By: Ya-Roo Yang

I went to England once. I lost seven kilos in seven days, said my taxi driver, holding up seven fingers, taking his hands off the wheel as the car careered down the narrow highway. If you want to stop a Neapolitan from eating, take him to England or France.

Such is the sentiment of Neapolitans when it comes to food and everything else for that matter. Everyone from taxi drivers to the grocery keepers and hotel housekeepers has an opinion, and no one is shy about sharing it. Even Americans who have lived in Naples for some time are not immune.

There are three things you must eat when you go there, said my friend Michael, who lived in Naples when he served in the Navy. “Pizza, Mozzarella di Bufala and Panne Napolitano. If you don’t, I swear, I’ll never speak to you again!” This went along with a list of museums, churches, squares and markets that I must visit. He also warned me about the safety of the city: Be careful, and keep your wits about you. He was only the fourth person to say so. “Have you seen that movie Gomorrah” was the typical response I got from friends when I announced that I wanted to go to Naples.

For most people, this would have been enough to dissuade them from the trip. For me, organized crime, mafia and garbage were minor issues when there is pizza, fresh seafood and lemons so sweet you can eat them on top of a salad with a bit of sugar. So, on a bright Sunday morning, my friend Gwen, an American living in Rome, and I boarded a train from Rome’s central station and headed south.

The relatively short ride left us at the train station in Piazza Grimaldi where we caught a cab to the Hotel Vesuvius. An establishment frequented by the glitzy set of Italy, it is decorated in a style that may once have been termed opulent but is now decidedly, sadly, run down. Think reception room of a typical funeral home and you won’t be far off. Nonetheless, our room had a direct view of the Castel Dell Ovo with Mount Vesuvius to one side and an expanse of silvery grey sea as back drop. We settled in and proceeded to look for someplace to have lunch.

You can find some nice restaurants around the castle, said the pretty blonde concierge behind the desk, pointing across the street. Gwen and I looked at each other and thought the same thing: no way. Castle-tourist attraction-tourist restaurants-bad food. Ok, try again. This time we were told that Pizzeria Brandi is the place to go. It doesn’t have an address, but it’s somewhere here, the concierge drew a dot on the map with her ballpoint pen.

We spent the next half hour turning around the same three corners on Via Toledo while teenagers buzzed around us on mopeds like flies on steroids. In the end, we asked someone for directions and were shown the way. It was one of the few places that was open on Sundays, our impromptu guide told us, but he too, had an opinion he felt compelled to share: Da Michele makes better pizza.

Pizzeria Brandi is located on a street with uneven paving stones, huge potholes and crumbling buildings decorated with colorful graffiti. I’ve never been to Iraq after the American colonization but this is what I imagine it would look like. In fact, apart from the central shopping district, a good part of Naples makes me feel that way.

For all its trappings once you enter, that is of a tourist destination (the leather bound menu comes in four languages and half the tables were taken up by American couples and Japanese guys with big cameras), Pizzeria Brandi does turn out delicious pizzas: nice warm crusts that are slightly chewy and thin centers of piping hot garlicky sauce and gooey melted cheese studded with olives and slivers of anchovies. Later I found out that it was the place where pizza margherita was invented, with the tomatoes, basil and cheese forming the three colors of the Italian flag. If you visit, ask to be seated on the ground floor by the pizza oven rather than the airless upstairs room where all the tourists are whisked away.

The next day, we walked around and had piadine (folded sandwiches) and arancini (fried rice balls) for lunch. The street food in this city is made for fried food lovers. There is pizza fritta (fried pizza dough stuffed with ham and cheese), crochette di patate (fried potato croquettes), and zeppole (fried dough scented with orange blossom and smothered in honey) for dessert. If you want to get off the fried food trail, there are all sorts of pastries and gelato places to pick from. We bought some sfogliatelle (lobster tail shaped pastry filled with ricotta cheese) from a little pastry stand called Mary’s near Teatro San Carlo and ate it on the tiny hotel balcony.

That evening, we went to Rosiello, a lovely restaurant on top of a hill with a spectacular view of the city in the ritzy section of Naples. The kitchen made an assortment of appetizers that included lightly battered fried calamari, which I loved, huge round balls of buffalo mozzarella, which I dind’t love-the rubbery texture is kind of creepy (although I can see why people rave about them), eggplants cooked beautifully with tomatoes and tender savory braised octopus. We watched with envy as the serving staff showed the family at the next table the local catch to be grilled and later it appeared dressed in a tomato sauce. Although the fish looked tempting, for an entree I went with a simple pasta vongole (with clams) and Gwen had the creamy seafood risotto that was every bit as good as the reviews we had read had promised.

By the third day, we both had had enough of gritty Naples and our feet ached from walking on uneven paving stones. So we decided to hop on a boat headed towards Sorrento. The chilly March weather was still too cold for most Italians, but the pretty city lined with lemon trees was already swarming with British and Dutch tourists. Wandering around the narrow alleys of Sorrento, we were plied with copious amounts of limoncello from shops hawking their goods. I bought a dish for serving cheese from a local potter and a large bag of lemons for my own culinary curiosity.

Back in Naples, we both wanted more pizza. The line outside Da Michele at 10:30pm rivaled those of Momofuku at 7pm in New York City. Decked out Italian teenagers rubbed elbows with tourists clutching copies of Eat, Pray and Love under their arms. Inside the tiled florescent-lit eatery are long tables packed with people all happily digging into their pizzas. For the crowds it draws, Da Michele only serves two kinds of pizza: pizza with tomato sauce and pizza with tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. However, the pizza is undoubtedly one of the best I have ever had. The free-form crust was slightly charred on the outside, giving it a delicate smoky crispness, and the faintly yeasty dough had just the right hint of salt. The richly flavored tomato sauce made me think of glorious late-summer sun, and the creamy mozzarella counterbalanced it perfectly. And all for the incredibly reasonable price of 3.50 euros. The maitreed told me that all the staff in the restaurant is related, and they are the third generation to run the business.

On our last day, instead of trying to cram in a gourmet lunch, we took a taxi out to the nearby sleepy village of Pozzoulli. The fish market there had two rows of stalls with fisherman hawking their catches: octopus stretched out in little round plastic tubs, crayfish that rattled in their boxes, little calamari, silvery flounders and pink stingrays that shone against the pale grey chipped ice. We drove down to the wharf where the day’s catch can be had for a few euros off the bright blue fishing boats. Men in tweed jackets and women in wool coats haggled with the fishermen for the price of fish that swam in pails of water. It’s the kind of scene that makes you want to rent an apartment nearby and cook all day.

On the way back to the train station, we asked our taxi driver where we could eat some of the fresh fish sold in the market. He took us to Trattoria Enzo Castillo, a restaurant off the main drag of Via Toledo where children play in the street. After calling his wife to watch his car from her window, he exchanged a few words with the waiter. A beautiful plate of octopus salad appeared before us, and it was more than perfect.

About the author: Ya-Roo is a healthcare analyst by day and food writer by night. She lives in the East Village with her dog.

Restaurant addresses:

Pizzeria Brandi
Salita Sant’Anna di Palazzo 1
at the corner of Via Chiaja, Quartieri Spagnoli
Tel: 081-416928

Via Santo Strato 10
Tel: 081-7691288

L’Antico Pizzeria Da Michele
Via Cesare Sersale 1-3, 5-7
at the corner of Via P. Colleta
Tel: 081-5539204

Trattoria Enzo Castillo
Family-run Trattoria behind a wine shop; look for the vini e oli sign.
Vicoletto Rosario A Portamedina, 25 *
80134 Naples (NA)
tel: +39-081-5522248