Cleo, Pizza, and the Prince of the Amalfi.Pizza_da_michele_napoli

Everything that happens in Europe transpires quickly and on a deficit of sleep.  We raced to catch the one thirty flight leaving Naples.  We were driving a Fiat rental with a pathetic clutch through the back-roads of the Amalfi.   Oh sure, I imagined us rocketing the coastline in a sporty foreign number with a double clutch on the steering wheel, but when we arrived at the rental desk, all they had were beaters with fabric interiors reeking of gasoline and disinfectant.


We stopped for an espresso.  Double shot for me, and a single for Cleo.  When traveling through Italy, Cleo added a cube of sugar.  Her reasoning for this is nebulous.  She said she only drinks espresso in Europe because it doesn’t taste good in the States.  Then she adds sugar to mask the intensity.  We plow on, up and around quaint winding side roads.  It was an auto ballet, attempting to remain nimble around blind curves as bit players like dogs, cats, and people appeared out of alleyways and dilapidated storefronts darting randomly across roads.  Cars tried to cut in with no apparent continuity or attention to rules.  There may have been an order in the seeming chaos, but it would only be recognizable as a pattern of fractals from a space satellite.


Passing another freeway intersection, I realized we were lost, having driven miles past a ramp I vaguely remember being instructed to choose.  Sheer panic prompted me to stop immediately and ask directions from local Italian’s gesticulating on a sidewalk.  Neither of the men spoke English but signaled for us to follow the older one as he jumped in his car leading us toward Naples.  Earlier in our trip, we asked an Italian for directions to a restaurant in Venice and he proceeded to parade us twelve blocks through tourist mobbed streets directly to the restaurant door, even helping us get seated after introducing us to the maitre d.  Italians are beyond accommodating; they are helpful to the point of martyrdom.


Back on the motorway, I was confident we would get to the airport in the remaining forty minutes before boarding.  Cars blazed by, as I whizzed along in excess of a hundred miles an hour.  Cars accelerated up my bumper, nearly rear ending me until I’d swerve aside as they would fly past.


After twenty minutes of this autobahn posturing, a car whips up beside me honking relentlessly, the man driving flailing his arms beckoning us to follow him.  It was the Italian loiterer who had lead us to the freeway.  He signaled us over so we wouldn’t miss our exit.   Our guardian angel, I thought.  How miraculous that he was able to find us, rerouting us to the proper destination.


We exited the highway, following through a dicey and dingy area of Naples. It looked like a place where you would hit a pothole, get derailed by a gang of hoodlums who would topple your car, empty you out, steal your luggage, gang rape you, break your car down for parts, ship you and your car parts off to Croatia, get you hooked on crack, and auction you off to arms dealers to work as slave labor prostitutes in Dubai.


We pulled over and spoke through the window to our loyal escort assuring ourselves we were in the right place.  “Ah, Aeroporto?”  He asked, imitating the wings of a jet with his hands, “No Porto?”  He conceded awkwardly, having misunderstood and directed us to the Port where the boats leave the docks.


Our little Italian angel now seemed to have no use for us, as if we had shamed him.  He simply signaled we make a u-turn and begin again without his help.  We were now stuck in gridlock traffic with train tracks running down the middle of the road making a U-turn impossible.  I acted quickly knowing we would soon miss our flight, accidentally become separated from each other, forcefully slipped a few Mickies’, and sold as whores to Serbia.  I drove our rental car, “Bullet” style over curbs and train tracks, narrowly missing cars and escaping sideways up a ramp to seemingly nowhere.  Again, we came up on gridlocked traffic.  I slid past on the wrong side of the road until approaching a traffic cop trying to direct a detoured debacle that was causing the impasse.  So thrilled that we had finally hit an open road, we almost forgot we were still lost.


Three nights prior, eating dinner at a restaurant in Venice, Italy, we were seated next to an erudite man dining alone.  He explained to us, Napolitano’s were so crafty and treacherous that during the second-world war, they actually stole a whole gigantic Navy vessel from the US fleet, diced it up, melted it down, and shipped it to various locations without ever being discovered.  Although this image was fresh in my mind it didn’t stop me from pulling over to ask for help from a couple of eight-year-old-boys.  How dangerous could they be, I wondered.  I was sure I could take the scrappy little one with the tousled hair.  It was the bigger one with the army boots that gave me pause.  The boys tried to communicate through a combination of pantomime and Italian, but their directions spanned much more information than a simple right, left, and straight.


Suddenly, the tamer one, a doppelganger for the young lead in Cinema Paradiso, struggled urgently to enter our car, but the doors were locked.  He circled the car, frustrated.  Without hesitation he bolted off on foot, booking up ahead of us at top speed to lead the way to the airport.  He signaled us, yelling frantically what I imagined to be, “Andeeàmoh! andeeàmoh!”  He tore up to the freeway on-ramp halting traffic with hand signals so we could make an illegal left hand turn ahead of the other cars.  He sprinted on further, directing us right then left, straight, another right, right a left, then straight again.  Eventually I was able to slow near enough to toss him a few Euros for his trouble, though it was obvious he was never in it for the money.


We finally maneuvered our way around the complicated airport signs that displayed arrows pointing directions they couldn’t intentionally be indicating.  Somehow with the perfect cohesion of miraculous events we were able to return the rental car and hoof it back to the airport almost in time for our flight.  Almost.  We were ten minutes late for final check in and our gate appeared to be completely deserted.  Then the reason for the desolate gate became clear, we weren’t late for check-in, we were over two hours early.  This was definitely my fault, and by the look on Cleo’s face, I would be held accountable.


Then it hit me.  Pizza!  Not just any pizza, but arguably the best Pizza on the planet.  I discovered the tip on this restaurant while reading the book Eat, Love, Pray, by Elizibeth Gilbert.  Yes I know the title is in the wrong order.  I always say the title this way because it drives Cleo crazy.  She is a type A personality and she can’t resist correcting me.  This pleases me.  Besides, I’d rather eat love, then pray after I’ve had a proper meal.


I read that book twice while recovering from a particularly debilitating break-up and even though the story contained many helpful insights into recovering from relationship grief, the one thing that haunted me for the next few years was a small bit about Pizza.  I not only highlighted it, I dog-eared the page.  Gilbert wrote that since Italy had the best pizza, and Neapolitan’s invented Pizza, it would follow syllogistically that Naples would have the best pizza in the world.  The best works for me.


Gilbert describes Pizza “Da Michele,” as the greatest pizza in Napoli.  I fantasized for months about Neapolitan pizza.  Not during sex or anything, but still, sometimes.  I sent someone a Neapolitan pizza on Facebook for a weak thrill.  It was just an image, but I could conceive what it might taste like if I ever got my mouth close enough to Italy.  A year later, there I was, not only in Italy, but in the airport that couldn’t have been more than ten miles from Pizza “Da Michele.”  Coincidentally, we had a two-hour wait before take off.


Cleo was convinced I had unconsciously orchestrated this dilemma.  The only problem I could see through my potential cloud of denial, was where we would stash our luggage in a town chock full criminals adept enough to potentially steal the airport while we out hunting for pie.


My obsession regarding Neapolitan pizza hinged partially on the fact that I’d stopped eating wheat and sugar a few years prior to our trip.  While in Europe, I decided to remove all dietary restrictions from my consciousness.  Even after twenty years of eating no red meat, or pork, I would consume whatever looked good.  I would eat pasta, pizza, croissants, pane chocolate, profiteroles, and Nutella crepes.

Cleo had asked me before leaving for Europe, “Will you eat bread when we’re traveling in France and Italy?”

“Are you kidding,” I replied, “I’ll eat organ meat!”  And I did, with total abandon.  As we flew into Naples at ten in the morning, I knew it was too early for pizza.  I didn’t care.  Pizza was the only thing I wanted on that flight from Venice to Naples.


I assumed a short flight would be easy.  Not so.  Not remotely.  We still had to arrive an hour early, get through security, then more lines to get bulkhead on a plane with no good options.  Finally, the worst thing about short European flights reveals itself.  Not only are the seats marginally comfortable, they don’t recline.  The seats are born like the Mayfly, which lives only the length of a day, thus being born without a stomach, not having the time to digest food let alone eat.  It’s a tragedy.  Once these planes reach a normal altitude, they are ready for decent.  The seats don’t recline, the passengers never get comfortable and it’s too short a time to eat food, let alone digest.  I call them Mayfly flights.


When we had landed in Naples we were starving, and all that my id self and my adult hedonism wanted was . . . PIZZA!


I still could not reach our friend on the Amalfi coast.  How could I have known that the reason Salvatore (the Prince of the Amalfi) was not returning my calls was because he was ass deep in a drug and alcohol induced euphoria intended to sooth his pain over yet another impending break-up with a teen-age Australian girl.  Salvatore Leonardi, Prince to the core, at the ripe old age of twenty-nine, was at the same developmental stage of maturity as his girlfriend who lived half way across the world and was staying out nights partying, making Salvatore insane with jealousy.


I didn’t know Salvatore well.  I had hung out with him a few nights in Venice Beach and he had generously agreed to lodge us in one of his Villa’s on the Amalfi.  He had offered to collect us when we landed at the airport in Naples.  I was finally able to reach him when we landed, but he was so hung over and still high, he asked if we wouldn’t mind renting a car to drive an hour and a half to his villa.  No problem I said, silently cursing the five hundred euro car rental fee that would cancel out our free stay at the Villa, once again stressing the plastic weakness of a vacation taken on credit.  Fuck it!  We’re on vacation.  What’s the hottest sports car you have?  A shitty Fiat with a slipping clutch.


But what about my Pizza?  How do I get to this Pizza place, I ask at the rental agency.   “You shouldn’t go there,” I was told by the rental car liaison, “if you ever want to find your way out of Naples.”  Her subtext was obvious, we’d surely be murdered.


Then Cleo pipes in, “We are not going for Pizza this early in the morning, period.  We can get Pizza later, . . . anywhere,” she adds callously, crushing my hopes in her pepper mill.   Put that on your pizza.


Cleo was always asking me, what I wanted.  What do you want for your birthday, Christmas, our anniversary?  What do you get the girl who has everything? . . . and here it was.  All I had ever wanted.  All I could imagine would make my perfect life more complete.  And there it went, as we traveled in the opposite direction, while the clutch whined to be thrown into fifth.  Fuck this clutch.


An hour later we were driving the Amalfi coast, famished and cranky, which meant there was only one thing to do, get espresso.  When we were starving to the point of indecision, the choice was as obvious as it was ludicrous.  Drink more coffee, double for me, single for Cleo, with her cube.


I was dizzy and on the verge of passing out all through our travels in Europe.  I assumed my problem stemmed from Cleo.  She has the metabolism of a spider monkey.  She can eat a few Gogi berries, a spoonful of quinoa and an almond and insist she’s had enough carbohydrates and protein to last her until lunch.


I have informed Cleo that she has no respect for her Canary and in fact, slaughters them daily.  You know about the Canary in the coal mine?  Coal miners brought Canaries into the mines because canaries’ lungs are as sensitive as paper, so when the Canary expires from an excess of Methane gas or Carbon Monoxide, it was time to evacuate the mine.  I offered that we are all assigned imaginary canaries to alert us to eat when danger of collapse is immanent.  I would chastise Cleo, “The only reason you have Canaries still applying to work for you, is in this recession they would rather work a half day and perish, than never work again.”  My Canary always fell down first and I’d try to alert Cleo that hers was dragging behind her in it’s own noose.  What did I expect?  Cleo’s an athlete and a complaining size zero, who thinks raw food can be a satisfying and complete meal.


I called the Prince many times on our way up the coast because we were lost.  Not miserably lost, but the kind of lost that becomes increasingly irritating under hunger and nit-picking duress.  Salvatore, reclined on his couch flanked by his two dachshunds, his laptop featuring his Skyped, soon to be ex-girlfriend, while an indefinite Simpson episode blared in the background.  He calmly slurred directions to his Villa as if it were the easiest place in the world to find.


In reality, if you miss the minute hairpin and nearly impossible right off the coast highway, it will be another half hour before you get a chance to flip around and try again.  Successfully having found the right-turn and climbing the right hill, the chances of understanding the signs that lead to Ravello are miniscule.  The signs indicate up when they mean straight, although they might be indicating you to climb the hill further.  Right or left signs appear when no turns can be made or even after the turn should have been attempted.  It could be assumed that the town of Ravello was owned by a cast of characters desiring not to be found, while also plotting to keep everyone else lost.  As Naples invented Pizza, so too, did they harbor a significant Mafia.  (You didn’t hear it from me.)


Salvatore hardly got off his couch when we arrived.  He introduced us to his future ex-girlfriend via Skype.  She seemed nice enough, maybe a bit short.   He was cordial, though obviously loaded on a menu of weed, valium, Klonopin and red wine.  He led us to our digs, offered us some wine and ordered us the worst food we would eat during our stay in Italy.  Don’t feel sorry for me.  Even the worst food in Italy is better than most food anywhere.


If I had to summarize our four day stay at the villa with the Prince of the Amalfi, I’d admit I felt possessed several times, contemplated suicide, and was almost killed while stuck in the back seat of a rocketing Volvo station wagon, unwillingly inhaling the drunken Prince’s cigarette smoke while he battled the tightest curves of the Amalfi.


Ten of his family members and friends, tried to dissuade him from spilling himself behind the wheel of his car.  My excuse for letting him drive was he was a better drunk driver on his home race track than I’d ever be, maneuvering twenty-five hundred pounds of steel, four feet from a sheer hundred foot plunge into the Adriatic Sea.


Cleo called shotgun and I belted myself with every seatbelt I could find.  I chided the Prince from behind as he spun around each turn faster than the last.  They couldn’t hear me berating him over the thumping bass lines and Cleo’s incessant laughter.  I could be doing thirty on a straight-away at home and she’d be threatening to toss all over my dash, but get her drunk on Sangiovese in the Amalfi with a sexy prince thrusting around turns at sixty and she’s howling her fucking ass off like we’re not about to die instantly as the car suddenly lurches into a retaining wall.


Green from the Prince’s cigarette and the on the verge of yakking, I accepted my fate.  I pulled out my iphone to say goodbye to all my Facebook friends so they would know I was at peace with my death.  I would end this incarnation with Cleo and the Prince flying through the air in a car.  This is the one thing cars are not particularly good at for a lengthy period of time.  The sea below would appear to displace itself, yet upon impact it would feel like we had entered a concrete coffin not a watery featherbed.


Suddenly the Prince took a sharp right and flung us to a halt in a parking space barely large enough for a bike.  I thought, thank God we’re alive and almost back at the villa.   Little did I know that the only reason we had stopped was so the Prince could hobble into the only open bar in Atrani to order a round of drinks with no money.   This is how it worked with the Prince.  He is the most generous person in the world with everyone else’s money.  He was complicatedly wealthy beyond measure, but had no cash flow.  He generously let us stay for free at his folks Villa welcoming us to eat freely at both his divorced parents competing restaurants.  But any other place we visited, he depended on his Princely reputation, and the kindness of his friends to fund his lifestyle .


The Prince ordered a round of Fennel Liquor, which the mere suggestion sent me dashing to the head, folding in half, and vomiting.  Cleo took a pass on her drink, which the Prince greedily downed.  He jumped on his cell phone to ring his Australian, railing on her for not appreciating his Romantic immensity.  “I come from the ancient Roman Empire!”  He blustered.  “I hail from a Republic ruled by Kings, with boundless art and culture!”  The Prince stood in the courtyard adjoining the bar, lecturing into his phone.  “Your country is a child compared to mine and my peoples.  You are foolish not to be undone by my chivalry and passionate influence.”


It was a compelling speech he would regret if he ever remembered it.  Soon we contained him against a pillar and coerced him to end his diatribe and say goodnight.  Back to the car we dragged the Prince, praying we would live through the next ten minutes of travel up the twisting and spiraling mountain to Ravello.


As I sat in the airport, writing about Ravello, I knew what had to be done.  I had to obtain and devour the best Pizza in the world.  My whole life revolved around food.  Before the invention of the GPS, I functioned as the most highly attuned restaurant divining rod in the universe.  Anywhere I ventured, my mind was culling and spotlighting each location that served a moist, cooked through turkey burger, the cleanest richest soup, or the most imaginative salad.  But the food didn’t have to be healthy as a requisite to register on my tracking system.  Authentic Belgium fries with kitschy sauces, nachos with real cheese, fiery habanera salsa, a layered tomatillo, Guacamole prepared and served tableside, a complex Udon broth, Swiss cheese infused pancakes with red beet chicken hash, or a boiled potato with cabbage, it didn’t matter.  I could name every item I’d want to eat at every location I had ever lived or visited.  I am quite simply a food whore.


I have a photograph of myself at age four, standing on a peer in Atlantic City with my Grandparents.  My arm is outstretched toward the camera, while clasped tightly in my hand awaits the only thing I cared about that whole day.  I’ve got my corn dog!  I’ve got my corn dog!  Food not only defined my memories, it propelled me toward future journeys.


We checked our bags, grabbed our carry-on luggage and hailed a cab in front of the Aeroporto.  I asked the driver if he knew of Pizzeria “Da Michele.”  Yes he knew the place, and offered to take us for what equates to forty dollars.  I try to haggle with him, but he stays firm to his price explaining that he will wait for us while we eat the pizza.  Okay, we agree.  The cab driver is a wild-eyed Italian exhibiting terminally blushed cheeks and a mischievous grin.  At first glance, I imagined an imminent kidnapping.  On further inspection, his plan for me seemed even more sordid.  He envisioned me in an apron, perched over the stove making dinner while giving birth to his bambino.  I know . . . I would never wear the apron.


It didn’t make sense.  Guys are never attracted to me.  This doesn’t hurt my feelings.  It’s not because I’m unattractive.  It’s just that I have an undeniably male gestalt.  I’m assertive, and they sense this.  But here I am dirty and disheveled, my hair looking “positively Roman,” a joke Cleo used to describe how my hair changed while traveling through the grimy, filthy, and polluted streets of Rome.  My hair was in a frazzled state of shock, almost standing on end, sun-damaged, begging for a cut, a dye job, a wash, anything, and this sweet Napolitano wouldn’t stop mooning at me.


In fifteen minutes we pulled up in front of the Pizza joint.  What it lacked in curb appeal, it would make up for in quality.  There was a line twenty-five deep out the door and some people were wheeling luggage.  I shot Cleo a knowing stare, “See, we’re not the only travelers to go out of our way for this pie.”  We began to grab our luggage when Antonio, having already given me his card in case I could meet up when next in town, indicated we should leave our stuff in the car while he waited for us.  After what I had heard about Naples, I was beyond paranoia, certain my computer had been filched from my bag while I was still clutching the straps.  But something in the way Antonio lifted my luggage from my possession, gently placing it in the back seat, assured me that everything was going to be safe.  Cleo also agreed to leave her stuff.  He gallantly accompanied us into the restaurant proceeding past the crowd to fetch us a ticket.  Antonio informed us the wait for a table could be two hours, but Take Away could be prepared immediately.   “Yes, yes!”  I jumped up and down like a cartoon cat.  “Take Away is better!”


I followed Antonio inside as he ordered our pizzas.  I wanted two because one would just be a tease.  I paid twelve Euros and walked to the ovens to watch my pizza’s cook.  There exists a “True Pizza Association Neapolitan” in Naples that sets forth strict guidelines for a pizza to be considered legitimate.  They produce only two kinds of Pizza, Margherita and Marinara.  All the dough must be hand rolled or kneaded, no use of pins or mechanical tools are allowed.  They bake their pizza in a wood fire, domed oven at 485 degrees Celsius for no more than sixty to ninety seconds.  I watched my pie dough get thrown, stretched on a board, and shoved gently in the flaming cave oven for one minute hardly noticing Antonio shooting beams at me.  Suddenly he face-planted a wet kiss directly on my mouth.  I smiled and let him hug me, the obvious exhilaration having been too contagious.  It was on the way out the door smiling like a dork with my two boxes stacked in my arms that he tried to kiss me again.  I out maneuvered him conveying the hint, the first kiss was a freebie, the second is a pipe dream not even opiates would deliver.


Upon seeing me step out on to the street, Cleo absorbed my Pizza enthusiasm immediately and we jumped in the car, flung open the boxes to give thanks for the Pizzas that lay melted and gleaming before us.  I am not lying when I say that this pizza was simply the best.  The dough was so light it dissolved in my salivary glands practically before swallowing.  It could only be described as a luxuriously giving Naan bread combined with a sexy gooey mozzarella, some stand out basil, and a forget-about-it sauce that had a back end like the volcanic plains south of Mount Vesuvius.


We ate a whole pie in minutes, and spent the drive back to the airport grinning in satisfied silence.  Antonio begrudgingly dropped us off with a little less bounce in his step.  We both gave our new friend a hug goodbye.  Antonio would take a wife one day, and hopefully she wouldn’t be gay.


I tried to juggle my carry-on with the pizza box we hadn’t yet cracked open.  “Woe, woe, woe.”  Said Cleo.  “What are you doing with that pizza?”


Suddenly I felt akin to my dog Bird, who perpetually scavenges partially eaten street trash, concealing it in his mouth until drool strings drip all the way to the pavement, giving him away.  “Drop it!”  I say, yanking his leash and reeling him in.  He slithers out from his collar, scurrying behind a garbage bin and swallowing his prize.


“I’m gonna take it on the plane for us to eat.”  I respond sheepishly hoping Cleo remembered how ravenous we become on Mayfly flights.  She smiled.  I was in the clear.


As we removed our shoes at customs, I slid my prize possession Pizza box into it’s own cart.  I wonder if I’m allowed to bring it through.  The man with the wand, eye’s me suspiciously, but upon smelling Pizza, his eyes maneuver quickly to the box.  He laughs and waves me through.  Pizza is a universal language.


Our second Pizza never made it on the plane.  We stopped at some café table and ate the whole thing with both hands.


“Why didn’t you get another?”  Cleo asked, bussing our table before heading for the flight.  “They are light as air.”