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).