Italy’s done, so you know what time it is? Photo time!
I actually didn’t even realize that there was a second city that was wiped out by the Vesuvius eruption that you could visit — Herculaneum, which is decidedly smaller than Pompeii, but definitely worth a visit.
It’s actually better preserved than that city, so it’s intriguing to explore; you get a slightly better sense of what the city was like pre-volcano-apocalypse.
Bonus: it’s about a billion times less crowded than Pompeii.
Also, if you want to see the grimmest thing imaginable, there are several little caves that have the preserved remains of some of the people who tried (and failed, obviously) to protect themselves from the volcano’s wrath.
I mentioned, in an earlier post, that I had some gelato from a place called Fantasia Gelati and that it might have been the best gelato I’ve ever had. I’ve been there a couple more times since then and I feel much more confident making that pronouncement.
I had dark chocolate on one visit, and hazelnut on another. Both flavours were fantastic — in particular, the chocolate was so intensely chocolaty that it practically made my knees buckle — but it’s the creaminess of the gelato that really strikes me as something special. It’s so creamy and smooth that it almost feels like a magic trick. Like… how is anything this creamy? I sort of figured the gelato would be better here, but that still kind of surprised me.
Obviously if you’re in Naples, you’ve gotta go to Pompeii — it’s a quick, cheap train ride away from the city, and it’s an interesting enough piece of history to be common knowledge around the world. You’d be crazy to miss it.
But of course, so would everyone else; the place is absolutely packed. It’s probably a good idea to wake up early in the morning for this one. I showed up at around noon, and the line just to buy tickets took a solid forty minutes.
Also: don’t do what I did. I somehow managed to misplace my ticket almost immediately after buying it. I checked all my pockets, panicked, then went back to the ticket booth and essentially accused the guy of giving me my change but forgetting to give me my ticket. This resulted in him hanging a “closed” sign on his ticket window (sorry, everyone behind me), then methodically counting his money and his tickets to make sure everything added up (it did, of course, because I’m an idiot).
So I wound up buying another ticket. I then promptly found my original ticket in my back pocket, because like I said, I’m an idiot. So I showed back up at the ticket booth with my most sheepish “tourists, am I right??” grin and explained that I had the original ticket all along. The guy stared at me with a look I can only describe as pure, unadulterated disdain.
He gave me my money back, though, so there’s that.
Anyway, Pompeii was absolutely amazing, though I’d recommend doing a tour of some sort. I elected to go tour-free, because I’m a cheapo, and regretted it almost immediately. I’m not generally a big tour guy — aside from the aforementioned cheapness, I like seeing things at my own pace. But as interesting as everything was, I feel like a little bit of context would have made it all the more fascinating.
Still, even without the tour, just wandering around the ruins and taking it all in is a truly indelible experience.
I’m not going to post about every pizza I eat, because that would get boring pretty fast (what’s that? It’s already boring? Tough but fair!).
However, just in case you think that every pizza in Naples is a mind-blowing, life-changing experience, it’s probably good to know that mediocre pizzas exist here too (though to be fair, mediocre for Naples would still be pretty damn good back home).
The pizza in question was from Pizzeria I Decumani, which is quite well-regarded — maybe they were having an off day? I ordered the margherita pizza, because I figure if I order a margherita everywhere I go, it’ll be easier to compare the various pizzas (also because they’re crazy delicious).
The biggest issue was the crust. There wasn’t as much char as the previous pizzas I’ve had, and it was much more crispy — borderline crunchy. I’m not exactly a pizza expert, so I might be wrong, but I suspect the oven wasn’t as hot as it should have been.
So it was a bit boring, texture-wise; just crunchy and slightly chewy, but without the depth that makes the better pizzas here so magical.
The cheese distribution was also a bit off — you can’t really tell from the picture, but the areas of the pizza that had cheese had a lot of cheese, which threw off the pizza’s balance.
Still, it was good — I ate the whole thing, and I’d eat another if you put it in front of me — it just wasn’t great. The little ball of uncooked fresh mozzarella was a nice touch.
But here in Naples, a pizza that’s just good actually kind of sucks. That’s what you get when the bar is so high.
In case you can’t read that sign, it says “Restaurante Gluten Free.” It actually deeply saddens me to see that the idiotic gluten-free trend has even managed to infect a city whose main culinary export (pizza) is pretty much a love letter to gluten.
And yes, I know, celiac disease is a real thing, but that condition affects less than one percent of the population. For everyone else who’s like “you know, the human body can’t actually digest gluten,” get the hell out of here. Humans have been cultivating and eating wheat for over ten thousand years. We can digest gluten just fine, thank you very much.
Thought Number One: I take back everything I said about the Madrid metro being overly confusing; at least I could eventually figure out where I was going if I stared at the map long enough. Trying to navigate the train/subway system in Naples is a true test of your mettle.
Between the lack of maps at most stations to help you get oriented, the stations and lines that are outright closed with no particular warning, the complete absence of anyone you can ask questions, and general sense of disorganization everywhere you go (I even saw locals looking confused a few times), it’s bad. I’ve never had this much trouble getting around such a big city. The whole system feels like it’s expressly designed to confound.
Thought Number Two: I like Naples so far, but boy is it rough around the edges. Setting aside the comically terrible transit system, everything outside of the really upscale/touristy areas are in various states of disrepair. It gives the place a bunch of character, and I haven’t really felt unsafe walking around anywhere, but so much of the city makes me feel like I’m in a Death Wish movie.
Everything is (comparatively) slick and clean if you’re in the aforementioned upscale/touristy areas, but if you wander even a little bit off the beaten path, you’re suddenly back in 1970s New York.
I was walking around after eating a pretty great pizza at Pizzeria Brandi, when I saw a huge crowd lining up for what appeared to be some kind of food. A bit of investigation revealed it to a place called Zia Esterina that’s actually really famous for their fried pizza.
If you’ve read my post about Las Fritas in Barcelona, then you’ll know I’m pretty much entirely powerless to resist a line for food. What’s at the end of that line? How delicious is it? I must know.
But… I just ate an entire pizza. I’m not hungry. I’m actually the opposite of hungry. What’s that again? Oh yeah: full. As in the state of being where you don’t eat a fried pizza like a moron.
I’ve said before that I’m not very smart. I’d like to reiterate that, if it’s even necessary at this point.
They have a few different combinations of fillings, but I went with the base model, which is tomato sauce, mozzarella and ricotta.
And I mean, it was good. How could it not be? Pizza is delicious. Fried things are delicious. That’s like a collision course of tastiness right there.
But it wasn’t great. Maybe it’s just the extreme fullness talking, but it lacked that perfect balance of textures and flavours that makes regular, non-fried Neapolitan pizza so remarkable. It was a bit sloppy, and though it had that crispy fried exterior, most of it was soggy from all the sauce and cheese. I basically enjoyed it, but it tasted enough like a regular pizza to make me wish I was eating that instead.
But I mean, I was ridiculously full, so maybe take my opinion with a grain of salt? It’s certainly popular enough.
Also: I absolutely do not recommend eating one of these after eating a whole pizza. I didn’t even manage to finish it — I got about two-thirds of the way through and then quickly chucked the rest before I’d have a chance to change my mind — and I was still profoundly, uncomfortably full (you can file that one under yeah, no shit, Sherlock).
Pizzeria Brandi claims to have invented the margherita pizza back in 1890 (though Wikipedia disputes that fact); true or not, a lot of people want to check the place out. It’s tourist overload. When I went, it was the most Asian people I’ve seen concentrated in one spot since coming to Europe.
Still, as jammed with tourists as it was (and it was jammed), how could I not go here? They invented the margherita pizza. If you love pizza and you don’t pay this place a visit, you’re doing it wrong.
I would have been happy to come here just for the history, even if it weren’t particularly good. But holy crap, it’s so good.
I talked a little bit about what makes Neopolitan-style pizza so great in this post, about a restaurant called Pizza & Contorni. As much as I liked the pizza there, I think I liked this one a little bit more; the crust was slightly lighter and fluffier, but without sacrificing that amazing chew.
Speaking of the crust, here’s something that made me way more enraged than it probably should have: the older couple at the table next to me ate the middle of their pizzas and left almost all of the amazing crust; it just sat there on their plates in a ring of failure until the waiter finally took them away.
I literally wanted to punch them both in the face.
Listen: this isn’t Little Caesars, you goddamned philistines. The crust at a place like this is huge part of what makes the pizza so great. Leaving it behind is like having a sundae and scraping all the toppings off the ice cream: i.e. it’s what morons do.
If you ever come to a real Neapolitan pizza joint, please eat all of your pizza, unless you want to enrage those around you (or just weirdos like me, I guess. I saw another person do this a bit later, and I know it seems like I’m joking around — and I kind of am — but I legitimately found it a bit upsetting. I’m still getting a bit worked up just thinking about it. The crust is so good, you guys).
If you’ll recall, a bunch of terrorist jerkfaces did their stupid jerk thing in Barcelona and kind of made me question my desire to stay in Europe.
Well guess what, jerkfaces? I’m still here. And boy am I glad I am, because I’ve been in Naples less than a day and can already tell that the food here is, in the immortal words of Guy Fieri, out of bounds.
I tried a couple of seriously delicious things just by randomly wandering around the Airbnb, which I have to imagine is a good sign.
First up: gelato. Gelato was everywhere in Portugal and Spain, but I purposely avoided it because I knew I’d be in Italy. May as well wait for the real deal.
I went to a place called Fantasia Gelati and tried a small cup of pistachio.
I can’t say conclusively that it’s the best gelato I’ve ever had (there’s a lot of great gelato in Toronto), but it’s certainly right up there. It was super creamy, with a really intense pistachio flavour and a perfect amount of sweetness.
Next up was pizza — I’m in Naples, after all. Pizza needed to happen immediately.
I ordered the margherita pizza at a restaurant called Pizza & Contorni. Margherita pizza is a very strong argument in favour of simpicity in food. It consists only of a very basic tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, a few basil leaves, and a little bit of extra virgin olive oil. That’s it — and yet, when done right (and they certainly did it right here) it has an amazing depth of flavour that belies its simplicity.
A lot of what makes this type of pizza so special is the amazing crust that you can only get from an oven that’s insanely hot (Neopolitan pizza ovens can get as hot as 1000 degrees). The crust winds up lightly crispy on the outside and satisfyingly chewy on the inside, with a slight bitterness thanks to the char from the blazing hot oven.
The version here was maybe a little bit too dense, but was otherwise pretty amazing. And again, I just stumbled across this place randomly.
I think I’m going to like it here.