La pizzaiola, played by Sophia Loren, peddles pizza from a counter on the doorstep of her street level apartment. She kneads dough while crying out for custom in a thick dialect and as clouds of flour fall to the cobbled Neapolitan street. The black and white shots fill the screen with classic southern beauty: Loren’s dark hair and features, soft and full like the rounds of dough in her hands; the deteriorating baroque palazzo; and a narrow street punctuated by stalls decorated with produce and wares.
This scene comes from one of the great cinematic homages to a city: Di Sica’s L’Oro di Napoli (“The Gold of Naples”), a 1954 a film that grapples with the bittersweet tastes of comedy, tragedy, hustling and the art of making do. There’s nowhere better to see Naples in all its “golden” glory than in the very neighborhood in which the film’s star, the inimitable Totó, grew up and where parts of the film are set: La Sanità.
La Sanità tends to be secluded from the rest of the city, tucked away as it is behind the historic center in the shadow of a vast bridge built by Napoleon that skims over its rooftops. This isolation over the years provided an ideal location for the Camorra (the Neapolitan mafia) to expand their illicit activities and profit from soaring unemployment rates and economic instability.
However, the area has recently experienced a surge in attention. A multitude of associations and grass-roots community activists have become involved in social initiatives to raise the profile of the underappreciated historic area, which dates back to the Hellenistic period. Moreover, key tradesmen such as Ciro Poppella and Francesco Sepe are on the front foot, reinvigorating their family businesses and attracting new customers for the benefit of the whole neighborhood.
Duck out of the historic center through the Porta San Gennaro, one of the city’s ancient gates, cross the traffic-heavy Via Foria and plunge into the pulsating heart of Naples where for much of the day La Sanità’s central artery is occupied by a vast market. The frenetic energy of daily life in motion is set against a backdrop of crumbling facades, which rise above ground floor storefronts that seem to be spilling forth a fine selection of family-run gastronomic gems: a bakery, fishmonger, any number of salumerias (delicatessens) and enotecas (wine bars).
The residents of the neighborhood are at the helm of La Sanità’s resurgence.
As with a lot of places in Naples, the area is a treasure trove of unsuspecting intrigue. Forget its damaging reputation – this is a neighborhood that was named La Sanità after its “healthy” reputation. It was situated just halfway up the hill so that with rainfall the streets were washed clean, which is why the wealthy Spanish Viceroys chose to build their decadent palaces here.
Di Sica’s passion for this neighborhood is easy to fathom when meandering through the faded grandeur of a bygone era of opulence. Weaving in and out of the palaces you can hear Sophia Loren calling for your custom, and her colleagues tempting you with their cornucopia of seasonal carciofi (artichokes) and bells of Piennolo tomatoes. Today, market tradesmen still hang their produce nonchalantly from the grand Pipernio stone archways, and steel vats of Campanian wine find a home below the aristocratic insignias frescoed above the doorways. The internal courtyards provide shelter to three-wheeler Piaggios loaded with hanging slabs of red meat, and hidden below the ground are ancient pagan catacombs and a warren of tunnels that reach as far as the sea, which now serve as storage for dry goods.
Head a few hundred meters up from the Via Vergini market via the Palazzo San Felice with its two-tone hawk staircase (named as such because it resembles the spread wings of a hawk) and decorative stucco sculpture, and you will encounter a small brightly lit bakery called Poppella. Verging on closure from economic instability and little passing trade, Ciro Poppella’s pasticceria was rescued when he invented Il Fiocco di Neve (The Snowflake). At first finding it hard to change deep-rooted Neapolitan shopping habits he had resorted to giving away the little cream-filled doughballs at the end of the day so as not to waste them. Then a few years ago a friend asked if he could provide a few trays of pastries to hand out at a charity event for disabled children. On the eve of Ferragosta, the mandatory break when all shops close for two weeks, Ciro arrived at the event with 3,000 cream buns. He left with none.
When Poppella reopened after the summer holiday, 70 people had congregated outside the little bakery and whispers of who would get the last Fiocco di Neve shimmied down the line. There was no looking back – the word was out. Now customers across the city are salivating at the thought of the Fiocco’s cold, rich, creamy filling and bouncy doughy exterior. Today Poppella prepares over 4,000 to be sold on Sunday alone, and bakeries throughout Naples have copied his recipe and given it their own name. Owing to the fame of the small spherical brioches, Ciro has put his bakery and La Sanità back on the map.
La Sanità is having something of a renaissance on all fronts, from arts and culture to food. Bright young thing Francesco Sepe is the brainchild behind the Aperi-sepe events. These specially curated evenings of music, poetry, art and, most importantly, locally sourced wine, which are held at Francesco’s shop Antica Cantina Sepe, have become a favorite with the artsy crowd and a good number of locals. If this has a whiff of gentrification, however, Francesco is at pains to stress it’s “the residents of the neighborhood who are at the helm” of La Sanità’s resurgence.
Antica Cantina Sepe, which sells a fresh glass of Vesuvian wine served chilled as the locals like it for only €1.50, has certainly started to become a congregation spot in the neighborhood. Stay there long enough on a Thursday night and you will surely overhear locals plotting the popular “Notte Bianca” evening, where the shops and churches stay open all night, or chewing over a community meeting. Francesco explains that he is merely following in the path of his grandfather who also made sure the family enoteca was a place where “anyone could grab a glass of wine and a bite to eat.”
Any grocer worth talking about in Naples will tell you that the most important thing to them is the quality of the produce and where it comes from. They will also usually tell you that the reason they stand out along the high street is because they have been following these rules for decades. For Francesco, it was important that the enoteca worked not only for his family but also the neighborhood and his suppliers. He has always focused on sourcing wine “straight from the land,” meaning he goes directly to individual producers, bypassing suppliers that pool wine from hundreds of farms, which in turn reduces the quality. The two caskets of artisan beer at the doorway are further evidence of Sepe’s priorities – sales of the beer go to the local social centers at the heart of the city’s left-leaning political scene.
After spending time in London, Francesco realized that everything he was searching for there was right on his doorstep back in Napoli. He returned with a dream of turning his family shop into a place that could host burgeoning local artists and musicians, and would be a reference point for the neighborhood across all generations. After two years of running the shop, he has become a pillar of his community, and his Thursday social and the cantina itself are now firmly on the Neapolitan drinks map, attracting hundreds of outsiders into the once dense and impenetrable neighborhood. If L’Oro di Napoli had been shot in 2017, Di Sica would surely have had the handsome mustached Francesco pouring a draft beer as the opening scene.
La Sanità has always maintained a strong, tight-knit community, one that is proud of the neighborhood’s heritage, architecture and culture. For years it was ruled by La Camorra kings wielding their violent authority over the local population. Yet today that community is fighting back and reclaiming spaces to prize open what Francesco Sepe calls “the pearl of Naples.” In doing so, La Sanità is becoming truer to its 300-year-old name, and the Gold of Naples is really starting to show its shine.