It tastes different here. I say that after my first bite of perhaps the most simple pizza I’ve ever consumed in my life. Just a basic crust, tomato, basil, and an amount of cheese I’d have never thought could satisfy my desire for the stuff… and I find myself closing my eyes after every mouthful, smiling through the sensory wonder. This would be the first of five pizza experiences I’d have on a whirlwind three night, two full day trip from Rome down to Naples, and each experience was among the best I’ve ever had.
Pizza is ubiquitous in Naples. A city of around a million (and somewhere between 2.5 and 3.2 million in the metro area), Naples is home to an astounding 8,200 pizzerias. And a whopping 15,000 people in the city serve as pizza chefs, whether at those pizzerias or other restaurants serving the stuff. It speaks to the love of pizza here in Naples, and to the history of the dish, one that brings people like me into town clamoring for it. From huge restaurants with seating for hundreds to small cafes to carts selling pizza in to-go form, no Naples experience would be complete without a pizza. Or, in my case, five.
My pizza adventure begins on Naples’ Via dei Tribunali, a long pedestrian (in theory, though watch out for random cars and scooters) street that is flat-out lined with pizzerias. I pick one at random that seems to have some nice outdoor seating and an open table after my initial targeted joint is closed for August. Called Hosteria e Pizzeria Masaniello, it is my first delve into a traditional Neapolitan pizza. Fluffy yet thin crust, beautiful tart tomato, fresh basil, and enough cheese to be called “covered,” it is – as mentioned above – perfect. And to think this was just a random place, one of literally dozens I passed by.
It is unknown when pizza was officially invented, but it is thought to have evolved from Roman focaccia, a flat bread with toppings. Sometime in the 18th or 19th century, what we think of as pizza was born here in Naples, a simple crust (literally just flour, water, salt, and yeast) topped with locally grown tomatoes, basil, and sometimes cheese, and baked in an oven. From here, it evolved into the incredibly diverse food we have all over the world today, but in Naples, it is still done the original way.
The oldest pizzeria in Naples is Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, which dates to 1830. (I can’t find any specific qualifications for pizzerias that use the antica designation, but all seem to be more than 50 years old, so I’m going to assume that’s the cutoff.) Pizza here began sans cheese, simply what we could call a marinara sauce on dough. And cheeseless pizza is still offered basically everywhere.
So what makes a Neapolitan pizza different? It comes down to three things. First, the crust, which as I mentioned before is incredibly simple. Second, the baking. Pizza here is baked for only about 90 seconds, but at 900 or so degrees, far hotter than pizza back home. Finally, the ingredients. Local tomatoes are just better than what we have in the US, as is the mozzarella, hence not needing to overtop the pizza. So the result is a fluffy thin crust where one can taste each individual element.
Over the next 48 hours, I try another basic margherita (tomato, basil, mozzarella) pizza, one with spicy salami, one with buffalo mozzarella and prosciutto, and a pizza fritta, a deep fried pizza dough filled with cheese and a bit of sauce. I could easily have sampled other varieties.
While some pizzerias have only a couple of options, Gino Sorbillo has a dizzying menu that runs the entire spectrum of what pizza can be. They have two locations, and my last night in Naples I opt to sit along the waterfront at their location near Castel dell’Ovo. Served by a man who looked exactly what a stereotype of “pizza guy from Naples” would be, here is where I have my prosciutto topped pie I mentioned above. It is the only one I have that stands up to the first, with a crust that really is every bit as good. (It is the crust that makes pizza in Naples so special to me.) It is a perfect backside bookend to my weekend of pizza.
There are a number of reasons to visit Naples. One can go to Pompeii (click here to read about Pompeii), explore the city itself, head to one of the islands, or any number of activities. But at the top is pizza. This is where it came from, and where it is still – in the opinion of this writer, at least – done best. Try one, or try five.
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