There are a few reasons I decided to travel to Naples, and skip some of Italy’s more popular cities like Rome or Florence. The first is that my sister told me it was completely chaotic and a sort of European version of Kathmandu – while this might put most people off, I am addicted to chaos and I love those crazy cities where life exists on the streets and everything is a bit mad (like Naples, like Kathmandu). The second is because it’s a city on the coast, and I planned day trips to the island beaches and being from a country which is often grey and cold even in summer, I needed guaranteed sunshine. The third (or perhaps this is actually reason number one), is because of Pizza. Naples is the undisputed world capital of pizza and lets face it, the perfect pizza is a dish worth getting on a three-hour plane for.
So on an early August day, I arrived in the grand yet slightly crumbling city of Naples with one goal: eat all the pizza. On day 1, I meet Luca, a local and very proud Neopolitan who I’ve booked a street food tour with though Airbnb Experiences. To my shock horror, he first announces that no, this tour doesn’t include pizza, but instead focuses on Naples street food scene and all the other snacks and treats which makes this city food heaven.
Our first stop is Pasticceria Di Costanzo. It’s early afternoon but we’re starting with breakfast, and in Naples, that’s pastries and espresso. Sfogliatella Riccia is first on the menu, a crispy, ricotta filled pastry which crunches and crumbles in my mouth as the smooth, sweet and fruity ricotta cream spills out of it. It’s delicious, and indeed one of Naples’ most famous treats. We head next door to Bar Cavour for a quick coffee. It’s rich, sweet and has a delicate flavour only found in the perfect cup of Italian coffee. I must admit that I’m not a coffee drinker, but the taste of an Italian espresso is something I really enjoyed.
Our final stop before we head into the historic streets is Pasticceria Capriccio, another pastry shop which specialises in a treat called Baba – something which I fall head over heels for on my first bite. A baba is a soft cake soaked in sweet rum. Like a really good doughnut, it melts in my mouth and I’m instantly hooked. After the traditional baba, we try another speciality in this pasticceria, a Capriccio – a small round baba filled with cream. The doughy, rum soaked texture perfectly compliments and inner cream which provides a smooth, creamy contrast. I could have stayed and bought boxes of these little wonders and devoured them on the streets of Naples – but Luca still had so much to show me, and we headed into the winding, maze-like streets of old Napoli.
In the old winding streets of Naples, food sizzles and smells swirl around every corner. This is the ancient heart of Naples, and still today, it’s a living, breathing part of the city which hosts some of its best food, bars, shopping and hidden gems. The cobbled streets are towered by crumbling, graffiti-clad buildings and washing lines hang loose, grasping the best of the midday sun. If you’re a tourist in the city, you’ll most likely gravitate to this area, and most likely find yourself lost in the sleepy side alleyways at some point.
It’s here where our food tasting turns onto the savoury, and first up it’s a cheap staple of Napoli street food – the humble croquette. Meat eaters will find varieties filled with ham, but as a vegetarian, I opt for one stuffed with potatoes, cheese and spring onions. You’ll find these served from vendors around the city, usually for the happy price of €1. It’s a quick, cheap snack I come to rely on during my days in Italy.
Around the corners of the old city, Luca shows me a few non-edible hidden gems. The grand Church of Gesu Nuovo is disguised behind a brutalist exterior, but inside is one of the most exquisite buildings I have ever laid my eyes on. Down the Via S. Gregorio Armeno (otherwise known as Christmas Alley), models of nativity scenes are stacked up against the walls, a scene which seems odd to see in August, but Christmas is a big deal here, and this lane is where everyone gets there supplies.
We are back on the food, and our next stop is Pan e Muzzarell, a shop selling fine cuts of meat and cheeses and a rather incredible salad. While the combination of tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil sounds very simple – it shouldn’t be underestimated in Naples – as these three ingredients form many of the cities signature dishes. One is the Caprese Salad, and I’m here to try what Luca claims is the cities best. As I am discovering about Italian food, simple food is made extraordinary due to the quality of the ingredients, and that couldn’t be more true for this salad. Unlike the watery, flavourless Mozerella we get in England, at Pan e Muzzarell it’s rich in flavour and has a meaty texture. Paired with the fresh tomatoes and basil it’s a combination made in heaven.
Next, we head towards Mercato Pignasecca, a fresh food market where boxes of juicy peaches, baskets of fresh leaves and bundles of succulent tomatoes are on offer. Fish sits in containers of overflowing water and tripe (another popular Napoli food), hangs from the windows in the shops around. It’s a scene which can be found all over the city – where markets and fresh food stalls dominate the street corners and pavements.
Luca suggests heading up to a viewpoint so I can see a wider view of the city, and we jump on the nearby funicular at Montesanto. Two stops later, we arrive at Morghen and take a short walk to a viewpoint near the Castel Sant’Elmo. The city opens up before us – the domes of the old city, the high rises of the new and the shipping ports all along the curving coastline. What is unmissable is the looming Mt. Vesuvio, which sits at the edges of the city. The volcano last erupted in 1944, destroying many of the nearby smaller villages. Naples is now the largest city in Southern Italy, and the city is constantly reminded of its possible impermanence by the towering volcano.
We walk along the winding road down to the coastline, for our last food stop – gelato, of course. For the best in the city, Luca takes me to Gelateria Mennella, where they make the creamy, delicious ice cream in the Neopolitan way. The ice cream is 100% natural and uses ingredients from the local area. The apricots are from Vesuvius, walnuts from Sorrento, lemons from the coast, and the almonds from Puglia. I opt for peach sorbet and black cherry. A few days later I come back for dark chocolate and hazelnut (my favourite combination). I don’t know what the Italians do to make their ice cream so good, each ice cream I have in Italy seemed to nail the combination of creaminess and flavour – and certainly, Gelateria Mennella is one of the best.
The next day, I set out to find what I came to Naples for in the first place; the perfect pizza. The city is full of pizzerias, and the previous day, Luca had told me honestly that it was hard to find a bad one in Naples. During our walk around the old city, he had pointed out one of his favourite joints, Pizzeria Da Attilio. For my first pizza in the city, I take his advice. As in most pizzerias in the city, a margherita is €5 and is flash fried in a huge oven heated to 400 degrees. Just as I imagined Neopolitan pizzas to be, the base is thin yet billowing, the tomatoes are light yet rich, and the mozzarella melts in my mouth while retaining its succulent taste.
On my last night in the city, I decide to cave to the advice of the internet and head to one of Naples’ best-known pizza spots. There are several pizzerias in the city which are so well known that you have to queue to get inside. I opt for Sorbillo, a family run pizzeria founded in 1935. As a solo diner, I luckily only have to wait for around 25 minutes for a table, before quickly ordering another classic margherita. From the first bite, this pizza is something else. The freshness, the imperfect finish, and the slight chaos of the restaurant make up an experience which feels classically Neopolitan. If I could ever recommend jumping on a plane just to eat one dish; it may have to be Sorbillo’s pizza.
In my days in Naples, I have discovered that the city is home to a variety of delicious exciting foods, and just as I like it – the best dishes are served from street side corners and hidden backstreet gems. While Naples food scene is much more than a great pizza – it is certainly this dish which defines the chaotic, beautiful city.
The Traditional Neopolitan Flavours tour, run by Luca is available on Airbnb Experiences. He can cater for vegetarians and as well as showing you the local food scene, is very knowledgeable about the best spots in the city.
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Annapurna Mellor is a travel photographer, writer and co-founder of Roam Magazine. She fell in love with Asia shortly after graduating and has since spent extensive periods travelling and photographing in India, Nepal, Myanmar and many more. She shoots regularly for brands and publications and her work can be found in National Geographic Traveller Magazine, Lonely Planet, Suitcase and The Guardian. When not on the road, she is based in Manchester, UK.