After a week of food poisoning and many skipped classes, I’m thrilled to meet my close friend Jiselle in Napoli on Carnevale weekend. Her husband Luigi was born and raised in Torre Del Greco, a town at the base of the active volcano Vesuvius, just outside of the city center. They invited me to spend the weekend with them, exploring like a local, and I couldn’t say no. It would be too stupid to pass up on that offer.
On Friday afternoon, I drive 90 minutes from Valledolmo to Palermo. I plan to sleep the night there and only commute for 20 minutes to catch my early morning flight. Only when I check into the Airbnb, I realize I stupidly left my passports — both of them — in my bedroom back at the convent. I call around to see if anyone is planning to come this way at the last minute but I figure my chances are slim — and I’m correct. Should I make the drive twice again? Sigh... FOMO kicks in, as it always does, and Spotify saves my life. All in all, I drive for 8 hours tonight.
I hardly sleep on the flight. I’m way too excited to see an old friend and I just can’t believe that I’m flying over the Amalfi Coast, cruising over Calabria, the region where my family history is rooted. Seeing the coastlines makes me daydream of a future trip. As we begin our descent into Napoli, layers of multi-colored apartment buildings invade the window’s view. Andiamo!
Jiselle and I play phone tag, texting where to meet while moving all too quickly. Eventually, we hug each other so tight that our circulation is at risk. We hop in the trendiest Fiat 500 (manual, of course) and drop my bag off to the hotel before embarking on a personal walking food tour.
Luigi leads the way. We pass the most romantic marina, Porto di Torre del Greco, while heading to the piazza. Here the white-washed neoclassical Basilica di Santa Croce stands in the heart of the town. It’s where Luigi’s parents first said their vows after parading through the streets, walking from their homes to the church and back on their special day — a beautiful Italian tradition.
I forget that it’s Carnival until I spot two brothers kitted out in glittery suits with afros. They’re both singing into golden microphones that add a deep, echo to their cries. It’s extremely cute but it makes my ears bleed. I learn that Carnival in Italy, carnevale, is similar to Halloween in America. Parents dress their children in costumes and parade on the streets to celebrate (they don’t drink alcohol half-naked like we do in Trinidad).
Many vendors set up shop merely five feet apart selling super hero masks, bags of paper confetti and cans of Silly String for just €1. Jiselle and I freak out — it’s been SO LONG since either of us have seen, or even considered, buying Silly String. Luigi bought Jiselle a can for her birthday (that’s tomorrow) and her face lit up like a kid’s on Christmas morning. Happy wife, happy life, they say.
After wasting half of the can spraying Luigi and dying from a laughing fit, Jiselle finds kids to share the wealth with. They dance merrily under confetti showers and all is well in the world. I wish I had a child’s innocence. The bricks and cement under our feet are almost completely hidden under confetti and bright streamers. I’m transported back to my childhood when we walked the streets in the aftermath of Mas, collecting beads left behind by masqueraders’ costumes. This warms my homesick heart.
We pause to marvel at an impressive handmade float capturing a detailed scene of a barber shop. The 6-year-old barber with a fedora, bowtie and light handlebar mustache shoos clients away while bossing his father around. Dad is busy fixing the plumbing for the sink. Y’all, WTF. This float actually has running water.
To our surprise, just a few feet away, there’s an official town parade. And it’s no joke. Each registered child is assigned a number and they’re called one by one to strut down a red carpet and explain their costume to the audience and a panel of esteemed judges. The middle-aged judges are cracking up and “awww”ing. I don’t think they’re properly keeping score because they’re busy videotaping the contestants on their phones.
There was a Kim Kardashian, Andy Warhol, a pretty princess and a day-after-partying, walk-of-shame princess whose hair and makeup was tragic. Our favorite was a bed on wheels, carrying a baby nonno and nonna acting out their daily routine: reading papers and drinking coffee.
Although I could stand and watch this competition all day, we decide to get a move on and hit the market like we first intended. We eat and eat and eat. Reminder: I’m still suffering with food poisoning and Luigi gives zero shits about my stomach’s feelings. #YOLO #prayforme
We pass by one too many smelly seafood stalls that make me want to upchuck. After contracting a parasite a seafood restaurant in Trapani last week, I want nothing to do with the ocean. I hurry past these areas to save my nostrils.
At a small market, Jiselle shrieks, “OMG! These are the famous Nutella biscuits that completely sold out in America! And now one bag costs $20.” They’re only €2 here, so we buy a bag, hoping to understand what the hype is all about. Conclusion: these cookies are phenomenal but not worth signing yourself up for highway robbery. I’m most amused by the JUMBO chocolates. A Twix bar is dirt cheap and 10 times the size of my hand. How?
Luigi disappears into a bakery called Mennella. Jiselle runs in after him, swiftly ordering not one, or two, but 12 pizzicotti, a baked bun rolled with copious amounts of leaf lard and ginormous chunks of prosciutto. She claims Luigi’s family will eat whatever’s left back (joke’s on them, though — none survive the trip). We also try babbarini, or cartucce, a delicate almond-based sweet resembling a cigar.
The next stop is a family-run dessert shop, Antica Pasticceria. (Unfortunately, they have no social media presence nor is it marked on any maps, so I dropped a pin for those interested.) Each side of the door is framed with a display window glammed in glitter, beads, luau necklaces and the most popular holiday delicacies. Many families with kids in costumes filter in, requesting the Carnevale special, chiacchiere and sanguinaccio. Behind the cashier, dozens of baggies filled with both are already packaged to hand off.
Luigi asks to take a peek in the kitchen and I eagerly follow. The men preparing the desserts explain that chiacchiere, fried strips of thin, crackly pastry dough, are exclusive to this time of year. It’s sprinkled with icing powder and dipped into a thick, velvety chocolate pudding called sanguinaccio dolce. As told by its name, pig’s blood was a main ingredient until 1992 when the sale of pig’s blood was banned throughout Italy. (And there are many other blood-based desserts too, which comes as no surprise to me. When we slaughtered a pig at school a few weeks ago, we learned that Italians use every bit of the animal. Absolutely nothing goes to waste here.)
I’m intrigued by another dessert in the display. It resembles a lobster tail and I see it everywhere in the South of Italy, but I haven’t tried it yet. Luigi sees me staring and insists on ordering one even though I tell him I’m already full. Italians are forever trying to shove more down your throat. But I shouldn’t complain. I’m a fan of accepting love in the form of food.
Anyone who knows me knows I’m obsessed with cannoli, so sfogliatella naturally wins my heart over. A poof of icing powder explodes everywhere when I take my first bite. The crunch of multiple crispy phyllo dough layers echos loudly in my eardrum and a burst of sweet, creamy filling balances it all out. It’s exactly like a cannolo, just lighter, and I’m in love.
As if we haven’t eaten enough carbs for the morning already, we swing around the corner to Antico Forno Carrieri for pizza. It’s not even 11 o’clock yet and my belly is about to bust. But that doesn’t matter. Apparently, I MUST try pizza a portafoglio, Napoli’s famous “wallet” pizza. Here, one square of a charred margherita pie is folded in half, then into quarters and held together in a piece of parchment paper.
I inhale my Neapolitan-style pizza. I luckily managed to snag the end, so there was minimal grease. But Jiselle, who happily accepted a center slice, soaks the last bit of hers in the oil that pooled at the bottom of her paper wrapper.
Randomly, Luigi’s foot is bleeding. We scramble to find something that can sop the blood. We only have our oily paper wrappers, so I hurry inside and ask for a napkin. The owner hands me another sheet of parchment paper. I guess this will have to work? It looks like some sort of bite with three holes. I suggest bed bugs. Jiselle comforts her husband by telling him that he’s going to die. Great support system.
We drag our heavy bodies back to Luigi’s car. Off of a main road, there’s a tiny alleyway leading to his parents’ house. Luigi stops the car and points at his name “Luigi Speranza” scrappily spray-painted in black on a cement wall. He drives a few feet farther and shows me another “Luigi” spray-painted vertically on the left side of the wrought iron gate of HIS MIDDLE SCHOOL! He reverses into his driveway that’s directly opposite. Jiselle cries of laughter as she recalls his mother’s saying: “Every day at lunch, Luigi would walk 5 feet to get home and scream “Mama!”, his hand sticking through the metal bars, waiting for her to pass him a sandwich.”
Mia is the first to greet us — a mixed breed dog, wearing a diaper. Shhh, she’s on her monthlies. Luigi’s mother Raffaella runs out behind her. I met her once before at their wedding but she doesn’t remember me. We hug and she invites me into her home.
As you walk through the door, you’re met with a “Jiselle shrine”: a tiny, wooden console table overloaded with my friend’s gorgeous face. And of course, various saints fill the bottom shelf because every good Catholic in Italy has ridiculous amounts of religious memorabilia.
We settle around the kitchen table in the family room (it’s a TV room, living room and dining room all in one). Luigi’s mom starts complaining loudly. She is highly offended that we ate breakfast out. She throws a present on the table. In Italy, all pasticcerie and panifici package your order to go by neatly wrapping it in gift paper. This one’s from a bakery around the corner. Inside, there’s an array of baked goods like pizza, pizzicotti, cornetti and crostata — none of which any of us has room for.
Before we hear the gate squeak, we know Luigi’s dad has arrived because Mia sprints out the door. She and Giuseppe have a love affair. Raffaella is the unwanted third wheel. If she only puts her hands on her husband, Mia flips.
Raffaella spent the better half of the morning preparing greens and beans for lunch — Swiss chard and borlotti, to be exact. Fresh pane, primo de sale, prosciutto, green olives, and lupini beans complete the spread. We converse through expressive hand movements and subpar translations from Jiselle and Luigi who have to filter each other’s explanations.
I thought lunch was over after soup and bread. Wrong. Raffaella opens the oven door and there are 10 more courses to go — stuffed eggplant, stuffed peppers, pizza, you name it. I pass on everything to spare my stomach. “Non ti piace?” No matter which way I explain my situation with food poisoning, she still offers me everything and thinks that I hate her food.
We share soft almond paste cookies (pasticcini di mandorle) from Sicily, my gift to the Speranza famiglia, for dessert. As Raffaella bites deep into a biscotto, she directs my attention to a sheet hanging next to the fridge. On it, there’s a schedule for a rather strict diet she’s clearly forgotten about.
Lunch spans over three hours, as each meal regularly does in Italy, and the day is just about over when we attempt to see the famous ruins of Pompeii. The last entrance was at 3:30 p.m. We missed it by 10 minutes. Whatever, though — I’ll have to come back another time.
We walk along a very touristy strip littered with gelaterias, bars with hand-painted penis bottle openers and souvenir shops with penis-shaped Limoncello. After that unnecessarily sexy walk, we reach the town’s center. Ironically, there stands one of the most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen: Pontificio Santuario della Beata Maria Vergine del Santo Rosario di Pompeii.
In the gold-laced basilica, you can make a donation in the name of a loved one. Jiselle’s grandmother Nonna Pina asked her to make a donation for their family members that passed, which inspires me to follow suit. With my cousin Jeffery’s two-year death anniversary a few days away, it feel as though this is a lovely way to honour him — grandpa Tony and Uncle Abe, too.
The soft-spoken nun who assists us with our donations moved from Calabria to Pompeii at 16-years-old. She joined the monastery then and never left. Now, she’s nearing 86 and is possibly the cutest thing ever.
Even though Jiselle and Luigi have been visiting for a week, they haven’t yet driven into Naples so that’s added to the day’s itinerary. Napoli is crowded, so I’m thankful to watch the sights from my comfy seat out of a window. Castel Nuovo is so grand it’s impossible to miss. I mark it on my calendar for my future visit.
Narrow side streets are congested with buzzing bars, mom-and-pop trattorias, tiny doors to tiny home and family sanctuaries dedicated to patron saints. Look above and you barely see the sky through tidal waves of laundry.
When Jiselle orders another pizza (how, I don’t know), we hear the faint beating of drums. Not even a minute later, music thunders down the street triumphantly. A band of middle-aged men — five with banners, eight with instruments — march by with flag-bearers twirling in sync. Another band follows five minutes later with young children at the forefront, being coached on posture, stance, and choreography. It takes me back to jazz on Frenchman Street in NOLA.
Our food tour finally ends at Casa Infante, a dessert chain, serving Napoli’s best dolci. I try the monthly special, ‘Baba in a Cup’: rum-soaked dough in a chocolate and custard parfait. Once you dig the spoon into the pudding, it starts oozing over the edges. There are mini maltesers in the custard that just scream happiness. It’s sweet, strong and possibly best to share.
Jiselle orders nuvole, the softest cream-filled brioche bun I’ve ever had the pleasure of squishing into. This is for sure crafted by every God mankind has ever created and sent down from heaven to empower humans to cure droughts with their eyes. We take a moment of silence to fully process the divinity of this dessert. It’s literally lighter than a freakin’ cloud. I dream of back-diving into a ball pit of this softness. Nuvole is officially my favourite thing. EVER.
Our bellies are full, so we return to the hotel and glam up for Jiselle’s 28th birthday celebration, a “Red Carpet Dinner Show” at the No Name Restaurant Club. In my opinion, the words “restaurant” and “club” should never go together, but c’est la vie.
A colossal disco ball dangles in the center of the dining room, red velvet drapes hang from the ceiling and women are encouraged to disguise themselves behind lace black masks. The doors open at 9 p.m. but the four-course dinner only begins when the show does…at midnight.
Luigi’s childhood best friend Saro (short for Salvatore) snuck into the kitchen and asked the waiters to bring Jiselle her birthday cake when the clock strikes 12. It’s a hazelnut-chocolate Nutella cake from Saro’s family-run bakery Pasticceria Palomba. She tries to blow out the sparklers with no avail.
The DJ plays Italian songs that he probably assumes are most popular in America, like “Volare” and “Mamba Italiano”. He also blasts Rihanna on repeat while dancers in scantily-clad sequined bikinis shake their waists. Too bad they all need lessons — one token black man put them all to shame.
And the worst part was the terribly uncoordinated Italian singer on the mic. She wore a blond bobbed wig and tried to get the party started by continuously screaming “alright, you sexy motherf*ckers!”. Fail, but Jiselle is a firecracker. She has the best time of her life no matter the circumstances.
We leave the club at 3 a.m. and the Italians demand carbs to soak up the alcohol. Of course, we stop for more pizza. I fall asleep in the car while they do their thing.
Sunday is a slow day — a sure sign that old age is kicking in. Everyone’s grumpy. Jiselle needs something salty for breakfast. Luigi doesn’t care what he eats; he just wants to eat. We grab more pizza (duh), but there are only three slices and one of them has a hair on it, leaving one of us without breakfast. Luigi is pissed and walks out. HA! Everything is making me crack up.
We resort to Pasticceria Palomba where Saro is tending to a dozen customers. I have mad respect for him — he came straight to work at 5 a.m. and hasn’t slept a wink since pumping last night. And he’s smiling with every customer. I’m sorry, no. I would have died.
At 2 p.m., we stop at the train station to pick up Luigi’s brother Lello (short for Raffaello). He spent the weekend in Milan, visiting their sister Yole (short for Yolanda).
Lunch is on the table before we even walk through the door. Today, Raffaela has prepared everyone’s favourite: beef ragù. It’s perfectly sweet, salty and acidic. The vino bianco is incredibly aromatic even though it’s cooked through.
News runs in the background and it’s all doom-and-gloom: A 5-year old was run over by a Carnevale float in both Bologna and Acireale and coronavirus cases have soared overnight, from 3 to +100. I’m extremely nervous to pass through the airport not knowing the other travelers’ whereabouts. Who knows? God forbid, but even Lello could have been exposed to the virus this weekend and he wouldn’t yet know.
Saro, after finally getting in some beauty sleep, returns with another cake: millefoglie, meaning “one thousand leaves” — a Napoleon-style puff pastry cake layered with small, tart strawberries and cream. Jiselle and Luigi cut the cake together to celebrate both of their birthdays since the two dates fall so closely together.
Jiselle, Luigi and Lello drive me to the airport in the very trendy Fiat 500. The car ride discussion is all about coronavirus. I don’t have a mask on me, which is ironic because I flew to London last week with one when there were only 2 coronavirus cases in the UK. Rookie mistake.
There’s a pharmacy in the terminal so I quickly roll my bag over and ask for a mask. Of course, they’re completely sold out.
My flight is 2 hours delayed and I’m freaking out because there are people coughing everywhere. I moved seats three times to avoid the germs. But of course, when we board I realize that some of these coughers are on my flight. We’ll see how this story develops over the next week or so.