……but not in that order. Sfogliatella FIRST. There may be other things in Naples, but as far as I was concerned it was about flour, the things you can do with it, and the coffee that goes with it.
Man, do those guys make good coffee. Not that the coffee is bad in the rest of Italy, except for Katia’s coffee in the morning, it is REALLY, REALLY bad, but you gotta love Katia, so I just drink the coffee and smile. In Naples they don’t cut corners on the espresso machine, none of those modern push button jobs. You want coffee, you pull the lever, and what comes out is rich and creamy and absolutely NOT bitter. I’m not saying I don’t put a speck of sugar in my espresso, in fact everyone puts sugar in their espresso, so much so that in Naples they generally pour it sweet and you have to ask for it amaro(bitter). I had it as often as I could and still sleep at night.
Probably the best cup of coffee I had was in the famous Gambrius Café. The pastries are gorgeous, the place is a palace with coffered ceilings and gilded frames, the cups are gorgeous china – and the prices are astounding! However, if you stand at the bar and drink your coffee it is only twice as expensive as other bars, instead of 5 times if you sit outside and watch the tourist go by and, of course, you still get surly service. These guys have a standard to maintain. The servers were all adult men wearing brown satin, chalk-striped vests with matching full length aprons and while five of them scurried the coffee to patrons at barside and tableside, one old dude in the back was yanking out coffee from a four head machine, slapping another load of fresh coffee into the head before the lever was fully erect again and shouting for the waiters to come and get the coffees that were stacking up. It was a show that rivaled Nathan’s Hot Dog stand in Coney Island.
Now back to number one, sfogliatella- that’s pronounced sfoy-yah-tell-a. If you don’t know what they are you can skip down to the next paragraph as I am not going to explain it, but to those who know and love them, oh man, were they good. Everywhere there was a hole in the wall, they were selling them – caldo, which is exactly as they should be eaten. Crispy, crispy, crispy, but delicate and the filling was bursting out the back, full and delicious with bits of orange rind scattered throughout. If I never eat another cannoli for the rest of my life I would be fine, but Hell would be life without another sfogliatella. In my opinion, they are even better in Salerno, the home of my maternal grandmother, but that is another story.
Naples was my last outing for a while as school is nearly over. Kristine, Jason and I headed out by train and since Jason is a master of research, we got to ride in First Class in the Red train for 2 € more than second class. In first class, you not only get free crappy coffee and a pre-wrapped biscuit, but they come along with a little basket of chocolate ladybugs and put one on your tray. Nice touch, also fast and smooth. We arrived early and the hotel was 4 stars, cheap, and a few feet from the train station – more of Jason’s great research. We wandered around the city center a bit and took in the grand scenery but the heaps of trash were astonishing and sad. They have had a garbage strike of sorts for 2 years now. Surprisingly, they don’t smell too bad and I never see vermin moving in them, but the ones by the train station, best to walk fast pasts those heaps since the homeless use them for urinals.
The tourist center and the historic center are gratefully near each other since the Metro only skirts the city and you must walk a ‘fer piece to each tourist sight. I think I probably did a good four miles on the second day. All of the old city is very beautiful with lovely architectural accents on even the most mundane of buildings, but the tight streets of the ancient city and the Spanish Quarter are in pretty bad shape and not somewhere I would go for an evening stroll. I found the people very friendly and helpful and the waiters quite the opposite, they seemed to take their rude and indifferent service very seriously as they tossed a plate on the table while walking by and looking elsewhere. It was kind of funny actually, once you figured out it wasn’t just you.
One of the greatest highlights of a trip to Naples though, is a cab ride. You may recall the New Years’ Eve trip to the restaurant and back including the “local wine” purchase. Well, we asked for a recommendation for a fish dinner and guess where we were sent, the same little island off the coast of Naples under the shadow of a small castle. The cab ride was just as exciting, dodging cars, passing busses and pretty much aiming to take out pedestrians, who are such practiced targets that they know exactly how fast to walk to escape a good sideswipe. We didn’t conceal our gasps at near misses and although the cabbie’s face never flickered, I know he is bragging right now to his buddies at the cab stand about the 3 tourists he just scared the shit out of.
We also ate pizza. We ate it at an overpriced, very old shop that swears it was the very place where Marghareta pizza was invented for the Queen and has a letter from the Royal Head of the Table that states that they liked the pizza they sent over. It was lovely, but soggy and not quite done. I ate pizza at Da Michele, touted as the best pizza in Naples and photos of all the celebrities who had eaten there, including Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts. Here the young guy was in his late forties and manned the cash register, the old guy was manning the wood fired oven and the really old guys were waiting tables. You had two choices of pizza, Marghareta or normal, which was just tomato sauce and a splash of olive oil, don’t even think about asking for pepperoni or eggplant. I am sure they would throw you in the oven like firewood if you requested Canadian Bacon and Pineapple. This menu does, however, simplify things and the service, once they acknowledge your presence, is quick. I had a great view of the pizziolo at work and I would estimate under 60 seconds to prepare the pie and 90 seconds to cook it. Here too, the pizzas were coming out faster than the waiters could serve them. This time the crust was perfect; crisp, tender and thin in the middle. The sauce was tasty but the cheese was – well, sparse would be an understatement, with one little basil leaf for the entire pie. It might be perfect Neapolitan pizza, but I won’t be copying it for my Wasilla customers.
Our last dinner was really quite wonderful with a great Neapolitan wine from the slopes of Vesuvius and big piles of steaming mussels for an antipasto. After that Kristine and Jason had the frute de mare and I tried a salmon and farfalle. Jason still had room for a secondi but I was full by then. Unfortunately, there was something about the frute de mare that gave both of my companions food poisoning and they spend a terrible night and a miserable next day. It actually took a few days for them to feel completely well again. An unhappy end to an otherwise lovely few days.