Naples, knockout

Farting thunder and crackling lightning preceded the cloudburst that tried its damnedest to drench our small tour group at Pompeii, the ancient city of dramatically preserved ruins just outside of Naples yesterday. Umbrellas aloft, my brother and I winced at each other and agreed we didn’t want lightning to blast us into human beef jerky like the displayed bodies caught in squalls of volcanic gas and ash from a spewing Mt. Vesuvius way back when (79 A.D., to be exact). 

Weather-wise, Rome was better, but Naples, Italy’s third largest city, set south and known as the country’s black sheep and mischievous scamp, might be more atmospheric, vaguely sketchy and intimately enthralling. It’s got kick and fizz.

Sure, Naples has offered lashing schizophrenic weather — enveloping sunshine, then muffling fog, then a glimmer of sun, then a 10-degree temperature drop and downpours — but it has character to burn: crazy winding backstreets streaked with old churches, lavish, looping graffiti, bristling bars, sensational food, boisterous people. And do mind that Vespa tearing down the cobblestone street bustling with fleet-footed pedestrians. 

Speaking of food I might kill for — last night’s grilled octopus and the pasta carbonara in Rome surely count — we waited about 40 minutes for a seat at the famed Sorbillo pizzeria, known for the best pies in the world and certainly in Italy. Get the basic Margherita — mozzarella, basil, zesty homemade tomato sauce and thin, chewy crust (huge and about $5). It will recalibrate your pizza expectations for life. 

But I’m not here to peddle pizza. I’m here to report that we tracked down the three (stunning) Caravaggio paintings in Naples; found a go-to watering hole, Libreria Berisio, which is a cozy working bookstore by day, heaving with volumes, and at night dims the lights and serves a boggling array of cocktails, with funky seating, including stacks of hardbacks for stools (books and booze!); and took a private four-hour city and food tour with the spectacular Gennaro. Just the three of us.   

Gennaro, who speaks with a lilting, comically tangy Italian accent and shoots off sparks of wound-up energy, whisked us along in a gust of breathtaking erudition, knowledge, information and raw charm. Food, history, literature, opera, architecture, art, politics both local and global, film, geography — he seems to know it all, an effusive polymath who makes you feel intellectually undernourished. 

But we weren’t undernourished, because Gennaro fed us a feast, including pastry, fried seafood, buffalo mozzarella, deep-fried pizza (!!), beer, Limoncello (a local lemon liqueur), pasta with meat sauce, and more. 

He’s also something of a one-man chamber of commerce for Naples, fervently defending the city, exalting its virtues with fist-shaking passion, and angrily blaming city leaders for underrating and underselling their jewel in the rough. Five years ago, he says, Naples still carried a bad rap — piles of garbage, crime, mafioso, and other underbelly lesions — but it’s enjoying a surge of respectability and much-needed tourism. He wants the world to see his native city as he does: a top draw, a world-class player, a tourist mecca. He wants it to be loved, adored, appreciated.  

Me, I already see it that way. I’m sold.

Next stop … Naples?

The headline reads “Why Tourists Skip Naples: Debunking Common Misconceptions,” and the story that follows presents a catalog of corrections to perceived biases against the southern Italian city, which suffers, to begin with, a reputation for crime and grime and Mafioso shenanigans. It’s known as the “messy brother” or “crazy uncle” of other Italian cities, two descriptions I totally relate to.

So while many tourists skip Naples, I will not. Even if some travelers expect it to be a “mafia-infested crap hole,” writes one travel blogger with zesty candor, I will embrace its raw, rough edges, tuck into its world-famous pizza, drop by the frozen-in-time tragedy of Pompeii and stroll the lush Amalfi Coast. If I feel like it, I might just hop over to the resort island of Capri. I’m capri-cious like that.

This is all in spitball stages. I haven’t bought a ticket, I haven’t nailed a date. I am digesting the possibilities. And as I do, I discover persuasive tidbits. Like that Rome is a measly one-hour train ride from Naples, instantly making any plans a two-city trip. Now I’m thinking four days in megacity Rome, three or four in Naples. (From the Colosseum to the Vatican, Rome, where I’ve been twice, needs no introduction.)

What’s in Naples? The city sits in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, which legendarily vomited ash and lava over Pompeii, a macabre pilgrimage for those of us who want to see ancient charred bodies in various poses of molten distress. There’s the almost holy National Archaeological Museum; the tomb of the poet Virgil; and Underground Naples, a subterranean slice of preserved ancient Greek and Roman life. Food is of course paramount, as the birthplace of pizza, probably my favorite food. (I’m a lucky guy: pasta is a close second.)   

Still, this history-drenched city, once known as the “Paris of the south,” remains Italy’s unruly black sheep. That’s partly due to the Camorra, the regional Campania mafia, which tends to ignore tourists and get its hands dirty in local entanglements. In other words, it’s not a concern. Street-level crime — pickpockets and such — exists, but hardly more than in any big city. 

Authenticity is the byword. Naples’ “historical center is one of the most authentic and unique places in Italy, in spite of being quite rough around the edges — maybe because of it,” says one traveler. The city is “unfiltered and uncensored — wholly authentic,” writes another.  

I like that; that’s my style. Anything too polished is, to me, antiseptic, a bore. I can do grunge, I can do seedy. I can even do dangerous (ask me about Beirut).

So my next trip might be two Italian cities, Rome and Naples, one gleaming, one with a little slobber on its chin. A writer quotes her Italian nonna saying, “Rome is the heart of Italy, but Naples is the soul of Italy.” Which has me nodding: perfetto.

Naples, with a looming Mt. Vesuvius