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See Naples . . . And Eat
Food Is the Main Dish on a Tour of Naples and the Amalfi Coast

By Robert V. Camuto
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 13, 2008

All we wanted to do was step out for a little pizza in Naples on a Saturday night -- a notion that could have been as simple as a leisurely walk down the street from our hotel. Except for two things.

First, there is no such thing as a leisurely walk in this capital of southern Italian anarchy. Second, on our first night in Naples we wanted more than just an average pizza. Our destination was the Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, a place known for turning out some of the best pizza in town and, by extension, the world.

"Yes, it is the best pizza in Naples," affirmed Pasquale, the helpful young man at the reception desk of our hotel.

"But," he said, giving us a long serious look, "do not bring a lot of money; do not wear a watch or jewelry; leave your valuables in the room; take a cab there and a cab directly back."

Of course, we were prepared for Naples, one of Italy's most crime-ridden cities, which this year alone has weathered such scandals as mountains of uncollected trash and dioxin-tainted mozzarella. (The trash has been cleaned up, and Italian authorities moved quickly to remove the bad mozzarella from the market.) Still, Pasquale's warning just a couple of hours after our arrival took us aback.

"One more thing," Pasquale warned. "Do not pay any more than 10 euros for the cab. Ten euros maximum."

In fact, the cab to Da Michele ended up costing 15. The polite young driver seemed to be taking us on a scenic tour while complaining in a mix of Italian and English that Naples's bad reputation was the fault of the sensationalist media and malevolent northerners. When we arrived in the drab neighborhood in front of Da Michele, he explained he was tacking on a two-euro charge (more than twice what is customary, we later learned) for coming to pick us up at our hotel.

After the inflated taxi fare, we faced a 40-minute wait for a table, though these were small inconveniences for truly great pizza. Run by the fifth generation of pizzamakers of the Condurro family, Da Michele is as simple as a pizzeria gets. The storefront, with high ceilings and marble-topped tables, is lighted as bright as a hospital. Niched in the back wall, a bust of Saint Antonio Abate surveys the squad of three men forming an assembly line: One kneads the dough by hand, the next layers on tomatoes and cheese, and the third uses a long wooden paddle to lay the pizza in a wood-burning oven for no more than a minute.

This is pizza stripped to its fundamentals, without the toppings considered superfluous by purists. In a town that seems to have few rules, there are standards when it comes to local food in general and Neapolitan pizza in particular. Da Michele's menu contains two items: pizza margherita (cheese, crushed tomatoes and basil) and pizza marinara (tomatoes, oregano and garlic). It should be noted that the cheese used at Da Michele is, technically, not mozzarella (which is made from water buffalo milk), but fior di latte, a cow's-milk cheese preferred by some master pizzamakers for its slightly drier consistency.

The prices are cheap ($7 for a 14-inch pizza), and the only drinks available are Coca-Cola, orange soda and beer, served in plastic cups.

The crowd spoke the Neapolitan dialect, from families with little kids to a few businessmen in dark suits. What came to the table was pizza that was thin-crusted and (true to Neapolitan style) slightly wet, with fresh white soft cheese and sweet tomatoes. It was simple and delicious, and it went down smoothly, as if melting before it hit the stomach.

Neapolitans, you quickly realize, will put up with a lot. But they won't put up with less-than-perfect pizza.

Comfort Amid the Chaos

Naples was our first two-night stop on a week-long trip to the Campania region of Italy (a feast for the tastebuds and all the senses) that also included the shores of the Sorrento Peninsula and the Amalfi Coast.

Food is not the only feature of Naples and Campania, but it is certainly one of the most important. Italians like to say they eat better than anyone in the world. And in Campania, locals say they eat better than most anywhere else in Italy. During this trip (my first to the region since spending a childhood summer here in 1968), both claims rang true.

Perhaps the backdrop here is so overwhelming -- thousands of years of history, with UNESCO World Heritage sites in Naples's historical center, Pompeii and the Amalfi Coast; Italy's most notorious crime families; the sleeping volcano of Vesuvius; and opera -- that greater significance is given to everyday details. That would include its sublime pizza, perfect tomatoes, strong and fragrant espresso and some of the best pastry and ice cream anywhere.

Naples is a city of extreme contrasts. We found ourselves in the middle of soccer games, felt the wind of speeding Vespas carrying families of three, watched a makeshift display of thousands of exploding firecrackers welcome a visiting bishop at a neighborhood chapel and observed the constant streaming of bands of tough-looking police officers in vans with sirens blaring.

Amid the constant din and theater of the street, Naples's elegant cafes, with their smartly uniformed servers, seemed like the height of civilization.

At Casa Ferrieri, in a chic shopping district, we restored ourselves with Cafe Nocciolino, strong Neapolitan espresso sweetened with a spoonful of house-made hazelnut cream. At Scaturchio, one of the best pastrymakers in town, we braved the Sunday after-church crowds in the old part of the city for a taste of one of Naples's greatest and most ancient creations: pastiera, a cake made from fresh ricotta cheese, cooked wheat berries and fragrant orange water.

Pizza by the Yard

After Naples, we drove south about half an hour around the Gulf of Naples, in the shadow of Vesuvius, to the Sorrento Peninsula. We were shocked at how the ugly, dirty sprawl seemed to engulf everything, and then were shocked again when the mess disappeared at the mountain tunnels outside the town of Sorrento. It gave way to well-kept resort towns and to olive and lemon groves that fell down the hillsides to a clear blue sea.

We spent a few days in one resort, Vico Equense, perched on a cliff about 100 feet above the Mediterranean. Rather than the busloads of tourists that crowd into Sorrento 15 minutes to the west, Vico has the charm of a real town, enlivened in the off-season by about 20,000 locals.

Vico also happens to be one of the best spots on the peninsula to eat. A central meeting point is Da Gigino, Pizza al Metro, not just a pizzeria but the self-proclaimed "University of Pizza." The Dell'Amura family's place indeed looks from the outside like a concrete institutional building. Inside, it's one of the world's largest pizzerias, decorated with '60s-era bamboo light fixtures. At the peak of summer, the place packs up to 1,600 diners onto two floors and an outdoor terrace shaded by wisteria. Dozens of waiters in white shirts, vests and red bowties roam the place with dessert carts and antipasto trolleys filled with grilled artichokes and eggplant and marinated anchovies and salmon.

But the real specialty of Pizza al Metro is, as the name indicates, pizza by the meter. More than 40 kinds of pizza are served, as varied as unadorned basics and pies topped with clams or french fries. A meter-long pizza serves five, according to the menu. The rectangular pies (two-meter versions are also available) are baked in four wood-fired ovens and wheeled to the table.

Another must-see, well-preserved '60s-era classic is Gelateria Latteria Gabriele, a beautiful shop that sells all things dairy from its polished-steel-and-glass counters.

Gabriele offers an impressive array of cheeses, including the sweet, aromatic provolone del monaco from the Vico hills. But the big afternoon attraction is the ice cream and dessert counter. Pans of neatly arranged, creamy gelato beckon in such flavors as hazelnut, pistachio and tiramisu, along with cold regional desserts including Delizie al Limone, a custard-filled cake soaked with limoncello (the region's famous lemon-zest-infused alcohol) and bathed in cream.

The star among the desserts, to judge by the locals who filed in about 5 p.m., was brioche con gelato e panna, the southern Italian version of the ice cream sandwich. This treat starts with a two-fisted brioche, which is then sliced open, filled with ice cream, topped with whipped cream and handed to the customer in a napkin.

I wouldn't have known how to start eating the thing, but the locals, who dive right in wearing whipped cream on their lips and chins, seemed to have it down.

Still-Undiscovered Amalfi

We then crossed the peninsula to the Amalfi Coast, one of the world's most famous ribbons of seashore, celebrated by legions of writers, starting with Homer.

Fifty-five years ago, John Steinbeck wrote this about his experience on the Amalfi Drive: "Flaming like a meteor we hit the coast, a road high, high above the blue sea that hooked and corkscrewed on the edge of nothing, a road carefully designed to be a little narrower than two cars side by side. And on this road, the buses, the trucks, the motor scooters and the assorted livestock."

The Amalfi Drive is about a 50-mile itinerary between quaint but over-boutiqued Positano and the city of Salerno. The livestock is gone, at least from the road, which is surely smoother than in Steinbeck's time. The views and the terrain (steep hillsides striped with stone-wall terraces and filled with lemon trees and small vineyards) are incomparable. In the middle of the coast sits the town of Amalfi, with its grand cathedral; perched high above it is Ravello, almost too perfect, with its majestic villas and garden concerts.

One of the best ways to appreciate the Amalfi Coast is to leave the tourist routes and to explore the nearby but "undiscovered" neighboring towns, where (except for electricity) farmers, fishermen and cheese-making goatherds and shepherds seem to live oblivious to the 21st century.

On a day when we couldn't get into Ravello (the main road had been closed during the day for three months because of work after a rock slide), we headed down the coast and fell upon Cetera, one of the region's last remaining fishing villages. The town seemed to be constructed of peeling white paint and bisected by one stone street. A large commercial tuna hauler was parked offshore and about a dozen wooden fishing boats were lined up on a small beach.

Here we found the best meal of the trip, at a smart modern restaurant called Acquapazza. There is no menu, just some discussion about fresh seafood with one of the two cousins who run the restaurant. We ate braised tuna, which tasted as if it had been freshly dragged from the sea, and anchovies wrapped in delicate strips of cooked zucchini. We dribbled colatura (a sauce made since antiquity from the drippings of salted anchovies) on spaghetti and washed it down with Falanghina, a dry, minerally tasting Campania white wine.

Three hours at table concluded with an array of freezer-chilled local liqueurs placed in front of us: not just limoncello but finocchiello (made with fennel) and nocino (made with walnuts). Then we walked a ways up the one street through town past a group of old men milling outside a bar. As we passed, they dropped their conversations and fell silent, staring as if we had dropped in from a land far, far away.

France-based writer Robert V. Camuto is the author of "Corkscrewed: Adventures in the New French Wine Country," which will be published by the University of Nebraska Press this fall.

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