“See Naples and die,” or so they say. The same quote is often applied to Florence, but in my experience this chaotic yet spectacular city beats Tuscany’s capital hands down in many respects. Admittedly it cannot compete with Florence’s incredible architectural and artistic heritage, but it’s far less overcrowded, its restaurants feel like real places rather than ersatz tourist haunts, the people are friendlier and the food and wine definitely more interesting – there is only so much Bistecca alla Fiorentina one can enjoy on holiday. Naples, as far as I’m concerned, is one of Italy’s least appreciated treasures.
So it was with great delight that I found myself checking into the Hotel Romeo, the city’s newest 5-star address. My sojourn to southern Italy came at the end of a very enjoyable few days sailing around the Med on Celebrity Cruises’ Equinox – imagine a floating Las Vegas resort hotel, but with far more sophistication than anything you’ll encounter in that US haven of mass tourism. The ship dropped us off early on the last morning, giving my companion and I plenty of time to get acquainted with our hotel, and indeed Naples.
However, at first, I assumed the taxi driver had made a terrible mistake. The hotel is situated in a not particularly salubrious part of Naples, right at the heart of the city’s industrial, and somewhat noisy, port area. But, such a position on the waterfront affords the hotel wonderful views – even by the standards of the Campanian landscape. On a clear day, guests can gaze at Mount Vesuvius, the Amalfi Coast and dreamy Capri. And if that wasn’t enough, the Amalfi Coast is only an hour’s drive away.
But first things first – a drink on the hotel’s gorgeous poolside terrace. Arriving early, our rooms were not yet ready, so we settled into an hour of poolside relaxation. Although small, the unheated pool again offers spectacular views and is conveniently situated next to the 9th floor cocktail bar and restaurant, perfect for a pre-lunch libation. Indeed, Romeo boasts an impressive list of modern amenities; luxury spa, business centre, two restaurants, and cigar room, no less. This is the wonderful yet odd thing about the hotel; a sleek glass and metal building, although much-loved by the Jet Set, sits slightly uneasily with the Neapolitan landscape. For this is not the picture-postcard Italy that the tourist board is desperate for you to see. Naples is sprawling, gritty, intense and dare I say it, slightly dodgy. And yet it houses an über-modern, boutique hotel with an impressive art collection and a Michelin-starred restaurant to boot. The rest of Naples’ small firmament of 5-star hotels all conform to the olde-worldly, grandiose and slightly stuffy category.
Which, incidentally, is the best thing about the Romeo – luxury accommodation in the most relaxed of settings, without a hint of formality and stiff pretension that so often plagues luxury hotels in France, for example. It offers a relatively modest 83 rooms, including 13 suites and 10 junior suites. We found ourselves in a very contemporary upgraded double room, complete with open plan / see through shower room and divider that my friend Lucy wasn’t so keen on. However, layout aside, the room was furnished to an extremely high standard – large beds, luxury fabrics and plenty of leather accessories, not to mention the essential free wi-fi throughout the hotel and Nespresso coffee machine.
Unpacking frantically, I suggested returning to the hotel’s terrace as this wasn’t my first visit to Naples – sometimes hedonism trumps exploration. Lucy, however, insisted we explore what Naples is really famous for – pizza. She was right of course, as women usually are, so we asked the reception for a recommendation. On their advice, we sought out Pizzeria Fresco on Via Partenope at Naples’ waterfront. On a warm Sunday afternoon the boulevard was packed with families taking a stroll and boisterous young couples enjoying wafer thin, sublime pizza at less than 6 euros a head. It’s a 15 minute walk from the hotel, or a 5 minute taxi ride.
After a very leisurely Italian lunch, we headed back to Romeo to check out the much hyped modern spa, again, a new concept for the city. Located in the basement, the spa is small but well-equipped with a salt room, five treatment rooms, three Jacuzzis, and two saunas. Lighting is kept to a minimal, as is the noise from other guests. It was a fun indulgence to lounge around the softly lit spa; I even tackled the gym. The place was largely empty though, suggesting the lure of the pool was too much, but I could imagine this space offering well-needed respite from the heat in the high summer season.
Of course, it’s not just fitness and relaxation freaks that are catered for at the Romeo; gastronomes also find much pleasure at the signature Il Comanante restaurant. Run by Head Chef Salvatore Bianco, the food is as far removed from staple Neapolitan Trattoria fayre as can be: expect refined, contemporary Italian cuisine with pan-Asian accents, in a relaxed and yet elegant setting. A thoughtful touch is that all diners at the window facing tables enjoy unhindered views of the harbour, tables being side by side rather than opposite each other. A quick glance at his menu revealed a very adventurous take on classical dishes. The daily changing ‘freehand’ menu is composed of seven dishes only using the seasonal ingredients purchased daily from the morning market in Naples. The highlights were numerous, but our favourite dishes included: bottoni pasta with burnt wheat and salt cod tomato sauce, black cod with star anise sauce, marinated pork cheek in a red wine and fennel cream and the ultimate dessert – chocolate sphere with banana mousse. I won’t spoil the surprise, but trust me; you must try this moreish dish at least once! The wine list complements the proceedings nicely and includes a very friendly and helpful sommelier, who doesn’t patronise, even a little. We went for the nicely laid out pairing menu, including a glass of Italy’s premium fizz, Franciacorta. Oh and service was gracious, engaging and courteous through-out.
With an early flight to catch, a night out on the tiles was unlikely; we retired to bed and caught our flight back to London the following morning. The airport terminal was packed with Amalfi Coast tour group agents and their guests; visitors who would undoubtedly bypass Naples without a second thought. For compared to that admittedly gorgeous bit of coastline, Naples still has relatively weak PR, a world away from the numerous glamorous resorts of Ravello and the like. But, it does now have a modern, luxury hotel to compete with the best down south, situated in a vibrant city that still retains the atmosphere and swagger of a Mediterranean port. So the next time you’re heading to Amalfi, take an extra day to explore Naples, pizza and all. You might find you like it.
Romeo Hotel, Via Cristoforo Colombo, 45, 80133 Naples, Italy. Tel: +39 081 017 5001. Website.