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Epicurean Destination Guide to Naples, Italy

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The Naples, Italy hotels and restaurants recommended here include:
 
 
 
 
 

Nattily in Naples

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The Bay of Naples counts among those natural formations in whose presence your eye returns again and again, looking with wonder and appreciation, like the grandeur of the Rockies viewed from the prairies of central Colorado, or the Alhambra in Granada. The Bay encompasses a teeming world of culture and history, commotion, with the majesty of Mount Vesuvio rising above it all.

We had avoided Naples on a previous trip to Italy. Thankfully so, since driving in this chaotic, grimy city would have quickly dissuaded us from staying. This time, we arrived without a vehicle to tie us down from exploring the streets, the old city, the small and large plazas, the little but lovely markets. Naples, the city, has a certain character, home-spun sophistication, and charm that grows on you, only slowly. It is a city, almost still a city-state, with bustle galore. It rises, and plunges, and slopes away from the aesthetically pure crescent-shape of the Bay, with Ferniculare that take denizens up and down the hills to and away from the sea.

Naples, the region, the hinterlands of the city-state, is wonderful too. One feels almost constantly that you can reach almost anywhere on earth from Naples. Ferries and ships depart regularly, seemingly in every direction. Yet all one needs to do is take a short ride to somewhere like Sorrento, or the famed Isle of Capri, and you have transported yourself to another time and another pace.

One such place is Sant'Agata. Sant'Agata sui Due Golfi (Saint Agatha on the Two Gulfs), between Sorrento and Positano, is the small capital of the Sorrentine Peninsula, and acts as a divide between the Gulf of Naples and the Gulf of Salerno. It is in this town that Don Alfonso 1890 welcomes travelers and gourmet connoisseurs into its albergo and restaurant. Upon dining there for lunch, it came as no surprise that this is a Relais & Chateaux property, full of French aesthetics that felt a bit out of place on the Bay of Naples. Attentive service complimented dishes that spoke to a refined blend of French & Italian cuisines.

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There is no season for Naples, unless you follow the crowds of summer and early fall. In late December, it was much more than pleasant.

We stayed in the "best hotels," two of them on a five-night interlude. Both, almost next door to one another in the area called Santa Lucia, were owned by a company called Prestige Hotels: the "Grande Albergo Vesuvio" and the venerable "Excelsior." Each had a completely different quality.

The Hotel Vesuvio looks directly out on the Castel Ouvo, a medieval monolith covering a tiny island just offshore, reached by a bridge. It ranks amongst the best hotels in the world not simply for its location--there are lots of hotels here, with gorgeous, broad views over Bay of Naples--but for its completely unbegrudging service, well-appointed and unpretentious rooms, and generally immaculate character. It lacks the same ambiance as the Excelsior, though neither property wants for history or famous guests. Let's just say that you do not fully appreciate the quotidian charms of the Vesuvio until you leave.

The Excelsior, by contrast, gave us a fantastic, if diminutive, bedroom with a gigantic curving terrace overlooking the Bay from the fifth floor, and equally large dual sets of French doors leading to this outer world of splendid scenery. It never satisfied to be in the room without the French doors swung open to view the Bay and the mountains. The large bathroom was pleasant, finished in hued marble.

Ours counted among the yet-to-be-remodeled rooms, with chipping paint, wear marks, and giant gaps of window caulking in the French doors. There were lots of scratches, dents, and imperfections of time. The concrete on the balcony above had fallen away, exposing rusting steel rebar underneath. But it had character: truly, a room with a view. It was not immaculate, like the Vesuvio, and the staff were undoubtedly grumpier, more Neapolitan, perhaps. If we had received a lesser room, we would not have been charmed by the Excelsior.

Naples the city has treasures well worth exploring, including the national archeological museum and the pallazzo reale. Known for its petty crime, we never encountered any problems though we could easily see how the narrow winding streets, dark at night, could encourage muggings and pickpockets. It is also a good base for seeing Pompei and Herculaneum. A fast, non-stop train runs to and from Rome several times a day.

Naples has no large, primary food market, though we found a wonderful smaller outdoor market stocking fresh fish and produce. The Madonna (left) looked after all those assembled.

As for restaurants, we sampled the city’s only Michelin one-star, La Cantinella, for lunch without being overwhelmed; it was good, not much better than some others, and expensive. La Sacrestia has a superb location on the heights above the Mergellina district, and the menu will please sophisticates of Neapolitan cuisine, particularly their typical Campanian-style seafood and pasta dishes. The historical ambiance, attentive service, and ample wine selection made for a completely pleasing meal. Breakfast at the Hotel Vesuvio was wonderful, especially the Buffalo-milk Mozzarella. Pick out a Neapolitan pizza restaurant that looks good and give it a whirl--they will all make your mouth water.

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Photogrqaphs copyright Charles Leary & Vaughn Perret

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