NAPLES - It appears all eyes in Antonio & Antonio, a popular seaside restaurant, are watching us as our “authentic” Neapolitan pizza arrives straight from the wood-burning oven. The locals are no doubt wondering if the visitors will commit the mortal sin of picking up the pizza with their hands, as North Americans are known to do, or eat it with a knife and fork, as is the custom in this ancient city that’s the gateway to southern Italy.
We’ve studied up on Neapolitan pizza etiquette and get an approving nod from the locals when we pick up our utensils and start carving up our pizza marinara, which melts like soft cheese in our mouths.
The pizza is a masterpiece — cheesy disks of bufala campana mozzarella blister atop a thin coating of San Marzano tomatoes, which grow at the base of nearby Mount Vesuvius. The edges of the tender, ultra-thin wheat flour crust are chard perfectly, thanks to the intense heat of the oven.
Above: The view of Mount Vesuvius from the Grand Hotel Parker’s Napoli.
Pizza making is an honoured tradition in this lovely city first settled by the Greeks in the second millennium BC. In fact, it was the Greeks who first covered their bread with oil, herbs and cheese, they just didn’t call it pizza.
In 2009, Naples got the European Union to pass a law protecting Neapolitan pizza from imitations. Now all pizzerias around the world are supposed to conform to this city’s strict pizza-making standards (see accompanying chart) if they use the term “authentic Neapolitan pizza” on their menu.
Naples, however, is so much more than pizza.
It’s a sophisticated city filled with grand piazzas, regal castles, ancient history, colourful villas that cling to volcanic cliffs overlooking a spectacular coastline, fabulous restaurants and lovely neighbourhoods that have changed little over the centuries.
From our base, the Grand Hotel Parker’s Napoli, perched high above the city, we get a stunning view of the harbour dotted with multi-million dollar yachts, the romantic Isle of Capri off in the distance and Mount Vesuvius, the giant volcano that rumbles to life every 100 years or so — the last one was 1944. Vesuvius’ most famous eruption, of course, was in 79 AD when it buried the nearby cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum with fiery ash that killed over 16,000 people. The ruins of those cities lie just a short train ride from downtown Naples.
Above: No mater where you are in Naples, Mount Vesuvius is always in view.
To get to Antonio & Antonio, we make our way down a set of steep public stairs from the hotel and through a labyrinth of narrow streets filled with quaint shops and local restaurants until we reach the port area, where we stumble upon a giant park known as the Villa Comunale. Here, tourists and locals wander the statue-filled grounds that eventually drift off onto the Via Partenope, the seaside street that hugs the Gulf of Naples. It’s in this area where most of the city’s major historic sites and traditional pizza restaurants are gathered.
After devouring our pizza and a plate of local fried vegetables, we explore the harbour area dominated by the Castel dell’Ovo, the oldest standing fortification in Naples. It’s the place where the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus was exiled in 474 AD — he lost a kingdom but was rewarded with a great view. It’s also on this spot that the Greeks first settled when they arrived. The area surrounding the castle is now lined with trendy tourist restaurants and chic hotels.
Around the corner, on the Via Nazario Sauro, we get out first uninterrupted view of mighty Mount Vesuvius, whose crater is shrouded in white puffy clouds. The waters separating the volcano from the city are filled with boats, ranging from ocean-going cruise ships to tiny slips. Closer to shore, dozens of locals are sunning themselves on the huge volcanic rock before jumping into the gentle surf.
Above: The main public square in Naples is full of ancient history.
Not far from this splendid scene we stumble upon the Via Console Cesario, the grand boulevard that leads us to the Piazza del Plebiscito, a handsome square dominated by the former Royal Palace and the semi-circular church of San Francisco di Paolo. Nearby stands some other imposing structures — the Palazzo Salemo and the Prefecture Palace, a former guest house that was in full use when the Royal Palace was occupied in the 17th century.
The Royal Palace was home to the Bourbon kings who once ruled this part of Italy and its facade is graced with a number of their likenesses, including Vittorio Emanuele. The palace’s main staircase is one of the most opulent in the country and the throne room remains its most beautiful chamber.
The church of San Francisco di Paolo is filled with lots of impressive statues made by the hands of some of Italy’s most famous artists, Cali and Finelli among them.
A short distance away is the Castel Nuovo, or Maschio Angioino, a medieval castle that is the symbol of Naples. The imposing 15th-century structure overlooks the town hall square (Piazza Municipio) and offers great views of the harbour.
Naples is a city of squares — some large but mostly small neighbourhood versions that are surrounded by lively cafés where locals stop for their morning espresso, a mid-day meal or an evening glass of wine. It’s in one of these cafés off the Piazza Amedeo where a server suggests we visit the city’s park-like Petraio area, where the Castel Sant’Elmo and the Certosa di San Martino sit perched overlooking Naples.
We hike up the slanted streets — bring good walking shoes when you visit Naples — until we reach the entrance of Castel Sant’Elmo, a fortified residence from the 13th century that now serves as a museum and exhibition hall. Next door sits the Certosa di San Martino, a former monastery that opened in 1368. It’s been converted into a museum featuring displays of Spanish- and Bourbon-era artifacts. Its Christmas Nativity scene is reputed to be the best in the world.
From here we get an amazing panoramic view of the city while enjoying another treat Naples is noted for, gelato. Offficina Gelati on Via Toledo is the best in the city, by the way.
You can take day tours that combine visits to Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii from your hotel, but with so much to see and do in Naples, you’d better budget lots of time if you want to see everything.
The wonders of the Amalfi Coast (Sorrento is truly gorgeous) are also just a short drive from Naples and a quick ferry ride will take you to lovely Capri, where designer shops and overpriced restaurants rule — which usually leaves most visitors with a bad impression of one of Italy’s most cherished destinations.
Other Naples landmarks that excite us include:
The National Archaeological Museum: This is truly a marvellous place full of things from Pompeii and Herculaneum, as well as a great collection of Roman art.
Capella Sansevero: This is home to the life-like Veiled Christ sculpture carved in 1753 by Giuseppe Sanmartino. The visual effect of this stature is truly amazing and some people swear it moves when they look at it. You be the judge.
Underground Naples: Just like Rome, Naples has an underground world just below its streets which you can tour. Lots of Roman and Greek ruins, including a fabulous market from Roman times under the lovely Lorenzo Maggiore church. This is one tour you MUST take!
Museo d’Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina: If you get tired of looking at ancient art, take a break at this lovely museum known locally as Museo MADRE. The displays of some of Italy’s best-known modern artists are very nice to look at.
The perfect Neapolitan pizza should be: No more than 3 millimetres thick / Must be baked for 60–90 seconds in a 485 °C (905 °F) stone oven with an oak-wood fire / When cooked, it should be soft, elastic, tender and fragrant / There are three official variants: 1- Pizza Marinara, which is made with tomato, garlic, oregano and extra virgin olive oil; 2- Pizza Margherita, made with tomato, sliced mozzarella, basil and extra-virgin olive oil; 3- Pizza Margherita Extra made with tomato, mozzarella from Campania in fillets, basil and extra virgin olive oil. / The best way to get to Naples from Toronto is with Alitalia via Rome. / The Grand Hotel Parkers is an historic property located in a prestigious area of Naples. U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer was sitting at the next table at breakfast one morning. Despite the high-end clientele, rates are very affordable and start around 160 euros a night. The hotel’s terrace offers guests amazing views of the city and the surrounding brilliance. For information, go to www.grandhotelparkers.it/index_eng.htm