Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Pizza Pilgrimage to Naples, Italy

Most people bypass Naples in favor for the dramatic views and chic seaside resorts on the Amalfi Coast, and for good reasons: the Amalfi Coast is simply jaw-dropping gorgeous. But for the food lover, Naples is worth a stop-over if only for the famous pizzas  as well as the delicious Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, fresh seafood, and tomato-based pastas. Keenan adores pizza and if it were up to him, he could eat pizza and pasta every day for the rest of his life. For him, going to Naples was one-part business trip and one-part pilgrimage to the birthplace of pizza.

Naples is gritty, sprawling, and chaotic with maddening bumper-to-bumper traffic. It's not the most picturesque Italian city but still retains its down-at-heel charm with Baroque churches and rustic trattorias jammed into the historic UNESCO-protected Centro Storico.  We had a car during our time in Naples and the Amalfi Coast, probably not the best idea as driving in Naples takes skills and patience, but Keenan needed a car to get to his business meeting, plus we planned on taking a driving tour along the coast. I am surprised that we returned the car without any scratches and with the bumper and rims still intact. There are also several museums worth visiting such as the Museo Archeologico Nazionale and Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte, but unfortunately spent most of our time sitting in traffic that we had to cut museum time out of the itinerary.

Once out of the car, we spent the afternoon stretching our legs and meandering around the narrow streets in the historic centre and eventually found our way to Sorbillo Pizzeria, a Neapolitan institution along with Da Michelle and Di Matteo. Located on Via dei Tribunali, where scenes from "Eat Pray Love" were filmed, the pizzas at Sorbillo were delicious and great value with most pizzas priced at €6.00. Fresh from the wood-fired brick oven, the pizza dough at Sorbillo was perfectly fluffy with the right amount of char, drizzled with home-made tomato sauce, mushroom, mozzarella, and prosciutto. Ummmm...pizza.

Needing to burn off the carb-dense lunch, we took a leisurely walk in the fashionable district of Chiaia along the Bay of Naples to Castel dell'Ovo for panoramic views of Naples and the Sorrentine Peninsula. Here Mt. Vesuvius, the famous stratovolcano responsible for the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 79 AD, dominates the landscape. The weather was incredibly mild for mid-November, a perfect 21C/70F.

From here we drove up to Vomero, a pleasant leafy hilltop neighbourhood fringed with little cafes, gelato shops, restaurants, and shops around Piazza Vanvitelli and a pedestrianised shopping area filled with all the popular high street brands such as Zara, United Colors of Benetton, H&M, and the ubiquitous Coin department store. 

For dinner, we went to a home-style osteria called Donna Teresa, which was recommended by Keenan's colleague who grew up outside of Naples. Family-run and operated, the cooking was simple but tasty and excellent value -- it's like having dinner at your aunt's house. There is no menu and the choice is limited depending on the daily special. We each ordered the tomato-based pasta with ragu as our starters, and for the mains, I had the lightly fried fish, and Keenan had the jumbo meatball in tomato sauce, all washed down with local Campania red wine and an amaretto-infused sponge cake for dessert.  The total bill was €30 for two starters, two mains, one dessert, half litre of house red wine, and tip.

We spent the rest of the weekend in Sorrento (more on that later) and the Amalfi Coast but had the opportunity to walk the rim of Mt. Vesuvius on our way back to the airport on Sunday. If you plan on visiting Mt. Vesuvisu, ignore your GPS system no matter what she tells you, and remember to take the exit from Torre del Greco, if coming from Sorrentine Penninsula, for the road up 1,281m to Mt. Vesuvius. Once on top, you'll have to pay the €8 admission fee to walk the crater. 

Having never visited an active volcano before, it was quite interesting and the views are incredible, even the autumn foliage was feast to the eyes. If you expect to see flowing lava, you'll be sorely disappointed, you may smell sulphur and see some steam but that's it. It's mind-blowing to know that there are some 3 million people living in the vicinity of Mt. Vesuvius; what if she erupts? If we had an extra day we would have loved to visit the Roman towns Pompeii, which I hear is expansive and takes a better part of a day, and Herculaneum, and the nearby Greek temple of Paestum. 

The Campania region is filled with fascinating history spanning several millennias and one stunning coastline, definitely worthy of a visit beyond a long weekend. Next up: Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast.

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