Retracing the Steps of Lila and Elena in Naples — Page 2
Story and photos by Michael Shapiro

Elena and Lila don't visit downtown Naples until they're teenagers, Simona said, and when they do, an entire world opens to them. They see fashionable clothes, stylish shoes, and sophisticated women who look like movie stars. People seem to be enjoying a life of ease and comfort. They look happy and free.

Naples Through Its Food

Before exploring downtown Naples, I had to visit one of the city's famed pizzerias. The city is renowned for having the best pizza in the world. We had lunch at Dal Presidente (Via dei Tribunali 120), which has a large wood-burning oven where pizza is made the way it's been cooked for generations. When another visitor and I took pictures of a chef, a waiter shouted "Paparazzi!" The simple Margherita pizzas—thin crust topped with sauce made of fresh tomatoes, mozzarella and basil—symbolize the red, white and green of Italy's flag.

At Dal Presidente, though we were seated downstairs in a convivial room some distance from the oven, the pizza arrived piping hot—it more than lived up to its reputation. Now, just looking at the image of the pizza coming out of the oven triggers a Pavlovian response and makes me want to hop on the next flight to Naples. I'm not the only American who loved the restaurant; fittingly Bill Clinton enjoyed a pizza at Dal Presidente—a smiling photo of him adorns a wall.

Baba in rum

On the narrow streets near Dal Presidente people shopped for seafood, dioramas of nativity scenes known as presepi, spices, and tricolor (red, green and white) pasta. "That's tourist pasta," Simona said. "We like the Gragnano pasta," without color.

Bakeries sold Naples' renowned baba, a spongecake–like pastry typically soaked in rum or limoncello. A baba looks sort of like large mushroom with a long stem and bulbous tip; the legend says the shape honors the dome of St. Sophia's Church in Istanbul. Those with a more salacious perspective may see something rooted in the Roman idea that a phallus signified prosperity and fertility.

You can buy baba fresh or presoaked in jars of booze. Some say they're named for Ali Baba but more likely the name derives from the Polish pastry known as babka. A bakery called Scaturchio proudly displayed its baba around a massive pastry evocation of Mt. Vesuvius. The Vesuvius baba originated in 1994 when the G7 summit was held in Naples. Noted confectioner Giovanni Scaturchio wanted to create a memorable baba, which was a hit so the bakery continues to make it.


The Architectural Layers of Naples

Beyond visiting the settings of My Brilliant Friend, Simona wanted me to see her city's deep roots. Coming from California, where anything made before the 20th century is old, I was impressed by the ancient buildings of Naples. Founded by the Greeks about 500 years before the time of Christ, it was called "Neapolis" meaning "new city" —over time that became Napoli, or Naples in English. Many of the buildings are black because they're made of volcanic stone, called tufa. Naples is home to the University of Naples Roman Arches Naples Federico II, which dates to 1224 and was Europe's first university independent of the Catholic Church.

Modern Naples is built atop Greek and Roman ruins. To get a sense of the city's formative years Simona brought me to the cloister of San Lorenzo Maggiore, where we went underground to see a warren of brick arches, assembly halls, and market stalls. The 2,000-year-old Roman village was "like Pompeii but without Vesuvius," Simona said. We saw vestiges of colorful mosaics on the floor, a series of brick archways (the cryptoporticus, a covered arcade), a communal laundry, a domed oven, and sloped stones where fishmongers cleaned their catch before selling it to market-goers.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, in an assembly hall called the Capitolo, monks convened with town officials and included a single representative for the people. One person speaking for the populace "wasn't much," Simona said, "but it was the beginning of democracy." When the royal opera house, the Real Teatro di San Carlo, opened in 1737, Naples was the second largest city in Europe, after London. "This is where they launched the first train in Europe," she proudly said, "and where electricity was introduced to Italy."

Soon Simona and I reached Via Toledo, a cobblestone street made with remnants of stone walls that once surrounded Naples. "This is where Lila and Elena first walk through downtown when they're 14 or 15 years old," Simona told me. Fashion boutiques, toy stores, bookshops and ice cream vendors lined the boulevard.

"These were expensive shops for people from the lower classes—they felt like they didn't belong here. They (Elena and Lila) wore different dresses and moved in a different way. Imagine them seeing all of this for the first time," Simona said. This is how Elena views the people in metropolitan Naples, Ferrante writes in My Brilliant Friend: "They seemed to have breathed another air, to have eaten other food, to have dressed on some other planet, to have learned to walk on wisps of wind."

Naples altarWe turned toward the Via Chiaia, a narrow lane where the most fashionable shoe shops were. Handsome four-story buildings, some painted in rose hues with green shutters, line the street. Lila came from a family of shoemakers who have a shop in Rione Luzzatti—in the book Lila creates a shoe that's both chic and comfortable, and for a moment it appeared the innovative footwear would be her family's ticket to prosperity.

Much has changed along the Via Toledo and Via Chiaia in the 60 years since Elena and Lila wandered along these streets. Today on Via Toledo you'll find Tommy Hilfiger, GEOX and kebab shops. Go to Via Chiaia and you'll be greeted by Giorgio Armani and Salvatore Ferragamo. Simona concluded our tour a block past Via Chiaia at Piazza dei Martiri, where the fictional Solara brothers, whom Elena and Lila knew in Rione Luzzatti, open a shoe shop for well-heeled customers.

Though the city hasn't prospered as much as Milan and Rome, Naples' timeless allure endures, with so much to lift one's soul. It could be the man wearing a red heart pinned to his blazer singing 18th-century Neapolitan songs near the Piazza de Gesu Nuovo. Or the surprise of descending into the Toledo subway station and seeing a blue-and-white ceiling mosaic surrounding a skylight that makes you feel as though you've slipped beneath the surface the sea. Or simply the delight of finding exquisite shoes that fit perfectly. Around every corner, Naples still offers the hope to those yearning for a better life.

If You Go:

To learn more about Simona Mandato's tours, see or email her at: [email protected]

Michael Shapiro is author of A Sense of Place and the forthcoming The Creative Spark, a collection of interviews with musicians, artists, writers, and chefs (Fall 2019). His features, essays, and profiles appear in National Geographic Traveler, The Sun, The Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Virtuoso Traveler and Alaska Beyond. His most recent story for Perceptive Travel was about an art pilgrimage with his mother to Vienna

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