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A pizza pilgrimage

I have been going to Italy — which I love — for longer than many readers of Brunch have been alive. And yet, somehow I had never been to Naples, one of Italy’s most famous cities.

When I finally did go, last week, I didn’t go because of Naples’ beauty or because I wanted to see Mount Vesuvius. I went for the most mundane of reasons.


I went for the pizza.


   Yes, really. I can usually judge Italian food because I have travelled (relatively) widely around Italy. But there has always been one notable exception.


   Pizza and Naples.


   I have got around this obvious gap in my experience by arguing that even if Naples was birthplace of pizza, there are now so many different kinds. Even in Italy, the Roman style of pizza is well-respected and Americans will claim, with some justification, that the pizza that most of the world knows well was invented in New York and other American cities and not in Italy.


   All this is probably true. But there really is no substitute for the pizza of Naples. So I went on a pizza pilgrimage last week. And I ate so much pizza that it got to the stage that by the end of the trip I couldn’t face another pizza. Here’s what I learned.


   First, pizza in Naples is nothing like the pizzas you get delivered from Pizza Hut or Domino’s. It is not even like the ‘Neapolitan pizzas’ you get in restaurants around the world.


   Most of the pizzas I ate in Naples were relatively simple affairs. They were large, typically, around the size of a dinner plate, but not sharing-pizza large. They didn’t usually come pre-sliced so you had to cut them yourself. You could eat them with a knife and fork but then you could, I guess, eat even a paratha with a knife and fork. All the locals ate them with their fingers, sometimes with each slice folded up to four times. (The quadruple fold is a thing here.)


   Americans like the term ‘pizza pie” because their pizzas are really large pies, prized for their toppings. In Naples, pizza is not a pie. It is rarely judged by the toppings which, when they exist, are sparse and hardly predominating. Instead, it is the quality of the basic ingredients: dough, tomatoes, cheese, buffalo mozzarella, etc.


   A pizza in Naples goes into a very hot oven, after having been formed by hand (no rolling pins and flinging in the air as in America) and is baked for just one minute (or 90 seconds, at most) at around 500° c (between 850 to 910° F). Once it is out of the oven, it begins to deteriorate and must be consumed within ten minutes. Unlike American pizzas which are made for home delivery, this is less a pie and more like a soufflé.


   You can, of course, put toppings into your pizza but there are two classic varieties. Margherita, long claimed to be the original, which is basically tomatoes and Mozzarella and Marinara which has no cheese. Some famous pizzerias in Naples will only serve these two basic pizzas. And even at places where other varieties are available, these will usually be among the two most popular varieties.


"Having eaten my way through Naples, here’s my advice: seek out pizza places where the locals go; if you hear mainly English being spoken by the customers, go somewhere else."

   There are many ways in which a pizza in Naples differs from what we think of as a pizza. Here are two of them: in Naples, a pizza must have raised edges which must be blistered by the heat of the oven and most times (with a marinara, especially) the centre will still be moist or soupy from the tomato sauce even when the pizza comes to the table.


   I would now take an authentic Naples pizza over any other kind but that does not mean that the other varieties are necessarily bad. They just wouldn’t be called pizza in Naples. The thin Roman pizza has its own characteristics: it is cooked at a lower temperature, stays longer in the oven and does not have to be consumed in under ten minutes.


   There are many styles of pizza in America because, even though Italian immigrants from the South (between 13 to 15 million Italians went to the US at the end of the 19thCentury and the start of the 20th) introduced pizza to America, the dish had no standard recipe in Naples when they left. So they carried different versions of the pizza with them and then improvised. Italians don’t usually think much of the American improvisations. For instance, most Italians turn their noses up at Chicago’s Deep Pan Pizza though it is a craze in parts of America.


   In return, Americans argue that pizzas in Naples can be boringly similar because the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana regulates all pizza-making in Naples and insists that pizza chefs follow a standard recipe. Italians claim that making pizza according to an authorised recipe not only maintains the tradition but also tests the chef’s talents: it is more difficult to make a pizza that is better than everyone else’s if you can’t innovate. But yes, it can be done as anyone who has eaten at different pizzerias in Naples will attest.


   The American view is summed up by Ed Levine, the founder of Serious Eats who ate at 15 pizzerias in Naples before dismissing them all as too similar and deciding that the best pizza in the world was found in Arizona. (They don’t think much of Levine in Naples.)


   When Americans do take Naples pizza seriously, the same names of pizza chefs crop up again and again; Gino Sorbillo (respected in Naples and founder of a global chain that bears his name), Antonio Starita, Enzo Coccia and of late, Franco Pepe, who appeared on Netflix Chef’s Table after telling the regulators to take a flying jump and insisting on making pizzas his own way.


   All of them serve very good pizzas at their restaurants And there are the famous places like L’antica Pizzeria Da Michele (only Marinara and Margherita served) which are now overrun by tourists, don’t take any reservations and take pride in the long queues.


   Some places will offer historical reference points as their claims to fame. Alas most of the claims are bogus. After a famous takedown by Zachary Nowak who exposed the myth that Margherita pizza had been created in Naples to honour the queen of the same name, the consensus is that no one person or restaurant invented pizza.


   It is an ancient flatbread, related to other flatbreads much as the Greek pita and West Asian versions of the naan. It was originally a simple peasant dish, common in the days when people made bread at home. Yes, Naples did popularise one version of the flatbread (what we call the Naples pizza today) but there was no ‘Eureka’ moment or no romantic story behind its evolution, no matter what the tourist guidebooks say. It just evolved.


   So don’t be fooled by the hype and the queues. Having eaten my way through Naples, here’s my advice: seek out pizza places where the locals go; if you hear mainly English (and American) being spoken by the customers, go somewhere else. But if you hear lots of Italian voices, then step in and order a pizza. Eat like a local and it’s hard to go wrong.


   Eat the famous pizza varieties first and once you have got the hang of that, be a little adventurous.


   The most memorable pizza I had in Naples was not at one of the hyped places but during Sunday lunch at Pizzeria Fratteli Salvo where we may have been the only non-Italians (though the restaurant now turns up on Food and Wine’s guide of the ten best pizzerias in Italy.) As happy families with small children chattered away in Italian we had a fantastic pizza with Calabrian N’duja and Verzin, a goat’s milk cheese with blue veins running through it, both from artisanal producers. It summed up what good Italian food should be about: traditional techniques, first rate local ingredients and a dash of culinary flair.



Posted On: 24 May 2024 01:18 PM
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