It is early on a Tuesday morning and Naples has not quite stirred from its night of rest. I stand between my friend Vincent Cerbone and my 15-year-old son Nick in the center of Piazza Trieste e Trento, where ballet and opera are staged year-round. Our backs are to the imposing splendor of the Palazzo Reale, in the very heart of this romantic city that has felt the sting of far too much pain down the centuries.
Vincent nudges me and smiles at a young couple embracing under the warmth of a slow-to-rise sun.
"Love and war have shaped the history of my city," he says. "When I was a child, I came here with friends after the planes had spent the night dropping heavy bombs, and we would look for shells that hadn't exploded and bring them to a safer place. So much death here in those years, so much destruction..."
Now 71, Vincent lives with his wife, Ida, in Long Island City, New York, where they run Manducatis, an award-winning Italian restaurant. But he returns to Naples each summer.
"My work is in America," Vincent says. He is short, always stylishly dressed, and quick to smile, his dark eyes shining when he is in mid-story.
"But my heart will always be here. How could it not be?"
One night, toward the end of World War II, his father off fighting on a foreign front, 13-year-old Vincent was dispatched by his mother to buy a loaf of black-market bread. He promised to be back within the hour, but the bombs began to fall on Naples and it would be morning before he made his way home. He arrived at the place where he had lived and found nothing but rubble and ruin.
"I dropped the bread and moved aside the rocks and bricks," he says. "Then I saw them. My mother was holding my two sisters in her arms, the three of them no longer with a war to worry about. I don't remember anything else about that day. But I am not the only one with such a story to tell. All Neapolitans learn from an early age that tears are as much a part of life as laughter. We live our days filled with such drama and comedy that it has become as important a part of the city as any church or monument. It is what makes the people in Naples so special."
Vincent stretches his arm around my shoulder and smiles.
"Come, my friend," he says. "It is time for me to show you my city.."
I have been to Naples many times but I've experienced it more as a tourist than as a native, a warm place to stop for clothes, a fine meal, and a night of song at an outdoor cafˇ. With Vincent and his driver, Salvatore Ebra, as my eyes, I know that my son Nick and I will see the true Naples. They do not disappoint me.
We have planned a three-day walk-and-drive tour of this, among the most underrated cities in Italy. It is the country's best-kept secret, one of those places that you visit not just to see the sights, but to meet the people. Walk into any shop, sit in any restaurant, stroll down any street, and you will hear animated stories, and lush, romantic ballads blow past you like a cool spring breeze.
Neapolitans are born entertainers who love to perform. Speaking in their fast-forward dialect, they seem to become more energized as the day grows longer and the sunlight gives way to shadow. Their hands and eyes come alive as they spin great yarns or sing sad songs. Gossip is as important an industry to Naples as is commerce and tourism. And so the streets are always filled with people talking -- arguing over a lost soccer match or the latest political upheaval.
"It is a living museum," Vincent says to me as we walk past Villa Pignatelli, which contains a collection of antique carriages and, to me, resembles what our White House would look like if it were designed by an Italian.
"Naples is a museum not only of art and sculpture and artifacts, but of people. A great city is made by its people."
We cross against the heavy-on-the-gas street traffic. The drivers curse and howl at every red light, regarding each as a personal affront -- yet one more obstacle to overcome in a day filed with frustration. We stop at the Cafˇ Gambrinus, one of the oldest bars in the ancient city. Its rush-hour customers are two deep at the counter, jump-starting their morning with quick slurps of rich coffee.
"Look at them all," a traffic officer says, resting his coffee cup on an empty table and pointing across the street at a squadron of bumper-to-bumper cars, a trail of pained faces waiting behind the steering wheels.
"They would rather have an accident than sit for two minutes while the light changes."
"Maybe if you let them see you," Vincent says, "they'll settle down."
"Maybe if they see me, they'll run me down," the officer replies.
We move from Villa Pignatelli and head toward the long street the locals call Spaccanapoli (which means
"split Naples"). The city is a mixed bag of imposing structures that have endured the test of centuries and newer, much blander buildings -- mostly apartment complexes that replaced the bombed-out ruins of World War II. It is almost impossible to walk for more than two blocks without happening on a church built in a distant time, filled with mourning, elderly women dressed in black, hands folded, heads bowed in prayer.
"Why do they pray so much?" my son asks Vincent.
"It is a habit of the poor," he answers. "They don't pray for wealth or riches. They know that such things are beyond their reach. They pray for simple things. Like a sunny day, a good meal, and health for their families."
We reach the Spaccanapoli, a street that crosses Piazza del Ges¯ Nuovo and that has seven names as you navigate from east to west. It is lined with stores selling pizza, violins, statues of saints, used clothes. Laundry hangs from clotheslines. Scooters zoom past tall, crowded tenements. This has always been a poor neighborhood, and if you do not spend time here, you have not experienced Naples.
A thin man, tall and elegant, stands outside a clothing store and waves me toward him.
"You look to be in need of a suit," he says as I approach.
"The boy as well."
"It's too hot for a suit," I say, looking past him at the window display of handwoven jackets and slacks designed in sleek Italian patterns.
"The weather will change," the man says with a slight shrug.
"And you will still need a suit."
"When he does," Vincent says with a graceful tilt of his head,
"my friend will know who to see."
"That is all I can ask on such a fine day," the man says.
"To be remembered."
As we stroll up Via delle Stella, a short distance from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale -- a trove of Greek and Roman antiquities, many taken from the ruins of Pompeii -- I watch as women move past. They walk with confident strides, shoulders back, hair loose and hanging off their shoulders. They are oblivious to the onslaught of age, secure in who they are and how they look. Their beauty is a reflection of southern Italian mystique -- olive skin, spend-the-night eyes, and a smile that can hypnotize.
"I fall in love a hundred times a day." Salvatore says to my son, nudging him gently in the ribs as a tall, shapely brunette in a blue dress passes.
"Every man in this city does. Even the blind can relish the beauty that surrounds us."
Naples revolves around food. The crowded tables of the city's best restaurants -- from Ciro a Mergellina to La Cantinella to La Bersagliera -- are a pleasant mix of chatter, business and family decisions all taken in the warmth of an afternoon meal. The birthplace of pizza, pasta e fagioli, and linguini with clam sauce, Naples serves peasant food fit for the taste buds of royalty.
"It is a cuisine centered in poverty," Vincent says. "It takes very little money to make the best Neapolitan meals -- lentils and hot sausage over a bed of macaroni; vine-ripe tomatoes, red onions, basil and tuna in a heavy olive oil; steak pizzaiola. All be made quickly and economically. Even the salads come with only two kinds of dressing: olive oil with lemon or olive oil with red wine vinegar." All of which combines to make Naples one of the least expensive cities in Europe to enjoy a great meal.
"Our food is improvised," Vincent continues, "forcing the cook to make use of what he has and what he can buy at very little cost. We cook with fish that some cultures discard -- squid, eel, anchovies, sardines, miniature clams, and mussels. The cuisine is easy -- pasta with hot oil, parsley, cooked garlic, and hot pepper becomes a meal. It's a simple food filled with substance. You don't need money to make it. You need heart and soul and passion and love."
That afternoon we wander over to Di Matteo's, one of the city's prime pizzerias. A man outside gestures with a smile and a nod for us to enter.
"Is this where President Clinton came to have pizza when he was in Naples?" I ask.
The man's eyes light up and his smile widens.
"Do you know what he had and why?" he says.
"All I heard was he had a pizza while he was in Naples," I say.
"And he had it here."
"Clinton is a student of history," the man replies, leaning closer but speaking louder.
"And if you are a student of history there is only one type of pizza to have. The Margherita. Do you know why?"
"Tell me," I say.
"Up until the 1700s, pizza, as we know it, was a peasant dish," the man says.
"After all, what is it but dough, olive oil, and tomatoes? It was what the poor lived on. Then Queen Margherita, God rest her saintly soul, decided to try this meal her people ate every day of their lives. And you know what she did?"
"She loved it," I prompt. "And came back for more."
"Not only that, my American friend," the man says.
"She improved it. She added fresh mozzarella and basil, giving the pie the same colors as the Italian flag -- red, white, and green. She took a simple pie and turned it into a work of art. Find me a queen today that can do that."
"Do you have a chef inside who can match that?" Vincent asks.
"You will find none better in all of Naples," the man boasts, chest pumped with pride.
"The this is where we will eat and drink," Vincent concludes.
"In honor of the queen."
Later, as we walk the narrow streets, we are engulfed by the sounds of song: Neapolitans worship their ballads, lyrics ripe with sadness and melancholy, and sing them freely. The lilting voices come from middle-aged women hanging their wash, young men mingling melody with offers of farm-fresh fruit and homemade cheese, children walking with arms linked on their way to and from school. Neapolitans sing whether they are happy or sad. They sing while they sip their strong morning coffee or relax with a late-night glass of Fernet
Branca. "Throughout our history, other cultures have tried to take everything away from us," says Salvatore.
"But the one thing they could never take was our music. That has always been ours."
During my visit I kneel in prayer at the Guglia di San Gennaro, dedicated to the patron saint of Naples who, legend has it, protected its people during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1631. I gaze at five of Caravaggio's finest works, pass a building where Rossini wrote his greatest operas, and see the stone house where Eduardo De Filippo, Italy's celebrated comic actor, writer, and director was born. I also revisit the streets of Pozzuoli, the birthplace of actress Sophia Loren, and pass the buildings where she and the great comic Toto filmed Vittorio De Sica's The Gold of Naples.
"The greatest comics in Italy have come out of Naples," Vincent tells me as we walk on Via Toledo, the city's most famous street, where you'll find some of the world's best chocolates (at Gay Odin) and miniature sfogliatelle (a hard, crunchy, shell-shaped pastry).
"Which I always have found ironic given how filled with tragedy our years here have been."
Shopping in Naples takes an adventurous spirit and a lawyer's cunning. Everything -- from sneakers to furniture to a frying pan -- is open to barter. Often, if you don't haggle, you'll be labeled naive and a tourist. But prepare to be humbled. On Via Carlo Poerio, passing the various shops that offer the latest Italian fashions, I spot a pair of shoes in a small boutique. I bring my group to a halt.
"My wife would love those," I say.
"Dad, be careful," Nick warns. "You're not very good at this kind of thing."
"I was born to do this," I brag. "It's in my blood. Besides, I have Vincent and Salvatore to back me up. What could go wrong?"
The four of us step into the small shop. Three young women work the store, the owner standing behind the register.
"I'd like those shoes you have in the window," I say in my best Neapolitan.
"The blue ones."
"You have a good eye," the owner says, her thick strands of hair obscuring one side of her face.
"They are for his wife," Vincent says, adding his charm and smile to the mix.
"Then your friend is married to a very lucky woman," one of the salesladies says, reaching behind me for the shoes.
"To have a man who loves her so much that he would buy her such a beautiful gift."
"You should find out how much they are," my son says to me in English.
The owner nods at my son and smiles. "They are on sale," she says to him. Her grasp of a second language is critical in a city so dependent on visitors.
"Your father can have them for only 120,000 lire."
"That's more than we want to spend," Vincent says, shaking his head sadly.
"I'm afraid my friend will not be able to please his wife."
"I could go down to 100,000 lire," the owner counters, holding her smile.
"I won't make any money, but at least I will make the boy's mother happy."
"I was thinking more like 40,000," Salvatore offers.
"It seems fair."
"Good thing you don't sell shoes," the owner replies.
"You would starve."
As I stare down at the shoes, I'm tempted to reach for my wallet. "I don't know," I say cautiously.
"I didn't think they would cost that much."
"Eighty thousand," the owner says. "If I go any lower you might as well steal them."
I calculate quickly -- at 36 U.S. dollars, I figure I've won the battle of the barter.
"Okay," I say with a smile. "I'll take them."
"Sold," the owner says after several moments of thought.
"But no refunds. Buy the shoes and leave with them."
"My wife's in America," I tell her. "I couldn't get a refund even if I wanted one."
"Trust me," the owner says. "No woman in America will have shoes like your wife."
While the owner wraps the shoes in paper and a silk knot, I turn and look down at my son.
"Not bad, right?"
"We'll see," Nick says and goes to wait outside.
We exchange hugs and handshakes, and the women wish me a pleasant stay and a safe trip.
A week later I sit on a couch in my living room and watch as my wife unwraps the shoes. She puts them on the floor, stares at them, then looks up at me.
"I can't wear these," she says.
"You don't like them?"
"They're beautiful," she answers. "I just can't wear them."
"They're both for the right foot," she says, holding them up to show me.
"There's no shoe for the left foot."
I rush to call Vincent in Italy.
"That's great," he says, laughing through each word.
"That's brilliant. And you know what else that is?"
"What?" I ask.
This article originally appeared in the
November/December 2001 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER magazine.