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 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.