I know that people have a thing about Naples. And, for the most part, I’m talking about people who have never been there. They are scared. Scared of the chaos they’ve heard about. Scared of the crime they’ve read about. Scared of a place that appears to be a culture that seems completely apart from anything they think they know about Italy yet at the same time everything you think you know about Italy concentrated.
While they may be right about the confusion, mess, and crime, anyone who has ever visited knows the complete and utter charm of the unique and utterly seductive chaos that is Naples.
I have to admit, that it took me a while to build a relationship with Naples. For years it had to do mostly with logistics. Naples was not fun to get to. Up until about twelve years ago, the trains that ran to Naples (and frankly most of southern Italy) were decidedly on the shabby and slow side. And driving there? For years the stretch of two-lane autostrada between Rome and Naples was a nightmare filled with Neapolitans (who don’t follow rules) and Romans (who think the rules are made only for their benefit) vying with trucks for full domination.
But these days not only is the highway a spiffy three lanes, the train has upgraded the cars and the tracks so that a day trip to the city from Rome takes just over an hour. Barely time to read the paper, but plenty of time for a day trip from Rome.
One thing I’ve begun doing is heading to Naples for lunch. While I’ve actually sat down at one restaurant and had a full meal, what I really like to do is make it more of a moveable feast. Especially when I’ve got a friend in who’s never seen the city.
Of course, for me, the main event for any trip to Naples is pizza. Or Pizza; I feel that in Naples it deserves that capital P. Because it is Naples that gave birth to what we today know as pizza. Yes, I know there is a world-class archaeological museum to be seen, as well as new modern museums and infinite art-filled churches. But. Pizza. Right?
And I fully believe that pizza is the entry drug to a full-on addiction to Naples.
You may think you know pizza, but the pizza you will get in Naples is almost certainly much, much different than the pizza you are used to eating back home. Or even, for that matter, pizza you may have had anywhere else in Italy. So specific is the typology of Neapolitan pizza that the entire process has been recognized, certified, and defined by the stringent pizza police (aka Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana).
Among the rules that determine whether or not you are certified as a true Neapolitan pizzaiolo are:
Yeast: organic yeast with a low acidity.
Dough: when stretched out, must be no thicker than .4 centimeters.
Cheese: must be D.O. P. buffalo mozzarella.
Tomatoes: must be either San Marzano, Corbarino, or Piennolo (all D.O.P.).
The dough has to rise at least 12 hours, but usually longer.
So far, so familiar. Dough, tomatoes, and cheese. But how it’s all put together and then baked? That results in something that may, at first glance, be completely surprising.
Pizzas in Naples are on the small side, each one is meant to be eaten by one individual. They are baked in extremely hot dome-shaped ovens, 900°F or even hotter. This means that the pizza is cooked extremely fast. Often usually anywhere from 60 to 90 seconds.
This fast cooking means that the crust around the edges puffs up right away, cooking quickly, as does the bottom of the pie, which is often speckled with what pizza experts refer to as leopard-spotting. These dark spots, almost burnt, are what gives Neapolitan pizza its distinctive smoky and almost bitter flavor.
This way of cooking also means that the center of the pizza, where the tomatoes, olive oil, and the cheese hang out, is wet and almost soupy. It is definitely not what you would get in a Roman-style pizza, but it is (trust me on this) one of the best things about going to Naples.
A Word About Toppings
Toppings in Naples are a minimal thing of beauty. There are usually few of them (that is why the standards are so stringently regulated) and even when those few are applied, they are done with a light touch.
There are two classic types of pizza you’ll see at every pizzeria you step into:
Pizza Marinara: This is pizza at its purest. Tomatoes, garlic, oregano, and olive oil.
Pizza Margherita: Named after a queen, this is the queen of pizzas with tomatoes, olive oil, fresh buffalo milk mozzarella, and fresh basil leaves.
There are many pizzerie that get fancy and creative with their toppings, but even then, the amount is never overwhelming. It’s all about the balance, and the toppings never ever overwhelm the crust. It’s a partnership.
Excerpted from EATING MY WAY THROUGH ITALY: Heading Off the Main Roads to Discover the Hidden Treasures of the Italian Table by Elizabeth Minchilli. Copyright © 2018 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Griffin.