Saturday morning, Rome. Sara and I board a 7:30 am Frecciarossa for Napoli Centrale. Sara has 2 sfogliatelle in mind. She is keen on making a back-to-back comparison in a study on the city’s most acclaimed pastry. When we arrive, we make a beeline for Sfogliatelle A at Carraturo: just out of the oven, a perfectly thick crust, ricotta still warm. It crumbles ever so slightly when I break off a piece, ricotta despairingly falling to the ground. Pardon my Italian faux pas but I am not a ricotta person. Instead, I offer moral support as I sip my intense caffe macchiato, a commodity of excellence in itself. Mental notes tallied, we head for Sfogliatelle B at Attanasio.
B is located nearly under the train tracks. It is slightly scruffier and I hold my bag close, the endless warnings of Napoli pick-pockets reverberating in my head. This crust has a definitive cinnamon flavor and it is slightly drier, perhaps less butter. Judging on crust alone, I prefer A. Neapolitans stream into the cafe, each in search of their morning sfogliatelle just out of the brick oven. More mental notes are made, and we are off to the mercato.
Carts everywhere, boxes of Sicilian oranges, round tubs of various cozze and vongole, and live octopus’ wrapping around mongers’ arms. A cigarette hangs out of one fishmongers mouth while the octopus wraps its legs around his forearm; he gesticulates with one hand, looking out past his customer down the street of vendors and uneven cobblestones with his eyes half-closed, a bit like Marlon Brando might have done if he played a Neapolitan. I am enamored of his nonchalance and his short rubber boots. He lets me take photos of him and his 8-legged friend. Spanish dance music mingles with the sounds of carts wheeling down the narrow lanes, Neapolitans yelling out their requests for this and that type of cut, a kilo of carciofi, a bag of garlic, maybe a kilo of the season’s first fave.
I have always been drawn to markets; they are the lifeblood of a city, a town, a village… the people are at their friendliest, their most thoughtful, their most patient and forthright. They know what they are looking for or they are open to inspiration. While some markets are neat and tidy, parallel rows of vendors or one neatly lined up after another, markets in Napoli are, needless to say, a bit more jolting. One vendor meshes into another. It feels almost as if I took a valium, and I am riding a wave through the streets. An old man has piled his produce on the hood of his car, 2 young men are yelling out fish prices in the corner of my eye, one crosses in front of me to forcefully unload a bucket of water which previously housed 10 dozen clams, and one Nonna Strega sits on a chair in the middle of the sidewalk with 3 carts of garlic, yelling and motioning god knows what with her hands. It is as if I have turned off the sound and turned it up at the same time.
From the market we head towards a V.I.P. (very important pizza) at Sorbillo. We stand at the door in anticipation of a Saturday hoard beginning at 11:30, and sure enough, by 11:45 we are fully surrounded by patient Neapolitans who know their pizza from their pizza. I chat with a woman who clearly has been here before; she and her husband were the first in line and I quiz her on which table is best. By 12, the 75 or so people are closing in on us, and we are barely able to step to the side to allow the restaurant to open its front door. A mad dash is made for the first seating, orders are taken, and one by one the margheritas glide by. With the trusted advice of previously mentioned Sorbillo expert and my new Neapolitan Nonna, I order the margherita with mozzarella DOP; a whopping 7 euro pizza compared to the normal 3.50. It is light as air, and the tomato sauce, so simple, is so divine I think I could drink it. My new Nonna calls to me from her table. ‘See?’ She motions to fold the pizza into thirds and then eat it. Then, one minute later, she calls to me again. ‘See?’ She points to the crust. ‘Don’t eat. You get:’ And she makes a big circle around her tummy with her hands. ‘Fat!’ Ah, the innate maternal instincts of southern Italians. After Nonna invites us to her house in Amalfi for Pasqua (and she really means it), Sara and I make room for the next seating at Sorbillo and we head down to the water to walk off our DOP. The day feels complete; we sfogliatelle-ed, mercato-ed, and pizza-ed. Well done, Napoli.