Away from the dark world of the Camorra, the city’s real innocence and romance shine through – whether in the family-run restaurants, selling locally caught fish as they have done for generations, or the young couples kissing on Vespas in nearby beauty spots.
Places are meant to have a pulse, aren’t they? Cities have a heartbeat and hum you a tune, they say. Naples sings to the buzz of the Vespas on its streets, clicks its fingers to the crash of crockery and chatter of waiters in its restaurants and brags and sings and laughs down at the docks and the market, outside churches and ice-cream parlours, from within calm, wrought-ironed courtyards, in bars, on boats. From Bagnoli to Vesuvius, it’s never quiet in the Bay of Naples.
The blood that courses – and it courses – through the heart of the city is chaos. Slick, Swiss-trained concierges and brine-fingered fishmongers say so: “caotico” is the Italian adjective most often employed to describe the place; it’s a word blurted immediately and smilingly when Neapolitans are asked to talk about their city. This is both a condemnation and a celebration wrapped up inside an exclamation, for Neapolitans know that there’s charm in chaos. It’s the grit in the oyster that makes the pearl – and they know a bit about seafood around here.
At the Ristorante Rosiello, on the snaking via Santo Strato, the Rosiello family have been serving insalata di polpo, linguine vongole and spaghetti granchi for three generations, since 1933. The current napkin-bearing Rosiello, Salvatore, waves at the bay to show us where our lunch was caught. His restaurant is perched on the seaward side of Posillipo – the verdant, volcanic-soiled, vineyard and villa-strewn headland that’s been home to the elite since the Greeks found their Neápolis (“new city”) about 2,600 years ago. But 1933 is nothing: many Neapolitan family businesses have been busy cooking, tailoring, fishing, ferrying, church-building, grape-crushing and murdering for centuries. This is another thing – the families. Walk into a restaurant or a garage (I did, just to check) and the apprentice will be a younger model of the manager. Chefs and waiters are cousins; the grease-monkey and the forecourt supervisor are father and son. Bonds are strong, and keeping it in the family is the natural way.
In Naples, everything faces the sea. You would too if you were a building. Glaring down on the elegant palazzos of Posillipo are the raised-hackle terraces and squat tower blocks of Soccavo and Fuorigrotta – dense paragraphs of contemporary Italian life, stubborn as the hill-rock. Noisy, ambitious, criminal, complex, and beautiful in the sunshine. Much of Naples is old: Medieval, then Renaissance-schooled and bourgeois-financed. It’s the architecture of mercantile success, with a haughty Bourbon streak (Naples was Spanish and French until Italy’s unification in the 19th century). Rococo flourishes between the baroque façades of standard Med villa piazzas; Modern outcrops mingle with flashes of Gothic borrowed from San Gennaro, the principal cathedral. The buildings reflect the Neapolitans that built them; catholic, the taste, meets Roman Catholic, the faith.
There’s a good view of all this from the churchyard of Sant’Antonio A Posillipo, a “beauty spot” (so now, naturally, a car and coach-park) that looks over Mergellina – the small, swish marina where the weekenders’ boats bubble through the shallows before roaring off to Capri and Ischia. (The journey there takes 20 minutes if your hull’s sleek enough, your cargo svelte enough and your outboard man enough; 40 if you pleb it on the hydrofoil; and an hour and a half if you slo-mo it on the ferry.) From the churchyard you can see from Posillipo to Vesuvius, where the eye is drawn naturally after a tour of the bay. The volcano exerts a magnetism, because… well, who knows how sleepy it really is? It’s still used as a local weathervane (“if it’s cloudy over Vesuvius, it’ll rain tomorrow”, they say). It sounds a bit threatening and theatrical and local but it came true on this visit – and anyway, folklore suits this city.
Before coach-parties and cameras, beauty spots were solely owned by courting couples, and teenagers and twenty-somethings can still be seen everywhere, kissing on Vespas, like an Italian lesson in romance. In car-parks, at traffic lights, in lay-bys, under the shade of roadside trees, in piazzas, churchyards; leaning against sunlit walls and propped on unprepossessing tracks leading to construction sites. In Naples it might be illegal to kiss someone and not be on a scooter, or adjacent to one, or using the vehicle as a divan-like aid to passionately but respectfully (this is where the Catholic meets the Roman Catholic, after all) romance your love.
The murdering, though – that’s got a bit much. Killing is big business here, and a family one too. Naples’ reputation as the city that invented pizza; the harbour where you glam it to Capri; the local catch; Caravaggio and Bernini – the great things about this place have always been overshadowed by the spectre of organised crime. This is also the Naples of Roberto Saviano’s Gomorrah. Last year, when a Camorra hitman dispatched a target in a busy Neapolitan street and witnesses refused to cooperate for fear of reprisals, it illustrated how little things have moved on. This year, the Italian press alleged that the famous wood-fired pizza ovens of Naples were being fuelled in part by stolen coffin wood – used coffins, though. As in, dug up. The piles of trash left festering by the roadsides two years ago due to a Mafia-run waste-disposal racket were an impromptu monument to the power of the crime bosses. Like any city, in Naples there are places you just don’t go. But then you wouldn’t want to, and a cab wouldn’t take you there.
Down in Quartiere Chiaia, Salvatore the fishmonger has parked his Ape, the three-wheeled vans named “bees” for their buzzing engines, on via Cavallerizza. It’s laden with octopus, shrimp, snapper, striped bass and pezzonia, a local favourite. Fulvia, a handsome regular customer in her seventies, plans to cook her fish with oil, garlic and tomatoes and serve it with bread. “This dish is too simple to have a name,” she says. “It’s from Naples. It’s about the fish, the oil, the garlic and the tomatoes. There it is,” she says, holding up her bag. It is what it is.