Spaghetti alle vongole: “tiny clams strewn across buttery pasta like delicate butterflies”
Unravelling from a double-jointed plane journey and a taxi jolting over the cobblestones, we were in Naples, walking through the black volcanic paved alleys, ravenous in search of lunch. A cluster of white linen table cloths under an arch in an alley full of secondhand booksellers. We stopped, gratefully slumped. A carafe of vino bianco, fresh, green and slightly effervescent, a plate of plump and melting marinated anchovies, frizzed with rocket leaves; slices of prosciutto, salt against the soft milky tang of a ball of mozzarella di bufala and then the twin pillars of Neapolitan cuisine: spaghetti al pomodoro fresco and a pizza margherita. The spaghetti was perfectly al dente, the tomatoes coddled between cooked and crudo, pulpy and concentrated. The pizza was crusty and chewy, with a slurpy lava lake of creamy white mozzarella streaked with sweet and acid tomato. We fell silent with gorging happiness. Afterwards, the pizzaiolo, the pizza man, came out for a cigarette. He was white haired and lean, his arms hung like heavy chains and he had enormous hands. Each finger was muscled and roped as if his whole body’s strength and force and life had gone into those hands, which worked the dough and thumped and pulled.
We stayed in the Old City, in the Palazzo Spinelli di Laurino, through a courtyard overlooked by crumbling terracotta statues, up a grand double ducal staircase, to a guest house. The proprietress, Nathalie de Saint-Phalle, French, thin, acerbic, full of stories, came to Naples 20 years ago, got stuck, love-hate, with the city that feeds every sensual pleasure and frustrates northern European rationalism with its dark alleys, code and Camorra. So many people wanted to come and stay in her spare room that she rented an apartment in the Palazzo Spinelli di Laurino in the grimy artisan Old City, turned it into a guest-house gallery, and invented an owner, a perpetually out-of-town collector called Robert Kaplan (not to be confused with Robert D Kaplan or Robert S Kaplan, the distinguished American writers). Over the years Robert Kaplan has taken on a life of his own; she recently published a book with the fictional reminiscences of writers and artists who have come to stay over the years: 222 Autobiographies of Robert Kaplan.
The guest rooms open onto a grand salon: an eight-metre high ceiling, walls covered with modern art and photographs, a patchwork of multicoloured carpets, divans of harlequin velvet, chairs made from hospital crutches and lamps from crushed coke cans.
One night we sat in the atelier apartment of an artist friend of Nathalie’s, Giuseppe Zevola, gentle, rotund and bearded, a generous host who, as Nathalie described, “eats the world.” Large ornate mirrors floated on end tables several feet above the floor, a harpist played the exposed strings of a piano suspended from the rafters, and I perused a book Giuseppe had spent a decade putting together, of 17th and 18th-century doodles drawn by bored clerks in the archives of the Banco di Napoli. “Where’s the best place to eat in Naples?” I asked him.
“Ah, you must go to Enzo’s,” he said, and drew a map of an alley from the Piazza Carita. “Up here and at the end, there is no sign. Enzo is the son, the mother cooks, the father, well he is very impolite and does nothing.”
Enzo’s was indeed as described. The father sat on a stool guarding the entrance, and we pushed through an unprepossessing jumble of crates of fizzy water, to a windowless room, lined in beige tiling and lit with two or three flickery fluorescent tubes. Enzo, energetic, unrolled a paper table cloth and rattled off the menu in Italian. We nodded. Came a carafe of wine, deep-fried balls of mushy rice, arancini, delicious and crispy, a clatter of cutlery, a plate of spaghetti alle vongole, tiny clams strewn across the buttery pasta like delicate purple butterflies, more spaghetti al pomodoro fresco, swirly yum, a plate of lightly fried fish: little anchovies, too-small red mullet, something flat the size of my hand, something long and thin with spiked teeth. Scattered over the fish were translucent neon green squares of deep fried seaweed. They tasted extraordinary, iodine umami with a truffle afterglow. At the next table, a rowdy group shouted good-naturedly at Enzo to hurry up with the octopus, where was the cod with olives? Braggadocio and diamante earrings, tough local guys with tattoos around their biceps, dunking their bread in their wine, spitting out clamshells on their napkins and swiping bottles of water from the next-door table.
Over the days we ate platefuls of vongole and many rounds of pizza margherita. Between lunch and dinner was Naples, rimed in graffiti, scruffed with garbage, garlanded with laundry hanging out to dry. Vignettes: a floating waft of marijuana across the nose of a carabinieri in the crowd outside the Duomo, waiting for the miracle of liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro; the man at the next table with a pistol stuck in the back waistband of his jeans; the cubby-room ground floor interiors, windows half open to the street like stable doors, in which grandmothers could be seen shuffling between stove and table. We ate grilled fish and pizza dough parcels stuffed with broccoli leaves and pancetta. One of Nathalie’s friends made little butter cookies to go with our evening coffee. With them he served a compote marmalade, bright orange, that tasted like sunshine.
One lunchtime Nathalie took us along the coast to a grand suburb where we sat next to a Roman wall and sucked langoustines from their shells, barely cooked, soft and briny and gelatinous. There were fried baby octopi and zucchini too, mussels and clams sautéed in olive oil and garlic and tomato and sopped with cubes of toasted bread and shrimp wrapped in a coiled carapace of fried spaghetti. We talked about the eternality of Naples, a city that has consumed every invader but has never been destroyed, where the alleys were still aligned to a Roman grid. Its food is elemental, its restaurants for eating, not gastronomy. We ate always very well and always very simply: the sum of sun and salt sea. At lunch, we laughed over the endless discussions of the best pizza in Naples. “There is no best pizza in Naples,” I said, describing our efforts to surpass the unctuous marvel of our first lunch, “perhaps the best pizza you ever eat in Naples is the first pizza you eat.”