Thursday, July 12, 2012

Napoli – Pizza, pizza!

Napoli has a reputation for two things amongst travelers; pizza and crime. We were on the lookout for both, for very different reasons.

I’m not going to lie, we were worn out, tired, hot and out of clean clothes when we reached Napoli. The website had told us the hostel had both air-conditioning and laundry, so we were quite excited when we entered the little side-street two metro stops outside of the Old Town of Napoli to get to our hostel, La Contana.
We stepped into a pressure cooker. The air-conditioning was off. Apparently the repairman was coming tomorrow. We made our way across the nice, outside garden area to the steps that led us to our third story, 10 person dorm room.
The lockers were large enough to hold an entire backpack, so in deference to Napoli’s reputation we left everything of any value locked up. I had a bit of cash and took only the debit card. I would get cash and then leave that behind as well. Thieves can’t take what you don’t have.
A quick word on the history of the dish as I’d read the Wikipedia article, so am therefore an expert. There are many types of Pizza throughout the world, but a few styles have distinguished themselves.
Roman pizza is 4 foot by 1 foot rectangles cooked, cooled, cut to order, reheated and sold by weight. It’s a thin crust.
Neopolitan Pizza is also thin crust, but round. Traditionally, it comes only in margherita (tomato, mozzarella and basil) and marinara (tomato, garlic, oregano and olive oil). In fact, some Neopolitans want to pass a law say anything other than that is not “pizza”. The basil is whole-leaf and the mozerella is big gobs, not shredded. It’s served uncut with a fork and knife. Cut it yourself.
New York style pizza is similar to Neopolitan, but bigger the crust is a bit thicker, the toppings are more varied and more numerous and the cheese is shredded and taken all the way to the crust. This is the “normal” pizza in the USA.
Chicago style is cooked in a pan where the crust actually is in a dish that comes up the side. “Deep dish” pizzas are chicago-style.
California style has “weird” toppings. Chicken and artichokes with BBQ sauce anyone?
Our walk to the city-center was our first real view of Naples: it reminded me of New York. Granted, it was a lot smaller and didn’t look exactly alike, but the two cities make me think of cousins that look similar. The streets were similar, the sense of architectural style was similar and both had grit, grime and dirt under their fingernails. We didn’t feel unsafe at all, but it was day time. We wouldn’t want to be there at night.
We stopped by a drug store on the way down to the city to pick up some bug spray. The woman behind the counter didn’t speak English and my Italian fails me after “Do you speak English?” but I did a nice pantomime of a bug biting my neck complete with “bzzzz” sounds, me slapping the bug and spray-can noises that got a laugh out of both Leslie and the drug-store woman.
The woman at the front desk of the hostel had given us a map; she had highlighted two areas. The first was the newer pizzerias area, which she said she preferred, and the second was the older style pizzas.
The newer style pizzas were closer so we started with that one. There was a skinny cobble-stoned street that we were sure was car-free until some people started honking at us. It was clearly the most touristy section of town, but Napoli is a bit off the beaten path. There were a couple tourists, but many more locals just hanging out on the street in front of the pizza places. Most of the pizzerias were also selling takeaway food from a counter in the front. Arancini (meat wrapped in a pasta/rice combo than breaded and deep fried) and Frittatina (deep fried macaroni and cheese) ran €1 each.
The first place we ducked into was okay, but it was the second we’d found that was really something special.
L’Antiqa Pizzeria di Michele had been open since 1870 and is probably the most traditional of all the pizza places. We actually got there about 4:30pm bit early, so it wasn’t too crowded and actually got seated right away.
The menu consisted of pizza margherita and pizza marinara. Men in their 40s and 50s worked the tables as well as behind a steel fence keeping photo-happy people out of the kitchen where they hand-made the pizzas and used a huge spatula to feed them into the wood-fire oven. Pizza’s ran €4-5 depending on size. It was generally one per person. Pictures of Julia Roberts hung on the wall as parts of “Eat, Pray, Love” were filmed in this pizzeria.
We ordered one of each style and learned they don’t accept cards. While Leslie waited, I ran around the corner to the cash machine to collect some change and ran into a quintessentially Italian experience.
I’ve seen more emotion come out of Italians than any other people on the planet. I think the best word for it is animated, as they are not stoic, are not calm and will let you know exactly how they are feeling at all times. In Asia, if you get angry in public you “lose face” and lose respect. I’m not sure, but in Italy it seems you “lose face” if you don’t.
The cash machine had a group of three women standing at it. They looked like a mother with two teenage daughters. A fifty-year old man with a suit was about three yards back.
“Batsi yoopa intalia!” the guy yelled at the women, waving his hand in a circle. The elder woman turned at the waist, faced the man and started making circles with both hands.
“Presti ohno trelia jan yeeti!” she yelled back moving up and down at the waist and flapping her arms.
Soon, they were both yelling at each other, arms swinging and heads bobbing. I had no idea what was going on, but soon the woman yelled, “bah!” dimissively and waved both hands downwards, dismissing him.
At this point he started talking to me and after he got my “No parla l’italiano” (I don’t speak Italian) he changed into English.
“I’ve been here for twenty minutes while they practice using the ATM. Who practices at the ATM? At least they could let someone else go.”
The woman turned back, “How are they supposed to learn if I don’t teach them?” she yelled.
Then they were at it again, except this time in English.
“Just let someone else go!”
“Mind your manners and wait!”
Then I joined in, “Yeah, you need to let someone else take a turn!” I yelled, circling my hands and bobbing my head as best I could.
Then someone else came by, said something in Italian and led the man off. Two minutes later, I finally got my money and returned to the pizza place.
The pizza was great, but it was quite different than anything I’d had before. The tomato sauce was not spiced, with all spices being added fresh to the pizza as other toppings. We’d gotten two pizzas, but there was another “double mozzarella, double tomato” option that we wished we had gotten, so 24 hours later, after doing laundry all morning and going to the deli for lunch, we found ourselves back at di Michele ordering that pizza.
Our timing was off. That evening, we found ourselves doing exactly what we didn’t want to do, which was walk through the streets of old town Napoli at night with Leslie’s large camera. Fortunately, I had done a very good job of ignoring the fact we were going to pizza during the big Italy vs. Germany quarter-final. Unfortunately, not everyone did the same. When Mario Balotelli headed in the first goal for Italy every man working inside of di Michele’s ran to the front desk to watch the replay on the TV. I was about ten seconds behind.
Right after the goal we paid and started making our way back to the hostel where they were showing the match on a big projector in the garden. The streets of Napoli were dead because everyone was inside watching the match. Even the places that were open had the match on. In fact, we hardly missed any of the match because everywhere that was open had a TV and you could see flat-screens inside of apartments that were also watching the match. When Balotelli scored his second we stopped to get an arancini (which was really good) and fritattina (that we could have done without).
Italy ended up winning the match 2-1. We could see Italian flags being waved out our hostel windown and cars were honking into the wee hours of the morning.
The next morning we were eating breakfast and met a couple from Belgium who had been robbed the night before. A couple youths came up to them with a “gun” and demanded their wallet. He handed it over while thinking their was something odd about the gun. The criminals ran off, taking his wallet and all €5 that he had in it. He had also left his cards and items of value in the hostel. After getting back to the hostel the woman at the desk informed him that it was probably a plastic gun.
Unfortunately, Leslie had walked all day the night before in a pair of new sandals and woke up with a combination blister/mosquito bite that was causing massive amounts of pain and made it difficult to walk. Unfortunately, the train doesn’t stop because of bites and we had already booked our next stop. We knew there was a pool and it was in northern Italy, so we were hoping we could stay cool, relax and recover from the mosquito bites.
We were wrong. Oh my, were we so very wrong!
Next stop, Tuscany.

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