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Pizza is serious business. Try to treat the question lightly in Naples, and you’ll understand this right away. Every single resident of the city where pizza was born in the mid 18th Century has their own opinion on the matter. They’ll talk to you about how the dough should be made, the way it should be cooked, the appropriate condiments. And, most of all, where the best place to eat pizza is.
For some, the place is the Antica Pizzeria Da Michele near the Tribunali, which has been in business since 1870. For others, it’s the young heir to a glorious, pizza-making dynasty, Gino Sorbillo. And some Neapolitan gourmands have no doubt: pure excellence at the pizzeria La Notizia, owned by Enzo Coccia. And of course, there are many who keep their favourite pizza place a closely guarded secret that they’d never reveal even under torture.
If it’s impossible to decide upon the best place to eat pizza in Naples, there is an exact formula that makes a pizza truly authentic. There are certain necessary ingredients, a precise way it should be cooked and a set of rules for the perfect dough. If, that is, you are looking for a Neapolitan pizza in the STG tradition (which stands for specialità tradizionale garantita), recognised by the European Union.
The formula is tomato, mozzarella (or else buffalo mozzeralla), basil and oil. And it must be cooked in a wood-fired oven at 485°C for about 90 seconds. Just listen to a maestro like Enzo Coccia talk passionately about the magic of making the dough, and you’ll understand how much culture there is in this deceptively “simple” dish. «Years ago, Gualtiero Marchesi told me,» recounts Coccia, referring to the icon of Italian chefs, «that culture and knowledge is needed in the world of pizza.»
What does that mean? It’s simple. In Italy, as in the rest of the world, pizza has been taken for granted. It’s made and eaten from Ohio to Shanghai, from Switzerland to South Africa. It’s one of the most common dishes in the world, a symbol of globalisation. But few people, almost nobody, ever reflects on what a pizza truly is. How it was created, what it’s made of, how it can be elevated from an often indecent street food to a gourmet meal. And the same thing is happening to pizza that has already happened to pasta: a revolution of sorts, from a “poor” dish, often badly-made, to a creative laboratory. And an object of study – starting from its history.
Pizza was born as a poor person’s meal made from two ingredients: hunger and the land. It was born from the function of feeding oneself with little money and with what one could find in the countryside. The leftover dough from bread became a thin disc onto which one put everything the land produced: oil and vegetables. The cheese came later. It was the cookRaffaele Esposito, who, in 1889, first put mozzarella on top of tomato with a bit of basil. They were the colours of the Italian flag – white, red and green – which was a tribute to Queen Margherita, and thus came the name of the most traditional, most beloved pizza – the margherita. Since then, many things have changed. Today, a group of master pizza makers, whose portraits you can see in the gallery below, are taking another look at that tradition. They are trying to understand the essence of pizza and bring it to new standards of excellence, by following two paths. The first, is recuperating the old traditions. Artists like Coccia, Sorbillo and Franco Pepe are keeping the ancient technique of pizza making alive and well in Naples. They are uncovering old recipes. Others, however, are looking for new paths, but always respecting the base ingredients. This, however, is happening outside of Naples – because there, history and tradition is considered too important.
If you are curious about the new pizza makers, you should go to Rome, and seek out Gabriele Bonci. Or to L'Aquila, where a young chef is conducting interesting research with regards to dough and condiments. Her name isMarzia Buzzanca, and hers is a “social” pizza, along with being a gourmet dish. She decided to open her pizzeria in the uninhabited centre of the city that was devastated by the earthquake on April 6th, 2010 in the Abruzzo region of Italy. Her creations are treated with the same care as haute cuisine: the dough is like a canvas onto which she paints, using local ingredients like cold cuts, cheeses, anchovies and ricotta. She also “contaminates” the dish with more exotic ingredients. The polar opposite of the Neapolitan pizza can be found in the creative pizza of Verona, where chef Simone Padoan is pushing the boundaries even further, offering an emotional, surprising pizza with new ingredients like raw shrimp, fennel, green apples, foie gras, turnip greens and liquorice. Along with lard, sprouts and pistachios. But it’s done with an obsessive attention to quality. This is the revolution of the new Italian pizza, and it’s a revolution we welcome with joy.