Pizza and Graffiti
Naples has a reputation among travelers for pizza and petty crime. Sure enough, it only took us five minutes in the city to get ripped off. We jumped off the train at Garibaldi Station and immediately got scalped by the guy selling subway tickets.
It wasn’t the audacity that impressed me, it was the boredom. He accepted our ten euros with the dull eyes of a long-time customer service rep and slid back an insultingly low amount of change—clearly he’d heard the rumor that Americans can’t math. His expression didn’t even flicker; you could almost feel sorry for him having to stand there and bilk customers all day.
In that moment, I fell in love with Naples.
Question my judgement if you like, but Naples has my heart. I have never fallen so fast or so hard for a city except maybe Hanoi. I guess it makes sense since the two have a lot in common—threadlike alleyways, curbside cafes, an atmosphere of beautiful decay.
Of course, Naples doesn’t give a shit about my opinion. The city has a chip on its shoulder and a glass in its hand. Might be a shot of espresso, might be a plastic cup of vino. Toss it back, and let’s get on with it already.
Sam and I stayed with a family in the Spanish Quarter. The neighborhood might once have been shabby chic, but now just felt shabby. The streets were narrow gorges between the sheer-sided buildings, the sky was ribboned with drying laundry. To me it felt less broken-down than broken-in—a theme that followed us around the city. Even the gorgeous art-gallery metro stations were tagged with graffiti. I began to see spray paint as Naples’ way of marking its territory.
According to our host, Valerio, Naples is on an upswing. Reliable garbage pick-up, increased pedestrian space, a revamped seafront, an expanding subway system…what more could you ask for? Nothing. I’m prepared to sign on the dotted line now. Except—and things are about to get serious here, guys—except for the pizza.
Naples is the birthplace of pizza. As an extension, it could be argued that Neapolitan pizza is the only true pizza. Eating it is the culinary equivalent of seeing the Mona Lisa or meeting the Highlander. There can be only one, and it’s in Naples.
The thing is, I like Roman pizza better.
I’m risking excommunication, but the truth will out: Roman pizza rocks my socks. I did the research to back it up: two pizzas and a jug of the house red every night, no exceptions. Sam and I were as diligent as we were voracious.
On our first night in Naples, we went to the oldest pizzeria in the city. It was not exciting. Something was clearly wrong.
Confused and underwhelmed, we consulted Valerio. Without hesitation, he steered us to Pizzeria Sorbillo: through Piazza Dante and up Via Porte Alba, past the used booksellers, just keep going until you see the crowd.
The street was crowded with would-be diners when we showed up around 8pm. Some brilliant entrepreneur had set up a wine shop next door. The bar opened directly onto the street, and everyone was clutching plastic cups of vino. We got ours and settled in, willing to wait until midnight if necessary. In fact, it took a reasonable 30 minutes.
The restaurant interior was packed as tight as ill-considered spandex. As we sat down, the table beside us was surrendering their empty plates and ordering another round. After much deliberation, we flagged a waiter. Within minutes two pizzas plopped onto our table like a pair of floppy board-brimmed hats.
Let me be perfectly clear about this: these pizzas were amazing. Unbelievable. Potentially life-changing. But…
“You know, I think I like Roman pizza better,” Sam said in an undertone after a few minutes of serious chewing.
“Oh thank god it’s not just me.” I was relieved to share the sacrilege. After all the build-up, it felt wrong to not be turning cartwheels over this pizza. We agreed not to tell Valerio.
“We’d better go back to Rome again, just to make sure,” Sam suggested pragmatically.
So we ran the experiment again in Rome and successfully replicated the results. I’m open to peer review, at the moment I’m forced to conclude that Roman pizza is the best in the entire freaking world. It’s something about the crust, guys. Thin, charred, simultaneously crispy and pliable. Heaven.
This aside, I would settle in Naples today if they’d still have me. I’ll just commute to Rome for dinner. And I’ll have to remember to bring exact change for the metro.
Until further notice, the best pizza on earth can be found at Pizzeria da Baffetto in Rome. Get a Quattro Formaggi, a Salami, and a jug of the house red. Check out the display of exotic currency left by previous diners—we left the tugrik.
FYI, Naples beats Rome into the ground when it comes to pastry. And I’m not just talking about sfogliatella (Though I could, for an extended period of time.)
And remember, a single-ride metro ticket costs €1. Don’t let anyone tell you different. Especially not a ticket vender.