Rione Luzzatti is an ugly neighborhood. That’s not particularly surprising to anyone who has read My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (or watched the television adaptation) – the two main characters, friends Lila and Elena, grew up in this neglected and working-class area.
Built following a simple design after the Second World War and comprising anonymous white buildings, Luzzatti today is defined by decaying structures and poorly kept public spaces.
Yet when I first crossed it with my Vespa (well before Ferrante’s novels put it on the radar), I felt that it was a real place, a neighborhood of busy people, of workers. In short, I liked it, even if it was ugly!
Until the early 2000s, the Luzzatti district remained secluded, almost a foreign entity. Still to this day, there are no big shops, no cinemas or theaters, no places of culture. Most Neapolitans would only come here to visit Pasticciello, a pastry shop with celebrated desserts.
But after the release of Ferrante’s novels (and later the television adaptation), small groups of tourists arrived – to the surprise of local residents – in search of key places from Lila and Elena’s lives. Then came buses full of tourists and organized tours, with guides accompanying readers from all over the world.
“Tourists – although many were Neapolitans who never came to the Rione – came here to the pastry shop asking if we were the heirs of the Solara brothers, the pastry chefs they had seen in the film,” says Lucia Taglialatela, the owner-pastry chef of Pasticciello.
Lucia, one of five daughters of the great pastry chef and third-generation baker Antonio Taglialatela, is a point of reference for all local guides. And her small temple of Neapolitan pastry has expanded beyond the neighborhood, as I learn on my most recent visit. Her sister Anita Taglialatela, who used to work as a lawyer, decided to devote herself exclusively to pastry and ran the bakery with Lucia, from whom she learned the art of pastry making. She recently opened a Pasticciello start-up in Oslo, Norway, of all places!
“I invite you all to visit my little pastry shop in Oslo,” says a smiling Anita, who has returned for the summer holidays in Italy, “where you will find two essential Neapolitan pastries: the babà del Pasticciello and the famous pagnottiello [a Neapolitan rustic pie filled with salami and boiled eggs], made as my sister Lucia taught me.”
“Even the people in the neighborhood are not around,” she adds, “and the literary tourism that had been generated by Ferrante’s books has come to a complete halt.”
Despite all this talk of travel, the Luzzatti district is still sadly empty. “In the lockdown months, from April to May, everything, everything stopped,” says Lucia. “Even after the release that followed the lockdown, few people were out on the streets.”
“Even the people in the neighborhood are not around,” she adds, “and the literary tourism that had been generated by Ferrante’s books has come to a complete halt.” The pandemic has led to a severe decline in the number of foreign tourists, while most Italians prefer to escape the big cities, if they go on holiday at all.
“We skipped the Feast of San Giuseppe, the favorite feast of pastry chefs, and we also did not work in the period of Easter, which for pastry chefs means huge production. Economically it was a very difficult moment. But despite Covid, the company survives! Everything started again and the quality is better than before,” Lucia says, inviting us to return to the neighborhood.
But in addition to the gastronomic reasons, Lucia offers us an additional incentive to return to Luzzatti: art.
“Together with other merchants in the neighborhood, we supported the creation of a giant mural inspired by the characters of My Brilliant Friend,” Lucia tells us. “We shared the initiative of the Meridonare association [a socially minded crowdfunding platform based in southern Italy], which in 2019 promoted a campaign called “The Colors of the District.’”
“We donated the proceeds of 100 pagnottielli,” says Anita, “which contributed to the realization of the mural [of Lila and Elena] by Luis Gomez de Teran titled ‘Nothing Else Matters.’”
But immediately after the inauguration, Covid-19 broke out. So they haven’t been able to properly celebrate the new mural, which joins the Elena Ferrante-inspired street art on the library in Luzzatti, the same one frequented by the protagonists of the novel.
So even if tourists are slow to return, I’ll gladly go back again and again to Rione Luzzatti, to refill my eyes (with murals) and stomach (with Lucia’s pagnottiello).
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