Thursday, October 1, 2009

Caffe Gambrinus

Nook of Naples: An underground tour at a Caffe? Yep. Every Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday urban speleologist, Signore Quaranta, a slender Neapolitan with lots of energy and funny stories that are hard to understand due to his Neapolitan accent, takes groups from Bar Gambrius up a narrow street and into a double door that says Napoli Sotterranea.

Inside, we walk past a small room and continue on to a whitewashed hall. Suddenly, we're descending 118 stairs that spiral down past a small Chapel, then to an open space where plastic chairs are in rows.

Signore Quaranta begins by telling us that we are sitting in an ancient acqueduct. The Greeks first harnessed the springs from the foot of Vesuvius and channeled the water into these underground cisterns, some as deep as eighty meters. The cisterns were used as drinking water until the 1800's.

At some point in the history of Naples, most apartments (palazzos) had wells in their courtyards and even well-spouts in every room. The pozzari (or well attendants -- from pozzo for well) worked in the labyrinth of these cisterns, scuffling through narrowly built holes, cleaning sinks and siphons, and making sure the cistern water ran clear. Palazzo owners regularly gave the pozzari money for their services. But the pozzari would additionally trick wealthy landowners into paying them to reclean the wells. One pozzari, for example, put a dead cat in the cistern so as to ensure himself more work.

There are also sayings about the munacielli or Neapolitan house goblins, that played tricks on those who lived in their homes. It's said that one goblin was a sickly boy who was raised in a convent where nuns hid his deformity by dressing him in clothing from Monaco (hence the diminutive munaciello). When he died under mysterious circumstances, Neapolitans began to sight him. They conferred magical powers onto the dead boy and said that he carried the lucky numbers necessary to win the lottery. Other folklore maintains that the goblins were the pozzoli themselves who would get into homes through the channels used to lower the buckets.

After Signore Quaranta's talk, we begin to walk through some of the fifteen kilometers of the underground made of porous tufo stone. The ceilings often drip with water due to the humidity. The moist environment is supposedly healthy for respiration, helping (and possibly curing) people with asthma.

We walk through a maze of narrow passageways and plunge into great halls. Graffitti remains everywhere from World War II when people hid here waiting for the war to end. Above an alcove, graffitti commemorates the day two people were married under a tufo arch in 1943. Another room has graffitti that reads: "Women are the way to true happiness."

We move through more small spaces until we end back in the hollow space with chairs. Signore Quaranta turns off the lights for a few moments so that we can sit in the pitch black and in silence -- an odd feeling when just above us Naples bustles with frenetic activity. This tour is especially sweet during the hot summer months, the temperate climate of the parallel city making it the most comfortable spot in Naples.

Getting There: This underground is very easy to find. Simply go to the Piazza Trieste e Trento and stand outside Bar Gambrinus at the designated hour. (Saturday: 10:00, 12:00, 18:00 Sundays: 10:00, 11:00, 12:00, 18:00 Thursdays: 21:00.) Someone will be there to lead you to the underground. A wonderful Napoli Sotterranea website exists with more information.

La Cucina Napoletana: Zucchini flowers are excellent breaded, fried, and served as an antipasto. I myself make them even more simply. After buying a package at the grocery store or market, I brush them off a little and then throw them into a pan filled with hot oil for a few minutes until they turn crispy.


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