Christmas markets never without atmosphere, handmade items to buy and spicy treats. Why not choose to look for all this in a city where you can eat divinely and, what’s more, there is a district where it is Christmas all year round?
Naples is a fantastic destination in any season, but it truly becomes a marvel in the winter months: festively decorated, cosy and cheerful, it also offers a huge selection of the world’s best pizzas, all worth trying.
We have used our Neapolitan Christmas travels to create two itineraries to intersect, amidst curiosity, festive spirit and also pizza. Suitable for any time of year, these tours are at their best between November and December.
So, let’s get going, or better… jamm ja!
The cultural and folklore itinerary
A journey of discovery of the most picturesque Naples can only start from San Gregorio Armeno, also known as the street of the nativity scenes or of the shepherds. Any time of year has its charm, but in December, this is where everyone goes. The ideal place to buy statuettes and nativity figures, reproductions of saints alongside famous footballers, decorations for the tree and interesting curiosities from the Neapolitan tradition and beyond. Here is the ‘over-the-top’ Naples that amazes and makes travellers fall in love.
A few steps and you are on Via Benedetto Croce, the famous Neapolitan philosopher who lived in the neighbourhood. Not only is it a quaint street and a reminder of the city’s cultural ferment, but it is also and above all one of the streets listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the district known as Spaccanapoli, because it divides the ancient city, with its Greek layout, into a North and a South zone.
As well as browsing among the historical buildings and churches, it is always a good idea to stop and have a look at the church of Santa Marta, where several nativity scenes by local artists are set up, not as spectacular as those in San Gregorio Armeno, but of unique beauty.
Before reaching the church, however, it is a good idea to venture into the same streets of the historical centre to reach via Francesco de Sanctis, where the Sansevero Chapel is located. This is where the famous statue of the Veiled Christ, sculpted by Giuseppe Sanmartino in 1753, is kept. The work attracts up to 750,000 visitors a year owing to the spectacular rendering of the veil that covers the statue of Christ: of an almost impalpable transparency and sculpted entirely in marble, the veil has inspired fanciful legends – all without foundation – on the mysterious alchemical processes that would have allowed its creation.
To complete the shopping spree, one must head to the more traditional book stalls in the street of San Biagio dei Librai, where there are bookshops and sellers of local handicrafts. Here, surrounded by the smell of old paper and the voices of the people, the purest immersion into the Spaccanapoli district is experienced.
The real Neapolitan pizza, in six variations
Before, after and during these excursions around the city, one cannot help but stop for a pizza, attracted by the aromas that accompany us at every turn and are renewed at every corner.
Before plunging into tasting, a clear distinction must be made between all types of pizza, so we can understand their taste and differences.
There are mainly two types of pizza in Naples:
1. Pizza napoletana STG. A guaranteed traditional speciality (a ‘low-hydration’ dough regulated by a strict specification in 2010), with a low crust and baked exclusively in a wood-fired oven. And it is only margherita or marinara
2. Pizza “classica”. pizza. This is like STG but with fillings that are not the two traditional ones.
3. Pizza a Portafoglio. To be eaten on the street, folded onto itself, after having bought it at a stall, as tradition dictates.
4. Pizza Fritta. As the name suggests, it is filled (often with ricotta cheese, ciccioli (pork rinds), pepper and tomato) and then fried in hot oil. Although not light, it is an irresistible snack, to be enjoyed during a long walk through the winding streets of Naples, both the above-ground and the equally fascinating underground streets.
5. Pizza a ruota di carro. The ‘wagon wheel pizza’ hailed to fame by two famous pizza chefs, Gino Sorbillo at the Tribunali area and Michele at Forcella, it is huge and has no rim, pops out of the dish, and fills any tummy.
6. Pizza a canotto. With its giant, soft crust: now famous and appreciated even across national borders, it is mainly known thanks to Carlo Sammarco, the prophet of the new type of Neapolitan pizza.
The pizza itinerary
For this second tour of the city, which can easily cross and alternate with the first, we set off from the Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, famous also for being the oldest pizzeria in the world, having opened in 1738. This is where street vendors used to go to stock up on pizzas alla marinara to sell on the street and, therefore, it is the right place to taste the pizza a portafoglio, while standing of course.
Speaking of historic places, a trip to the seaside area is also worthwhile: Ristorante Pizzeria Da Ettore in the Santa Lucia district has been a reference for over eighty years with its low, crispy pizza. As per tradition in the best Neapolitan pizzerias, there are only a few variations on the menu to focus on quality. What to taste While the Margherita and Marinara are inevitable and always perfect, the pizza with squid, prawns and seafood, called ‘alla Pescatora’, is also worth trying.
Not far away, just a stone’s throw from the Riviera di Chiaia, take a break from eating pizza and enjoy the specialities of Ristorante Dora. Here seafood is genuinely classic, with fresh fish, seafood and shellfish dishes that keep the tradition of true Neapolitan cuisine alive in a friendly and cheerful ambience.
Moving further west, to Fuorigrotta, between the Diego Armando Maradona stadium and the Campi Flegrei railway station, head to Ristorante-pizzeria Ciarly where the ‘canotto’ pizza is the star dish: a very high, fluffy crust and lavish toppings, for those who fancy a more contemporary version of the Neapolitan speciality.
Heading back towards the city centre, though it will be very difficult to pass by Pasticceria Poppella and not stop to taste the fluffy, famous fiocchi di neve (snowflakes), staying focused on the next target, which is Pizza Fritta, is paramount. This is a tiny shop in the Quartieri Spagnoli, an intricate network of alleyways built in the 16th century to house the Spanish military garrisons of the then Viceroy of Naples. With low prices and limited options, Pizza Fritta retains its popular charm and the secret of its success: the flawlessness of a long-standing recipe.
The final option, involving a great deal of patience for the long wait, is the Pizza a ruota di carro (‘wagon wheel’) to try at the two pizzerias that brought it fame, Da Michele in the Forcella district and Gino Sorbillo in Via dei Tribunali.
Or, if after a visit to the Paleo-Christian Catacombs and a tour of the ancient Baroque buildings you are feeling hunger pangs, stop by Concettina ai Tre Santi, another successful pizzeria that is also a declaration of love for the old Rione Sanità, which has been home to it since 1951.
The goodness, combined with the informal and cheerful atmosphere typical of Naples, is always worth the wait.
Some useful info:
- When entering the city’s oldest and most intricate neighbourhoods, like Rione Sanità and the Quartieri Spagnoli, we suggest being accompanied by a professional guide. This way you will discover interesting sights and avoid the risk of not finding your way, especially in the evenings.
- Naples has various underground lines, some of them very scenic: don’t miss the Toledo stop, designed by Spanish architect Óscar Tusquets.
- The city is an open-air museum of tradition and ancient splendour, and even contemporary art has its home. You will find it at the Madre Museum in the old city centre.
- In Naples, traffic can be very chaotic, and this is something to consider if you need to be on time to catch a train or plane.
Pizza, even at home
Once you have tasted Neapolitan pizza, you will certainly have fallen in love with it, but the Italian pizza-making tradition is so vast and versatile that you can make a delicious pizza even at home. This is our quick and easy recipe for homemade pizza: it will not replace Neapolitan pizza in your hearts, but it could become a happy and good alternative whenever you feel like it!