Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Sorrento on $85 a Day – Pizza and Penises

Doorbells Used in Pompeii and Herculaneum
David and I both wanted to go to Naples. The National Archaeological Museum houses most of the art, floor mosaics, architectural details, and household items removed from Herculaneum and Pompeii, leaving, as David said, the lava/ash covered cities as simple shells while the true “life” of those cities is displayed and protected in the Museum, one of the world's best. Of all the magnificent places we planned to see on the trip, this is the one David anticipated the most.

I wanted to go to Naples for the pizza.

Not just any pizza. I wanted to taste the stuff Liz Gilbert rhapsodized about in her book Eat, Pray, Love. When her friend heard she was going to Naples for the day, he told her she had to eat at Pizzeria da Michele. No matter what happened or what else she saw in the city, she should not miss this pizza; if she didn't go, he wanted her to lie and say she did.

We're not the only people to make the trek to this unprepossessing pizza spot just a few blocks from the Napoli Centrale train station. Movie stills from Eat, Pray, Love of Julia Roberts, with slice in hand, decorate the walls, and diners have their photos taken with the owner. When we left, the line stretched across the street.

And the double-mozzarella Margherita pizza? It's runny and impossible to pick up and eat using your hands (Julia Roberts can evidently do things mere mortals cannot.), but it is good. I kept wishing we'd ordered two instead of splitting one order.

But it's not my favorite pizza. Liz Gilbert's preference is fine, but give me thick, Sicilian pizza that has some heft to it. It's weighty stuff with a thick, airy crust and a medley of tomatoes, spices, and cheese on top. The best, of course, is in Capri at the Salumeria Rosticeria. I first tasted it seven years ago and found it again on this trip. Pizza like this you don't forget.

I could have lingered at the restaurant, but David was anxious to see the Museum and it was immediately obvious why this place was so important to him. The mosaics and wall scenes are remarkably detailed and colorful. The sculptures and bronzes are impressive and varied with many of the gods and goddesses represented. I was in awe that people could have created such fragile, delicately hued glass vases and jars almost two thousand years ago, because many of the pieces are masterpieces of craftsmanship. But the area that really astonished me was the section devoted to erotic art.

Evidently, wealthy Romans of the time had to include some erotica to have a well-balanced collection but many homes, even the most humble, contained some ribald pieces. Oil lamps and door bells were often phallus-shaped to ward off evil spirits. When we toured Pompeii itself, we read that shopkeepers had an unusual way of ensuring prosperity. They depicted, near the shop entrance, the god of fertility, Priapus, resting his enormous member on the plate of a scale.

I hope all those genitalia brought the ancient Romans prosperity, but they did little to ward off destruction. These incredibly diverse, sophisticated people who created beautiful art and cities that thrived were destroyed by the now benign-looking Mt. Vesuvius. David and I left the Museum with a greater appreciation for their history and sadness at their terrible fate.

Practicalities -
Pizzeria da San Michele is a fifteen-minute walk from the train station. We Google-mapped walking directions and stopped frequently to ask passersby if we were on track. Get there before noon if you don't want to wait in line.

The National Museum is easily reached by taking the Metro from the Napoli Centrale train station. Get off one stop later at Piazza Cavour, go up to the street, turn right and walk a few blocks. Admission is 6.50 euros.

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