Esquire Eats

Tom Parker Bowles On Naples

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Temptation, beauty, danger... and pizza. Tom Parker Bowles takes a bite (and then another bite, and then another) out of Naples.

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How did it come to this? Floating, limp and bloated, in Homer’s wine-dark sea, a pale blob with a three-beer smile. It’s Thursday afternoon, just off the beach at Vico Equense, a small coastal town across the bay from Naples. But I should be in the city itself.

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There are markets to tour, cooks to question, narrow alleys to tramp and explore. Somewhere in the shimmering distance — between the sprawling suburban mass that flows to the shore like white concrete lava, and the lush, gentle slopes of Vesuvius — grow San Marzano tomatoes, sweeter than bottled dawn.

The dedicated food journalist would be deep among the plants, notebook in hand, stamping the rich, volcanic earth. Not bobbing in the water, 10 miles to the south, indolent and nicely fuzzed. Just as the more professional writer, upright and fully clothed, would be breathing in the thick, lactic air of some Campanian dairy, a serious tone etched thick across his brow. In Caserta, behind Naples, or Salerno, directly to my right, I should be helping knead and stir great alabaster curds of mozzarella di bufala, made from the ultra-rich milk of the doe-eyed ruminant. Noting, asking, learning.

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Instead, here I am, thinking of little more than dinner. And the potential damage being done by the blazing sun above, beating down on an ever-thinning pate. But the seawater’s warm and the breeze — a breeze that’s ruffled the hair of emperors and their catamites, of Odysseus and Aeneas, of Virgil, Boccaccio and Caravaggio — is soft and cool. Just a few more minutes in limbo, I think, a few more languorous moments of Mediterranean meditation, and then the serious work will begin.

That work entails spending three days in Naples, a city founded on the death of a myth. For it was here, many centuries ago, on a tiny island mere metres from the shore, that Parthenope breathed her last, a siren who had failed to lure Odysseus to his death. Her failure meant her demise, hurled from the high cliffs onto the rocks below.

The currents cast her ashore on the island the Ancient Greeks called Megaris, a place now covered by the fortified Castel dell’Ovo. In her honour, the settlement was named Parthenope. “This was how Naples began,” writes Peter Robb in Street Fight in Naples. “Histories of Naples always began with Parthenope…” A tale of temptation, beauty and danger, three words that reverberate here to this day.

This is not my first visit to Naples. It’s my 29th. I’ve been here, or rather through here, more times than any city in the world. As a child, my grandparents would take the entire family to the island of Ischia, an hour’s hydrofoil ride away. And the sprint from airport to port is seared deep in my soul.

That blast of hot air as we left the plane, and my cousin Ben mimicking the Pope by kissing the sticky tarmac, followed by a swift bollocking for his cheek. The baggage hall, wreathed in cigarette smoke, frantic and cacophonous. This city glimpsed 28 times from the back of a cab, a racing cab with little interest in frivolities like traffic lights and pedestrians, or the demarcation between pavement and road.

We’d hurtle towards the water, passing crumbling tenements and hidden piazzas, our hearts throbbing with excitement. “Basta! Basta!” my mother would shriek, as we flew through yet another red light, or overtook on the very blindest of curves. Even my father, not usually bothered by such things, gripped the door handle until his knuckles were white.

Occasionally, we’d stop, so the driver could talk to a friend lolling in the shade. We’d peer down dark alleys festooned with sheets and pants and vests, drying in the fearsome midday sun. Thin figures loitered in the shadows, smoking and spitting and shouting. Not sinister, but excitingly otherworldly, just like the smells of baking pizza, and overripe rubbish, diesel fumes and doughnuts. This wasn’t the neat, ordered Europe of smart ski resorts and manicured boulevards, rather something more thrilling, altogether more primal.

 

Were there snakes below the sun-cracked streets? Or tigers prowling the parks? Anything seemed possible. We knew every metre of that journey, past the old stadium, dazzled by a sudden glimpse of the sea. This was a city as familiar as a mother’s kiss, yet as exotic as Nubian dancing girls. At the end, we’d all spill out into the port, and gorge upon pistachio ice cream, and Hollywood chewing gum. And await our ride to Ischia.

******

The journey back, two weeks later, was always seen through tear-choked eyes. Suddenly, this city — so vibrant and exciting and bursting with promise — seemed sullen and dirty, like an old, sun-faded rag. The summer holiday was finished for another year, no more gelati and pasta al pomodoro, octopus salad and tiny fried courgettes. After a while, we stopped going to Ischia. Too many Germans, my grandfather had said. Having been a prisoner of war, he’d had his fill of Germans.

I returned once more, as an excitable teenager on a school trip. We ate bad pizza and smoked cheap tabs, giggling at the statue of Pan buggering a goat in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale. We were all warned about the scippatori, local kids who would whizz by on scooters, grabbing bags and cameras. And paid no attention. We were all robbed blind. This was in the late Eighties, a time when, in the words of RW Apple Jr, legendary New York Times correspondent, Naples became “… the city that Italy forgot and everyone else avoided. Poor, dirty. Hopelessly corrupt. A suburb of the Third World, where a foreigner could have a purse or wallet stolen in broadest daylight.”

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This edge, this whiff of danger, has been there from the start, ever since that strange, mythical beast washed up on its shores. And the city has always been as seductive as Parthenope’s song. Naples sits in the plummest of spots, “... the cynosure of the Mediterranean”, in the words of Robb, “strategic, beautiful and rich…” And everyone, from Greek to German, Spanish to Swabian, has always wanted a piece. “For 10 centuries,” noted acclaimed travel writer Norman Lewis in his post-liberation masterpiece, Naples ’44, “the invading armies have come and gone.

Foreign kings have ruled in Naples, and enslaved its people. Revolutions have been drowned in blood. But nothing of this has made the slightest impression on the imagination or memory of the common man… The Swabians, the Aragonese, the Bourbons and now the Germans have been instantly forgotten.”

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Neapolitans, I was constantly told, live in the moment. With a volcano behind, earthquakes below and a history splattered by the whims of their invaders, you can see their point. Naples has always been a city that valued food over finance, and intercourse over industry. Pleasure is prized over parsimony.

Even before its inception, the poet Martial talks of the slopes of Vesuvius as the “haunt of Venus”, a place much loved by Bacchus. Leave the day-to-day dullardry to those po-faced northern folk, while we get on with the serious business of living life. As a result, as Norman Lewis notes, “… the city that had ignored and finally overcome all its conquerors, dedicated itself entirely and everlastingly to the sweet things of life”.

Nothing seems to have changed. It’s noon, and we’re queuing for lunch. You could wander past L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, near the university, with barely a backward glance. It’s a small, high-ceilinged room, with a wood-burning oven at the back. You take your ticket and wait. One in, one out, no exceptions. The decoration is sparse, the menu more so. Two pizzas in three sizes, margherita or marinara, the latter without cheese. And to drink only Coke, beer or water. We sit below a photograph of Maradona, thin but typically wide-eyed. When he played for Napoli in the Eighties, he was every bit as revered as San Gennaro, the city’s patron saint.

The scent in Da Michele, of baking crust and bubbling cheese, is as heavenly as Gennaro himself. Tourists mingle with locals. This place is no secret. But it never disappoints. My companion and guide Giuseppe Mascoli points to an old man in the corner, clad in a long white coat: “That’s Alphonso, the owner. He’s old now, and a little ill, but he’s always here, smart and in the same place.”

******

Giuseppe is a seer in a seersucker jacket. An aristocrat with roots in Naples and Positano, he’s also the owner of Franco Manca in London’s Brixton, far and away Britain’s finest pizzeria. “I based my recipe on the dough here. And I’ve been coming for 50 years. It’s always good, always the same.” The owner of Blacks club in Soho, as well as a wine importer and writer, Mascoli is part-intellectual, part-entrepreneur and all-round agent provocateur. Although a devotee of Priapus and Bacchus, too, he’s miles removed from a wastrel. Broad-shouldered with the tight curls of a cherub, he’s the sworn enemy of gloom and pomposity, the bland and dull.
 
“You don’t want to just see the food of Naples. It’s summer. No one stays in town. We’ll go to the beach.” We’ve just arrived in Naples, and we’re already leaving town. “What about the story?” I mutter, ineffectually.

The pizzas arrive, plonked down before us. Cheap and nourishing, pizza was forged from the furnace of poverty, a way of stretching a few, meagre ingredients. They evolved from flatbreads, eaten not only across Italy but further east, too. In fact, some would say the Persians were eating cheese-topped, oven-baked flatbreads before Naples was a glimmer in a Greek man’s eye. Whatever the case, the Neapolitans perfected the art. And here at Da Michele, pizza-making reaches its pinnacle.

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Every element works together in joyous harmony. Take the margherita, named in honour of the 19th century Queen Margherita of Italy; red, white and green, like the national flag. The tomato sauce is freshly made, from the Solea tomato. It’s fresh, sharp and spread thin, the perfect foil to the small, rich, molten pools of mozzarella (“not buffalo mozzarella,” Giuseppe insists, “it has too much water for this kind of pizza and doesn’t melt well”). A lone sprig of basil stands guard over the centre. But true pizza is all about the crust. Jeffrey Steingarten, the American food writer, judges his pizzas out of one to 10 on crust and one to two on topping.

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Here, the narrow, puffed up rim is dotted with small, black blisters. There’s a crack as you penetrate the crust; then dense, chewy heft. Each ingredient is added with a well-seasoned hand.

Mascoli agrees. “It’s about the right dough, and the intense heat, and the slight chalkiness of the water when mixing it all up. And the wood you use, and the mozzarella, and how you make the sauce.” For a seemingly simple dish, real pizza is as much art as the most outlandish of elBulli creations. A couple of beers, and we’re done. Words are as unnecessary as a fistful of ham and pineapple. Our smiles say it all.

Italy’s south has rarely had it easy, a ragged cur, endlessly kicked and abused by the north. Seen as backward and hopelessly corrupt, not so much a region as a land still in the grip of organised crime, the kings and barons replaced by bent politicians and all-powerful dons.

The rich were fantastically wealthy, the poor barely had a pot in which to piss. So much so that the only hope for the average peasant, by the end of the 19th century, was to emigrate. Five million Italians left their shacks and hovels to travel to America between 1880 and 1920. Four million of those came from the south.

Which is why we’re all so damned familiar with pizza and dried pasta, meatballs and tomato sauce. The emigrants took their food to America and, with the glut of cheap ingredients and a ready supply of meat, made them bigger and richer and fatter. The American dream, piled high on a plate. “No ethnic community has had as powerful an influence on American food as they have,” writes Claudia Roden in The Food of Italy. “And from there the pizzas and pastas and ice creams of southern Italy went on to conquer the world.”

It certainly loomed large in my life. Aside from the Ischian holidays, my grandmother only really liked Italian food. Well, southern Italian food. In the school holidays, we’d meet her every week at Mimo’s, a London institution, now long passed.

My family had met Mimo in Ischia, where he was born, when he’d tried to clamber into the bedroom of my teenage mother and aunt. My grandfather chased him off with his stick, but they soon became friends. Spaghetti with clams, octopus salad, pasta puttanesca and parmigiana were as familiar to us as boiled eggs and soldiers. It was only years later that I discovered Ligurian pesto, Umbrian truffles and Tuscan fagioli. For me, southern food, food bathed in sun and hauled from the sea, was Italian food.

Well, so much for Naples. Giuseppe sees me looking anxiously over my shoulder, at the fast-receding city. “OK, so coastal food can be a little simpler than that of the city, but the fish, the tomatoes, the olive oil, the dried pasta, the fresh mozzarella… we’ll find it down there, too.” He pauses, lost in thought. “Sformato Ferdinando, with meatballs, and chicken and black truffle. And timballo di maccheroni, and elaborate cakes and puddings like zuppa Inglese. These are French-influenced dishes, straight from the kitchens of the court.

At the end of the 18th century, French food had great influence in the grandest of Neapolitan kitchens. In 1816, Naples was made capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the richest state of all. The rich knew how to live. But we’ll be back, don’t worry.”

I think of RW Apple Jr, who described Naples as “… a city of eaters. With the lightest touch imaginable, good Neapolitan cooks transform the bounty of the achingly beautiful Bay of Naples, the vegetables grown in the rich, fertile soil of Vesuvius and the fruits of the sun-blessed Sorrento peninsula into simple but splendid meals.” Norman Lewis was equally effusive. “Food, for the Neapolitans,” he wrote, “comes even before love, and its pursuit is equally insatiable and ingenious.” An hour after finishing our pizza, we’re near Sorrento, down in the south of the Bay of Naples. The sea sparkles, invitingly, and thousands of Italians cram the beaches, smoking, sunning, gossiping.

“Naples has a bad reputation. Think of all that waste piled up in the streets during the rubbish collection crisis,” says Giuseppe. “And the Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the Mafia, are as powerful as ever. They say that Naples only had two good things happen to it in the past 50 years. And Sophia Loren, the greatest of our natives, had both of them.”

He howls with laughter, then pulls up at a small bar. “This is the last good coffee for a while.” Until when? I ask. He goes silent for a moment, then points towards the horizon. “Until Ethiopia,” he says, entirely serious. The espresso is rich, dense and wonderfully acidic. And with more punch than Jupiter’s right hook.

Then we swim, me gazing towards Naples. He’s right, I tell myself. It’s often better to see things from a distance, to paint the bigger picture. At least that’s what I hope.

“Tonight,” says Giuseppe with an embarrassed shrug, “we go Michelin.” My heart sinks. This is an area where simplicity is revered and ingredients are the stars. Not some pumped up chef with more interest in strange-shaped plates, tasting menus, foams, towers and smears. Do I really want to eat food recommended by a bunch of frog rubber-floggers? Some of the worst food I’ve ever endured has come under the cloche of Italian Michelin. But Ristorante Torre del Saracino is different.

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******

When I saw chef Gennaro Esposito, I knew all would be well. His face is soft and round, a smile playing constantly at the corners of his mouth. And his belly reassuringly broad. We sit in the shade of an old Saracen tower (hence the name), Vesuvius and Naples in the distance, bathed in a sunset that would seem fake if seen on film. I want to reach out and tear off a hunk, to stuff those soft pinks and yellows and mauves deep down my throat.

The clang of the church bells melds with the gentle, melodious crush of waves on shingle. I gaze over at the volcano, so benign and protective. And begin to romanticise about this giver of life, this spewer of the fertile…

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“Oh, shut up!” spits Giuseppe. “Don’t be fooled for a second. That fucker has the force of eight atom bombs. Vesuvius is dangerous. Dangerous.” He shakes his head. “Really! It’s an all-powerful killer, mark my words.”

Dinner passes in a merry daze. A slice of buffalo mozzarella, sweetly lactic and oozing juice. It needs neither salt nor oil. Then a small fish from the tuna family, palamida, with a jelly made from local tomatoes, an oyster at its heart. It’s clean, fresh, entirely of its terroir, its area. This isn’t Michelin poncery, rather real food cooked by a master. In the pink dusk, we sip soup made from courgettes picked an hour before, a whole poached egg floating within. And one translucent prawn that adds a whisper of the sea.

As dinner unfolds, flavours become more intense; peppers stuffed with eel, and spaghetti with sea urchin, that sensuous, buttery roe that sits between the sublime and the obscene. There’s grouper, big and meaty, with aubergine, and pork with fig. Esposito is a master. We stagger out and drive the last few miles to Positano, the sea hundreds of metres down to our right. The moon is full, the sea is flat. I crawl into bed and sleep. And dream I’m sitting astride a breadstick, afloat on a sea of cheese.

Positano is a town that tumbles down the rock face and into the sea. The houses cling to the rocks, as if waiting to dive into the water below. Today’s lunch is two bays down, a two-minute boat ride from port to beach. “Da Adolfo,” says Giuseppe with a grin. “One of the best, no doubt.” He’s greeted like a returning hero by the vast, Titan-like owner. And ex-girlfriends and their children. And barmen, cooks and guests. This place, little more than a dozen tables scattered across a wooden platform over the beach, started in 1966 with an outdoor pizza oven. Waiters pad about in bare feet and there’s little need for a menu.

We eat white fish in olive oil, clean and fresh, and tiny mussels swimming in tomato sauce. The local white wine starts to flow, and details become increasingly sketchy. I remember borrowed cigarettes and mozzarella melted onto lemon leaves, the greenery leaving the faintest citrus tang. More wine, then swordfish, and clams, small, sweet and steamed in wine.

Between more baked fish and a noxious walnut liquor, there’s some sort of row involving Giuseppe, a beautiful young Norwegian girl, a love note and an angry boyfriend. My head is heavy with booze, and I can’t keep up. A shot of coffee helps, whistling briskly through the veins. It’s late now, and hot. I stumble into the sea, and float, aimlessly. Then I crawl onto a sun-warmed rock and sleep. This time, there are no dreams. Dinner’s back in Naples, an hour’s ferry ride away.

The sun is softer now, my hangover squatting behind the eyes. I’m sunburned, my lips still thick with salt. Luckily, our next venue, Mattozzi Europeo, is a short trudge from the port. I want to lie down on the cool marble floor but my hunger’s coming back. And Giuseppe’s turned the same colour as the burnished copper plates, hanging above our heads. “Here, they serve absolutely classic Neapolitan food,” he says, “no mucking around.” Next door, a small dog sits zipped in a see-through designer bag. Occasionally, its owner, heavily made-up and crammed into the tightest of tops, opens it up and drops in a morsel of food. Both seem happy.

We eat octopus, and fragaglie — tiny, crisp, deep-fried fish. Then pasta, pert and tight, with mussels and tomatoes. Brisket is cooked with onions, a rare taste of meat. Again, the ingredients take centre stage, the pasta every bit as important as the sauce. Simple, solid and satisfying. “It’s never changed here,” Giuseppe says between bites. Naples doesn’t like change. Well, when it comes to food anyway. An hour back along those roads, and we’re back in Positano. Bed beckons once more.

We take to the waves again the next morning, the skies as brilliant a blue as ever. The trip is longer this time, bucking through the choppy waves. Maria Grazia on Nerano beach is another institution, a mozzarella’s hurl from Sorrento. The tablecloths match the sea. There are five types of clam, the razors no bigger than my little finger. Local wine, cool as well water, comes with hunks of local peach. We eat courgette flowers, stuffed with mozzarella. And slow-cooked aubergine in tomato sauce. And deep-fried aubergine, thinly sliced, in vinegar, and caciotta, a fresh local cheese from down the road. Then tiny prawns, deep fried, and squid. The specialty is pasta with courgettes and caciocavallo, a local, provolone-like cheese.

The dish is intense, sharp and salty, far more than a sum of its parts. “You can only get this here,” says Giuseppe. “Next door, they do it differently. But it’s best here. Always has been.” We finish with cherries, melons and apricots, fecund with juice. Then putter home slowly, legs trailing over the sides of the boat.

Back to Naples, and our last evening. It’s as if we’d never left. We’re in the back of a taxi, flying the wrong way down the tram tracks. “A short cut,” our driver, thick set and burly, announces, only swerving to avoid an oncoming tram. Neapolitan taxi drivers are unique, possessing a petrifying mixture of bravado, self-confidence and an utter belief that death is not for them.

For a start, our man’s eyes are rarely on the road; rather on us, telling a filthy story, or fixed on a girl, or glaring at some poor fool who has the temerity to cut in or actually stop at a light. As we race up to dinner in Vomero, a leafy, lofty part of town, we pass a temporary shrine, festooned with flowers, marking the site of a crash. Our driver shakes his head. “Too fast,” he growls, as the speedometer nudges 70mph. “A race a couple of nights back. He went through the wall, 150m drop, bang, in his Mini Cooper. Not a good short cut.”

He chortles and puts his hand back onto his horn. A sightseer gazes up from his map. “People from the provinces,” he says with a disdainful wave, then points at cars parked at the side of the road. “They’re looking for somewhere to fuck.” He pumps his fist and guffaws.

By now, Giuseppe has even fastened his seat belt. “Don’t worry. I’m a good driver. You like to eat? Neapolitan food is the best in the world. No need for any other shit.” At Ciciotto, it takes a few minutes for the shakes to subside. “Naples, eh?” sighs Giuseppe.

We gaze over the city, the bay, to where we swam the first day. Giuseppe throws a raw prawn down his throat. “So, you think you have enough? About Naples, and the food that is? Of course, we could carry on eating, in a different place each night until we die. But you’ve had a taste.”

I sure have. Somehow, the swims, boat rides and journeys to and fro were every bit as important as the food. They created the context; set the scene. To begin to appreciate Naples, it must be viewed from the sea. Just as it was first seen by Greek and Moor, Spaniard and Goth. Away from what Sean O’Faolain, author of South to Sicily, describes as “… the gay, ruthless, amoral, life-loving, cynical, kindly and incredibly patient people who swarm on top of each other behind this coral and ivory façade”.

He claims it’s not a tourist city, but he’s wrong. Like the rich, decadent sformato Ferdinando, with its glut of macaroni, meatballs, chicken and black truffle, Naples begs to be devoured. But don’t attempt it all at once. It’s too rich, too overwhelming by far. Little and often is the key. To truly appreciate this most addictive and beguiling of cities, it’s best taken one bite at a time.

Esquire stayed at Romeo Hotel, Via Cristoforo Colombo 45, 80133 Naples; +39 081 0175001; romeohotel.it

Photographs by Chris Leah

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