No Room at the Pizzeria: A trip to a Pescheria – Pescheria Azzurra
We all think we know the story of the nativity. Mary and Joseph tirelessly tromping through Bethlehem, fully booked inns, and alas a humble birth in a barn. Also, there were some wise men, angels and barnyard animals that sort of nebulously lurked around, not necessarily in any adherence to chronological order/ biblical accuracy. At least that was what my childhood nativity set, which all fit comfortably into a collapsible wooden box that also doubled as a barn, would seem to have suggested to me. But oh, somehow Naples does even the nativity with more panache than your average, albeit imaginative, American child.
Neapolitan nativity scenes are the stuff of legend. Portraits of quotidian life in miniature, they often sprawl the width of roadside grottos, or household foyers. They employ motors, water elements, figurines of butchers, bakers, pizzaioli, animals, towns folk, wise men, and oh, yes, even the holy family. In fact these nativity, locally known as presepe, are often so theatrically elaborate, it is difficult to spot the actual star of the show- Jesus! Also, if Neapolitan crèche are to be believed, Lady Gaga, Psy (of Gangnam Style fame), Silvio Berlusconi, Fidel Castro, and yes, god help us all, even Donald J. Trump may have all been alternately present as Jesus humbly gasped his first breath. Presepe, little shows within shows that they are, appeal quite organically to the Neapolitan’s preternatural sense of pageantry. And that is why you will even find presepe made out of pizza on the mean streets of Naples.
Being a bit of a pageant master myself, I have always had a thing for Neapolitan presepe. And if you have any desire to peak behind the scenes of the Neapolitan nativity show, you must absolutely take a stroll down (or up as it were) the famous street, which is really more of a glorified alley, San Gregorio Armeno in Napoli’s Centro Storico. On this street, you will find every possible object necessary to build a Neapolitan crèche of your own. Such accruement include but are not limited to: water powered mills; grottos made of local stones; bark; plastic charcuterie and if you find you must stick to tradition, a vast selection of baby Jesus(es) made of every material known to man. For years I have wanted to build a real presepe. And for years I have tried and failed to convince my husband that we need to make a sizable investment in a large hydraulic powered, stone and moss covered nativity scene from this very street. As a consolation prize, I have managed to amass quite an impressive collection of miniature pork products, all hand made by the lovely artisans on San Gregorio Armeno.
This year has been no different. Once again, having unsuccessfully attempted to invest in a handsomely rococo- style nativity set, I resigned myself to enjoying a nice meal on the Via dei Tribunali, off the upper end of San Gregorio Armeno. And if attempting to sort through the vast array of presepe accruement is dizzying, just try to imagine selecting a dining establishment on Via dei Tribunali.
For those in the know, Via dei Tribunali is namely famous for one thing: pizza, and most specifically Sorbillo. In 1935 the original Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo began serving the public, and now in 2016, hordes of hungry people dutifully form wild queues in front of the establishment as they wait to inhale the lauded Margherita pizzas. Last week, as if on a fool’s errand, I reported to Sorbillo at 8:00PM on Saturday after a jaunt up San Gregorio Armeno. Having lived in and around Naples for the past several years, I remain ever hopeful that I might just aimlessly amble into the original Sorbillo, enjoy a civilized pizza Margherita and possibly a glass of Aglianico and, every single time this happens, I get figuratively (and sometimes literally) b*tch slapped by my own hopeless naiveté.
So last week, just as there was no room at the inn for little baby Jesus Christ, there was no room at the Pizzeria Sorbillo for stupid little me. To be sure there are many delicious dining alternatives to the original Sorbillo on Via dei Tribunali. There is of course, Esterina Sorbillo that sells traditional pizza fritta, just two steps down the block from the pizzeria. Folded into a half-moon, pizza fritta is stuffed with ricotta, flecks of salami, provolone and fresh tomatoes, and then fried in piping hot oil. As with most fried foods, pizza fritta is, well, scrumptious, and the pizza fritta from Esterina Sorbillo is arguably the best in Napoli. I highly and predictably recommend it. It also bears noting that one need not wait two hours for the privilege of ordering a pizza fritta from Esterina, as is the case with the Margherita pizza at Gino Sorbillo.
You can also easily walk five meters down Tribunali to Antica Pizzeria I Decumani, which offers Margherita pizza as good as Sorbillo’s and does not require a two hour wait. But then, attempting to categorically understand why people form long lines to eat things like cronuts and pizza is about as useless as trying to understand Italian electoral reform laws. Pizza, while it may be worthy of pilgrimages here, is just pizza after all. If it all really goes to pot, you can just go to the Panetteria Coppola one door down from Sorbillo, buy several almond tarallo (little bagel looking biscuits, baked with lard and studded with almonds and pepper) and inhale them while simultaneously guzzling fizzy red Gragnango wine from the nearby Enoteca Vinorum Historia. In the interest of full disclosure, I also did that on my erstwhile visit to Sorbillo and in a fit of gluttony, I damn near bit through the miniature plastic salami I had bought on my stroll down San Gregorio Armeno.
While it is nearly impossible to eat salubriously on the Via dei Tribunali, if you are looking for lighter alternatives to fried pizza, I would suggest making your way further afield to Pescheria Azurra in the Pignasecca which is what I did just that very night I got b*tch slapped, as per usual, by Sorbillo. A brisk fifteen-minute walk from Via dei Tribunali, Pescheria Azzura is both fishmonger by day and trattoria by day and night. As one might guess by the name, the trattoria specializes in what else but…..seafood.
Hungry and frazzled by my aborted dining attempt at Pizzeria Sorbillo, I happily found a high top table at Pescheria Azzura where I promptly ordered a bottle of Falanghina. The trattoria is tiny, featuring an unassuming collection of out door tables and a small galley kitchen, which smells pleasantly of fried calamari. Ciro Gagliotta, the chef who hails from nearby San Giovanni a Teduccio is amiable and quick with recommendations for the harried diner on the verge of an apoplectic, Sorbillo line induced meltdown such as myself. That night, after eschewing fried pizza in search of something on the lighter side, I rather un-ironically order a frittura misto of fish, which was lightly battered, freshly fried (beware, many places actually serve soggy pre-fried calamari!) and most importantly abundant. Remarkably, for all of this, I paid a sum total of 10 euro, which made me one happy customer.
In fact, I was so happy with the unexpected calm I found at Pescheria Azurra, that I have subsequently returned to the trattoria no less than three times in the past week. The spaghetti alle vongole (spaghetti with clams), a Neapolitan staple, can be ordered with or without tomatoes. I prefer with tomatoes, though I am the first to admit that this is more for the extra splash of color than for taste. The spaghetti alle vongole contains just the right amount of briny, piquant sauce to enjoy a good swirly scarpetta, the time honored Neapolitan ritual of dipping and swishing bread in any residual sauce. I also enjoyed the polpo all’insalata (octopus salad) a dish that I often order in Naples to determine whether I wish to return to heretofore, untested dining establishments. If the octopus is in the least tough or chewy, I don’t return. The secret to tender octopus is, somewhat counter intuitively to freeze the cephalopod before preparing. While I never bothered to ask Ciro about his particular tricks, Pescheria Azurra’s octopus salad was both tender and not annoyingly loaded with boiled potato or cannellini beans. This was indication enough that Ciro knows what he is doing and doesn’t plan to shanghai his diners in the process. The impepata of cozze (mussels in a simple sauce of garlic, olive oil and parsley) is also a winning alternative for those of us who enjoy the act of dunking bread in fishy sauce and/or just generally eating with our hands.
Pescheria Azurra, is the kind of trattoria I constantly seek in Napoli – unpretentious; absent of the seemingly ubiquitous ‘buona sera’ boys who obnoxiously foist laminated picture book menus printed in 17 different languages upon unwitting passersby; and most importantly, an honest testament to the cucina povera (poor man’s cuisine) that defines the Neapolitan table. So while I failed to find a room at the proverbial inn, and still don’t have that rococo nativity set, the loaves and fish at Pescheria Azurra miraculously multiplied all the same.
*Pescheria Azurra is located at Via Portamedina, 5, 80134 Napoli. It is open daily from 10AM-11:30PM daily, except Sundays when it closes at 3PM.