2 days eating in Naples

Back in January I told my husband we were going to a fancy restaurant for his birthday and asked him to Google it. ‘Looks good. Hang on, it’s in Italy’… ‘Yes, I’m taking you to Italy for dinner!’ I said smugly, glad that my surprise had been successful. The next day he text me saying he’d been doing some research and found another not-so-fancy restaurant that looked even better than the fancy restaurant I’d chosen. Who says romance is dead?

I’d asked some of my friends about where to go in Italy for a lightening visit in mid-January. Blue Monday to be specific – the most depressing day of the year. I’d toyed with Milan, Pisa and Florence but settled on Naples for two reasons: pizza and Pompei. I will admit that I may have had a tiny ulterior motive to nerd out but I’ve always wanted to go, and Murtie loves Italy so, really, everyone won.

Day 1

We flew out of Gatwick at 8am on a Sunday morning, arriving in Naples around 10.45am. A sketchy 25 minute taxi ride later we were dropped off in a high-rise residential area, wandering the maze looking for our Airbnb, Lorenzo’s Art Studio. We were greeted by our host, Jeanette, who popped her head out of a first floor window waving and shouting ‘Katty! Welcome!’. She kindly let us leave our bags in the apartment so we could head out and explore, leaving us a key and instructions for how to get in later.

Our first port of call was something to eat, and for two people who hadn’t had breakfast that only meant one thing: Neapolitan pizza. Back home in London I’ve been to a few places ‘inspired’ by Neapolitan pizza, but I’ve always been left disappointed by too much dough.

As we waited for our earmarked restaurant, Insolito La Pizzeria Gourmet, to open at midday we wandered up and down the streets near the Cattedrale di San Gennaro, eyeing up the pastries and sweet treats on display and trying to decipher the graffiti on the buildings. No doubt the owners thought we were a bit weird arriving as soon as they opened, but we were hungry, and English, and on time. We ordered a pizza each – mine a margarita with mozzarella, mushrooms and tomato, Murtie’s with mozzarella, anchovies and capers (they’re the wrong way round in the photo!). We could see the dough being spun and stretched through a window into the kitchen and within 10 minutes two enormous pizzas landed in front of us.

We cut them down the middle, took half each (we’re food sharers, most of the time), and demolished them. As we were nibbling on the last bits of crust a group of 20 Italians came into the restaurant and filled every chair. It was like something out of a sit-com as three generations (we assumed) helped small children and little old ladies cram into any spare seat, including the two at our table. A delightful grey-haired Italian man doffed his cap at me when he sat down, and a stylish lady in a sensibly big coat sat next to Murtie. With zero Italian between us we smiled and made ‘the food is yummy’ faces before leaving the family party we had found ourselves in.

Day 1, 1.30pm

With full stomachs we walked to Piazza Garibaldi to catch the train to Pompei. It took us a little while to decipher the ticket machine but finally bought our tickets for about 5 euro and waited on the platform for our train to arrive. It was a almost a double-decker with a ton of empty seats, and spotless. There’s nothing I love more than staring out the window of a train at the changing landscape and watching the comings and goings of ordinary people getting on and off the train.

The entrance to Pompei is a 20 minute walk from Pompei station and we arrived around 3pm. We bought our tickets and walked around the site for 2.5 hours. I won’t go into detail about Pompei because you just need to go. I can’t believe it’s taken me 29 years to finally go there – a person who grew up religiously watching Time Team, the HBO series Rome, and spending most weekends of my childhood watching oranges flung from ballistas at Rockbourne Roman Villa in Hampshire (100% go there too, it’s awesome).

We had a 40 minute wait for a train after leaving Pompei so we settled in to a bar next to the station called Open Bar. Our drinks came with a tray of nibbles – a custom I think English bars should really get on board with. You can’t beat a bowl of olives and a bag of crisps with your G&T whilst it’s pouring outside.

Our journey back took almost two hours because our train stopped mid-journey… and was promptly cancelled. It was a shame as we had been enjoying the (assumed drunken, perhaps they were high on life) escapades of four Spanish girls who were singing and challenging all the men on board to a salsa dance off. An older gentleman and his partner, who’d clearly been enjoying the entertainment too, kindly explained in broken English that the train had been cancelled and we could get another train from the opposite platform. We all got off the train and the group of Spanish girls, now with two Italian boys in tow, sprinted across the tracks. We were sensible tourists and took the subway, picking up the alternative train.

We were starving by the time we got to the restaurant Murtie had chosen for his birthday dinner, Antichi Sapori Partenopei. We were welcomed as if we’d walked into someone’s home – our host, a friendly Italian lady, asked where we were from, handed us glasses of Prosecco with our menus and read the specials, recommending every single one. An Italian couple next to us joined in giving their recommendations too. A group of tourists from Serbia and Germany took a table in a corner and joined the melee. I slurped my Prosecco and grumbled to Murtie about how much I hate Brexit.

We ordered a starter of salmon carpaccio, which I didn’t take a photo of because we were so hungry (sorry!) and two pasta dishes which were recommended to us: ricotta ravioli with shrimps and chive butter sauce, and courgette spaghetti (served Neapolitan style, which I was told is proper al-dente).

The food was unsurprisingly incredible. Pasta just tastes different in Italy – however I make it or cook it, it’s never the same texture or taste as in Italy. Same for the pizza to be honest, there’s just nothing like it. We finished off our meal with a dessert each – I had a chocolate torte and Murtie had a vanilla berry cheesecake, and both were off the chart.

By this point we’d finished a bottle of red wine made in the vineyards on Mount Vesuvius and 2 glasses of prosecco. We were stuffed, merry and eventually wobbled back to our Airbnb at midnight.

 

Day 2

At 8.30am Murtie handed me one of the chocolate pastries gifted to us by our Airbnb host, Jeanette. By 11am we’d eaten the whole box, which was a perfect start to the day. I text Jeanette telling her we were ready to leave and she replied saying ‘We have no guests today, take your time!’. We were so grateful she let us leave our bags so we could wander round Naples before leaving for our flight at 4pm.

We set off in search of more pastries and bought some local delicacies in a bakery called Pintauro. Murtie had a Sfogliatella – a Neapolitan flaky pastry filled with a sweet ricotta filling, and I had a Taralli Napoletani, a savoury round pastry which tasted of rich black pepper and almonds. I finished off Murtie’s Sfogliatella as he said it was too sweet, but it was perfect for my sweet tooth. The bakeries in Naples are amazing and I snapped a few photos of the treats on offer.

Unfortunately the heavens opened around noon and did not stop. We walked to the restaurant Murtie had chosen for lunch and joined the soggy ‘queue’ of people waiting outside. Sorbillo is one of the most popular restaurants in Naples, purportedly serving ‘the best pizza in Naples’ and founded by Gino Sorbillo, the man who introduced Neapolitan pizza to the world. When I say we queued, we stood in a mass of people trying to work out what the queue etiquette was, finally deciding pushing to the front and giving a man with a clipboard our names was the accepted approach.

The wait was only 15 minutes as we’d come after the lunchtime rush. The menu was in Italian, so with a little help from Google Translate we ordered our pizzas with anchovies and mushrooms. Hats off to Sorbillo as the pizza did not disappoint – it was one of the best pizzas I’ve ever eaten. As for ‘the best in Naples’ accolade, well, I will have to come back and eat all the other pizzas to be able to decide.

We left Sorbillo around 3pm, our feet still soggy from the rain and in need of something sweet. I found a café nearby that did good hot chocolate according to TripAdvisor, and we arrived at Caffè Ciorfito a few minutes later. We sat down at plastic tables and were served the most amazing coffee and hot chocolate, with complimentary mini pastries and lemon sparkling water.

My hot chocolate was thick and luxurious and I enjoyed every spoonful. I literally had to eat it with a spoon, it was the best.

At 4pm we went back to our Airbnb to pick up our bags. We chatted with Jeanette for 45 minutes about her flat, her son, and coming to Naples from the Philippines. She was absolutely wonderful and I implore you to stay in her Airbnb. It’s one of the best I’ve experienced. Even in the pouring rain she kindly walked us to a cash point and the taxi rank to get to the airport.

We got on the plane feeling absolutely stuffed and content. Despite the weather, Naples was full of character, history and really, really good food. I have no doubt we’ll be back.

Deliciously Ella, London

‘The milk isn’t milk!’

Bless my friend’s mum as she was asked whether she wanted soya or oat milk in her cup of tea. The concept of a plant-based café would probably be lost on my parents too, forgetting that milk is in fact an animal product. I’m told that oat milk is the better choice – I actually don’t like tea and I’m fully aware that probably makes me not entirely British. I’ve made my peace with that.

Deliciously Ella was chosen by one of my best friends to fuel our bridesmaid dress shopping trip on Oxford Street two weekends before Christmas. Bonkers idea but it was actually great fun. We had a personal shopping appointment booked at Debenhams where we tried on a multitude of dresses in different shapes and fabrics, giggling at the awful ones, pretending to be catwalk models in the fancy ones, and eventually all agreeing on a dress that was the other end of the colour spectrum to what the bride wanted, and over budget. Woops.

At least we’d started the day in a calm environment because it inevitably finished not in one. I’ve followed Deliciously Ella on Instagram for a long time and I’m fully aware I’m about 5 years late to actually visiting her cafe. I’ve always admired how she’s managed her health issues by changing her diet and sharing her experience for people going through similar things. I don’t have the same health issues as Ella but I do care about the planet so I try and be flexitarian and responsible. I’m open to eating plant-based and have to say I’m always amazed at how good the food tastes (apart from in my work canteen where the vegan options are regularly a sludgy mess of lentils and under-cooked rice).

The counter at Deliciously Ella was incredibly tempting although I risked emptying my bank account trying everything on offer.

I was almost opted for pancakes by settled on sweetcorn fritters with spiced baked beans and avocado smash for a reasonable £6.95, which in central London is pretty good value for breakfast. It didn’t take too long to come and was a good sized portion. Everything on the plate tasted fresh and flavoursome. The only thing missing was a poached egg – I know, I know, vegan fail, sorry.

The rest of the bridal party had a selection of baked treats including banana bread and brownies, which the mums thought tasted odd but the rest of us thought were tasty and prompted a game of ‘guess the vegan alternative ingredient’. For 20 minutes we debated what kind of ground nut, date or syrup had been used instead of sugar or an animal product. Suffice to say we were the only ones having this discussion as the cafe was dotted with super cool young women in oversized pastel jumpers and Doc Martins who were cooler than any of us could ever be and clearly dedicated to the plant-based cause.

I enjoyed eating at Deliciously Ella and I’d definitely go again to try the tempting array of granola on offer. I imagine that won’t appeal to everyone but I’m a cereal fiend. The décor was delightful, there was water on tap and I liked their ‘philosophy’ board displayed by the stairs –

I agree with the last point most of all – ‘listen to your body’. I do my very best to eat lots of veg and if I am eating meat or fish I will buy organic and responsibly sourced, supporting local businesses as often as possible. But sometimes we fall off the wagon and after a heavy prosecco brunch at the weekend my body wanted a Big Mac and it solved all my problems. Sorry, Ella. I’ll do better next time.

 

The Sarojin, Khao Lak, Thailand

I was 15 in 2004 and vividly remember watching footage of the Boxing Day tsunami on television. A friend from school was in Thailand at the time and I remember him describing the sound of the rushing water as he sheltered with his family on the top floor of their hotel. At that age my furthest trip abroad was Europe; I’d never been to Thailand and knew absolutely nothing about it. As I reached my late teens and early twenties my perceptions of Thailand were shaped by stories of friends’ gap years, photos of their sunset cartwheels and gargantuan cocktail buckets at debauched full moon parties. Finally making the trip aged 29 for two weeks (not long enough) has at last opened my eyes to what Thailand is all about: big-hearted people, colourful culture, sunsets of dreams (fewer cartwheels though, much higher risk of injury now I’m over 25) and food that I’d fly back for tomorrow.

When we booked The Sarojin we knew nothing about its story or that of Khao Lak. We chose it solely on aesthetics and the prospect of much needed beach time following a week in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. I will leave you to read about The Sarojin’s origins. I won’t dwell on the hotel’s past too much because I want to talk about its present. The hotel is defined by exquisite, heart-warming hospitality; arriving there was like being welcomed home by my parents at Christmas.

Our flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket earlier that day was unremarkable apart from a mild feeling of panic when it looked like we were landing on the beach until the runway appeared seconds before we touched down. After an hour heading north on a motorway our taxi turned down a lane and meandered through groves of rubber trees until we pulled into the landscaped drive of The Sarojin. I was greeted with a leafy bouquet and we were led to some sofas where we dabbed our faces with cool, freshly scented towels and toasted our stay with a juice flavoured with the plant that grows in the hotel’s grounds. We were overwhelmed with tranquility.

We had arrived early and as we waited for our room to be ready we followed a winding pathway to the beach, which was already dotted with bronzed sun-seekers and happy children. I hopped about excitedly as something darting along the sand turned out to be a tiny hermit crab scurrying towards the sea. Wildlife in central London leaves a lot to be desired unless you’re a fox spotter, so a hermit crab in the wild was super exciting.

Later in our stay Murtie beckoned me out of the pool because he’d spotted a water monitor making its way stealthily across the grass. Seeing it was magical; I haven’t felt wonder like that in a long time.

Once we’d dusted the sand off our feet outside our garden room we cracked open our complimentary sparkling wine and spent half an hour admiring every spotless surface, the neatly folded towels, the luxurious waterfall shower and later, wondering how we would scoop out the pink rose petals floating in the bath tub.

I can’t say I’ve stayed in that many luxury hotels and I suppose if you’re in them all the time then you might not appreciate the luxury and little details. I can safely say that The Sarojin is the best hotel I’ve ever stayed in for one distinct reason: the little details. Whether we were by the pool, eating breakfast or walking to our room, we noticed little details: grounds staff wished us good day, cold water/ juice and fruit at the pool, folded towels in the shape of animals on our bed and palm leaf sculptures on our pillows.

I’m contemplating the next sentence and I’m salivating. The food at The Sarojin is the best I’ve eaten at a hotel. Ever. It’s inclusion in the Michelin guide is deserved. I can taste the French toast with perfectly cubed fresh fruit and sweet maple syrup. Their all-day breakfast concept is one I fully got on board with. Sitting under a canopy looking out over lush green grass, listening to the bubbling water feature and twitter of birdsong, eating our way through the menu was the defining, joyful moment from our honeymoon. If you drew a Venn diagram of Murtie and I, the linking circle would be food. When I say we ate our way through the menu, we absolutely did. Even if our choices got a bit lost in translation; my request for avocado on toast with poached eggs came as a beautifully plated avocado sandwich with poached eggs. I was not complaining, sandwiches are great.

We tried everything on the Thai breakfast menu over our 7 days including mee sapam (egg noddles with shrimp and squid), phad se-eiw (wok friend rice noodles with chicken and dark soya sauce), Thai omelette and congee. Next we went onto sweets and devoured banana pancakes, French toast and waffles, finishing our ‘breakfasts’ each day with a cheese board. I can’t put into words how happy I was eating all the food. All day. For 7 days. If heaven exists, it’s the all-day breakfast at The Sarojin.

As a kind gift to us on our honeymoon we were treated to a five course tasting menu for dinner. I must apologise for the lack of photos because it was by candlelight and I didn’t want to interrupt our romantic dinner by trying to take photos for Instagram. Here is the menu:

I won’t describe each course, but each one was as delicious and intriguing as the next, and paired perfectly with the wine. Both of us winced drinking the dessert wine as the sugar hit our teeth and it was the only glass that wasn’t emptied that evening.

We spent the next few days exploring Khao Lak early in the morning, taking the hotel’s push bikes to Sai Rung waterfall, spotting Kingfishers and cicadas on telegraph wires, and along the cape to coconut beach.

Once we returned to the hotel we had leisurely breakfasts/lunches and chilled by the pool or beach, sheltering occasionally from the unpredictable but spectacular tropical storms that appeared and disappeared as quickly as they arrived.

We returned to our room on our penultimate night to find a letter inviting us to a staff meet and greet that evening. It was wonderful to meet the people behind the little details, who were each introduced by name, role and how long they’d been part of the Sarojin family. The hotel manager, Mr Kade, kindly introduced me to the head chef, who told me about his career and passion for creating beautiful food. If we hadn’t book a day-long excursion for our final day I’d have stayed longer to take him up on the kind offer of a cooking lesson.

By candlelight we ate our evening meal in the hotel: fish cakes and sea food pizza, the portions so big we took our leftovers back to our room for a midnight snack.

On our final day in Khao Lak we took a longboat ride through the mangroves and rocky outcrops of the Phang Nga Bay. We’d booked the excursion through The Sarojin and it showed: a supply of cool, fresh towels to dab our faces, a cool box of drinks and a hospitable guide who shared her interminable knowledge of the area with us at every opportune moment. We kayaked around the bays, laying down to float inside the rocky caves with awe and wonder at nature. A few times we came across plastic and polystyrene in the water, which our guide responsibly gathered onto the kayak to remove. We posed like idiots on James Bond Island, Khao Phing Kan, and later stopped at Koh Panyee, a Muslim community on stilts in the middle of the bay. Here our guide set up a veritable feast of stir fry, prawn and chicken tempura, fried rice and fresh pineapple overlooking the view. We returned to dry land an hour later and were driven to the ‘monkey temple’, Wat Suwan Kuha, and watched from afar as they demolished bananas and pushed each other into a tin bath of muddy water.

We were inevitably sad to leave The Sarojin to catch our flight home the next morning. We were, however, gratefully surprised by our pre-ordered breakfast boxes, which were enormous and included a variety of pastries and muffins, and a scrambled egg and smoked salmon wrap with fresh orange juice. It was delightful, although we were a bit sad not to enjoy the all-day breakfast one last time.

I’m writing this a few months on and I genuinely feel a bit emotional about the experience we had at The Sarojin. Despite collecting insect bites and sunburn, I loved every moment of staying of there and would fly back tomorrow if work would let me. I’ll fondly remember the cheeky Burmese striped squirrels chasing each other at breakfast, the couples who relentlessly hogged the prime-spot day beds at the pool, and the adorable misspelling of ‘Honeymoon’ on our bed when we first arrived.

I’ll never forget the jolly voice of a Thai lady saying ‘sawasdee kah!’ to every passer-by of her bar, and the delicious pineapple shakes we drank out of coconuts sitting 10 metres in front of a derelict hotel swimming pool destroyed 15 years ago. We felt uneasy, unnerved and yet humbled. It felt important that we were there, witnesses to the visible reminders of past devastation. The twisted tree roots and broken rocks on the beach have become part of the landscape, and life in Khao Lak goes on.

 

HONESTY POLICY

The Sarojin gave me one complimentary evening meal having seen some of my Instagram photos. I have received no payment for this article and it is a 100% honest review. I bloomin’ loved the place!!