Pizza was what we were craving, and at a sidewalk cafe shaded by pastel buildings and palm trees, we settled in for lunch and our first impressions of a city most Americans equate...

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NAPLES, Italy — Pizza was what we were craving, and at a sidewalk cafe shaded by pastel buildings and palm trees, we settled in for lunch and our first impressions of a city most Americans equate with noise, crime and mass confusion.

The pizza lived up to its reputation. Naples claims to be its birthplace, and the best are simple wood-smoked pies sprinkled with basil, fresh tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella. The surprise was the scene that unfolded around us. It was nothing like the grungy, hang-onto-your-bag Naples I had been expecting.

My husband and I watched a shopkeeper arrange a window display of high-heeled shoes in shades of shocking pink and lime green. Waiters in white shirts and black vests rushed drinks to a group of businessmen a few tables away. And when I asked where I could find a store that sold English-language books, someone pointed out Libreria Feltrinelli, three floors of books, music and videos to rival the biggest Barnes & Noble.

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Guidebooks and Internet postings warned of drive-by bag snatchers and scooter gangsters, but this was Chiaia, a refined seafront quarter of 19th-century buildings and art-deco style palazzi in what might be considered “modern Naples” in a city with 25 centuries of history. The worst problems I witnessed were cellphone conversations cut short by revving Vespas.

“That’s the rich area,” a hotel clerk later told me. He worked a mile or so away in the heart of the Centro Storico, the city’s ancient core. “This,” he said, gesturing to the traffic and tenements jammed into a grid of narrow streets, “is real life.”

Maybe. But as a comfortable, safe and convenient base for exploring a city most Americans are inclined to avoid, Chiaia suited us perfectly.

We checked into the Pension Pinto-Storey on the fourth floor of a mustard-colored building with marble staircases and a view of the Bay of Naples from our window.

A few blocks away was the Villa Comunale, a waterfront park filled with classical statutes and fountains. Across the street was Piazza Amedeo, a cobbled square with family-owned shops selling chocolate and salami and a funicular railway that takes commuters to the posh hilltop suburb of Vomero.

The neighborhood was a slice of Naples neither touched by mass tourism nor grinding poverty. As a temporary resident, I began to get a feel for why the city was once considered among Europe’s finest, and in three days, I knew we’d barely be able to scratch the surface.

Naples’ draw has always been its setting, with Vesuvius, still an active volcano, looming behind a sparkling bay and busy working waterfront. Most visitors head for the National Archaeological Museum to see its collection of artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, towns buried by the volcano’s eruption in 79 A.D., then use the harbor as jumping-off point for trips to the islands of Capri and Ischia. Now more tourists are discovering the city itself as Naples grapples more successfully with its problems, chiefly traffic and crime.

City officials launched a redevelopment campaign following an earthquake in 1980. The clean-up continued with the election of a new mayor in 1993 and plans to host the Group of Seven summit of world leaders in 1994. Faded facades were painted, museums refurbished, churches restored and traffic-congested piazzas transformed into pedestrian areas.

Spaccanapoli, or “Split Naples,” is a three-mile-long street first laid out by the Greeks that literally divides the city’s historic center in half.

The centerpiece is the Piazza del Plebiscito, the main square in the heart of downtown where we watched as newlyweds posed for pictures in front of a bus and fed each other pizza. Just a few years ago, the plaza, crowned by San Francesco di Paola, a sweeping domed basilica modeled after Rome’s Pantheon, was used as a parking lot.

Across the square is the refurbished Galleria Umberto I, an 1887 indoor shopping mall with an arched glass and iron dome where local weavers, carvers and painters set up craft stalls on Saturday mornings. Nearby, along newly pedestrianized portions of Via Toledo, the city’s main business and shopping street, Neapolitans spend the early evening strolling and sipping espresso.

A sanitized city? Hardly. As one of Italy’s most densely populated and poorest urban areas, Naples is still noisy, crowded and traffic-choked. Even in the best areas, we found ourselves walking three deep on the sidewalks, breathing exhaust fumes and talking above the blare of horns and motorbikes until the shops closed at 8 p.m. and it was time to eat.

“Naples is very much a contradiction,” said Flora Mansi, a guide who leads walking tours around the oldest parts of the city. “Noise and silence. Rich and poor. Those who work; those who don’t work.”

Still, apart from being approached by someone selling bootleg cigarettes, it’s unlikely that tourists will have any contact with the Camorra, the Neapolitan version of the Mafia. We explored everywhere during the day, on foot and on the Metropolitana subway line, noticing the piped in mandolin music as we waited for the trains. At night, we stuck to Chiaia and Vomero, the best areas for restaurants and night life.

I took the normal precautions, keeping money and valuables out of sight, and felt ill at ease only once — when a scooter came within inches of my feet as I walked, hugging the side of a building, on a sliver of pavement crammed with street vendors and shoppers.

Life on the streets

At the Pignasecca street market in the heart of the Spanish Quarter, women wander through the fish and vegetable stands to the sounds of “Strangers in the Night” coming from a music shop on the corner. Nearby, a worker at Pescheria Azzurra slices salmon under a portrait of Jesus framed in blue neon.

A few blocks away, on a narrow street surrounded by crumbling tenements, a businessman from London checks into the three-star Hotel Il Convento in a restored 500-year-old mansion. Outside his window, a fortyish woman, thighs bulging in purple hot pants, poses on a motor scooter parked in front of a corner chapel where women pray for fertility before the relics of a saint encased in glass.

Ruled first by the Greeks, then Romans, Normans, Spanish and French, Naples is divided into 21 zones, each with a collection of monuments, palaces and Gothic and Baroque-style churches whose plain facades hide interiors filled with frescoes, paintings and elaborate marblework.

Here in the Spanish Quarter, built in the 16th century to house Spanish occupying troops, some of the city’s poorest citizens live just a few steps west of the chic shops on Via Toledo.

The biggest transformation has taken place in nearby Spaccanapoli, or “Split Naples,” the name for the oldest part of Naples, a square-mile area at the heart of the original city, and also the name for the three-mile-long street first laid out by the Greeks that literally divides the center in half.

Mozzarella delivery trucks and motorbikes share streets no wider than alleys with chestnut sellers, pizzerias and stalls stocked with religious icons and souvenir bottles of lemon liquor. Its narrow lanes and piazzas were once a haven for bag-snatching scooter thieves, but much of the area is now off-limits to most vehicles, and Spaccanapoli has become as close to a tourist area as Naples can claim.

Laundry flapping from balconies and vendors hawking figurines depicting a hooked-nose Neapolitan mascot called a Pulcinella are charming symbols of traditional Neapolitan life. But the neighborhood’s real treasures are its artisan workshops and its collection of Baroque churches steeped in religious symbolism and mystery.

Naples claims more than 50 major Catholic saints, each with a church or a square named in his or her honor. “People really feel their religion,” said Mansi.

Frescoes galore

Wander into the Sansevero Chapel to admire the frescoes and statue of the “Veiled Christ” sculpted in marble, or explore the crypt where two human cardiovascular systems were removed from their bodies and preserved by an eccentric prince.

Just when it seems that the traffic congestion and noise have reached their peak in the late afternoon, the doors to the Convent of Santa Chiaia are opened, and visitors are invited to stroll through quiet gardens decorated with faded frescoes and bright blue and yellow hand-painted tiles.

Underneath streets and churches are the ruins of Roman markets and Greek temples. Many are open to the public.

Aboveground, in workshops tucked into alleyways or hidden on the upper floors of shuttered buildings, are fourth- and fifth-generation craftsmen creating Naples’ specialty, the Christmas crib scene.

On San Gregorio Armeno Lane, Antonio Capuano builds Christmas mangers out of cork in a shop that’s been in his family since 1800. Other craftsmen make and paint figurines — not only terra-cotta angels and shepherds, but statues of politicians and people ironing or making spaghetti — all intended to place the traditional Nativity scene into modern-day context.

Food is considered high art too. Naples is known for having the best coffee in Italy. (Some credit the water.) One of the best spots to sample it is at the Pasticceria Scaturchio, a century-old family coffee bar and bakery on the Piazza San Domenico. The specialties here are babà, a spongy, rum-soaked cake that resembles a mushroom-shaped Twinkie, and sfogliatella, a layered pastry filled with ricotta cheese.

For serious eating, the best neighborhood restaurants can be found on the steep lanes leading to the seafront in Chiaia or along the tree-lined streets in Vomero.

As it is in Florence or Rome, it’s possible to spend $100 on a meal of local seafood, or as we discovered, considerably less.

“Pasta or soup?” Luigi Sorvino asked when we found Osteria Donna Teresa one evening after taking the funicular to Vomero to escape the heat and rush-hour crowds in the city. There was no menu, sometimes an excuse for the owner to overcharge, but a plaque on the door said the restaurant has been in business since 1913, and it came recommended by Fred Plotkin, author of “Italy for the Gourmet Traveler.”

We chose pasta, a penne with eggplant and roasted peppers. Sorvino reappeared with a bottle of red wine without a label, thick slices of dark bread and a plate of sardines in olive oil.

“Mangia,” he said. “Eat.” We had one of nine tables, all covered in green-and-white checked oil cloth. Space was so tight we had to walk over crates of tomatoes and climb a set of creaky wooden stairs to get to the restroom.

Next came octopus in a dark sauce and a cut of braised meat we couldn’t identify. Then a platter of red grapes. The bill arrived with just one number written on it. I was prepared for a surprise, but nothing like this. I walked back to the kitchen to find Anna Sorvino, who does all the cooking.

She wiped her hands on her apron so we could shake hands, and I thanked her for best $25 meal we’d found in all of Italy.

Carol Pucci: 206-464-3701 or