A few years ago, I found myself sad and alone in Naples. Exactly why I was sad and alone is not the story here, but you should know the previous day I had waltzed into a hairdresser’s, and after much frenzied hand gesticulation, convinced the horrified staff to shave my head.
I was staying at the eccentric B&B Morelli 49, in the almost too posh for me Chiaia district. The owner Massimo spoke no English and I spoke almost no Italian. Unable to communicate with words, the 80’s memorabilia proudly decorating all of his rooms nevertheless meant we had the unspoken connection of childhoods awash with shoulder pads, fingerless gloves and Madonna. I had been filling my days visiting nearby Pompeii, Sorrento and Positano in an attempt to dodge the surprising May heat. But come early evening, I wandered Napoli’s streets searching for somewhere to eat.
Hunger ritually struck at 6pm, but back then I didn’t know Italian restaurants open late. So I’d sit on a park bench in the bayside Villa Communale, or on the steps of the Commune di Napoli in the Piazza Del Plebiscito. I’d watch Neapolitans going about their ritual evening walk, la passeggiata, and kids playing soccer while parents gossiped nearby. Most nights I’d make do with a take away arancini al ragu or a slice of pizza.
Ah, pizza. After five centuries of making it, Naples certainly knows what it’s doing. But delicious as it was, I craved something more.
Some people will tell you the way to discover fantastic food abroad is simply to follow the locals. Of course, if you follow Londoners, you’re likely to end up with a box of fried chicken or a sandwich and a packet of crisps, so it’s not exactly foolproof. Being hours too early each night for such discoveries in Naples, the smell of Massimo’s freshly baked breakfast cakes convinced me to try him for ideas instead. The next day I cornered him in the kitchen and mimed munching on my fingers, asking “mun-gee-ah-ray?” He winced, then gave me the business card of Pizza Margherita, which was just a short walk away along Via Riviera di Chiaia. Massimo insisted it was better than the more famous Pizzeria Brandi (which ironically invented Margherita Pizza in 1889).
As you can tell, our hand gestures had reached quite an advanced level by then.
My haircut had resulted in two days of wide-eyed looks from men on the street, so I braced myself for a similar reception at Pizza Margherita. On a side note, I can now say with some authority that if you’re finding the male attention in southern Italy a bit too much – shave your head. The stares won’t go away completely, but they will shift from leering to incredulous, which for me was much less confronting. But bless his shiny Gucci loafers, as I took a seat at one of the outside tables at Pizza Margherita, my waiter Luca showed no visible signs of distress.
I decided to choose my food by blindly whirling my finger at the menu and ordering whatever it landed on, because I wanted to be adventurous, but also because there were no English translations. After ordering my mystery wine and pasta, Luca tried to chat. When that stalled at the exchange of names, he resorted to the language of food. He brought me a plate of garlic dough-balls and a glass of bubbly Prosecco, then smiled when I pantomimed their deliciousness. But when my spaghattini di Gragnano al pomodoro e basilico came, I was disappointed to find that I’d ordered thick spaghetti with tomato sauce and cheese. Somehow I’d failed the daring eating in a foreign country test. Obviously my culinary blandness is so ingrained, not even foreign language can conquer it.
The night progressed, the Taurasi wine flowed, and it suddenly struck me as strange that Luca wasn’t dripping with sweat, running back and forth between tables in a black, three piece suit as he was. His brown, wavy hair had not the merest hint of the frizz-attack mine would have succumbed to, if I had any left. He stayed attentive and smiling, his gaze lingering, his hair perfectly bouffant. When the time came, Luca insisted he choose my dessert, eventually presenting it with a whispered “mi corazon”. The sponge cake, topped with tiny strawberries and blood red coulis, did indeed resemble a heart, but I wasn’t sure if he meant “this is my heart” or “I give you this from my heart”. Filtered through buckets of alcohol, the cheesiness of either translation didn’t register with me one bit. Neither did the fact that he’d just spoken Spanish.
To finish, Luca placed a large shot of southern Italy’s rocket-fuel Limoncello before me. Warning beeps suddenly blared. I thought it was my subconscious, but it may have just been the van across the road attempting to reverse park. So I gathered my few remaining brain cells and asked for il conto. After free bubbly, free nibbles, wine, Limoncello, a heart on a plate and undivided attention, I hurriedly left, albeit with a grin on my face and a very generous tip for Luca.