A long weekend in Naples with Mariano Rubinacci

The venerated tailor’s love for his native city runs from exemplary pizzerias to antiquarian bookshops, as he tells Maria Shollenbarger. Portrait by Valentina Sommariva

Mariano Rubinacci beside the Palazzo Cellamare, home to his Naples atelier
Mariano Rubinacci beside the Palazzo Cellamare, home to his Naples atelier | Image: Valentina Sommariva

Naples has a special façade it presents to the world. There’s something in the air here. You smell the sea, see the Castel dell’Ovo and know there is no other city you could be in. And its history – Norman, French, Austrian and Spanish dominations layered one over the other – has left multifaceted influences on art, architecture and culture. In its day, it competed with Paris and Vienna; it was a true capital, a major stop on the English Grand Tour. It remains a very open city; it’s the third biggest in Italy and has all the beauties – and, it should be said, deficiencies – of a large metropolitan area. But the Neapolitans themselves still often consider it a paesino, a small town.

Naples for a holiday, even in winter – actually, especially in winter – is amazing. I have a friend and client, an Arab prince, who recently came for the first time in 10 years in wintertime and found it truly splendid; he said he couldn’t wait to come back and tour all of the museums.

Grand Hotel Vesuvio overlooks the Castel dell’Ovo
Grand Hotel Vesuvio overlooks the Castel dell’Ovo

And while its museums are wonderful, you cannot talk about the city without first talking about the food. Simply, it’s the best there is. Our pizza is, of course. known around the world, but is not nearly as easy as just some tomatoes and mozzarella. It is an art form; there’s careful attention to the fineness of the flour, the mixing of the dough, the proper time and manner to allow it to rise. Each pizzaiolo has his own recipe, always a fiercely guarded secret. And then there’s the issue of the proper cheese – a whole other philosophy.

The best pizza is still probably at da Michele; it’s definitely the most famous. It’s near the Tribunali, the old low-caste part of Naples. The pizza is soft and delicious, with the right balance of all ingredients. It is also very good at L’Europeo, on the Via Marchese Campodisola, but I’d recommend the pastas here, in particular the Genovese alla Napoletana, named not after the city of Genoa but a Neapolitan neighbourhood. It’s made with equal quantities of meat and onions, and it’s fantastic. They also do superb fiori di zucca, fried zucchini flowers stuffed with cheese. The interiors are simple – copper saucepans and maiolica on the walls, crisp white tablecloths.

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For seafood, the best has to be da Dora. It’s famous, right by the seaside in a small lane. Like L’Europeo, it’s simple; nothing luxurious in the interiors – tiled floors, some wood panelling – because here it’s all about the quality of the fish, which they’ll bring to your table and show to you. The other seafood must is Ciro a Mergellina, which does exquisite fried sea bass; the skin becomes crisp and you peel it away and eat the very delicate, perfectly cooked meat inside.

For a more upscale environment, I’d say go to Palazzo Petrucci, in Posillipo. It’s quite traditional cucina Napoletana, but in elevated versions. The dining room is right on the sea, and there’s a beach downstairs. It’s all very polished and elegant.

The historic architecture of Naples’ Centro Storico
The historic architecture of Naples’ Centro Storico | Image: © Getty Images

The passage of Spaniards, Austrians and French through Naples has left it with a robust café culture. You’ll find a few perfectly good ones along the sea, but I’d say there are two musts: Gambrinus, for its history, grand interior and splendid views of Piazza del Plebiscito, and Gran Caffè La Caffettiera, on the Piazza dei Martiri. Service is exceptional and there are tables all across the piazza. If you’re in the old part of town, you should stop at Scaturchio, where they make what most Neapolitans would say is the best sfogliatelle – a rich treat that’s like a millefeuille outside with ricotta cream inside.

From here you’re well positioned to see some culture. Close by is the Chapel of Sansevero, which holds the Cristo Velato – the Veiled Christ – a marble sculpture made by Giuseppe Sanmartino in the 1750s. It’s a beautiful artwork, incredibly moving. Back down by Gambrinus is the equally impressive Teatro di San Carlo, the oldest opera house in Europe. It was built by Medrano, a Spanish brigadier in Naples, in 1737, before La Scala in Milan or La Fenice in Venice, and I think it has some of the best acoustics in the world.

Greco‑Roman artefacts fill the Museo Archeologico Nazionale
Greco‑Roman artefacts fill the Museo Archeologico Nazionale | Image: MARKA/Alamy Stock Photo

I always send people to the Capodimonte, the museum that houses the Farnese family’s vast art collections, including that of Charles Bourbon III, who inherited an enormous collection from his mother, a Farnese from Parma. There are paintings by Giotto through to Bruegel; there is one of the Danaës by Titian, as well as the Ercole al Bivio by Annibale Carracci. And you cannot miss the Salottino di Porcellana. It’s a room clad in delicate porcelain, inspired by the factories of Meissen and Sèvres, which the Bourbons wanted to emulate – and did, by founding the Royal Porcelain Factory at Capodimonte. It’s enchanting.

Then there’s the National Archaeological Museum, stuffed with Greco-Roman artefacts. Many of those found at Pompeii are now here. The building itself has a huge attraction in the Gran Salone della Meridiana, one of the most ornate covered halls in Europe, with elegant classical proportions and complex frescoes. But Naples isn’t all about the past: Madre, our contemporary art museum, which opened just over a decade ago, shows excellent exhibitions of international artists, and some of its galleries have huge frescoes and ceramic floors painted by Francesco Clemente, who was born in Naples.

Da Michele is renowned for its pizzas
Da Michele is renowned for its pizzas | Image: David Gee/Alamy Stock Photo

From here it’s a nice change of atmosphere to go to Spaccanapoli, the series of interconnecting streets that splits Naples as it runs, east to west; there are lots of tiny old shops. On the Via San Gregorio Armeno, they make all of the terracotta figures for the presepe – the famous Nativity scenes that have a centuries-old history here and you see everywhere at Christmas. You’ll find beautiful examples from the 1600s in the Museum of San Martino; the craftsmanship is peerless, with clothes and costumes rendered as carefully then as today, but it is the expressions that are most moving. If you’re interested to have a presepio of your own, I recommend Ferrigno. They are top craftsmen, widely respected for their work.

As for other artisans, rather sadly the list is short. We at Rubinacci, of course, maintain the sartorial standards of the 1930s, when my father made what would become known as Neapolitan tailoring: an easy shoulder, soft lapels – the antithesis of the hyper-structured English jacket – at our atelier in Chiaia. Recently they added a contemporary version of this jacket to the V&A costume collections in London. It’s made us incredibly proud. Back in Naples, I send people to Mario Talarico, where they still make umbrellas entirely by hand, in his small atelier; a bespoke version is a must for the gentleman. Along the Via Costantinopoli there are lovely antiquarian bookshops and boutiques; the Libreria Antiquaria Carlo Regina has quality prints and etchings, as well as antique books. The Ospedale delle Bambole is also a must; a bit strange and quintessentially Neapolitan. It was founded in 1899 as a “hospital” for damaged and broken dolls and toys, which today are still repaired and sold.

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Naples has a few excellent hotels. The Vesuvio is considered the best, right on the water; it’s where heads of state stay. It’s traditional, with damask walls and heavy curtains and chandeliers. And just down the road is the similarly traditional Excelsior. Both are from the late 1800s and look over the beautiful Castel dell’Ovo and beyond, to Capri. For a far more contemporary environment, there is the Romeo by Paul Noritaka Tange, son of Pritzker winner Kenzo Tange. It’s uniformly modern, with a good sushi restaurant and quite impressive art from the owner’s collection.

For something more intimate, we have Casa Rubinacci, our villa near the Vomero area with self-contained flats. Each has a kitchen and living room; it’s like having your own home, and the garden is lovely. My clients often stay here when they come for fittings. The staff can organise boat rides around the Gulf of Naples, which is an ideal perspective on the city; you see that, unlike Rome – essentially the work of men – Naples has splendid mountains and sea. Its beauty is a marriage of man and nature.

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