Naples Past and Present
Published: April 2009
By Guy Trebay
<p>Is Naples frozen in a gilded past—or forging a new identity as Italy's most vibrantly authentic (and undiscovered) city?A captivated <em>Guy Trebay</em> has the answer: Both </p>
There was a butter-curl moon hanging over the Castel dell'Ovo, where the Lungomare juts into the inky Bay of Naples. From where I sat, the scene looked like a postcard pun staged for my amusement: butter moon, castle inexplicably named for an egg. Tires hissing on the pavement below the rooftop terrace of my hotel were the only disturbance on a still, cool evening. How could this be Naples?I asked myself. Where were the police sirens?Where was the chaos and the din?
I had just arrived from Paris, where my hotel room happened to be located above the service door where Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed made their fateful final exit. Automobile racket on normally sleepy Rue Cambon was so loud that I was forced to shut the windows tight. I had felt jailed in my peach-colored room, with its peach walls, peach upholstery, and mirrored vanity table—a penitentiary as imagined by Barbara Cartland.
Here I had the sudden sense that the two cities had miraculously exchanged personalities, somber Paris traded for Naples's hubbub, Naples's sidewalk carnival rolled up to present an aspect that is unexpectedly prim and sedate. Is there really a contradiction in this, I wonder?Or is it that the best way to meet this gorgeous and filthy and ancient city is to find that place in consciousness Fitzgerald once wrote about, where opposed thoughts can be entertained simultaneously in one's head?
Hadn't I just driven through slick streets to dine on what must be one of the finest simple meals I have ever enjoyed, translucent slivers of prosciutto di Parma draped over pungent melon, a linguine alle vongole served definitively al dente and studded with minute briny clams?Not the least of the pleasures of dinner at Ristorante da Dora was a bottle of frank, crisp Falanghina and the fact, ordinarily unwelcome to me, that the owner sang.
A hole in the wall on a street too narrow for automobile traffic, Dora was as brightly lit as a surgical theater. The television, when I arrived, was broadcasting images of a bloodbath perpetrated by the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia everyone insists does not exist. For some reason I took delight in the take-it-or-leave-it atmospherics, and also in that moment when the owner set down the plate of lobster she was serving and, in a fine, strong alto, let rip.
What was she crooning in that Neapolitan dialect that seems to draw out vowels and round consonants until words are all shoulders, soft and sloping?I have no idea. But the overall effect conspired to make me quite happy; it probably did not hurt that I was a little bit drunk.
Naples struck me immediately as among the few cities left in Europe that retain the power to intoxicate; a grand port that operates as though the earth were yet a sphere of wonders and itself the magnetic center of that sphere. A novelist once noted of the city that it induced a hallucinatory sense of looking through a veil of time, at things occurring before your eyes just as they might have hundreds of years before.
In a way, one is always on that trip in Naples. It is not just that the streets slashing through the Centro Storico or the lanes ramping down sticky, cobbled hillsides were built in Roman times. It is the sense that Neapolitans' intrinsic character derives from these hills honeycombed with caves and catacombs, from claustrophobic lanes fanning from the spine of major avenues as if they were leaves in an ancient tome that is maddeningly hard to crack.
The view is not necessarily easy to reconcile with the city's disheveled nature, its petty crime, its labyrinthine plan and customs, its conceitedness and sluggish pace. Italians in other regions speak of Naples as though it were not part of modern Italy. And that, too, may be behind its appeal. As luxury brands advance on the rest of Italy, Naples revels in its isolation. True, there is a Prada boutique, and a Gucci, and a Vuitton. But these are generally viewed as outlanders, vendors of superficially appealing offerings that cannot hold a candle to local stuff.
I am referring here mainly to sartoria Napoletana, the tradition of male dandyism for which Naples is justly renowned. Milan remains the capital of Italian fashion, of course, but as the designer Kean Etro once told me, no Italian is in any doubt about where the finest custom tailors, or sartorie, are to be found.
The principal Neapolitan names are well known even outside the city: Kiton and Attolini and Rubinacci for suits; Borrelli for shirts; Marinella for ties. But the town is filled with ateliers catering to the supreme stylishness of the local male population and a vanity born of the sense that, as the writer Raffaele La Capria once said, "...in Naples appearing is fundamental, while substance is negligible."
In a brief memoir of his boyhood, La Capria recounted a time when Neapolitans would walk along the Via dei Mille on Sunday, the men appraising each other's suits, the cut and the way the shoulder seams and sleeves were set, the tapering of the trouser waists, the crease of the pants, the width of the lapels.
Anyone skeptical of that tradition's vitality would do well to observe the waiters at sidewalk restaurants along the waterfront, like Gusto & Gusto, where the staff wears smart orange aprons, crisply ironed and nipped to improve the fit. Sitting there one afternoon over lunch, I got the impression I had wandered right out of contemporary Europe and into another era.
My sense that the scene could not have been much different in the 1940's was fortified when an old crone out of a neorealist film shuffled by. Moving along the perimeter of the sidewalk tables in slippers and a housecoat, the woman dipped into her string bag and pulled out a pack of Marlboros. "Sigarete Americane," she murmured softly: American cigarettes for sale.
From my sidewalk perch that day I also had a front-row seat on the theater of Naples's infamous traffic—that first mild evening had clearly been an aberration—which is ruled, one might say maniacally, by the motor scooter.
To cross a street in Naples is to be terrified, humbled, catapulted back to a moment in childhood when traffic is a wild and treacherous torrent. Cars and trucks and motorcycles race along constantly, erratically, apparently heedless of such an insignificance as pedestrians. "Ya almost went to join my late aunt Minnie, baby," a GI shouts to a Red Cross nurse narrowly saved from a hit-and-run during wartime Naples in John Horne Burns's classic novel The Gallery.
A day never passed in Naples when Aunt Minnie was far from mind.
Even cocooned in a taxi I was made aware of how potential death is always two seconds away in an automobile. Driving to the Kiton factory in an industrial suburb one afternoon, I passed four crashes on the autostrada. This was hardly surprising, given the tendency to pass on the right and tailgate with a passion I associate with another Neapolitan quirk, the need for physical connection.
Perhaps it is a stretch, but this tactile compulsion might account for certain of the virtues of sartoria Napoletana. Although the earnings of most local tailoring companies are relatively small, their influence is not. The soft and sensual, almost feminine cuts one associates with Giorgio Armani's classic style are an essentially Neapolitan invention, as is the natural shoulder local tailors grafted onto the Savile Row suits they copied during a 1920's wave of Anglomania.
No one has exported the concept with greater success than Ciro Paone, the tempestuous entrepreneur whose $5,000 Kiton suits are the gold standard of power dressing for American Masters of the Universe. Four hundred tailors are employed at the company, most sewing suits by hand.
Striding across the work floor that day in a blue double-breasted suit, Paone grasped lapel pieces or chest pads from tailors whose hands seemed in constant motion as they covered garments with thousands of cross-hatched stitches. "Ninety-nine percent of the stitches are invisible," Paone claimed, as he flaunted the suppleness of a shoulder pad, the underside of pocket flap, a breast pocket termed a "little boat" because of the way the fabric resembles a tiny canoe with the corners pinched.
On the way back to town, I mulled over a question Paone had posed: "Did you ever see a shrimp in the sea?" I was forced to admit I had not. "A shrimp goes back to go a step forward," he said. "And we Neapolitans do the same. We consolidate traditions and history helps us. In Naples our surroundings are full of traditions."
To a surprising extent this remains accurate. In Naples one still finds cameo carvers, coral workers, the finest stuccodores, and candy makers at the celebrated Gay-Odin factory who toil behind the scenes turning out confections called Tears of Love.
In a sloping lane where the austere church of San Lorenzo Maggiore meets the Via dei Tribunali, craftsmen like Giuseppe and Marco Ferrigno make the cork-bark crèches for Nativity tableaux and the figures to populate them. Although momentarily tempted to buy an entire Nativity scene, with wise men, drunkards, and a marzipan-pink Baby Jesus, I settled instead for a figure referred to as a soul in purgatory. With his torso and upraised arms engulfed in flames, he now sits on my desk to remind me of that other nebulous sphere known as limbo, a state that every writer knows to exist, regardless of what the Vatican says.
One afternoon I made the half-hour drive to Torre del Greco to meet Basilio Liverino, an octogenarian jeweler who presides over his family's venerable coral business, set in a Brutalist building above a subterranean hillside vault housing what is arguably the largest collection of coral objects in the world.
"I bought my first piece in Florence when I was thirteen," Liverino told me, as we sat in a conference room beneath a print of a Medici cherub with a coral horn slung around his pudgy neck. Today the collection runs to more than a thousand objects—combs and boxes and mirrors and chalices and necklaces and breastplates, many carved from a type of coral called Sciacca for a deep trench off the coast of Sicily, where coral washed by prevailing currents accumulated for an aeon before being discovered in the 19th century.
"People think there is no more coral, that it is finished," said Liverino's son, Vincenzo. And it is true that industrial pollution and global warming have destroyed many of the world's great reefs. But coral is still fished in the deep waters off Sardinia and elsewhere in the Mediterranean, and it is that coral Liverino uses for objects the company crafts for Pomellato and Cartier. "We never treat, we never color," said Vincenzo as he guided me through the museum and workrooms where the dull raw material of this "red gold" is sorted, polished, cut, and then mounted or strung. "We make everything by hand," he added.
Back in Naples, I stopped at a jewelry shop to buy myself a coral-horn keychain, always on the lookout for additions to the list of superstitions I irrationally observe. It was hardly a notable purchase, given the quality of what I had just been shown. Yet it pleased me, this corno, and although probably no more effective at warding off the evil eye than other methods, carrying the little phallic amulet in my pocket seemed like an acceptable adaptation to the local male habit of making constant manual reference to one's genitals.
When I mentioned this nearly universal practice to Pasquale Venditti, a guide who has spent four decades herding tourists around Pompeii, he shrugged. "We are not so different from the Romans as we think," he said, and then invited me to the famous brothel in the ruins where each cell is adorned with a graphic fresco advertising the occupant's sexual specialty.
Things do change, of course, in ways depressing as well as good, as I learned one evening at Lucilio, a restaurant tucked behind the Hotel Excelsior. Built in the late 19th century, the tidy place is run by the Di Pinto family, whose forebears were ostricari, or oyster sellers. Their stands once lined the lungomare, crazily decorated with tutti-frutti friezes made from shells.
In those days, nassaiuoli, or basket fishers, hauled their catch in woven nasse, lining up on the quays alongside mussel vendors, offering mollusks recently plucked from the rocks to be used in a spicy local fish-and-pepper soup called mpepate in Neapolitan dialect.
"Then, it was no problem," said Antonio Di Pinto, the restaurant's bookish-looking proprietor, referring to fresh- caught fare. "Now, with the pollution, it is dangerous," he went on. His point was underscored by a menu note disclosing that the octopus served at the restaurant is frozen and shipped in.
Pasta that night was paccheri, wide tubes whose name in dialect translates roughly as "big slap." It was followed by swordfish, accompanied by a bottle of Fiano di Avellino, a wine that experts like to call "assertive." Di Pinto brought out a photo book filled with images of a defunct festival called Nzegna, a carnival that reversed the social hierarchies of the Bourbon court and crowned local vegetable sellers king and queen. Processing through the streets, the verdummari went down to the port in vegetable-covered barks, there to be ceremonially tossed into the bay.
What astounded me was not so much the costumes or the rituals but the faces in the photographs, so heavy, ripe, and seemingly particular to this place. It is too little remarked how much pleasure in travel derives from the simple act of staring at others. Although it is not considered politically correct to revel in human difference, to an inveterate gawker and generalizer it is hard to ignore how Milanese men tend to carry themselves with prim Teutonic self-importance, while in Rome a nose is hardly worth thinking about if it lacks a fleshy tip or an aristocratic bump. In Naples, a certain kind of big-eared skinny guy, of a sort I call the Sinatra, is much to be seen, as is his sleepy-eyed counterpart, a guy who calls Dean Martin to mind.
Whether the Sinatras and Martins (Crocettis, originally) came from Naples, I don't know. But that these faces seem so recognizable to me cannot be unrelated to the huge migration of Neapolitans to the United States in the early part of the 20th century. The exodus, prompted by years of famine and rural unemployment, probably helped set in play the city's decline, a loss of vitality so acute that a quarter century ago, as the writer Nicolas Spinosa observed, Naples was sliding down a slippery slope of what he described as degradation and marginalization. It was no help that the city was devastated by one of its periodic earthquakes in 1980.
Shabby still, but substantially rebuilt, Naples now has an energetic mayor who has initiated projects that include the promotion of contemporary art. "That is a very Neapolitan thing," said Alba Cl-emente, whose husband is the Naples-born painter Francesco Clemente. "Absorb and continue. It's a survival policy." As in other port cities, Neapolitans tend to hold fast to their customs while also quietly incorporating whatever aspects of the new may suit their immediate needs. "It doesn't work some of the time," Ms. Cle-mente said. "But most of the time, it does."
It's culture by accretion, and what has accumulated over time is enough to keep a visitor occupied for three lifetimes and not the three days guidebooks claim are enough to knock the city off. Even without dipping into the contemporary art scene, or the famous opera house, I was kept in constant motion and a heady state of excitement at the art-historical mother lode for most of a week.
At random, one might call out the famous National Archaeological Museum, with its justly renowned Roman bust of the emperor Caracalla, vain and sexy with his cruel gaze and deeply cleft chin; or Caravaggio's profoundly psychological Seven Acts of Mercy in the 17th-century Pio Monte della Misericordia; or the strikingly fresh ancient mosaics in the baptistery of the Duomo.
But there is also the Capodimonte, a huge palazzo whose rooms are arranged in a telescoping enfilade, so that one moves easily from a Masaccio Crucifixion, with its perverse perspectives, to a kooky 1425 Assumption by Tommaso di Cristoforo Fini, with dozens of tiny angels swarming like bats, only to pull up in front of Bellini's highly graphic circumcision of Christ, both mother and child looking distinctly ill at ease.
Few things build an appetite for lunch like a morning of Depositions, Annunciations, Adorations, Crucifixions, and Flagellations. From the hilltop where the Capodimonte is situated, I hiked back toward the city center to the celebrated restaurant Europeo Mattozzi, where I was shown to a table in a windowless back room and then upgraded when I dropped Ciro Paone's name.
Swept to a table in the front, I had a fine view of the kitchen where the resident pizzaiolo was flipping dough. After trying all the pizzas in the city of that fast food's invention, the American food writer Ed Levine declared the pizza at Europeo "a slice of heaven." And that may be. But most pizzas in Naples are prepared in more or less the same sort of oven, at the same temperature (700 degrees), with the same two-inch "lip," and using the same mozzarella and industrial tomato sauce—and so, to my mind, most of them amount to the same boring cartwheel of baked dough.
The rest of the fare at Europeo, a place owned for the past century by the Mattozzi family and operated now by the genial Alfonso Mattozzi and his daughter Fabiana, was seductive, even to one who deplores gastroporn. For starters, there was a huge globe of buffalo mozzarella and accompanying antipasti of marinated octopus, fried zucchini flowers, and fragaglie, tiny fish that are deep-fried and startlingly good. Pasta with chickpeas and parsley was followed by grilled swordfish and accompanied by a 2003 Perella made from grapes grown on the cindery hills of ancient Paestum. When an agitated woman at the next table had finished haranguing someone on her cell phone ("Yes, I have his number! What are you talking about, 'Coordinate'?Stop being a pain in the ass. Good-bye."), I thought it wise to offer her a glass.
Afterward, I caught a taxi to another of the city's wonders, the deconsecrated hillside abbey that is now the Certosa-Museo di San Martino, where, among treasures nearly impossible to catalog here, I was struck in particular by a quincuncial garden and graveyard fenced by a marble balustrade adorned with marble skulls of long-dead monks. Each memento mori was a distinctly rendered, albeit mortified, portrait. Each in its own unlikely fashion served as a merry reminder, somewhat redundant in Naples, I thought, to seize the day.
WHEN TO GO
Visit Naples in the spring and fall when temperatures are warm, flowers are in bloom, and clear skies make for ideal views of Vesuvius. Avoid the hot summer—August in particular—when many businesses close for vacation.
There are easy connections to Naples from many European cities; from mid-May through mid-November, Eurofly (www.eurofly.it) operates direct flights from New York.
WHERE TO STAY
Chiaja Hotel de Charme
Small, friendly, well-priced hotel in a convenient location. 216 Via Chiaia; 39-081/ 415-555; www.hotelchiaia.it; doubles from $174.
One of the city's most luxurious hotels, on the water. 48 Via Partenope; 39-081/ 764-0111; www.starwood.com; doubles from $430.
Comfortable small hotel near the Piazza dei Martiri. 38 Via Alabardieri; 39-081/415- 278; www.palazzoalabardieri.it; doubles from $234.
WHERE TO EAT
Ciro a Mergellina
For platters of freshly caught fish. 21 Via Mergellina; 39-081/ 681-780; dinner for two $142.
Famous pizza place serving two kinds: with cheese and without.
1/3 Via C. Sersale; 39-081/553- 9204; lunch for two $8.50.
Sit downstairs to watch the pizzaioli, and try a pizza fritta, stuffed with provola (a ricotta-like smoked cheese) and pork. 94 Via dei Tribunali; 39-081/ 455-262; lunch for two $8.50.
One of the city's best (and best-loved) restaurants. 4 Via Campodisola Marchese; 39-081/552-1323; www.europeomattozzi.it; dinner for two $80.
A family-run store with an astonishing selection of gelato and sorbet. 78 Via Scarlatti; 39-081/558-7498; gelato for two $3.60.
Small, traditional restaurant; try the sfizietto Toledo (a kind of fritto misto) and the paccheri ai frutti di mare. 78/A Vico Giardinetto a Toledo; 39-081/421-257; dinner for two $60.
Excellent drinks and snacks served to a genteel Neapolitan crowd; grab a seat on the outdoor terrace. 30 Piazza dei Martiri; 39-081/ 764-4243; drinks for two $7.50.
Family-owned restaurant for great seafood. 11 Via Lucilio; 39-081/764-6882; dinner for two $72.
A perfect example of the Neapolitan tavola calda, a type of lunch counter with hot and cold dishes. Multiple locations, including Via Santa Caterina, at the Piazza dei Martiri; 39-081/417-735; lunch for two $14.
Osteria da Tonino
A favorite local lunch place serving simple food. 47 Via Santa Teresa a Chiaia; 39-081/421-533; lunch for two $28.
Ristorante da Dora
Charming small restaurant known for fish. 30 Via Ferdinando Palasciano; 39-081/680-519; dinner for two $145.
Elegant restaurant with an unbeatable view. 10 Via Santo Strato; 39-081/769-1288; dinner for two $120.
WHERE TO SHOP
Naples is an excellent source for inexpensive, impeccably tailored clothes, especially for men, and alterations are usually free of charge. The best stores are concentrated in the Chiaia district. Whether or not you buy anything, don't miss a stroll down Via San Gregorio Armeno in Spaccanapoli, where shops sell the city's famed Nativities. Note that Naples does not have much of a browsing culture; service in shops tends to be solicitous, sometimes overly so.
Justifiably famous (and expensive) men's wear. 68 Via Filangieri; 39-081/423-8273.
Men's and women's clothes typical of the Neapolitan style. 45 Via dei Mille; 39-081/407-064.
The city's best cioccolateria. Multiple locations, including 291 Via Toledo; 39-081/421-867.
Custom-made and ready- to-wear men's shirts and shoes. 37C Via Filangieri; 39-081/421-940.
The city's most revered source for ties. 287A Riviera di Chiaia; 39-081/764-4214.
Men's wear for the hipper Neapolitan. 53 Vico Cavallerizza and Via Filangieri; 39-081/422-982.
Nino di Nicola
Affordably priced and well- made men's suits and shirts. 69 Via Santa Caterina; 39-081/404-349.
Beautiful leather goods. 142143 Via Chiaia; 39-081/668-572.
WHAT TO DO
Fascinating coral museum. 61 Via Montedoro, Torre del Greco; 39-081/881-1225.
Neoclassical palace housing fine and decorative Dutch, Spanish, and Italian art. 1 Via Miano, Porta Piccola, 39-081/749-9110.
The city's imposing landmark on the Santa Lucia waterfront. Via Partenope; 39-081/240-0055.
Certosa-Museo di San Martino
Monastery turned museum, with impressive gardens. 5 Largo San Martino; 39-081/558-5942.
National Archaeological Museum
Home of one of the world's best collections of Greek and Roman antiquities. 19 Piazza Museo; 39-081/440- 166; www.archeona.arti.beniculturali.it.
WHAT TO READ
The Volcano Lover by Susan Sontag. A rich historical romance, based on the lives of Sir William Hamilton, the English ambassador to the court of Naples in the late 1700's, his wife, Emma, and Lord Nelson.
Falling Palace: A Romance of Naples by Dan Hofstadter. A memoir of falling in love with the city.
—G.T. and Nathan Lump