Italy Trip Part V: Naples

I am privileged to have been raised in the Land of Great Pizza. My home state of New Jersey lies right in the middle of a constellation of industrial cities that dot the northeastern USA, which attracted so many Italian immigrants in the early 20th century. Those immigrant communities provided our nation’s earliest pizzerias, many of which are still in business today. But these immigrants did not simply come from Italy, they came from Southern Italy. Vastly different from the Northern region of the country, Southern Italy holds within its boundaries the roots of our beloved pizza.

When attempting a pilgrimage to Italy’s sacred pizza hotspots, all roads lead to Naples. The bulk of my trip was spent observing and absorbing the culinary traditions of various Neapolitan pizzerias, all of which boasted nearly identical wood burning ovens and ingredients (Caputo “00” flour, salt, water, yeast, mozzarella di bufala, San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil and extra virgin olive oil) that caused their pizza to remain pretty similar. When in Naples, don’t expect a New York slice with its crispy exterior and foldable crust. The Neapolitan pies are served whole and unsliced. While people used to enjoy an entire pie by picking it up and folding it into a tight cone-shaped street food, the current accepted method is to attack the 33 cm pie with fork and knife. Attempting to pick up a slice often leads to a sauce-cheese avalanche.

The crust (corniccione) of a Neapolitan pizza is a tender and puffy lip, filled with air and soft as a pillow at the end of a bed. It gives way to a pool of crushed tomato and moist mozzarella di bufala. The image is stunning.

Since these pizzas are baked on 800 degree bricks just inches away from a well-tended wood fire, they char around the circumference as well as underneath. These spots indicate the intense heat of the oven.

It being my first trip to Naples, I had done plenty of research and selected my pizza stops from among those listed in selections from every pizza enthusiast’s library (Peter Reinhart’s American Pie, Ed Levine’s Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, Pamela Sheldon Jones’s Pizza Napoletana!, etc). The pizza at every stop was exceptional, and since the trip was back in January I managed to miss the lines of tourists looking for the best pizza in town. These are, in chronological order, the stops I made throughout the three days I spent in Naples:

1. Solopizza – Immediately upon reaching Naples, I ate at the first pizzeria I could find. This is part of a small chain of Neapolitan pizzerias. It was nothing special.

2. Fratelli la Bufala – This place is located across the street from Solopizza. It was my first night in Naples and I wanted to get it started with a bang. The pizza looked like the pictures of Neapolitan pizza I studied while on the train, but the taste wasn’t transcendent.

3. Pizzeria Brandi – The famous pizzeria of Raphaelle Esposito, who famously crafted pizza for Queen Margherita in 1889. These are the best dressed waiters I have ever seen in a pizzeria. The only thing that puzzled me was the use of canned mushrooms. The pizza margherita is divine with a smokey crust and rich mozzarella di bufala.

4. Antica Pizzeria Port Alba – Allegedly the first pizzeria, opened in 1730. Very similar to Brandi with an even smokier crust. The place was completely empty at 7 PM but that changed by 8:30. Definitely a must visit for every pizza geek.

5. Pizzeria Di Matteo – This is the same puffy crust I encountered all over Naples topped with a more acidic tomato. Absolutely phenomenal. Very popular with the locals. I also tasted the pizza fritta, a deep fried calzone filled with broccoli rabe and sausage.

6. Pizzeria Da Michele – In its current location since 1912, this pizzeria originally opened in 1870. They serve a pizza margherita and a pizza marinara, each of which is available in three sizes. Beverages are each 1 euro. The pizza marinara may be the tastiest pizza I have ever eaten. The margherita was delicious even though it was the least cheesy of the trip. Don’t forget to take a number before waiting in line.

7. L’ Europeo di Mattozzi – This was the most unique pizza margherita of the whole batch. It included diced cherry tomatoes and the crust was slightly crispy. Definitely a standout pizza in a city of pizzerias.

8. Pizzeria La Notizia – The pizzeria owned by my only Neapolitan contact Enzo Coccia is located away from the historic center of town as not to get lost in the sea of pizzerias located in that neighborhood. I sampled several dishes and pizzas but enjoyed the eggplant roll appetizer the most. A golden pastry-like crust surrounds a piece of sweet eggplant in this simple dish that precluded a barrage of pizzas (margherita, broccoli rabe + pork sausage, pizza bianca with mushrooms, nutella-filled pizza dough roll).

Italy Trip Part IV: Mozzarella di Bufala

Before setting out on this epic journey of epicurean delight, I listed my goals in order of importance. Of course I wanted to eat pizza in Napoli’s oldest establishments, explore the preserved bread ovens of Pompeii, investigate small-production San Marzano tomatoes and taste the best olive oil in the world. But above all these thing remained one activity that would make the others pale in comparison.

I wanted to milk a water buffalo.

Unlike the cows milk mozzarella we have come to know and enjoy here in the US, Campania’s use of the word “mozzarella” refers only to that which is made from the milk of a water buffalo (pictured below). This isn’t the same animal we call buffalo in the US, but an animal first introduced to Italy by knights of the crusade over 1000 years ago. In Campania, the phrase “fior di latte,” or flower of milk, is used when referring to cows milk mozzarella.

My quest began in Pizzeria Notizia with the extremely passionate pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia. Having already scheduled visits to Le Tore olive oil and Miracle of San Gennaro tomatoes, Enzo was able to put me in contact with Barbara Guerra, who he referred to as a journalist, although I later learned that she is in charge of marketing and agricultural tourism for the city of Paestum. We met with Barbara early in the morning for a day of touring several buffalo farms and dairies in Paestum, an agricultural town south of Salerno. Much like the rest of Southern Italy, Paestum is rich with ancient Greek ruins. In fact, the homes and temples in Paestum are among the best preserved in the world.

The first stop on our tour was Azienda Agricola Barlotti. This dairy produces fresh mozzarella di bufala, ficotta di bufala, yogurt, gelato and other products of rich buffalo milk. The process begins when milk is combined from both the morning and evening milk extractions. Barlotti also purchases buffalo milk from a neighboring farm to combine with that of his own cows so the product will be as rich in nutrients as possible. The milk is then separated into its liquids (whey) and solids (curd, pictured below).

The curd is submerged in hot water (roughly 165 degrees Fahrenheit) and pulled to evenly expose the curd to heat. This is a delicate process and requires an extremely high level of skill. Once the cheese has achieved the proper texture, bits are pulled off and pinched with the thumbs and index fingers. This creates a visible piece on the surface of the cheese, which lets you know that your mozzarella was pulled by hand. The pinching process is responsible for mozzarella’s name, which is derived from the Italian “mozzare,” or “to cut.”

The mozzarella is warm when it is freshly formed, but the flavor and texture require a bit more time. We were told to return in 3 – 4 hours if we wanted to purchase that morning’s fresh cheese. Luckily, a worker spotted my dismay and offered a warm, fresh ball of cheese. This bite-sized piece is referred to as bocnccini (pictured below). The flavor was rich but extremely tart. I’m glad we returned later in the day for some well-set mozzarella.

Our next stop was Rivabianca, another producer of water buffalo products. I was amazed at how beautifully all the employees worked together to produce and package this cheese. I was told that Paestum is knows for its artisanal approach to mozzarella production, whereas other cities tend to meet the high demand by industrializing their production lines. Mozzarella di bufala adheres to high standards of production and packaging so that people all over the world can enjoy the same quality found in Italy. This cheese is protected by the European Union as an artisanal product that must be produced and packaged in Campania. If these standards are met, the product is awarded a DOP certification, as indicated by the blue and yellow stamps on the packages below.

Water buffalo milk is higher in butterfat and carries a slightly richer taste than cows’ milk. Some countries, including the US, require the use of pasteurized milk, so the mozzarella di bufala we receive is chemically different from Italian cheese. The bulk of mozzarella production in Paestum is from March – August, with an incredible mozzarella celebration from late April through early May.

The buffalo themselves are incredibly docile creatures. They are quiet and sweet but their smell could be enough to prevent me from moving to Paestum. It became clear from the start of our buffalo education that none of the animals are milked by hand, so my dream would go unfulfilled. I may have fallen short of my loftiest goal, but the flavor of this incredible cheese was well worth the trip.

Italy Trip Part III: Olive Oil

Of all the ingredients that make up a pizza, the least visible are the most often overlooked. Much heralded are the flour, tomato and mozzarella, which offer variation most obvious to the naked eye. But a pizza would not be celebrated if the sum of these parts equaled less than the parts themselves. Thankfully, we have a brilliant moderator in this festival of flavor: olive oil.

Sadly, my trip did not fall within olive season (Summer – Fall). But I did have a chance to tour a boutique olive oil producer hidden beside the tiny village of S. Agata sui due Golfi, between to Sorrento and Massalubrense on the Western tip of the Amalfi Coast. Le Tore abides by strict organic farming procedures and is certified by the AIAB (Italian Association for Biological Agriculture). The farm’s owner, Vittoria Brancaccio, is extremely proud of her facilities, which include a grove of 500 year old olive trees (see photo below) and a 17th century farmhouse.

After harvesting their olives, Le tore uses a co-op to press the oil from the fruit. Read More Vittoria takes only the first oil that comes from the olives, which is what makes it “extra virgin.” The press used for this process is a “cold press,” which preserves the flavor of the oil. A warm press is able to pull more oil from the olives, but the heat of the device removes some of the natural flavor. This makes Le Tore’s oil fruity and pure. After pressing, the oil is brought back to the Le Tore laboratory for bottling and labeling. The production is extremely limited, making this oil tough to find. In the photos below, you’ll see how the oil is prepared for sale. The dark green bottles protect the oil from oxidization it will experience if exposed to sunlight.

Olive oil is historically one of the oldest pizza toppings, predating the tomato by centuries. Its flavor and aroma help make Mediterranean cuisine so enticing. Thankfully, many farms such as Le Tore still use ancient methods to produce this essential product.

To learn more about Le Tore, please visit www.letore.com or email
info@letore.com.

Italy Trip Part II: Fruits of Campania

Southern Italy is pizza territory. This is the place where pizzaioli are born into pizza-making families, raised with the highest level of appreciation of what has become their most valuable export. The ingredients that are essential to true neapolitan pizza are produced in the region around Naples called Campania. The area’s natural resources that lead to the birth of pizza are now protected by the European Union. I had the pleasure of meeting with several gastronomes (food lovers) who helped me to understand the incredible effort that goes into making a neapolitan pizza.

The first, and only meeting I had scheduled before boarding the plane to Italy, was with Enzo Coccia. Never before have I met a man so passionate (in a very serious way) about pizza and the traditions associated with the dish. Enzo owns Pizzeria La Notizia, which is located in an area outside of Napoli’s already pizza-packed central district. Besides operating the pizzeria, Enzo also runs Pizza Consulting, which provides a series of private courses in neapolitan pizza production. The course is extremely intense and detailed, so it is more popular with pizzaioli looking to improve their skills than home cooks looking for a cooking lesson. But I wasn’t there to learn how to make pizza. I was there to learn more about its ingredients!

(Enzo and me in the center, flanked by two Pizzeria La Notizia employees)

Before I could even ask a question about tomatoes, Enzo was on the phone with the owner of a San Marzano tomato company. Just as I was about to inquire about the region’s extra virgin olive oil, Enzo’s phone magically dialed a friendly olive grower. Within five minutes of phone calls, Enzo had fully booked the rest of my time in Italy with visits to various farms, orchards and dairies. If Enzo had his way, I probably would have had to push my flight back another week.

The first appointment was with Sabato Abagnale at Il Miracolo Di San Gennaro, a San Marzano tomato producer in the tiny town of Sant” Antonio Abate near Naples. San Marzanos are hearty plum tomatoes whose DOP status with the European Union gives them protection against “name fraud.” So a can of tomatoes bearing the name “San Marzano” must also bear the EU’s DOP stamp to indicate that it was grown according to strict standards in Campania. However the production at Il Miracolo Di San Gennaro do not conform to these standards because, unlike DOP tomatoes, they keep the skins on the fruit. Sabato explained that 85% of the flavor of a tomato is lost when the skin is removed.

I only wish I was visiting Sabato during tomato season (August – September) so I could witness the harvest. Unlike “industry” tomatoes, Sabato’s are harvested only when the fruits are ripe. Other producers mix over- and under-ripe tomatoes but Il Miracolo Di San Gennaro uses only ones that are a deep red. The popular strain of San Marzano DOP is actually a hybrid that makes them better suited for mass production. Sabato somehow managed to find the original strain, which is what you’ll get if you can track down this extremely rare brand of tomato ($10 – $15 per 28 oz. can in US).

We did a taste test to compare them with a a can of store-bought plum tomatoes.

On my way home, I managed to hop out of the cab at the front entrance to Pompeii, the ancient city buried by the 79 AD eruption of Mt Vesuvius. Enzo stressed the need to visit this historic site, which became obvious when I noticed this 2000 year old bread oven. It looks exactly like every brick oven I saw in Naples.

As much as I had learned about the revered San Marzano tomatoes of Campania, there were still quite a few products I needed to investigate. The road to extra virgin olive oil and mozzarella di bufala still remained untouched, but thanks to Enzo Coccia I was looking forward to more meetings with producers of Italy’s finest natural foods.

Italy Trip Part I: Pizza in Rome

January is a pretty low-key month in the world of pizza tours, so I decided to spend 11 days researching my favorite dish in the place where it all began: Southern Italy. My travels brought me to a San Marzano tomato farm, a boutique extra virgin olive oil producer, two mozzarella di bufala dairies and about a dozen pizzerias. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting my findings.

First Stop: ROME
Flying into Rome is anticlimactic. There are no pizzaioli stretching dough right there at the terminal, anticipating every arriving flight with fresh pies. I wasn’t actually expecting freshly pressed olive oil fountains at baggage claim. I only half hoped for plates of fresh mozzarella at the customs checkpoint. Instead, the first pizza one sees after landing in Rome is the same exact airport pizza they sell at every major US transportation hub: sloppy, greasy, spongy wedges of filth. At first I thought I had boarded the wrong plane, but I doubted I crafty enough to fool all of the security checks along the way. Just as excitement started to turn into dread, I snapped back to reality and remembered that airports are not true representations of a city’s culinary skill. After leaving the airport, my mind settled a bit and I began a two-day quest for pizza.

Every pizza experience I had in Rome seemed to fall into one of two categories.

Pizza al Metro – Rome’s version of pizza by the slice. Loooooooong pies are baked in gas or electric ovens and patrons indicate the length they wish to purchase, which is then weighed and priced. New York has a couple of this type of pizzeria: PIE and PINCH (Pizza by the Inch). Patrons either eat their slice flat or fold it in half. They folded mine in half for me!

Thin Crust – There is no one definition for “thin crust.” People often refer to only a pizza’s circumferential bread as its crust, but the entirety of the bread portion actually qualifies. Thin crust pizza in Rome is mostly baked in a wood-fired brick oven and resembles some of the thinnest cracker-crust pizza I have had in the US. The circumferential crust, or cornicione, is just as flat as the rest of the pizza. It is crispy all the way through, without any tender regions, much like a matzoh cracker. The pizza below is pretty indicative of the pizza I ate in Rome, with processed mozzarella applied over a thin layer of sauce.

Overall, the pizza in Rome wasn’t mind-blowing. It was fun to see so many wood-fired ovens around but they were all making the same cracker pizza I usually avoid. If you think New York has a lot of pizzerias, wait until you see Rome. It is virtually impossible to stand on any street without seeing at least three pizzerias. I was tempted to stop at every one of them for at least a quick look but there was much work ahead. I was about to leave Rome for the true birthplace of pizza and all its European Union-protected ingredients: Campania!