“Naples is a thousand colours, Naples is a thousand fears… Naples is a piece of rubbish, that no-one cares about”. Pino Daniele’s melancholy ode to his beloved Naples captures the reason why most people eschew it for the dolce vita of Rome, serene romance of Venice or chocolate-box perfection of Florence when planning an Italian citybreak. The tragic death of eponymous Greek siren Parthenope, in the bay, characterises the city’s infamous combination of beauty and danger: Naples is a raw, sultry femme-fatale, to Florence’s pristine, blanched prettiness. But this seductive UNESCO World Heritage site wakes you up, and assaults your senses with its outdoor theatre: it is not to be missed.
The fertile volcanic soils and abundant agriculture gives us bounty like sweet piennolo cherry tomatoes from Vesuvius, San Marzano tomatoes, peppery friarielli, and aromatic, fat Amalfi lemons. It’s also the spiritual home of dried pasta, dating back to the 16th century when Neapolitans had to devise a way to store grain during times of famine: the sunny, windy climate being perfect drying conditions. Today, Neapolitans are known as “mangiamaccheroni” (macaroni eaters) by other Italians for their insatiable appetite for pasta, and their cuisine has been dispersed globally because of mass post-unification emigration.
Arriving in Piazza Garibaldi is far from an auspicious welcome – more reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno than Goethe’s paradise – but dodge the hawkers and hurry through the Camorra hinterlands of Forcella to Da Michele, one of the most celebrated pizzerias in Naples.
Neapolitans don’t do orderly queues so you’ll likely find a throng of locals outside at midday. Take a numbered ticket and await your turn. The clientele is a mixed bag of locals and bewildered tourists, thanks to being popularised in the film Eat, Love, Pray. No matter, the pizzas are still supreme. The choice is simply a Marinara or a Margherita (there are two sizes and a double mozzarella option). These are gloriously thin, floppy-centred pizzas: almost impossible to eat by hand, though the cornicione crust is perhaps softer than elsewhere.
If you can’t be bothered to queue, try Trianon opposite. It’s been around since 1923 and is much bigger.
La Notizia has a stellar reputationand is in a posher part of town. Run by Enzo Cocchia, it has an extensive menu ranging from traditional pizzas to calzone stuffed with cigoli (crispy pieces left behind from rendering pork fat) or even truffles. Finish off with a Nutella saltimbocca.
Back in the old town, head to Via Tribunali, one of the oldest streets slicing Naples in two; hence the name Spaccanapoli. This is the Naples of legend – laundry strewn between tenements, gents idling in doorways, guagliune tearing through on scooters, their guttural, raspy dialect reverberating in small alleyways. Feast on visual delights such as Caravaggio’s ‘Seven Acts of Mercy’ or the faded San Lorenzo Maggiore church sitting atop Roman ruins. Fishmongers spew out on to the street, with plastic trays filled to the brim with stripy lupini (clams). Giant scarlet sausages studded with rich pork fat hang in windows, and bowls of the freshest, pillowy mozzarella di bufala sit beside pear-shaped scamorza.
At the end of Via Tribunali, the oldest pizzeria in Naples Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, juxtaposes the youthful La Stanza del Gusto. Here chef Mario Avallone innovates on traditional Campanian cuisine with dishes such as salt cod in tempura, and roast buffalo with beetroots in a colourful, eclectic interior. There’s also a cheesebar and fine selection of salumi if you simply fancy snacking.
Neapolitans excel at patisserie, and two places are renowned for local specialities. On Piazza San Domenico Maggiore is Scaturchio, the oldest pastry shop in Naples (opened 1905). Try baba – a rum-soaked cake, often filled with fruit, Nutella or cream, or zeppole di San Giuseppe – these glorious fried or baked choux rings, traditionally eaten on 19th March (St Joseph’s day), are topped with lemon pastry cream and cherries.
For the best sfogliatelle in Naples, head to Pintauro on Via Toledo, where they’re served warm from the oven. These beautiful confections stuffed with sweet ricotta, candied citrus, and a pinch of cinnamon come either riccia (with a crispy, twisted shell) or frolla (a softer, shortcrust shell).
For savoury treats, Bar Luise (just opposite Galleria Umberto or in swanky Chiaia) makes sfogliatelle stuffed with a typical Neapolitan combination of sausage and friarielli. Or try gattò di patate and escarole pie.
Take the funicular up to the Vomero to Friggitoria Vomero to sample an array of fried snacks such as crocché (potato fritters with ham or cheese), panzerotti (filled pastries) or ciurilli (zucchini flowers).
Finish with a coffee and people watching at the elegant Art Nouveau Gambrinus and the best gelato from Gay Odin.
For a more glamorous sojourn, I recommend spending the night on Capri for dinner under a canopy of lemon trees at Da Paolino. Loved by locals and celebrities alike (Tony Bennett was there on my last visit), the antipasti buffet is an enormous cornucopia of Neapolitan specialities. Also try the ravioli caprese.
Capri is best enjoyed once the daytrippers have departed, but two excellent lunch options away from the crowds include Le Grottelle, on a terrace overlooking the sea by the Natural Arch, where the spaghetti with baby squid are particularly good; or La Savardina, up towards the Villa Jovis, where you can eat fabulous linguine al limone and local fish, pezzogna, under orange trees. Stay at Hotel Luna overlooking the fariglioni, or the chic Capri Palace with its 2* Olivo restaurant.
Don’t believe the rumours about Naples and its ubiquitous tales of petty crime and decay. Naples is like any other European city in its blend of urban life. Unlike any other European city or any other place in the world, Naples has pizza – the ”noblest, most genial and most noteworthy of Naples’ institutions”. Pino should have sung about the food instead.
 Pietro Mascagni