Anna Maria Ortese was born in Rome, one of six children in a working class family. They moved frequently around Italy for her father's civil service job.
In 1928, they moved to Naples, her mother's hometown, which would feature prominently in Anna Maria's literary imagination. Her first poems were published in the magazine La Sierra Lettering. In 1933, she published La fiera letteraria, a set of poems, followed by the short story collection Angelici dolori (Angelic Pains, 1937). She worked as a reporter for newspapers and magazines such as Sud, Il Mondo and Panorama, while continuing to produce essays, short stories and novels. She moved restlessly around Italy and abroad before settling in Rapallo.
She was best known for her 1953 collection of short stories and reportage, Il mare non bagna Napoli (The Bay Is Not Naples), depicting the miserable conditions in Naples following World War II. Although she won numerous literary prizes, including the Premio Viareggio, her work did not receive international recognition and acclaim until the end of her life, and mostly after her death.
Today she is considered one of Italy's most important 20th century authors.