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Naples Past and Present

Martin Morrell Standing with taxi drivers in the Piazza del Gesù Nuovo

Photo: Martin Morrell

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.

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