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…