'll find better pizza elsewhere; it's not possible that you'll be a fuller participant in the theater that is Naples.

The two main tourist sites, the archaeological museum and Capodimonte, require several hours each (not, needless to say, on the same day). Near the archaeological museum, on the edge of Spaccanapoli, is the refreshingly green and relaxed Piazza Bellini, a nexus of antiques dealers and the city's flourishing booksellers -- Naples is one of Italy's great bibliophile centers. Bookstalls like the ones along Paris's Left Bank, selling both new and used books, line the streets on and leading from the square. I kept drifting back to one of the piazza's literary cafés, and not just for the arty atmosphere: in my manifold samplings of cannoli and the city's best-known pastry, the shell-shaped sfogliatelle, the best and most crackling I found were at the Caffe dell'Epoca, a "tea room" just off the piazza at via Constantinopoli 81-2.

Uniquely, the city's cafés insist on using an old kind of espresso machine, whose long hydraulic levers slowly bob up and down in a kind of coffee ballet behind steaming trays of cups kept submerged in boiling water. Any of the city's Mexico coffee shops, with their charmingly antiquated system of tickets in a different color for each drink, will supply excellent espresso from Passalacqua, one of Italy's increasingly rare regional roasters. I can't imagine being indifferent to a city that is a capital of both pastry and coffee.

WHENEVER the pace in the city center becomes trying, board one of the clean, recently rebuilt funiculars from the center up to Vomero -- a city within a city, and an exceptionally civilized one. A lovely morning could begin with a stroll through the gardens of the neoclassical Villa Floridiana, a mansion that now contains a ceramics museum. Its collections consist of rare early porcelain from factories all over Europe and many pieces from Capodimonte, the royal porcelain factory established in Naples in the mid eighteenth century (named for but not part of the palace). Another place to begin is the whitewashed Baroque charterhouse of San Martino, recently and handsomely restored. The original monastery rooms, which house Baroque and Rococo furniture and paintings, are cool and tranquil, and former stables house the pièces de rèsistance: soaring, marvelously detailed crèches that make the famous one at the Metropolitan Museum of Art look mundane.

The worldly center of Vomero is the shop-lined modern streets around Piazza Vanvitelli, named for the architect who devised the city's neoclassical style in the eighteenth century. For detailed information on the marvelous cafés, ice-cream shops, and restaurants I relied on Fred Plotkin's Italy for the Gourmet Traveler (1996). I also found several exceptional places on my own: Café do Brasil, at via Luca Giordano 31, where liveried baristas work behind the espresso machines, on a raised platform at the back of the small café, like master organists; Mario Daniele (via Scarlatti 102-6), an elegant take-out and pastry shop whose uniformed waiters take similar pride in their craft and whose cassata has a fantastically silky ricotta filling and a soft, fresh coating of hand-rolled marzipan; and the Osteria Donna Teresa, at via Kerbaker 58, a small tiled restaurant with bare tables which looks like a miniature school cafeteria but is worth seeking out for whatever Anna Sorvino has made that day in the open kitchen in the back.

Via Kerbaker, which leads to the station from which Vomero's main funicular runs down to the center of Naples, offers a concentration of intensely pleasurable food. Across from the osteria, at number 43, Ciro Otranto uses only fresh ingredients to produce the best ice cream I had in Naples, a good ice-cream town. At the end of the street the tiny Friggitoria Vomero (via Cimarosa 44) turns out the best fritters I've had anywhere. Commuters arriving home on the funicular reward themselves with brown-paper cones full of fritters made of eggplant or cauliflower or boiled wild greens or rectangles of polenta, all of them sprinkled with coarse local sea salt. Just thinking about Vomero makes me want to buy a plane ticket.

IF only Naples were as well furnished with hotels as with cafés and restaurants. Most hotels are along the waterfront, and the current leader is the Vesuvio, a business hotel where Franco Milano, the concierge, can get opera tickets at a moment's notice. Double rooms there start at $280 a night (information about this and other Naples hotels is available from the Italian tourist-information office at 630 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10111 or by fax at 212-586-9249). A medium-priced alternative is to stay not in the city but in Sorrento, a clean, peaceful town at the end of the picturesquely named Circumvesuviana, a commuter railway that stops at the ruins of Herculaneum and Pompeii. The forty-five-minute trip is easy, and I like Sorrento for the sense that it has a life apart from the tourism that funds the entire Amalfi coast, below Naples. (I love the ice cream made of local walnuts at Gelateria Davide, across from the station.)

The Vesuvio and its fellow hotels border Chiaia, the city's high-rent neighborhood. On via Chiaia, the Madison Avenue of Naples, you can examine the shirts and suits that are admired throughout the country; Rubinacci and Eddy Monetti (on the street's continuation, via dei Mille) are two of the best-known stores. Marinella, a small shop on the Riviera di Chiaia, a boulevard facing a long waterfront park, is famous for its profusion of ties produced in editions of a half dozen or so, so that you are unlikely to run into someone wearing the same one. After I bought a tie (for about $65) and started to put it on, I was given a spontaneous lesson in tie-tying. It began when one of the suave clerks reached across the counter to give me some pointers, and ended in front of a three-way mirror, with all the staff members critiquing their colleague until he got the knot exactly right.

Just off the via Chiaia is the Pizzeria Brandi, a few steps from Piazza del Plebiscito, which claims to have invented the pizza Margherita (tomato, basil, and mozzarella -- the colors of the Italian flag) to honor an 1889 visit by Queen Margherita of Savoy. Given the banners and brochures with which the restaurant advertises itself, I expected the pizza to be banal, but found to my surprise that it compared favorably with that from Ciro a Santa Brigida, a businessmen's restaurant with friendly, humorous waiters, which produces what Fred Plotkin calls the "gold standard"of pizza.

On the riverfront boulevard, at No. 34, is the Naples restaurant I liked most: La Cantina di Triunfo, open for dinner only. Tina Nicodemo cooks two first courses (pasta with ham and fresh peas or with octopus the night I visited) and two main courses a night following traditional Neapolitan recipes and using produce from her own city garden or places she knows (the peas had been picked that afternoon). Her husband, Carmine, runs the excellent wine shop at the front of the premises by day and produces the equally excellent desserts by night.

Triunfo is where I'd go for a dinner of any import; but when looking for a bite after the opera I was very happy I followed the crowds to Da Ettore, a medium-priced pizzeria and trattoria near the luxury hotels, at via Santa Lucia 56. Neapolitans of all classes throng the restaurant for its variation on pizza, the sandwichlike pagnottiello: untopped pizzas are baked and split open like pita bread, filled with mozzarella and lettuce and ham, for instance, cut into quarters, and served, still warm, wrapped in paper napkins. Bucatini al dente, grilled slices of scamorza, and nearly every other dish pack the punch of fresh tomatoes -- the region around Naples grows the country's best -- and garlic and hot red-pepper flakes.

I'll end with one more reason for adding Naples to the usual Rome-Florence-Venice culture circuit: a church officially named Sant'Anna dei Lombardi but commonly called Monteoliveto , for the square on which it sits, near Spaccanapoli, in the modern part of downtown (and near the startlingly modern Bauhaus-style central post office, built in 1933-1936). Guidebooks give the church cursory mention, saying it's a sort of museum of the Florentine Renaissance; guides lead visitors to it as an afterthought. Some museum! If this church, recently restored and reopened, were in Florence, you'd have to jostle other tourists for a good look at the sculpted altars of immense refinement; or the sacristy frescoed by Vasari, with trompe l'oeil marquetry panels along the walls as eye-popping as the famous ones in the ducal palace of Urbino; or, especially, the stupendous life-size group of terra-cotta figures around the dead Jesus, a work from 1492 by the Modena-born Guido Mazzoni. In Naples, Monteoliveto is just one more masterpiece cleaned and put back on show.

The Atlantic Monthly; August 1997; Napoli Ever After; Volume 280, No. 2; pages 36-42.