A mob of red-shirted waiters seethe around the door, shouting and gesticulating. They're all men, and the tone blurs between friendly and furious. A delivery driver walks in, all cool swagger and a dangling cigarette. He is immediately folded into the argument, both sides trying to claim him as an ally. Erin and I are stranded at a table, watching the floor show. At one point a waiter, thick-necked with a rugby player's nose, remembers we're there. He delicately holds up a finger, asking for patience. We nod, indicate it's no problem. He turns back to the discussion, increasing his volume to make up for lost time. The argument swells, setting off a nearby car alarm.
We're in Trattoria da Nennella. It's our last day in Naples, so we're exploring a restaurant recommendation from our host before grabbing the train back to Rome. This place is distinctly local, hidden among the backstreets of the Spanish Quarter. And it has a comfortable energy that's difficult to describe. The near riot is apparently a familiar event in the neighborhood. Passersby pause to watch, grinning.
Eventually, the delivery driver somehow settles things. He drinks a slug of wine and passes the bottle to the principals. They grin and give each other good natured shoves. A woman appears from the kitchen, hands on hips, and bellows at the lot of them. They look sheepish and she shouts again. There is a sudden burst of energy as everyone becomes very busy working. The woman sniffs, then disappears back into the kitchen.
The rugby player returns with a menu, and we finally have a chance to check out our options.
The menu is simple, and everything is in Italian. But Erin is undaunted. Our host suggested a specific dish, Pasta e Patate. That's pasta with potatoes. Erin takes such recommendations seriously and orders for both of us. The waiter vanishes then returns with a liter of water, a liter of wine, a bunch of plastic cups, and a metal bowl of bread hunks. It sounds a little lowbrow, but the quality is superb, and the atmosphere...
In spite of their newfound dedication to work, the waiters periodically explode at each other. One bursts into song, clapping and gyrating as he goes about his rounds. His shirt says "Alfredo," but he looks like Stanley Tucci. An old man standing near the checkout, one of the customers, swats his ass as he sashays past the table. Alfredo pauses, looking outraged, then makes a comment in rapid fire Italian. The rest of the staff erupt in laughter.
Outside, a dog walker stops near the entrance to speak to the cashier. Alfredo proceeds to serenade him until he's well out of earshot.
The waiters explode in another confrontation, arms flailing. Then the kitchen matron returns, shouting "Roberto!" A beefy staff member makes a show of putting everyone back to work. The waiters break up laughing, and finally she smiles at them, like a mother who cannot help but find her naughty boys adorable.
Erin leans closer. "Psst."
"Do you think they're actors?"
"You know, playing waiters. This place is too fantastic to be real!"
I glance around at the delightful chaos.
"It's really the only possible explanation," I reply.
We sip our wine from plastic cups and enjoy the mayhem of the afternoon lunch rush.
On the other side of Trattoria da Nennella, a steady stream of neighborhood people are coming in for takeout. Two bent old men pause near the service window and greet each other like brothers. They immediately settle deep into conversation until their food arrives, cardboard boxes wrapped in plastic. They step outside in the drizzling afternoon and seem genuinely sad to be going their separate ways.
Our food arrives on steaming plates.
The rugby waiter disappears our now empty bread bowl like a sleight of hand artist, dropping a new one on the table. As he does, another waiter wanders past and says something sharp and sly in Italian. The rugby player grins, gesticulating rudely as he heads back inside.
"Seriously. Actors," Erin repeats.
Then we try the food.
Then we both have very private, quiet, religious experiences inspired by cheese, pasta, and potatoes mixed in perfect proportions.
Later, we stagger outside under a heavy load of wine and starch. The outdoor tent is filling up as the afternoon progresses.
"That was amazing," Erin says.
"It was a little like dropping in on someone's family reunion."
"A particularly boisterous family, maybe."
"Exactly!" I say. "Where everyone's shouting and arguing, but they're still happy to see each other. The food is amazing. And everything's just super comfortable."
"And somehow, a little awkward at the same time," Erin replied. "Yeah, I see what you're saying." She half turns back, staring longingly at the sign. "Can we go back?"
"Aren't you stuffed?"
"Yeah. But it was really, really good."
I nod. "It was at that." Then I take her arm. "Come on. We've got a train to catch. And when we get back, I'll buy you a pizza."
She frowns, but nods. "I guess that'll have to do."
If you would like to find Trattoria da Nennella's, here's a handy google map. I honestly cannot recommend this place enough. The food is fantastic, and the atmosphere is amazing. Say hey to Alfredo for us.