The best pizza in Naples
Thursday 08 November 2018
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Beer and food
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My Google search history is a succession of what’s the ‘best [something] in [somewhere]’.
I’ve recently finished with what’s the best [frites] in [Brussels], the best [tacos] in [Mexico City], the best [craft beer bar] in [Copenhagen], and the best [pasta] in [Rome] and I’m now on a train to try and find the best [pizza] in [Naples].
This is the birthplace of pizza and the home of the margherita. That simple cheese and tomato pizza might be boring to some, overlooked for its absence of toppings, but to others its simplicity makes it perfect. To me, it’s perfection, and I want to know just how good pizza can taste.
Naples is to pizza what Munich is to lager. It’s the well-preserved middle and the never-changing consistent classic in a world of barbecue chicken stuffed crust and milkshake IPAs, where not much has changed in many years and not much will change in many more years to come. And that’s because there are laws.
Naples is to pizza what Munich is to lager
Where Bavaria has the Reinheitsgebot purity law, allowing beer to be brewed with the four traditional ingredients of water, malt, hops and yeast, Naples has the Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN), an organisation founded in 1984 whose mission is, according to its website, ‘to promote and protect in Italy and worldwide the true Neapolitan pizza’ and to ‘recognize and differentiate the True Neapolitan Pizza from the other type of pizza, giving it the maximum dignity’.
Any pizzeria in the world can use the ‘Verace Pizza Napoletana’ as long as they are accredited by the Association and make the pizza to the set specifications. I download the 11-pages of rules for authentic Naples pizza and I’ve digested the important bits, charred-crust-and-all, so you don’t need to read it (because it’s quite boring, actually). Here’s what you need to know: the Neapolitan pizza is roundish, with a diameter of 30-35cm; it ‘presents a raised edge… swollen and free from burns’; it must be ‘soft and elastic’; the base must be made by hand – no rolling pins, no machines; it must be cooked in a wood-fired oven at 430-480°C for 60-90 seconds, and only ingredients from the Campania region are allowed.
These traditionally produce the marinara (tomato, extra virgin olive oil, oregano, garlic) and the margherita (tomato, extra virgin olive oil, parmesan, basil, and either mozzarella (from buffalo) or fior di latte (from cow)), although the association ‘reserves the right to accept variations of the product and recognise their authenticity if they are informed by the Neapolitan tradition of pizzas and are not in contrast with the rules of gastronomy’.
Time to eat
We don’t even go to our hotel before getting our first pizza and go straight from the train station to the place which is often called the best or the most famous: L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele. This place is old-school (it opened in 1870), tiled in white, aging photos on the wall, and they only cook marinara and margherita, so we order one of each.
The domed oven sits in the corner with its bright orange belly constantly coughing out blistered and bubbling pizzas and there’s theatre to how it’s cooked and served so fast and efficiently. I have the marinara because I feel I should rather than actually wanting it (pizza comes with cheese, right?). The dough is light and crisp, extra virgin olive oil is slick, the garlicky tomato sauce is loose and soupy, with soupiness being another classic characteristic of a Neapolitan pizza, meaning if you want to eat with your hands (obviously you do) you need to learn a new pizza-eating technique of folding in the floppy middle to avoid losing your toppings. Both pizzas are excellent and I’m very happy and excited to carry on eating.
But I’m also scared because I have no plans today apart from eating pizza. How many can I realistically eat? How do I pace myself in the excitement of a pizza crawl? I’ve just had breakfast and I’m wondering if I’ll even still like pizza by bedtime.
Later in the day I go to Ciro a Santa Brigida, which is the pizzeria of Antonio Pace, the President and founder of the AVPN; it’s also number one on the list of over 700 pizzerias who can use the ‘Verace Pizza Napoletana’ brand. Surely it had to be the most authentic Neapolitan pizza? I love its soupy centre, the sweetness of the tomato base and the just-caught and crisp crust which is almost exaggeratedly thick and springy at the edge and thin in the middle (although the pizzeria itself is a bit ‘maximum dignity’ and serious with starched-napkins).
In between those, here’s a few other pizzas I tried, all based on the many best-of lists that I read.
Pizzeria da Attilio: thick and savoury sauce and a great chew to the crust. 50 Kalò: super crust, the best fior di latte I’ve ever had, top craft beer list and a smarter place to sit. Tutino: the marinara came with small tomatoes and lots of oil, making it sweet, juicy and rich (I love those little Vesuvius tomatoes). At Starita the marinara pizza induces a cartoonish chin-dropping drool and the tomato is thick and the crust is chewy yet light. Every pizza, apart from a disappointing takeaway from Di Matteo, is wonderful and different in its own way and I fall into a deep doughy sleep more in love with pizza than when I arrived 12 hours earlier (and planning one more pizza for breakfast before we leave).
What’s the best [pizza] in [the world]
This story hasn’t been told chronologically. Before that day of eating, we (my girlfriend is with me – it’s our summer holiday but we don’t tend to do holidays like other people) went to a sleepy little town called Caiazzo, 50km north of Naples. Anyone who has taken a serious interest in the best pizza in the world, or who has seen pizza episodes of Ugly Delicious or Munchies’ Pizza Show, will know that Pepe in Grani is in Caiazzo and it’s supposed to be the best pizza in the world.
Perhaps the famous image of Pepe in Grani is the view over the hills from the hilltop veranda and I’d assumed it would’ve been booked, but when we arrived, and checked into one of the two guest rooms they have upstairs, they asked if we wanted to sit there. And of course we did; it’s one of the most awesome settings I’ve ever eaten dinner.
As for the food, you shouldn’t approach the large menu as ‘what pizza do I want?’ but ‘how many pizzas can I eat?’ There’s a fried pizza with tomato, anchovy and lemon peel which is spectacular like a savoury doughnut; there’s a simple and sensational folded marinara which is only €1.50; their famous atypical margherita has a cheese base, tomato stripes and basil dots and tastes classic; a pizza topped with the sweetest, juiciest yellow Vesuvius tomatoes and sundried tomatoes is perfection for me, with the dough being the lightest we eat in the whole of Italy; there’s even a dessert pizza of fried dough topped with ricotta, apricot jam and hazelnuts.
We sit on the veranda as the sky goes from blue to pink to black and we drink good beer and good wine and eat the best pizza I’ve ever had.
All pizza is good
I learnt some things about pizza in Naples. It’s cheap: most margheritas are €5 or less. The tomato base varies from thin and tangy (de Michele) to rich and thick (Starita), and that impacts the soupiness in the centre of the dough, which changes your eating technique. With the dough, chew on enough crusts and you start to appreciate a lightness or crispness over thicker, spongier ones. The cheese was a big one for me and I enjoyed the cheeseless marinara pizzas more than the margheritas. And Naples made me think more about pizza.
It’s probably the most familiar food, certainly in the western world, and what makes pizza special is the individual personalisation of it: if you just like marinara, then fine; if you want ham and mushroom, then in Naples that’s fine, too (obviously barbeque chicken is not fine – chicken is more of a pizza abomination than pineapple, in my opinion); I wanted to add extra Vesuvius tomatoes to all my pizzas. The joy of pizza is that everyone can pick their own. And, actually, when you think about it properly and without snobbery, there are no bad pizzas anywhere. All pizza is good. The deep dish, the New York slice, Rome’s fat al taglio squares, sourdough, white sauced, even the cheap frozen ones, even the soggy overly-expensive takeaways (especially cold the next day), and yes, even the barbecue chicken pizza is wonderful in its own disgusting way.
A pizza crawl around Naples had been on my foodie to-do list for many years and I loved it. The opposite of over-pizzering myself, I left there wanting to eat even more pizza, where I’ll forever be dreaming about the perfection of Pepe in Grani and some of the superb slices I ate in Naples. But I’ll also be thinking about all the pizzas that I didn’t get the chance to eat, and I’ll imagine just how good they might all be, meaning I’ll forever be wondering if there’s something better. And that’s probably why my life is just the ongoing search and question for what’s the best [something] in [somewhere].
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