The first time I went to Napoli I was with two American star-chefs, one from Boston and one from Washington, DC. I’ve been to that glorious city (Italians call it Parthenopea because of its Greek origins) many times since, but the first time is always the most memorable, right?
So there I was with the two chefs, and DC had brought along a junior from his crew, someone he said would be in charge of the pizzeria he hoped to open in a few months, next door to his ultra-fancy Italian place that was a favorite with Washington politicians. We were attending a conference of some kind in Rome and, bored with the proceedings, decided to cut out, rent a car, and go sample pizza on its home ground. In any case, DC said, he needed to get ideas and inspiration for his new enterprise. He claimed to be Italian, but I had my doubts, despite his Italian accented English.
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I doubted his claim for several reasons. One being that he didn’t seem to grasp the proper procedure for making risotto, starting with the tostatura of rice and onions in butter or oil. In the course of our discussion, he claimed it should take place in the oven, which was against everything I had ever been taught by other chefs as well as home cooks in Italy. What Italian chef doesn’t know how to make risotto?
Another source of doubt was his plan to call his new pizzeria “Finocchio,” a cute name except that it’s universal Italian slang for a gay guy, sort of like calling your pizzeria “Queer.” I suppose no one would think that odd nowadays but back in 1990 it seemed, well, inappropriate. And strange that as an Italian, he apparently didn’t know that.
And finally, I found it really odd that he was so uncomfortable in Napoli, constantly warning us of potential encounters with thieves, drug dealers, prostitutes, and other unsavory types. Mafiosi on every corner, he said.
Perhaps I wasn’t as able to gauge the threats as he was but it didn’t seem to me that the teeming streets of Spaccanapoli held any greater hazards than what I was used to accosting back in the US. On the contrary, it looked like almost everyone we saw was having a very good time.
Napoli was quite different from DC or Boston, that was clear. The streets were more crowded, the traffic was more haphazard, the crowds spilled over from the sidewalks into the piazzas, the shops were wide open, the ebullience was contagious, and the smells—oh Lord, the smells--of roasting garlic and onions, of bread and pungent cheeses, the penetrating bouquet of wild oregano, the perfume of tomatoes and tomato sauces, the briny aroma of fresh anchovies and octopus and small, sweet clams, the fragrance of sausages roasting on a streetside grill. It was all overwhelming.
Life in Napoli’s sun-blessed climate, then and now, is lived almost completely in the open. Laundry lines, the very symbol of the city, flap like banners above the
narrow old streets of the Spanish Quarter (does the tourist board hang them out in the morning and take them in at night, you wonder), street vendors call out their wares, people shout, argue, make up, make love, all in public, while children in their pink and blue school pinafores pick up and abandon games of soccer or hopscotch, and the visitor, strolling these back streets, is more likely to be assaulted by vivaciously beautiful young mothers pushing over-loaded baby carriages than by robbers. In fact, you're safer in Napoli than you are in most American inner cities.
But back then we were on a mission to tackle the mysteries of pizza, three professionals and me, determined to taste as many pizzas as we could fit into a day’s gastronomic tour. This, mind you, was in the days before the iPhone with its helpful GPS directions, before TripAdvisor with its raft of recommendations, but we had maps and we had compiled a list of recommended spots, including the following:
Pizzeria di Port’Alba (1738)
Da Michele (1870)
Brandi (1889, said to have invented pizza Margherita)
Trianon da Cirò (1923)
Di Matteo (1936)
I’ve listed them by their age, but they all boast great antiquity in a town that has its roots in the Greek Bronze Age. They all claim to have been in the same family since at least then. And they are all, to this day, very, very good, although they have their ups and downs and their differences one from another.
So we toured, we lost our way, we turned a corner, spied an unknown pizzeria to try, took notes (at least I, the journalist, took notes), sampled a variety of toppings--mushrooms, clams (delicious), dabs of pork sausage, those bittersweet friarielle greens that are famous in Naples, an array of cheeses. What we did not find: pizza with fried potatoes, pizza with truffle oil, pizza with pineapple, all of which would come much later in my own pursuit of pizza. Nor did I see anywhere a skilled pizzaiuolo swirling a disk, tossing it in the air over his head and catching it, the way they did in New York store-fronts back then.
We ended our day, replete to say the least, at da Michele, by then a bit reluctant to sample yet another pizza. But this was different. If da Michele is not the oldest pizzeria in Napoli, it was unanimously nominated our candidate for most authentic. (A caution to travelers: in recent years this small, not-quite-hole-in-the-wall establishment has achieved notoriety and tremendous popularity, partly from its appearance in the movie “Eat, Pray, Love,” and partly from its citation in the Michelin Guide as “one of the oldest and best in Naples.” I haven’t been back in years; I’m not willing to stand in line for my meal, but that’s just me.)
What we liked about this place, what made it sing of authenticity, was its incredible simplicity—just two pizzas offered, a margherita (tomato sauce, fior di latte cheese, basil, oil) and a marinara (tomato sauce, oregano, garlic, oil). Nothing more, nothing less. This is pizza as it was meant to be, a thin, thin crispy crust with a puffy, chewy, pillowy cornice around the edge; we watched as each pizza was quickly shaped and smeared with tomato and whatever else, then shoveled into the fiery furnace for just about one and a half minutes before it was slid out onto a sheet of white paper and delivered, still sizzling, straight to the table. “I can’t believe it,” Boston exclaimed. “Just exactly a minute and a half, and look at it!” Da Michele, aka Pizzeria Condurro, has indeed been in the same family for at least four generations—Luigi Condurro, who was the capo di famiglia when we went, died in late 2015, but his heirs, now the fifth generation, have kept up his scrupulously elementary approach to the art of the pizza.
And in what does that consist? Tomatoes, the kind Italians call pelati, meaning canned not fresh, and preferably the prized San Marzano tomatoes from the Agro Sarnese below the slopes of Vesuvius; fior di latte cheese, preferably from Agerolese cows raised on the steep Sorrento peninsula, a stretched curd cheese similar to mozzarella but cow’s milk makes it less watery than mozzarella’s latte di bufala; basil, oregano, and garlic, all similarly from local suppliers whose produce is intense with the flavors that come from growing in volcanic soil; then there’s the wood-fired oven, with a heat so intense it’s hard to believe they can get that from mere wood—900º on the oven floor where the pizza sits, and 800º in the air that fills the oven dome. That is very, very, very hot, hot enough to fire pottery.
Finally there’s the crust, the dough, the foundation of the whole thing. “The secret to good pizza,” Baronessa Cecilia Belleli would tell me years later, “is in the crust. Not in the sauce, not in the cheese, in the crust.” The baronessa knows whereof she speaks—she raises water buffalo and operates a very comfortable agriturismo near Paestum, south of Naples, where she takes in guests and offers classes in cooking local traditional foods, about which she knows a great deal. You can find her here: www.agriturismoseliano.it. And she was adamant about the crust.
Ed Behr confirmed that in an article he wrote for his publication, The Art of Eating (www.artofeating.com), some years ago. (It’s Issue #81, if you want to look it up.) Neapolitan pizza, he said, “is about superb crust—about bread. It may appear scant [i.e., to one accustomed to American pizzas] but it reflects balance, the right amount of bread to set off the condiments and vice versa.”
I have a problem with that. When I asked the Neapolitans about what they used to make the dough, they responded to a man (no women here!) farina tipo 00, the Italian bleached white flour that has always struck me as inert and lifeless, contributing nothing to the roasted wheaten flavor of the pizza crust. And for leavening? “Pasta del giorno prima,” meaning dough leftover from the day before, sort of sourdough although a little more brewer’s yeast is always added in. This did not strike me as revelatory; in fact, it struck me as perfectly ordinary.
So what was it that gave so much flavor, so much oomph to that pizza dough? “L’acqua di Napoli,” they said uniformly. Naples water, the ordinary water that comes out of everyone’s drinking tap. And it’s quite possible—I’d be the last to deny it—that Neapolitan water itself imbibes flavors from the mineral density of the volcanic soil from which it springs.
Pizza may have been invented in Naples, or maybe not. Try to find its origins and you’ll get tangled up in Mediterranean food history as thoroughly as if you’d tried to find the origins of pasta. About both subjects, many historians credit the Greeks, mostly because Greeks were here first and a very long time ago—about 4,000 years, to be exact. But if pizza was here on the Bay of Naples that long ago, it took a while to reach its apotheosis, which happened sometime in the 19th century when a smart pizzaiuolo added a layer of tomatoes to his basic focaccia. That New World import, brought to Naples by the Spanish, changed everything. (It changed pasta too, but that’s a subject for another time.)
Back then and for long afterwards, pizza was strictly street food and pretty much breakfast food--it's only become 24-hour-a-day food in recent decades--and the utter simplicity of the pizza at da Michele, where the wood-fired brick pizza oven operated at that time from 8 o'clock in the morning on throughout the day and into the night, makes a perfect Neapolitan breakfast. (Nowadays, I believe, in a bow to the exigencies of tourism, they open later, perhaps at 11 a.m., still breakfast time for lots of people.)
An article in Smithsonian magazine claims there are more than 8,000 pizzerias in this city of less than a million people. By my reckoning that’s a pizzeria for every 125 inhabitants, man, woman, and child, surely a world record. We know, the world accepts, that Napoli is the World Capital of Pizza. Even UNESCO has named pizza napoletana as “an intangible cultural heritage”—which could be its downfall. As soon as something gets catalogued and put on a shelf, it ceases to grow and change and evolve. Culture is a living, breathing, indefinable thing, a human artifact that changes with time—that’s what makes it so vital. So, honestly, before that museum takes over, before pizza becomes an untouchable object, I’d like to go back at least one more time and sample product from a few more of those 8,000 pizzerias. I’ll never reach the end, but I’d happily explore some more.
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Excellent ! one place we had amazing Pizza was in Venice in the Dosoduro,,'The bread for the table was a large puffy piece of PIzza dough/crust,, You just pulled it apart ,, AS the neighborhood patrons arrived for their Pizzas, the cook at the oven would take have it perfectly timed for the customer who had just arrived !
Nancy, Your posts are so informative and entertaining. Thank you for the historical education and delicious squibs.