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This article appears in SUITCASE Volume 17: Myths and Legends.
Elena and I lean on the chipped veneer of institutional tables as our guide Sophia works her charm. She has fast become our interpreter here in Naples, a human focus button in a city which, to outsiders, is still full of blurred codes and hazy rules. Just as it is now, at the library in Rione Luzzatti.
Sophia has handed Giuseppe, the library’s manager – a greying gentleman in a starchy beige suit and a white shirt, opened to reveal a scribble of chest chair and a gold chain – a battered piece of paper she acquired from the council yesterday. This is said to be our “permission” to take pictures in the library, but Giuseppe is having none of it. They wrangle. Elena cradles her camera. My mind drifts over the marble floors to the corner of the foyer, where a fuse box is covered by a picture of the Virgin Mary (a comfort or a warning?) Outside, rain hammers down. A thick darkness has descended on the neighbourhood and the library’s halogen strips strain to illuminate the corridor.
Rione Luzzatti is hardly on the tourist trail. We are in this little-known area – a neglected eastern pocket of inner Naples – on a pilgrimage of sorts. Like lots of other readers over the past few years, I have been spellbound by the Neapolitan novels, a quartet of books written under the pseudonym “Elena Ferrante”. Beginning with My Brilliant Friend, these novels chart the lives and friendship of two women, Elena and Lina (also called Lenù and Lila) from their infancy in an unnamed but very poor, very violent “neighbourhood” in the 1950s, and into the modern day.
Italy in the 20th century provides a tumultuous socio-political backdrop. The two friends live with the daily threat of Camorra – the Neapolitan mafia – which is as ingrained in the community as it is hated; the book tells of the “misdeeds and compliances and cowardly acts of the people we knew… and carried in our blood”.
So I came to Naples with another Elena, my brilliant photographer friend, to see for myself the setting of Ferrante’s stories. (The accidental poetry of being Elena and Mina following in Elena and Lina’s footsteps was not lost on us.) However, while the Neapolitan novels have captured imaginations all over the world, the Naples we encountered is still difficult, still too close to the ferocious setting of the books (people speak in hushed tones and euphemisms of certain “families” and “hotheads”) for this to have the romance of a conventional travel story.
Ferrante’s is a world “full of words that killed”. While daily life happens in “scathing dialect”, speaking Italian is the reserve of the upwardly mobile. Language, then, is a passport – and so the library, where as girls, Lenù and Lila borrow books to devour – seems like a good place to start. Eventually, we’re allowed in. Sophia has handed Giuseppe a copy of My Brilliant Friend in Italian, which we have all inscribed as a gift for the library. It seems to have buttered him up.
Biblioteca Andreoli is not a particularly old building, so it would presumably have been to an earlier incarnation of this library that Ferrante’s characters came. We take a couple of dingy pictures in an empty room and then sit there as it darkens, taking shelter from the rain and imagining bookish Lenù at work in here, and prodigious Lila withdrawing novels in the name of every one of her family members – the only way to rapidly feed her reading habit.
Just as Ferrante describes, train tracks surround Rione Luzzatti. The neighbourhood is entered through a tunnel, all echoes and graffiti, beyond which lies wider Naples and the rest of the world. (As children, anything beyond the bounds of the neighbourhood is, for Lenù and Lila, just an idea: “Trained by our schoolbooks to talk with great skill about what we had never seen, we were excited by the invisible.”) Social housing has replaced the marshland that was once here, a process that the first novel documents. We read of the green brush vanishing to make way for flat, yellow ground, of a construction site near the railroad, and the “scaffolding of the new buildings that were rising floor by floor”, buildings that we now walk past. Sophia explains that Rione Luzzatti is the only neighbourhood in Naples with apartment blocks built in the rationalist (Fascist) style, starkly plain and “dirty-white”.
News has started to travel about the Neapolitan novels in the area. A piece about Ferrante’s Naples for The New York Times in January 2016 mentioned the neighbourhood, and intrepid readers have since started to trickle in. Local residents, bewildered by all the interest, have noticed outsiders wandering down their unremarkable stradone streets with cameras, and as Elena walks past with hers, the curtains quiver. “You don’t necessarily see it,” says Sophia, “but we’re being watched from all angles right now.”
Word of the books has certainly travelled to Pizzeria Carmnella, tucked in a barren nook between Rione Luzzatti and Case Nuove. Although the restaurant has only been here since the Nineties, its previous location would have been the pizzeria frequented by Ferrante’s characters. Chef Vincenzo Esposito has named three pizze on his menu in homage to Ferrante, and explains the reasoning behind each. The pizza named for Lila, the “dazzling girl” who never leaves Naples, is “sophisticated but remains within the bounds of Neapolitan cuisine” with its orange pomodorini tomatoes, anchovies, mozzarella and basil. Il Michele, named after the older of the two mafioso Solara brothers, who at once orchestrate and terrorise the community, “has two sides, one of them hidden” – it is plain tomato on one side, while the other side is folded over to conceal a doughy pocket of ham and cheese. Best of all is the Elena Ferrante which, Sophia explains, is adorned with all the best things that Naples has to offer: a slow-cooked ragù, good olive oil, basil, fior di latte (mozzarella) and ricotta.
Sophia was a lucky find. Seduced by the grubby beauty and mysterious wiles of Naples while studying here, she has moved back permanently from London with her boyfriend. Despite the name of her business, Looking For Lila, which riffs on *spoiler alert* the eventual disappearance of Lila in the novels, Elena Ferrante tours are just one of Sophia’s offerings, which also include food and hidden Naples. We do a mish-mash of these tours, leaving Rione Luzzatti to discover the city’s historic centre, Montesanto and the Spanish Quarter. “Keep looking in,” she says, like a mantra, “it’s the key to understanding Naples.” And she is right. We walk past basso apartments – ground-floor flats for those at the bottom of the social pecking order – windowless but for their front doors, which are thrown open every morning. Women wearing housecoats peel vegetables in the daylight outside, before starting on lunches of thrifty but absolutely delicious platefuls of sausage and greens (like friarielli, the local broccoli) or pasta with beans, cabbage or potatoes, all bathed in the glare of the television as they cook.
The home still seems to be a wife’s domain; day-to-day life for many of the Neapolitan women we encounter has a similar pattern, alternating between cooking for their families and cleaning the house. (We see a few congregating on balconies for cigarette breaks and talk in between.) There’s a sense of this changing – both Pietro, who runs a tripe shop in La Sanità, and Sergio, the priest in Rione Luzzatti – allude to girls not wanting to stay home and cook anymore. But for the most part, men take the public face of things here, manning stalls and shops, while women are more concealed. With her pseudonym, Ferrante herself has chosen to remain this way, although, in an extraordinary turn of events, her probable identity was revealed the very week we went to Naples. (Revealed by a man no less. Investigative journalist Claudio Gati, who, insisting on Ferrante’s readership’s right to know, clearly couldn’t understand the author’s preference for privacy – and so flouted it.)
We visit Sophia’s neighbour Carmela for lunch. Her apartment, like all the other Neapolitan homes we’ve been into, is spotless: a modest palace of faux-Grecian floor tiles and large framed photographs of her son Gennaro, a Premier League football player. He bought this flat for his parents a few years ago and decked it out with all the mod cons; before that, they’d lived in a basso apartment nearby. Sophia has told Carmela of my determination to eat home-cooked pasta e patate (pasta and potatoes) as they do in Ferrante’s novels, and so here we are. She shows us her dishwasher proudly before explaining the different types of long pasta (spaghetti, bucatini and wavy ribbons of mafalde) that she’s cracking into little pieces before adding to the thick stock. It is laced with smoked cheese and, when it is ready, we eat it with spoons from bowls. Carmela frets about not having a secondo (a fish or meat main course), then pushes us to try her pickly “aubergines under oil” and even tells each of us to choose one of Gennaro’s old football shirts to take home. We decline, of course, and she looks vaguely bruised. Sophia tells us that this kindness with the little she has epitomises Neapolitan hospitality.
We have brought the wine. It is young and local, delicious in its roughness, and like all the homes we’ve been into, Carmela serves it from disposable plastic cups. We bought it at a nearby enoteca, where they refilled an old water bottle straight from one of two barrels – falanghina for white, aglianico for red. Food shopping here is mesmerising, as is eating. The hardest task of every day is making sure we leave enough space to accommodate the next meal or snack. We eat deep-fried pizza as a snifter before lunch one day, and another evening we have a giant ball of buffalo mozzarella virtually pushed into our mouths by the greengrocer’s daughter as we pass on our way to dinner. Pastries like sfogliatelle, filled with a mixture of ricotta and cream, are ubiquitous, and it is hopeless to try and resist. The produce is brilliant and the shop fronts (if you can call them that) are just as good – Carmine in Rione Luzzatti sells fruit and veg out of boxes tied with rope to the bonnet of his battered Fiat, while Enzo, the shellfish man in La Sanità market, sells fresh vongole (clams) from his alcove of a shop, with tiles that match the blue of his eyes. The best things of all are the tomatoes grown around Vesuvius, little datterini or the big ones from San Marzano, as well as bunches of piennolo with their tiny pointed nipples, strung up and ageing from the ceiling so that their sugars concentrate in time for Christmas.
But what lies beyond the immediate city still feels notional. Mount Vesuvius, “a delicate, pastel-coloured shape” looms over us, and I know that, as Lila tells Lenù, beyond it is the sea. So we decide to venture out of frenetic Naples for a day, and head towards the coast, an expanse of liquid aquamarine, crowned with distant islands. Ferrante’s characters go to Ischia on their holidays, but we choose to visit smaller Procida. After a 40-minute ferry ride we are there, and it is chocolate-box idyllic. Coloured stucco houses line a steep cove called Corricella, where fishermen mend their nets in the midday sun. We walk upwards to find the best view, and on our way meet the eye of an elderly woman hanging her laundry outside her flat, an old prison turned into social housing. She introduces herself as Elvira and tells us that she lives here with her daughter, Gioanna. We are invited to see the view from her bedroom; plaster crumbles from the walls but the gleaming sea is as opulent as ever – a beautiful view. As we make our way out into the kitchen, she shows us two pictures of her late husband. Precious, dog-eared images; it seems mad that we are able to take limitless photos on Elena’s camera, even on our phones. Gioanna looks after a pan of pasta and onions on a hob positioned beside her bed, as though it were a bedside table.
We take inspiration from their pasta – I would, and in Naples do, eat it for every meal – and head down to Corricella in search of some lunch. After having a pile of spaghetti tossed with fresh anchovies and tomatoes we head down to the port to board a ferry back to the city. Through the window, we witness light being sucked from a mauve sky. Procida fades with the sun, Vesuvius draws closer, and lights switch on in the Bay of Naples.
Later, I thumb through My Brilliant Friend and light upon a chapter in which Lenù reflects on having gone into central Naples with her father for the day. It bolsters her confidence: “During that period I felt strong… I had crossed the boundaries of the neighbourhood, I went to high school, I was with boys and girls who were studying Latin and Greek, and not, like [Lila], with construction workers, mechanics, cobblers, fruit and vegetable sellers, grocers, shoemakers.” A central tenet of Ferrante’s books is the upward mobility bestowed by education, the idea that books have the power to open up the world. Certainly, it was books that showed me the way into Naples, just as they proved to be Lenù’s ticket out.
For a taste of real, working Naples, come to this crumbling hole-in-the-wall cafeteria in the historical centre on a weekday. A speedy yet multi-course lunch with wine will set you back little more than 15 euros. Expect mamma-style cooking at its best, like pasta and cabbage with provola and piles of wilted greens.
Choose between one of two pizze – margherita or marinara (without cheese) – all 4 euros a pop. The stark white-washed interior, decorated only with crucifixes, a wood oven, and rowdy gang of chefs speaking in dialect makes this a great first night option. Be prepared to queue.
The ‘Ferrante’ pizzeria in Case Nuove is a real neighbourhood joint, packed full of locals enjoying the fruits of Vesuvius (ragu and toppings) and elbow grease (dough).
Apparently there are somewhere in the region of 21 Sorbillo brothers, all of them pizzaioli (pizza makers). We went to the newest outpost for a pizza fritta – a giant half-moon of dough encasing piping hot mozzarella, ricotta, ham and ragù – to tide us over between breakfast and lunch.
As the name suggests, this family-run affair in Montesanto specialises in pasta and beans. Theirs is indeed very good – rich, meaty and designed for the hungry – but we were left dumfounded by their spaghetti alle vongole, which ranks among the best things I’ve ever eaten. The view across Naples is astonishing too, and best enjoyed with a bottle of local aglianico.
Huddle into this unassuming dining room for the antipasti ride of your life.
You know how you have that one incredible friend who knows their city inside out? That’s us. We take the world’s most dynamic destinations, hand-pick the best bits and give them to you in one place. This is the kind of guide that you don’t need to run by a local – it was written by one. Eat your heart out, shop until you drop, drink like a fish, dance your socks off, sleep – then repeat.
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