Somehow, a good night’s sleep has always seemed to reenergize my perspective, and this night was no different. Despite my brushes with nearly being arrested, mugged, then molested by a Vatican Guard (doesn’t everyone go to Vatican City for a “sex-elevator-of-doom” story!?), I somehow got up the courage to get on that train and head to Napoli. Down-in-the-dumps and discouraged, I was lifted by my father’s e-mail encouragement that maybe I “just needed to get out of Rome”. And get out of Rome I did…
Missed Detail(s) #3 – 100: I Failed to Remember Just About Everything Related to the Napoli Experience, Except for How Good the Pizza Is…
Having been taken in by the experience described in Eat, Pray, Love, trying the “best pizza in the world” at pizza’s birthplace had become an item high on my bucket list. I left Rome plenty early, navigated “Termini” and, anxious I may have boarded the wrong train, began my journey to Pizzeria Michelle in Napoli.
I just didn’t realize how hard it would be to find…
I’d imagined a peaceful and scenic train ride. However, after spending an hour struggling to get my cell phone service working, it started up just in time to receive a call from my absolutely frazzled and frantic father. Having booked my hotel online for only two nights in Rome, I found that adding extra days directly at the front desk saved me considerable cash. However, the clerk forgot to process the order and, expecting me to check-out on this day, staff cleared my things from the room and called my listed “emergency contact”. At 4:30am Chicago-time, they woke my dad from a deep sleep to inform him I was missing. The poor man. I felt terrible and amply angry, giving him every reassurance that I was fine and in transit. I then had to figure out a way to call the hotel and recover my things. I felt as though Italy was just spitting me out… things needed to get better, and fast.
The train sped on and, before long, I arrived in Napoli. I wound through Napoli’s terminal and out into the streets, where I was immediately greeted by signs announcing I was in… :
Mexico? My thoughts spun as, after all I’d been though, I’d begun questioning everything. Okay… I’d been to Mexico before, and this is what it looked like. Was I having some sort of dream? I’m not very good with geography… and I did take a train south…
I will meekly admit… my heart did skip a beat, and I really did catch myself wondering if I’d accidentally ended up in Mexico. I was so tired.
But I moved on to a whole new set of heart palpitations. The map I had showed that I had, roughly, a 45 minute walk to the Pizzeria. This seemed perfect, in theory, as it was a nice day and allowed me to see a bit of the city on the way. But it took only about 50 steps to realize that this was a bad idea.
Napoli may be the most destitute place I’ve been. As I walked past the bus stop, I noticed that locals had gathered on a small patch of grass to sell… garbage. Anything they could. One man had everything from cracked, empty CD cases to cigarette butts laid out on a blanket. This was poverty – truly sad.
I turned the corner to find more trash than people lining the streets. Garbage blew all around me, formed stack after stack along the storefronts and no one besides me seemed to notice. I felt frightened, knowing that, once again, I stood apart from everyone: my blond hair, map and crisp cream-colored coat glowing through the grey. I gripped my bag and made my way quickly back to the terminal, feeling absolute defeat.
I sat on a bench for awhile to gather my thoughts. I observed how things were so similar to home, yet served as reminders that I was so far from it. I tried to use the restroom, but it cost money, and I didn’t have the right coins. And I just didn’t know what to do.
A woman noticed me and came up to introduce herself, explaining that she was from the terminal’s tourist center and asking if I needed help. God bless her… before I knew it I had a bus schedule and passes on route to the waterfront.
The bus proved the most stressful part of the day. I returned to the run down bus stop where I waited for over a half hour, anxious, stared down by those around me and a bit uncertain of how to tell the buses apart. Finally I was aboard, seated next to an adorable old man who chatted my ear off, every word in Italian and not a single one understood. We had a moment as he finally understood that I was from “Chicago”; “Michael Jordan!” he exclaimed. It was comforting to have a friend, though during the rest of the dialogue he may very well have been telling me he likes to kill puppies.
A man a few seats behind spoke up. From a remote part of India, he’d come to Italy eight years prior to become a chef. This proved to be a much greater struggle than he anticipated, and he’d recently moved to Napoli to take a job with a hotel as a waiter, hoping to work his way up. He knew the angst I was about to face locating my bus stop, and intervened to tell me that there were actually two stops of the same name. Thank goodness he did, because I needed the second and would have exited too early. I came to believe, strongly, in my guardian angel while traveling alone as these small, uninvited interventions kept happening at just the right times.
I exited the bus on the waterfront, gorgeous, and walked two blocks to the Pizzeria. A Pizzeria. I stared, questioning, in deep confusion.
If there was anything I did remember from the book, it’s that the pizzeria was supposed to be a hole-in-the-wall establishment, packed with locals, always a wait, an aged building, a bit beat-up. This restaurant was empty, except for a occupied table for two. It was new and had fancy air about it.
And I had come all this way, done all this work, and was now at the wrong place.
For the second time that day I found myself sitting on a bench, questioning the meaning of it all and ruing the day I’d chosen to venture off alone. With just a bit of battery left in my cell phone, I quickly Googled the hell out of the world’s first pizzeria, and discovered that the woman in the terminal had made a mistake; she’d sent me to a restaurant named after the pizza I wanted to try, Pizzeria Margherita. I saw a cab stand nearby and, knowing this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, made the decision on-the-spot that I was getting to that pizzeria, no matter what the cost.
I hopped in a cab and asked the driver to take me to Pizzeria Michelle. Pronounced like “Michelle Pfeiffer” or any other Michelle I’d encountered in my life. Annoyed by my Americanism, he asked me to get out of his cab.
Another cabbie, out for a smoke, beckoned to me. He asked me where I wanted to go and, also, had no idea what I was talking about but was much nicer about it. Handing me a notepad and paper, he had me write down the location. “Oh! Pizzeria ‘Mick-el-lay’!” he smiled with both recognition and amusement. “Si, si… I take you”.
Back into the narrow, crowded, dingy streets we went and, after about ten minutes… I arrived!! With much gratitude, I handed over the cabbie’s cash, walked through the door, and my whole Italian experience got betta’. Much betta’.
Allow me to introduce Carlo and Tony:
When dining at Pizzeria Michelle, to make the most of the small space, patrons are encouraged to dine with others in the restaurant. I was seated at a table with these fine gentlemen. I felt awkward about this and made sure it was okay — This is not something we’re accustomed to in the States. They were welcoming and I could tell they were humorously figuring out how to handle this, as they each spoke very little English.
They began by offering me a beverage, a mixed cocktail of beer and Coke which I was convinced would taste terrible and turned away. At their push, however, I tried the combination. And ended up having two.
Conversation was fabulous and amusing and the most fun I’d had in awhile. Between my Spanish and English, the Universal language of Charades, a little help from the Google translator on my phone and their slight knowledge of English, we accomplished quite a lot. The two were policemen from nearby Pompeii, and were in town for a court case against a blue-collar criminal. We discussed their families, my work, my trip, etc. A good portion of the conversation, however, revolved around the differences between America and Italy.
“We were going to take the rest of the day off – go back to Pompeii. But today we take you to learn the ways of Napolii. You Americans, you’re in a rush, rush, always going. Everything frantic and important. You take no time to know each other. You don’t see each other. Today you will learn the art of slow food, not fast food. You will eat a whole pizza. Then we will take you for desert. Slow food, no more rushing. Enjoying every bite. Remembering every minute.”
And they were right. I remember every minute. And I remember what it was like to eat what was, truly, the best pizza in the world:
I laughed when it arrived at the table, for there was no way that tiny me was going to finish this pizza. But… my God… this was like nothing I had ever experienced. The crust was full of bubbles, the bread literally melting right along with the cheese as it touched the tongue. The sauce was fresh tomato meets all exotic spices known to man; a taste I’d never experienced and wanted to bottle, bathe in, put on my cereal in the morning. The best part, the fresh basil in the center, was the most cherished bite and, as if by magic, infused through every molecule of cheese. This.was.amazing.
And, I did. I ate the whole thing.
The staff at the restaurant were distracted by me from the second I entered, playfully getting into every picture I took, inviting me back in the kitchen and, I’m fairly convinced, believing that I was a friend of Julia Roberts’. There was a picture of her on the wall from when she filmed there the year before, and they kept calling out her name and giving me a thumbs up. They loved their jobs, were warm and welcoming and made my day.
Lunch lasted and lasted unfolding into the perfect afternoon. Carlo and Tony had informed me that we would be going to desert after lunch; I assumed next door. The staff at the pizzeria gave me the pizza for free, Carlo and Tony covered the beer Cokes. The hospitality was so welcome. We were out the door and… on to their car.
Now this was a real moment. I had experience SO much misfortune in Italy and had grown to trust no one. But these guys had been SO sweet; full of positive energy. There wasn’t a bone of my body that told me I was in any sort of danger. So, with every news story I’d ever heard about girls gone missing on vacation echoing in my mind, I chose to go with them.
And boy, was I glad I did.
Next thing I knew, we arrived at a small coffee shop near the train Termini. Carlo got me one of the European’s infamous tiny cups of cafe (espresso), and it was rich and amazing and took us 45 minutes to finish, again, taking in everything as if it were some relaxation exercise. We then walked to the pastry shop next door, where I experienced absolute bliss. Though not a fan of orange deserts, I can only describe what I experienced as a sweet near-crossaunt, a cake-like, super thin, crispy roll-like desert with a clear and crispy sugar shell around it. Again, dissolvable once in the mouth, fresh from a stone oven, a perfect level of hot and divine.
I did not want to go back to Rome. But the day had worn on, and the train was soon a-coming. I parted with my friends, exchanging email information and, before I knew it, was back in Roma! Some good news from a Roman friend who now lives in New York greeted me; she’d located a friend of hers to show me around the next day. And, full, fed, and truly blessed, I slept well for the first night there.
The next day I would explore Roma! the right way. In the company of one of its finest… Ivo!