Grit, Grime, and the Best Pizza on Earth

The train from Rome Termini speeds south under blue skies. As we leave the city, a two-thousand-year-old aqueduct parallels the track for a kilometer or two, towering over freshly plowed fields before diverging and receding into the distance. Whatever else you can say about the Romans, they certainly knew how to leave a mark on the landscape.

The rest of the journey is through flat farmlands with an occasional ridge of low mountains leading toward the coast. Right before we reach Napoli the train passes through a long tunnel under the largest of these. On the other side, sunlight and, beyond the city, the colossal outline of Vesuvius, capped with snow and crowned with a wreath of clouds.

The train pulls underground as it arrives at Napoli’s central train station. The local connection to my hostel takes me out of the city along the coast, to the smaller, more residential fishing neighborhood of Portici. It’s dark by the time I get to my hostel, and the next seven days are mostly full of a cold driving rain that keeps me inside and out of any part of the city other than my immediate surroundings. It’s okay, though; I have work to do, and am in the middle of Hugh Laurie’s The Gun Seller, and it’s nice to spend some time relaxing in the shabby little fishermen’s bars, reading and listening to the rain outside.

Portici's fishing harbor, in a rare moment of blue skies

I avoid my hostel; it’s a massive structure with hundreds of beds and almost entirely empty, save for a genial local homeless man who’s been given a bed, and an earnestly intense young German with high cheekbones and a mullet that wouldn’t have been out of place at a hair metal concert thirty years ago, who spends his days on the hostel computer browsing online gardening catalogues, occasionally bursting out laughing at jokes there only he can see. When the bars close and I come back to work, it’s at a lone table in a huge empty hall that’s so cold I have to wear both my jackets.

Still, Napoli interests me, and rather than immediately heading back north, I book another week, this time at a hostel in the middle of the city. Portici’s nice, but it’s a half hour out of town and I’m itching for a more central location. So, on the first sunny morning since my arrival, I make my way to the Welcome Inn hostel, next to Napoli’s Archaeological Museum.

Inside the museum

I’m immediately at home. Unlike the industrial monstrosity in Portici, Welcome Inn is small, warm, and friendly. I spend my first day there exploring the city, which impresses me both with the dirtiness it’s famous for in the rest of Italy, and the beauty that shows through despite, or maybe because of, the grime that covers it. If Venice is a painted lady, Napoli is a drummer in a punk band, covered in tattoos and with a glare that says she’s not going to take any of your shit. The churches are covered in graffiti, young men crowd on sidewalks to smoke and talk, which in this party of Italy seems to require a lot of shouting and gesticulating. Skinny kids kick soccer balls across busy streets, using cars as moving goal-posts, and packs of Vespas pass each other on streets where even pedestrians have to make way for each other.

Needless to say, by the time I return to my hostel, I’m enchanted.

Back at my hostel that night, I meet two of the volunteers working there: Laura, who’s from Lithuania but has been studying in Scotland, and Alima from New York, who’s been here two weeks and is already conversant in Italian. My plan is to city-hop a week at a time through northern Italy toward Paris, where I have to be in a little over a month; they tell me I should ask the owner’s son if I can work in Napoli for that time instead. I say I’ll consider it, so they resort to a new tactic: taking me out to pizza.

And thus, my mind is blown. I thought I’d had pizza before, but I was wrong; Napolitan pizza is on a whole different plane of existence. Napoli takes its pizza seriously: the city has legislation in place that require ingredients to be fresh and the cooking to be done in a proper wood-fired oven. Not that the city’s famous pizzerias need the encouragement, as they’re already doing everything they can to outdo each other. This being Napoli, the pizza is cheap — for three and a half euro, you can get an entire margherita pizza, heaven on bread and topped with basil and mozzarella, which also originates in this part of italy. Finish one and you’re hardly able to talk, more from the sheer happiness than anything else.

A few days later I ask Davide, the owner’s son, if I can work a couple night shifts a week in exchange for free lodging.

“Sure,” he says, and just like that, I have a job.

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