The Food, Fun, and Foibles of a First-Time Europe Traveler

Rome

Napoli: Get in, Get Pizza, Get Out

This made it all worth it.

Every couple has things that they love. For some couples it may be the beach. Others may stop at nothing to enjoy the theater or go to the symphony. For my fiancée Hanna and I, that love is food. Wherever we go we try to get the best, most unique food possible. We always say that we will stop at nothing to get the best food. In Naples, that theory was truly put to the test.

The plan was easy enough: take a day trip from Rome to Napoli, eat lunch and dinner there in order to sample the best pizza in the world. Our first red flag came when we mentioned to Hanna’s cousin Pauline that we wanted to go to Napoli. “No! Don’t go to Napoli!” she screamed. She and her husband Olivier continued to attempt to dissuade us over dinner, saying that Napoli was dirty, dangerous, and ugly. However, when we pressed them, they had to admit that the food was tremendous.

That was enough for us, and we decided to go through with our plan.

The trip started off on the wrong foot. We got a train from Rome to Napoli and we arrived just outside Napoli Centrale station on schedule. Suddenly, we came to a screeching halt. There we waited for several minutes…and then several minutes more…and then several minutes more. There were a couple of announcements, but they were in Italian and my Italian from freshman and sophomore year of college wasn’t helping much. We heard a couple of old men talking back and forth and I managed to pick out “Napoli…sempre Napoli…” which made me think that this wasn’t the first time trains were delayed going into Naples. Finally they came on and said that “no trains are leaving Napoli Centrale due to a manifestation.” Again, they need to work on their translations.

Not quite sure what a “manifestation” was, we assumed it was a strike and prepared to wait for a while. After about an hour wait, they finally said we would proceed to Aversa. So we figured it was a sign that we weren’t supposed to go to Naples (frankly it was a relief). So we prepared to get out there, spend the day in a new and interesting city, and come home.

Much to our surprise, the train rolled right past the Aversa station and 10 minutes later we were pulling into Napoli Centrale. At this point we had seen the dirty buildings covered in graffiti that led into the Napoli station. We saw this kind welcome and we were almost convinced to simply get off the train and onto the next one back to Rome. But no, we came here for pizza and we weren’t going to be intimidated out of it.

We stepped off the train at about noon to two men in a shouting match. We have no idea why they were upset, but they sounded like they were going to kill each other. We avoided them as much as possible and continued walking (quickly) to the end of the platform. There we got our next surprise, a team of 6 or 7 policemen, complete with riot gear! Full plastic shields, batons, facemasks…everything intended to welcome tourists to their great city. It was then that we imagined that “manifestation” might mean “protest” and that the squad was there to break up a rally.

According to our book, there was supposed to be a tourism center in the train station, but when we walked to where we figured it should be, we saw nothing but an empty room with cinder blocks and dust everywhere. We were on our own.

We walked out of the side of the train station and looked in our book for which pizza place we wanted to try to get to. We picked one and looked at the map. Nope…too far. We decided to just go with the closest one, L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, so we could just get in, get pizza, and get home.

We figured out where to go, and we walked away from the station through mobs of seedy-looking characters who had goods but looked like they had no interest in selling us anything. We walked across the intersection (an interesting experience in itself) to find a police car with several cops around it ushering 20-30 members of a shanty town out of the area. The area outside the train station reminded me of Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles, where we had accidentally driven through one night. It was scary, and we walked as fast as we could, hoping to find the pizza place without getting robbed…or worse.

Striking resemblance.

We got to where we thought the place should be and turned right to pull off the main street and check the map. Fortune was truly on our side, since that happened to be the exact street the pizza place was on. We saw the long line outside and knew we were in the right place. We walked up to the door and looked in the window only to see a photo of, of all people, Julia Roberts. Apparently this is the pizza restaurant she goes to in the “Eat” portion of Eat, Pray, Love.

The next task was figuring out how to order. Once we got inside there was an old man in the front at a cash register. He was wearing a full suit, so we figured he was the guy to see. We were ready to make our order (some places in Italy you order first, then take your receipt to the counter where they give you your food), when we saw the person in front of us signal a “three” on his hand. The guy wrote down a “3” on a piece of paper and gave the guy a green piece of paper with a number on it. When it was our turn I signaled “2” and received my green piece of paper with the magical number 51 on it. We went and stood outside with everyone else, assuming that the guy would come out and yell when our number was up. Sure enough, he came out and yelled “36”…it was going to be a while.

The line moved surprisingly fast and we were sitting down in less than an hour. The tables, like many in Italy, are basically long family-style tables. We were seated next to two young Italian men who looked like they had been there before. The waiter came by and asked for their order first, then ours.

The menu at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is not complicated. They have two types of pizza, Margherita and Marinara, the difference being that Margherita has mozzarella cheese on it while the Marinara does not. You can get either pizza in a small or medium, and you have the choice of getting the Margherita “normale” or “doppia”.

The two young men next to us each ordered a “doppia,” which meant a Margherita pizza with double mozzarella cheese. He then came to us and Hanna said we wanted Margheritas. He asked “normale o doppia?” and, thinking of how much cheese we had eaten in the past few weeks, I answered “normale.”

As he walked away, the two guys next to us shook their heads. We looked at them and they said “doppia!” as if we had just made a mistake. Luckily the waiter double-checked our order before he gave it to the kitchen, and we were able to change the order to two doppias.

Their pizza arrived before ours and they dug in as if it was the first food they had seen in weeks. They tore the pizza apart, literally (Italian pizza does not come sliced; you have to cut it yourself with a knife and fork), and they were each done with half by the time ours came about five minutes later.

Wanting to prove that I had learned my lesson, I followed their example and started eating right away. I was somewhat apprehensive because I had watched the pizza come out of the oven (about five feet from where we were sitting) a few minutes ago, and I hate burning my mouth on food, especially hot cheese that sticks to the roof of your mouth. The pizza wasn’t too hot; in fact it was absolutely perfect…which gave me a chance to appreciate the taste.

After our first bite, Hanna and I each looked at each other with “that look.” It was the same look we gave each other when we tasted the foie gras ravioli at L’Atelier in Las Vegas, the same look we gave each other when we tasted the tacos from Loteria at the Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles, the same look we gave each other when we tasted the fried rice at House of Nanking in San Francisco. Suddenly we didn’t care that we had been delayed two hours on the train or that we had walked through dirty, smelly, trash-ridden streets hoping not to get mugged. There, in one glorious instant, we knew that this was the best pizza we had ever eaten. And that made it all worth it.

It all started with the crust, a perfect char on the outside with a moist, salty sweet dough on the inside. Next came the sauce…easily the best pizza sauce I have ever tasted. It wasn’t thick like the sauce we have Stateside, but rather a liquidy, almost watery texture that made a delicious “pizza soup” in the center of the plate. On top of that were tiny balls of mozzarella and a few leaves of basil in the middle of the pizza. This came as a surprise because in American Margherita pizzas, the basil is much more prominent.

We looked over and saw the guys next to us finishing up their pizzas, folding it New York style and eating it like slices. I found it easier to just cut out little pieces and eat them with the fork. I didn’t seem to draw any critical looks for my method, so I continued.

I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten so fast in my life. I was halfway through the pizza before I came up for air. At that point, the two guys next to us were trying to get the waiter’s attention to order one more “doppia.” Oh to be young.

Towards the end of our pizzas, I looked over at Hanna and saw the combination of too much mozzarella cheese and eating much too quickly start to get to her. She took a little breather as I finished mine up, but of course she powered through it and finished hers as well. She never would have forgiven herself had she left something on the plate. Of course, with me sitting across from her, nothing would have gone to waste.

Pure joy.

We looked at pictures later that night and it brought on the typical Pavlovian response of salivation and hunger. Two things stand out from the pizza at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele: the sauce and the crust. I asked Hanna, “How can such a simple concoction be so much better in one place than in another?” She explained that there are thousands of different types of flour, so that plays an important part. The water (as New Yorkers claim) also plays a huge part in the dough. As for the sauce, well, just chalk that up to Michele who either created or inspired one of the best tomato sauces of all time.

It was definitely worth going into the warzone that is Napoli in order to get this pizza. It is something I will never forget and hopefully, when we’re old enough to afford bodyguards, we will return to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele and experience that pleasure once again.

 


Rome Day 3: Papal People

Holy Smokes.

After the Colosseum, the second most important thing for me to see in Rome was the Vatican. As a modern world history teacher last year I spent a lot of time talking about the rise and power of religion in Europe, so it would be cool to see what the hubbub was about.

We headed to our not-so-friendly neighborhood tourist stand where the guy had previously scolded us for asking him where to find the Van Gogh exhibit. He was there, but luckily we were greeted by his colleague who was slightly more amiable. We wanted to buy our tickets ahead of time if possible; Hanna said the line at the Vatican can be absolutely ridiculous. She said normal tickets were 15 euro and theirs were 26, but that included an audio guide (which is 7 euro) and it meant that we didn’t have to wait in line. We decided the extra 8 euro was worth it and picked up the tickets.

We got off the train and dodged hundreds of people attempting to accost us with maps and “free tours” of the Vatican. There were also beggars on the street, which was no surprise since we’d seen them throughout Rome, but these were (as the English would say) proper beggars. We’re talking mangled feet, exposed boils on the forehead, and we’re pretty sure one guy had leprosy. We pointed out the irony of seeing the most deformed and suffering people located the closest to God.

We found our meeting point and were led for half an hour (I wish I was exaggerating) around the entire Vatican to the entrance to the museum. Of course there was pretty much no line. Oh well, that’s the chance you take.

Other than a bunch of sculptures and a weird statue, there’s really not much to see in the museum except for the elaborately decorated ceilings, namely the Sistine Chapel. We walked through what Hanna and I called the “thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth chapels” before we finally arrived at the highly-publicized Sistine Chapel.

Just like the ceilings in our Burbank apartment

It was extremely dark and not very impressive upon first glance, especially since there were about thirty million people inside and several guards constantly yelling at us to shut up and stop taking pictures. NO FOTOS!

Once we found a seat and got to take a longer glance at the elaborately-decorated walls and ceilings while listening to the building’s history on our audio guides, it seemed much more grandiose. It took Michelangelo something like 10 years to complete the ceiling alone, and it was interesting to follow the progression of man (according to the Bible) through the various panels.

After the museum, we headed over to the St. Peter’s Basilica, which is free to get into. We waited in a long line but, since it was late afternoon and close to closing time, the line moved pretty well. We’ve seen a lot of Cathedrals on our sojourn through Europe, but I have to admit…this thing is pretty impressive.

Fotos!

First of all, it’s gigantic. On top of that, it is incredibly ornate with tons of statues and paintings and columns. Surprisingly, fotos were allowed inside, so I was able to snap a few.

We picked up some food and headed back to our bed and breakfast to find our room cleaned. No surprise, the beds were made, towels folded, etc. But then we looked over to the spare bed where we had unloaded all of our clothes. There laid a series of immaculate piles of pristinely folded clothes. The cleaning lady had actually taken the time to fold our clothes and put them in piles. Not only that, but she had taken our books and put them in the shelves on the nightstand and taken our sleeping bags (which we slept in because the room was freezing) and stuffed them back into the bags and placed them in the closet. Also in the closet were our sweatshirts and jackets, conveniently hung up for us.

We imagined an elderly Italian woman puttering around the room mumbling in Italian about what slobs we were. From watching Jersey Shore, we know that Italian mothers are extremely concerned with their domestic duties, so we assumed she had no choice but to clean up. Hanna, of course, took this as an insult to her womanhood and made sure to clean up the room before we left the next day.

As we stood there, mouths agape, our “trust no one” mentality kicked in and we immediately checked to see if anything was missing.

 


Rome Day 1 and 2: Rest and the Colosseum

About to do battle.

We left Florence early and got to Rome. After a lot of consecutive days of sightseeing, Hanna and I both decided we deserved a day off.

We got to our little Bed and Breakfast (actually a third-floor apartment), unpacked our bags, and laid down. We had a tv in our room, but none of the stations were in English. As a result, we found three music video channels and just rotated between them, discovering some awesome Italian music in the process.

For dinner we went to a place down the street. We figured it was a lost cause trying to find a genuine Italian restaurant in Rome, so we settled for a small, decent looking restaurant. It was predictably average and would have been a pleasant experience if not for the constant interruptions from Indians selling roses, trinkets, or playing the accordion. They must have some agreement with the local restaurants because they were always allowed in, but it was quite annoying.

After our day of relaxation, we were ready to see all that Rome had to offer. We woke up, got breakfast (our bed and breakfast gave us vouchers for two free cappuccinos and two pastry balls filled with either chocolate or cream. They were pretty good (and Hanna was excited to get two cappuccinos every morning), and we headed down to the Colosseum. Before that, we decided to stop at the Van Gogh exhibit at a museum right down the street from the Colosseum. Hanna had long-appreciated his work and I had recently discovered it, so we were excited.

The exhibit was good, but it was more about his early years and his conflicting ideas about peasant life and city life. It featured a lot of his early work and that of his influences, whereas Hanna and I prefer his later, “crazier” work. It was good though, and there was another exhibit where we got to see some of Italy’s modern art, namely this wonderful portrait of Jeff Van Gundy.

Jeff Van Gundy has quite the following in Italy.

Quite impressive.

Of all the things in Europe, I was probably most excited to see the Colosseum. Something about this gigantic reminder of a once-great civilization screams, “You’re in Europe” to me. We walked up and it was immediately impressive. The fact that half of it is missing almost makes it more impressive, as you can see how much it takes to keep the great structure standing today.

We took the English guided tour, which was both a blessing and a curse. We got to skip the line and get some extra information about the Colosseum, but our “English” tour was rather difficult to understand. So much so that several people asked for a refund and/or a tour with a different guide. I picked up some bits and pieces, and I can’t help but think that my two years of listening to Italian teachers try to speak English gave me some extra understanding.

After the tour we hung around for a while and took some pictures. The part of the tour I really liked was hearing about the giant golden statue of Emperor Nero that used to stand outside the Colosseum. The statue was called “The Colossus,” and that is actually where the building got its name. It was 30 meters tall, about half the size of the Colosseum, and made of gold, so it must have been quite a sight.

Our tickets to the Colosseum also gave us access to the Roman Forum and Palatine Gardens across the street. Lame.

I mean, I’m sure it was impressive in its day, but looking at piles of rubble and bricks wasn’t exactly exciting. They could have spiced it up with a couple of signs explaining what we were looking at, but there was nothing. Next.

PG-13

We walked up to the Pantheon and the Fontana di Trevi. Both were extremely impressive, and the fountain finally showed me what the one outside of Cesar’s Palace in Vegas is supposed to look like. We took several pictures and video. In fact, at one point we had the still camera around my neck and the video camera in Hanna’s hand, yet a man still came up and asked to take a picture of us for a small fee. Unbelievable.

Afterwards, we did some much-needed laundry at a local Laundromat and ate at some American-themed restaurant. It was pretty entertaining seeing how Italians view us, with pictures of Sylvester Stallone and other celebrities on the wall. There was one poster that was a knock-off of The Last Supper with Marilyn Monroe substituted for Jesus and other old celebrities like Bogart, James Dean, and Laurel and Hardy in place of the disciples. Hanna hated it, but it was what we expected.

We went home to get some sleep and the next day we were off to the Vatican.