Published in The Toronto Star, Travel Section
On Sat Oct 03 2009


HEATHER GREENWOOD DAVIS PHOTO — The dough sits for nine hours, helping Neopolitana pizzas rise to divinity.

Naples, Italy–I lean back in my chair at Pascalucci defeated – again. In front of me: piles of prusciutto, walnuts, grilled bread with olive oil, capicolla, pancetta, pecorino cheese with honey and wine as far as the eye could see. Mozzarella the size of baseballs (so fresh the milky interior has oozed out onto the plate), mashed potato croquettes with a pancetta surprise inside, breaded zucchini blossoms and baskets of bread arrived at the table in a procession reminiscent of the mops and pails in a scene from Disney’s Fantasia.

I’ve stopped trying to explain that I only needed a small portion. Pleading, begging or dropping to your knees won’t help. Your cries fall on deaf ears here and the food keeps coming. When it lands in front of you your only choices are to offend the chef or eat until you burst.

To my left one of my fellow travellers, an Italian who moved to New York 22 years ago, saw my expression and felt moved to explain.

“Food is No. 1 here,” he says. “Wages aren’t high. People complain they can’t afford the food and yet …” He motioned with his hand to the restaurant around us.

It was packed. Cheeks were being kissed, the owner was circulating and the chef, Arturo Iengo, was shaking hands with a firm grip that denoted his confidence. He knows you will love your lunch.

I wish I could tell you this venture into gluttony was a one-meal deal. I can’t. Over the seven days I went from Naples to Benevento and back, I didn’t meet a meal that didn’t knock me down.

We got used to it – almost surprised by our lack of surprise at yet another good meal.

It’s how it’s done here. Buon appetito they say – good appetite – and it’s not in vain. It’s what you must have to survive.

I got better, though.

On our way for pizza, I suggested to our group we stop at a roadside stand. (Only here would this make sense.) The most acclimatized among them agreed and we shared a 2-euro sampling of a deep-fried version of the area’s best-known creation.

When we arrived at our intended stop of Pizzeria da Michele – the spot made famous by the book Eat, Pray, Love – the lineup of tourists was long and the wait ridiculous. Sonya, our guide through the tangle of streets, pointed to a spot across the street she said was just as good.

The secret she said, after the waitress had taken our orders, is the dedication of the pizza makers to perfecting the dough.

“You have to leave the dough for at least nine hours. If not it will be too heavy,” she explained.

The other secret? A generous dash of sunflower seed oil on top.

My Fior di latte (milky mozzarella) and classic Neopolitana pizzas were so delicious, I decided it was worth every one of the 20 pounds I would gain if I came back again for dinner.

Given the option I might have married that pizza, but when we stopped at Scaturchio for dessert I realized my heart belonged there with Mario, the 80-year-old owner.

He, as his father before him and son since, makes the sfogliatelle-and-rum-soaked baba pastries that cause hearts to flutter in the shop that opened in 1903. Every Sunday he still gathers with his family for lunch and they take turns on who gets to bring the dessert.

Mario often wins. He built the lab that fuels the shop and its insatiable customers and every morning at 4 a.m. he still makes his way there to oversee production.

It takes more than a day for two people to stretch, slice and fill the thin dough that makes the sfogliatelle. Is it worth it?

“When you taste the sfogliatelle, at that moment you understand” – Mario paused for effect – “that gold exists.”

Not everyone can find something to love in Naples. A garbage strike years ago still causes people to turn up their nose and the gritty city streets often make it the butt of jokes in Italy. But the food cannot be denied.

And I’ve only scratched the surface.

I haven’t mentioned the wines, the pasta, the lemoncello and bright yellow houses of neighbouring Capri, the awesome juxtaposition of sidewalk cafes, graffiti-laden walls, blue waters and ancient frescoes or the vibrant nature of a city that never stops moving.

That’s for another time. On this trip, I was content accepting Naples for what it does best.

With each new meal, I picked up my fork and did my part; valiant in my efforts despite knowing how it would end: Fading at the first course, gentle picking through the second and a sad slide through dessert only to find myself at the end of the meal leaning back in my chair, belt buckle loosened and a stupid grin on my face.