Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Seeing and Surviving the South of Italy

It was a crazy trip. Eleven-and-a-half hours on the overnight train from my house north of Venice, to Naples, three-quarters of the way down the boot of Italy. A sleepless night of endless undulation, each lurch of the train sending me to the edge of the bed that was as hard as an ironing board and only slightly wider. And the only thing worse than shivering all night beneath the thread-bare sheet was the prospect of getting up to use the dirty bathroom at the end of the car. For what? Gluten free pizza, of course.

Pizza is synonymous with Naples. Regulated by the Ministero Delle Politiche Agricole e Forestali (Ministry of Agriculture and Forests), the city’s trademark pizza even has a special name, Napoletana. Here, every detail is controlled, including the measure of ingredients, the swirl of the sauce, and the temperature of the wood-fired oven. Under guidance by the Italian Celiac Association, a few restaurants in Naples have attempted to adapt this method to gluten free pizza. After being in Italy for over a year, eating only frozen gluten free pizza, I couldn’t wait to taste the “real” thing. So I endured the train.

My family of five had decided that since Naples was so far away, being located in the region of Campania, south of Rome, the best use of our time was the overnight train. While in Naples, in addition to eating pizza, we wanted to visit the city’s archeology museum that holds treasures from nearby Pompeii, tour the ruins themselves, and then head further south to Sorrento and the dramatic Amalfi Coast. Even by maximizing our time, however, we still had to pass-up a daytrip to the famous island of Capri, as well as forego a trek even further south to Paestum, an area with ancient Greek temples.

Traveling with us were my parents visiting from the States, my mother also having celiac disease. On the train, we nearly filled two of the second-class sleeping compartments, each of which contained four bunk-style beds. As it is common to share the space with other travelers, though, we paid for the one additional bed so we wouldn’t have to sleep with a stranger. We felt it to be a matter of privacy as well as safety. Indeed, our destination, Italy’s third largest city, is notorious for being crowded, chaotic, and crime-ridden. Experiences with these characteristics unfortunately often begin enroute. Fittingly, my family agreed that our train conductor eerily resembled Al Capone.

The train arrived at Napoli Centrale at 10:00 in the morning. A bit hung-over from lack of sleep, yet on alert for would-be pickpockets, we first dropped off our luggage at the train station’s secure baggage check. Then, we followed signs to the Metro, rode one stop to Cavour station, and emerged into the midst of noisy Neapolitan life. From there, it was a five-minute walk to Museo Archeologico.

The museum is home to the finest art and artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, both cities destroyed by the 79 A.D. eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. With excellent explanations in English throughout, it was easy to read about the museum’s main holdings: a 4th-century B.C. Greek bronze statue, immense marble statues, and exquisite Pompeian frescoes and mosaics. The Secret Room, one of the museum’s most popular exhibits, contains a collection of erotic statues, pottery, and frescoes from both private and public buildings of the doomed ancient cities. Viewer discretion is advised!

Pompeii and Herculaneum themselves are located 30-minutes south of Naples. They are basically empty shells, yet still must-sees in order to marvel at the advanced state of the early Roman cities, with stone streets smoothed by years of foot traffic, and then recognize the horrific power of the volcano that destroyed them.

While some members of the family could’ve spent all day in the museum, others were antsy to go after only one hour. That included me. Eager to eat pizza, yet heeding a shopkeeper’s warning to be wary of beggars and pickpockets, we began a one-mile tramp down the congested shopping streets of Via Pessina and Via Toledo, past the narrow alleys of the Spanish Quarter, and towards Castel Nuovo, the Royal Palace, and the glass and iron-roofed dome of Galleria Umberto. Keenly aware that the numerous security officers we spied all wore bullet-proof vests, we arrived at our destination, Pizzeria Ciro a Santa Brigida, without incident. There, we briefly confirmed our reservation with the chef manning the white wood-fired oven, and proceeded up a set of narrow stairs to the dining room, seated by a tuxedo-clad waiter seemingly incongruous with the fare we were about to eat.

I wish every celiac could’ve shared that pizza with me. I was also glad my mother and I had each ordered our own, because I ate every bite of mine. The crust was crisp and slightly charred around the edges, soft and chewy on the inside. A distinct yeasty taste filled my mouth, while the tomato sauce was as bright as a summer day. Topped with freshly made mozzarella cheese, sweet and mild, all the gluten eaters in the family agreed my pizza tasted almost like the full gluten version.

Back at the train station, we followed signs to Circumvesuviana, the local train between Naples and Sorrento. Seventy-minutes later we were strolling along the bustling main street of Sorrento, with suitcases rolling in tow, towards the Hotel del Corso, our home for two nights. Situated on the main street, and near the main square of Piazza Tasso, our backside balcony room also overlooked a noisy pedestrian alley burgeoning with tourists, trinkets, and locals dressed in their finest, out for their ritual evening walks. Though we were in the thick of things, once we closed the balcony door, all was quiet and calm.

Sorrento is a well-developed vacation resort, where the favorite pastimes seemed to be shopping and eating. Two of the area’s celebrated products, inlaid wood pieces and limoncello, were sold in most stores. We wandered into one of the local woodworking shops to see how this art form known as marquetry was done, admiring the shiny handmade music boxes, pictures, and intricate tables. Limoncello, a lemon liqueur consisting of locally grown citrus, water, sugar, and alcohol, is also made openly in some of the shops. As fortune would have it, the first store we stopped in was the only one that made its limoncello without the addition of flavorings, and so naturally I bought a bottle! My shopping also extended to the local farmacia, where I found the biggest and best selection of gluten free food I’ve seen anywhere in Italy.

With so much gluten free food at the farmacia, it was no surprise that dining in Sorrento was easy. The Italian Celiac Association listed four restaurants for the town. I emailed one of them, Ristorante Pizzeria La Fenice, ahead of time, and on arrival found Nello the waiter animated and excited to welcome us. Gluten free pizza was available if ordered a day ahead, but because seafood is the rightly superstar of the region, I dined on Spaghetti con Gamberetti (spaghetti with shrimps). At another restaurant, La Stalla, located at the top of a magnificently sweeping duel staircase hidden at the far end of a dark and narrow alleyway, my mother and I shared a platter of Frutti di Mare (literally, fruit of the sea). We indulged in grilled swordfish, shrimp, scallops, and calamari.

As is usual in Italy, getting a gluten free breakfast at the hotel, and finding a light gluten free lunch while sightseeing, was more difficult than locating dinner. So my mother and I supplemented hotel breakfast buffet items, such as cheese and fruit, with our own bread, and traveled with snacks for lunch if needed. On the day we ventured down the Amalfi Coast by bus, however, we weren’t sure we even wanted lunch!

While escorted bus tours along the 30-mile Amalfi Coast are abundant, we chose to do the trip on the cheaper, and perhaps more thrilling, public bus from Sorrento. As the bus whirled around hairpin turns hugging vertical landscapes, honking warnings at oncoming vehicles to give way, some of us on the bus felt a bit queasy. Occasional stops to either pull in the vehicle’s side view mirrors on especially narrow passages or, as in our case, to prevent sending another vehicle soaring over the side of the cliff, were welcome relief. Nonetheless, we all agreed that the rugged Mediterranean coastal views were worth it.

Amalfi itself, with a population of only 7000, is the coast’s largest town. Once a maritime power, but destroyed by a tidal wave in 1343, it is now a popular resort. The main attraction is the 1000-year old Byzantine Cathedral, where a wedding was taking place on the day we were there. Bus tours generally disgorge their passengers for an hour or so of souvenir shopping. Bypassing most of this, we found a cup of espresso in a small seaside bar, and local fruit and cheese shops within the tangled alleyways that appeared to have changed little since medieval times.

Half-way between Amalfi and Sorrento is the picturesque town of Positano. Built into a ravine, it consists of red-tile roofed houses, shops, and cafes that seem to trickle down the mountain to the small but popular beach. With steep and narrow streets, most of the town is a pedestrian zone. Even a bridal party on their way to the church had to navigate the cobblestone walk, with shopkeepers and travelers alike looking on with delight.

Finally ready for lunch, we popped into a Positano deli to see what we could find. All the gluten eaters placed their sandwich orders first. When it was my turn, I tentatively asked only for a hunk of fresh mozzarella cheese, mentioning that my mother and I had celiachia, and couldn’t eat bread. Without a word, the server set about cleaning up the sandwich prep area, went to the sink to wash his hands, and on return, pointed to a ham with a package stating “senza glutine.” A few minutes later, carrying my package of ham and cheese to a bench by the beach, along with a bagful of grapes purchased earlier, it certainly felt like la dolce vita, the sweet life.

Unfortunately, we still had to face the overnight train back home from Naples. With Al Capone once again as our conductor, and feeling an odd sense of security, I actually caught snippets of sleep through the night. Heck, I thought, I could do this again. For the pizza! (October 2006)

Hotel del Corso, Corso Italia 134, Sorrento. Tel. 081-807-1016.

Pizzeria Ciro a San Brigida, via S. Brigida 71/75, Napoli. Tel. 081-5524072.

Ristorante Pizzeria La Fenice, via degli Aranci 11, Sorrento. Tel. 081-8781652.

Osteria La Stalla, via Pieta 30, Sorrento. Tel. 081-8074145.