Ask a local: what should I do, see, and eat in Pompei, Italy?

by Gigi Griffis

Welcome back to Ask a Local, a series of posts in which I interview locals all over the world about what to see, where to go, what to eat, and how to fit in in their city or town. The following interview was originally published in my Italy guide.

Today I’m happy to introduce you to Saverio Danubio, an art and nature enthusiast here to tell us all about Pompei.

First, tell us about you.

My name is Saverio Danubio. I was born and still live in a little village near Pompei. I am a friendly and sunny guy and like meeting new people and discovering new things. My passions go toward art, nature, sustainability, sports, design, and technologies.

If someone is visiting Pompei for the first time, what do you recommend they see or do?

First of all, spend at least one day visiting the ruins of old city. In Pompei, there is a rare (perhaps even singular) opportunity to see how exactly a Roman village was 20 centuries ago.

The entrance gates, in Porta Marina Inferiore Square and next to Immacolata Square, are closer to the center of the new city and the train stations. Inside the ruins, the roads of old Pompei are made of ancient square stones and lead to the temple of Apollo, the theater, the baths, and many other public and private structures.

In some houses, there are visible plaster casts of citizens and the animals that died covered by the ashes. The mosaics and fresco paintings clearly show the habits of wealthy Romans. And everything is fixed at year 79 A.D., when the old city was completely covered by the Vesuvius volcano eruption. Sometimes you can visit the ruins by night on guided tours; do not miss this awesome experience.

Pompei also offers another kind of tourism. The new city is an important religious destination, visited several times by various popes. Even if you aren’t coming to Pompei to pray, the awesome sanctuary of blessed Virgin of the Rosary and its tower bell are worth admiring. Inside the structure, there is the tomb of Blessed Bartolo Longo, the founder of the shrine.

The touristic area with many restaurants and bars is around the Bartolo Longo Square garden and the adjacent Roma street, which has souvenir stores, where the tourists pass hours buying fancy things, postcards, and fake pieces of ruins.

What neighborhoods or parts of town are best to stay in?

I suggest remaining in the city center, where there are a lot of accommodation options suitable for any budget. There are luxury Hotels like the Palma and Forum, both next to the sanctuary. And, located in Plinio Street, near the gate to the ruins, there are numerous camping options and bungalows.

Let’s talk about day trips…what nearby places should everyone make sure to visit?

If you’re interested in archeology, there are lots of interesting sites in Campania that merit a visit. In less than half an hour by the local train (the Circumvesuviana), you can visit the ruins of Antiquarium, Ercolano, Oplonti, Stabia, and Longola. The latter is a really promising prehistoric installation in Poggiomarino that just recently came to the light and is not yet open.

If you want to escape from the monuments and enjoy some relaxation, you can go to the termae located on the beautiful Island of Ischia or in Castellamare di Stabia, where I advise you, also, to taste a really good Italian gelato and wander along the waterfront.

For those interested in the religious monuments, Amalfi cathedral, Montevergine, and Sant’Anastasia sanctuaries are all within an hour. Each Easter Monday in Sant’Anastasia, there is a traditional procession in honor of the Madonna dell’Arco, which draws more than 10,000 visitors.

Other nearby places to see include the islands of the gulf of Naples: Capri, Ischia, and Procida. All three are accessible by ferries from Beverello marina.

Capri is a little and charming island with two tall, iconic rock spurs called faraglioni. It is the island of very important people and, actually, in the summertime, it is not rare see Hollywood stars lounging there. There are a lot of important hotels and villas on Capri that have been the locations of movies and TV fictions.

Ischia is the bigger island. It is a thermal location, also appreciated for its beautiful summer places. Tourists seem to stay in Ischia much longer than the other islands—usually more than just a weekend. When people think of Ischia, they often picture the mushroom-shaped rock in front of the beach of Lacco Ameno.

Procida is the smallest of these three islands. It is a pretty, quiet fishing island. The port where little boats are moored and its colorful houses are picture perfect.

Finally, there is one place where you can see all of the places I’ve mentioned at one time. This is the top of the Vesuvius volcano. By car, it is about one hour from Pompei, but part of the trip to the top is on foot (for 15 minutes).

The mouth of volcano has a diameter of hundreds of meters, as does its inner cavity. Today, the soil there is dark and porous. And while the volcano is still active, it does not smoke at all.

Tell us about the local dishes. What should people try here?

As far as I know, Pompei does not have a typical dish. The meals here are obviously influenced by the Mediterranean and Neapolitan culinary traditions.

In the touristic area next to Roma Street, many restaurants serve good, characteristic meals. My ideal menu, which you will easily find in the restaurants, starts with a rich antipasto made of fried tiny fishes, algae batter, potato croquettes, grilled vegetables in oil, and buffalo mozzarella, ricotta, Neapolitan salami, and other local cold cuts.

Next, I’d have pasta di Gragnano with seaweed, fish, or octopus. Another typical first dish is the gnocchi alla Sorrentina (dumplings in tomato sauce with mozzarella). Pair this with good and cheap homemade wines from the local farmers or famous wines like Lacryma Christi (a really tasty wine with ancient origins, made from the grapes grown on the slopes of Vesuvius).

As second dish, I’d choose grilled or roasted fish.

Then, for dessert, try caprese, wheat tarts, babà (a small cake doused in rum), and sfogliatelle (shell-shaped filled pastries). Depending on the time of year, you can also try the struffoli (deep fried dough balls available during Carnival) and the delicious zeppole (more deep fried dough balls) of Saint Joseph, prepared on the days around March 19th. Each meal should be closed with the famous lemon drink of Sorrento, Limoncello, and Neapolitan coffee.

Finally, some foods I didn’t mention, but are typical in this region: pomodorini di piennolo (Vesuvian tomatoes), Neapolitan bagels with black pepper and almonds, casatiello (stuffed Easter bread), panuozzo (traditional thin-bread sandwiches) made in Gragnano, hazelnuts, and the Annurca apple.

And important wines of the region: Falerno, Fiano, Greco di Tufo, Aglianico, and Taurasi.

Of course, there’s also the food that made Naples and Italy famous in every corner of world: the pizza. The pizza of Naples is absolutely the best and there is no way to copy it.

What are your top three favorite bars and restaurants?

Zi Caterina (located at Via Roma 20): inside this old restaurant, there is a traditional and warm atmosphere and the waiters are very friendly and efficient. They offer cheap touristic menus with a wide selection of Neapolitan dishes. The spigoletta panatenea (a local fish dish) is very good.

Il Principe Restaurant, located at Piazza Bartolo Longo 8, has a refined and elegant style and the waiting service is perfect. Try the old Roman meals there, especially the oplontis cassata (their signature cake).

Kobe, located at Via Carlo Alberto 76/80, is a grill, pizzeria, and more. It’s just five minutes from the main square. This is not exactly a restaurant, but a fashionable and famous place to enjoy the nightlife in Pompei and eat something.

For bars, I recommend: the De Vivo pastry shop (located at Via Roma 38\42). It is a very famous, historic bar and pastry shop. There is always a long line of people for its ice creams.

Next: Gabbiano Dulcis (located at Via Lepando 153), which is just a five-minute walk from the sanctuary. It is a modern and elegant bar with a first-level Neapolitan pastry shop. Its sweets are delicious and there are also some cakes made from old Pompeian recipes.

Finally: hcca24 (located at Viale Giuseppe Mazzini 48). It is a full bar and offers a wide selection of sweet and salty foods. This bar is the ideal place for happy hours and meeting new people at night.

Is there anything tourists do that locals find rude or strange? What can we do to better fit in with the culture?

Italians, in general, do not like to see half-bare people walking around the city (or inside the churches). Don’t drink cappuccino or colored sparkling water with vitamins next to a delicious dish of pasta. It is not properly in harmony with our tastes. And if you are not sure what you should order and would like eat as Italians do, feel free to ask somebody next to you. It will be a nice way to make acquaintances as well.

What is the best way to meet locals and make friends?

People here are basically friendly and it is a welcoming culture. It is very easy make new friends here. The locals who have some free time usually go walking in the city center or sit in bars drinking coffee or aperitifs at happy hour. They will be glad to talk with a polite and smiley new friend. (And they will love to give you recommendations regarding the stay in Pompei).

If you see a table of scopone (a card game) players, try to join them. Your partner will try to tip you off about his hand with colorful facial expressions and it will be very funny. If you want to see a preview about the typical southern Italians, watch the movie Welcome to the South.

Why should people make sure to visit Pompei?

The city is well connected by many trains and buses, which will take you to Naples, Sorrento, or Rome within an hour. Pompei, with its ruins and the sanctuary, is a nice, interesting destination and a good base for day trips to the other wonders of south Italy.

What is the best place to go take beautiful photos of the city?

The ruins will offer many inspirations, behind columns or inside the amphitheater. You can also stand next to the souvenirs shops in Via Roma, outside the shrine, or in the Bartolo Longo Square garden. Also, do not miss the top of the bell tower.

Anything else you want us to know?

A few last recommendations: visit the lovely cities of the coasts (these should be more than a day trip, even though they’re close enough to visit in a day). Sorrento and Amalfi are the most representative cities, but all the little cities are worthwhile. These places are full of narrow streets facing the sea, and the mountains of both coasts fall directly into the sea, creating beautiful and sometimes hidden beaches that only locals know. Their lemons are sweet and fragrant. And the view of Amalfi Coast from Villa Cimbrone in Ravello will leave you breathless.

You should also visit the city of Naples. Even though it’s only 30 minutes away, it’s another place that merits more than a day. The city was the capital of south Italy for many centuries and its monuments are strongly influenced by its many dominations. When I go to Naples, I like to see some of the following places: The king’s palace, Plebiscito Square, Maschio Angioino (a castle also known as Castel Nuovo), Castel dell’Ovo, and the area around the Saint Gregorio Armeno, with its figurine handicraftsmen. Also, do not miss Via Tribunali, where every pizzeria is amazing.

Finally, go to the royal palace of Caserta. It is a complex of three buildings and has been the summer residence of Spanish kings in the city of Caserta—only about one hour from Pompei. The abundance of marble, paintings, crystal chandeliers, tapestries, etc. clearly show how they lived in richness. Behind the palace, there is a huge green area with meadows, the botanic garden, and a sequence of numerous poles adorned with ancient figures. The Royal Palace of Caserta is essentially the Italian version of the French Versailles.

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