A Slice of Heaven: Naples, Pizza at Its Source

Slice is happy to bring you another excerpt from Ed Levine's book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven. This time, Ed's trip to Naples. Be sure to click past the jump for a list of some of Napoli's—and Rome's—best pizzerias.

The pizza police, dedicated to the proposition that authenticity is everything, tell us that you cannot judge or taste pizza properly without having eaten it in Naples. Pizza wasn't invented in Naples (there have been flatbreads with toppings for thousands of years), but it is the place where pizza became popular, and where this perfect, simple food burrowed itself deep into the consciousness of Neapolitans of every class and neighborhood. Naples, they say, is where the modern pizza-eating rituals first flowered.

Read all Slice of Heaven excerpts on SliceIn 1830, the world's first pizzeria, Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba, opened its doors in Naples, and an industry was born. Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba is still in business, by the way. Fifty-nine years later, a pizzaiolo named Raffaele Esposito was invited to the Italian royal palace to make three pizzas for the visit of King Umberto and Queen Margherita of Savoy. The queen was apparently no dummy when it came to politics, so she declared her favorite pizza to be the one with the colors of the Italian flag: red (tomato), white (mozzarella cheese), and green (basil). Thus, Pizza Margherita was born.

Right around the time Esposito came up with the Margherita, Italians started coming to America by the millions, driven by the prospect of improving their standard of living. According to author Pamela Sheldon Johns, five million Italians made their way to America by the turn of the twentieth century, 80 percent of them from the south of Italy. Thus it was almost inevitable that a Neapolitan immigrant named Gennaro Lombardi would open the first pizzeria in America—on Spring Street in lower Manhattan in 1905.

Every food writer and historian worth his or her pizza crust has made the pilgrimage to Naples to taste pizza at the source. When I went, I was armed with clippings from many of the illustrious "foodies" who had gone before me—David Downie, Alan Richman, and Jeff Steingarten . To bolster my credibility and to guide me through that stunningly beautiful city, I persuaded Maurizio DeRosa to come with me. Maurizio is a Neapolitan native and the former owner (along with his mother and brother) of the now-defunct DeRosa, the only Neapolitan restaurant ever given three stars by Ruth Reichl during her stint as restaurant critic for the New York Times. We stayed at his mother's in the Vomero section of Naples, and set out to eat at the fifteen best pizzerias in the city. I actually would have gone to more, but Maurizio assured me that fifteen pizzerias in five days would be his limit. What did we find? Well, I hope Maurizio doesn't banish me from Italy for saying this, but what I found is that the Neapolitan culture of pizza is in many ways more interesting than the pizza itself.

As the plane touched down in Rome, I had a disturbing thought: What if Neapolitan pizza wasn't as good as the pizza I most love in the States: Chris Bianco's and Totonno's and Sally's and Pepe's in New Haven? What if I showed my true provincial food colors once again? How could I face my purist foodie brethren, who claim that food is always best eaten in its place of origin? How could I face my Naples host, Maurizio DeRosa, who is an unabashed Neapolitan pizza champion, the keeper of the wood-burning flame as it were? He had graciously offered to take me to Naples on a pizza-eating expedition or exploration. We were going to eat in Rome for a day, and then head down to Naples to stay at his mother's apartment in the Vomero section of the city.

"If you ever had a choice and you ordered a Roman pie instead of a Neapolitan pie, I would say, 'You are sick.' " —Maurizio DeRosa
We deplaned in Rome, rented a car and headed to one of Rome's legendary pizzerias, Da Baffetto, recommended to me by many of the best Italian-influenced chefs in the States, including Mario Batali and Todd English. I wanted to try the place, but Maurizio disdained Roman-style pizza—that of the thin, crisp crust—and wanted to get to Naples. As he parked the car in a lot, he fired the first shot. "If you ever had a choice and you ordered a Roman pie instead of a Neapolitan pie, I would say, 'You are sick.'"

Keeping that in mind, we arrived at Da Baffetto, only to find that it was closed for lunch. A nearby shopkeeper told us the son of the owner of Da Baffetto had a pizzeria, Bel Paino, just around the corner, and he was open for lunch. We sat down and ordered a Margherita and a marinara. When they arrived at our table a few minutes later, Maurizio took one look at the ultrathin, crisp crusts and said, "Take a good look at these, and remember what they look like and taste like. Never forget it. This is not pizza."

I actually liked it, but wasn't about to tell Maurizio that I thought the crust was crunchy and offered a nice counterpoint to the creamy melted mozzarella. We then hit two other Roman pizza variations: the pizza bianca ("white" pizza, with no tomato sauce) at Il Forno di Campo de'Fiori (a crisp yet pliant flatbread made with sea salt and rosemary), and pizza by the meter at a bakery recommended by our friend, Italian food maven and food radio host Arthur Schwartz. I liked them both, but Maurizio dismissed each with a wave of his hand. "You may like them, Ed, but they're nothing specia1." As we walked back to the car I thought, "Can it get any better than this? Four kinds of pizza—all of which I thought were pretty good—and I haven't even unpacked my bags." I was so psyched to get to Naples that I barely noticed the torrential rainstorm that accompanied us all the way down the autostrada.

Around 50 kilometers from Naples, Maurizio started rhapsodizing about pizza in his native city. "You put it in your mouth, and you go wow, now you have something—layers and layers of flavor coming at you in waves. Our pizza is like a soufflé, the dough is like a volcanic explosion in your mouth. Our pizza is like … heaven." I looked over at him and realized that he'd gotten so excited about the subject that his hands were completely off the steering wheel as he gesticulated for emphasis. Also, Maurizio and I couldn't figure out how to turn the windshield wipers on. I began to worry if we were even going to make it to Naples.

We arrived at Maurizio's mother's house around 8 p.m. Rita, a tiny woman (and a legendary Neapolitan chef) with a warm smile and sunken, expressive eyes, asked if we were hungry. I was full, sickeningly full to be exact, but Maurizio suggested we have his local pizzeria deliver a couple of pies to begin our quest. "It's not the best, but it's still better than anything you can get in New York." Maurizio's brother Bruno, a trained chef who cooked with his mother at DeRosa before moving back to Naples four years ago, called in the order. A half hour later, the pies arrived. The crusts were thicker than crackers and bready, and the toppings were reasonably sparse without being demure. The pizza had a lovely smoky flavor. The crust was not crisp, but that could have been the result of steaming in the delivery boxes. I liked it, more than my neighborhood slice place to be sure, but the pizza wasn't transcendent. I didn't dare tell Maurizio though, for fear he'd send me back to New York on the next plane. I went to bed, full of Roman street food, Neapolitan pizza and dread.

Here are names, addresses and phone numbers of all the places I ate pizza in Naples—plus brief reviews.
Antica Pizzeria Brandi, steps off Via Chaia, on a tiny side street called Salita S. Anna di Palazzo, 081-416-928. The only restaurant in Naples where I heard English spoken. Brandi is a charming, multilevel tourist trap. The pizza here is solid if unspectacular, but mighty pricey.
Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba, 18, Via Port'Alba. 081-45-9713. The pizza I had here was from the heated case in front of the pizzeria. Surprisingly tasty, easy to fold and not wet at all. The man who sold it to me indicated he wanted to come back with us to New York.
Ciro a Mergellina, 18/21. Via Mergellina, 081-681-780. A fancy-pants pizzeria right on the water. The pizza had nice charred spots on the crust, but it had a puddle in the center. Good fried seafood and pasta with clams here.
Da Ettore Ristorante e Pizzeria, 56, Via Santa Lucia, 081-764-04-98. A boisterous trattoria where the food and the waiters are the star attraction. The only pizza I had in Naples that could be described as crisp. The pasta with langoustines was smashing.
Da Michele, 1/3, Via Cesare Sersale, 081-553-92-04. One of the classic Neapolitan pizzerias. The only place I saw in Naples that had more than one size of pie. Fine crust, cheap oil, wet pie.
D'Auria, 81/83, Via Simone Martini, 081-579-4711. D'Auria delivered three pizzas to Maurizio's mother's house the night we arrived in Naples. The pizza was classic Neapolitan pizza, though by the time it arrived in the boxes, the crusts had been steamed into oblivion. Mr. D'Auria has apparently won many pizza-making contests in Naples. The same can be said of almost every pizzeria I ate in. I think they have pizza-making contests every week.
Di Matteo, 94, Via dei Tribunali, 081-455-262. Very fine pizza on a charming, narrow Neapolitan street. Smoky, well-cooked crust and not too wet. This is where President Clinton ate pizza when he was in Naples for the G7. Just mention his name, and they'll offer you a Clinton souvenir—a simulated passport with Clinton's photo on it.
Gorizia, 29, Via Bernini, 081-578-2248. Another, fancier pizzeria/ristorante in the Vomero. The pizza had a very high lip and a very light crust. The rest of the food was fairly standard Neapolitan fare.
Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente, 120/121, Via Tribunali, 081-21-09-03. Next door to Di Matteo. The Presidente in the title is, yes, our man Clinton. The gentleman who owns Il Pizzaiolo is the brother of the owner of Di Matteo. He decided to capitalize on the Clinton connection as well. He also showed us his grottolike dining room, where he claimed resistance fighters hid during World War II.
L'Europeo di Mattozzi, 4, Via Marchese Campodisola, 081-552-1323. My favorite pizza in Naples, and my favorite all-around restaurant as well. The pizza melts in your mouth, and the pasta with peas and potatoes is the ultimate Italian comfort food.
Lombardi a Santa Chiara, 59, Via Benedetto Croce, 081-552-0780. It was jammed when we ate lunch here. We ordered a Margherita and a pizza with lardo (cured pig fat). The Margherita was undercooked with a doughy crust. The lardo pie was delicious, although I'm sure my cardiologist and my wife would have disapproved.
In Pizza e Contorni, 27, Via Giuilio Cesare, 081-593-8740. I had my first street pizza at this minichain, on our way to L'Europeo for the first time. Street pizza in Naples is remarkably good. It's made in wood-burning ovens and then placed in a heated box outside the restaurants. As a result, it dries out, which to my way of thinking is a good thing.
Pizzeria Cafasso, 156/158, Via G. Cesare, 081-239-5281. Food writer and Italian food expert Faith Willinger, whom I know and respect, touts this pizzeria in an out-of-the-way, nondescript Neapolitan neighborhood. We didn't have any pizza here that was worth the trouble of finding it. lt was good, don't get me wrong. It just wasn't distinctive or special.
Trianon, 42-44-46, Via Pietro Colletta, 081-553-9426. Gorgeous multilevel pizzeria. We sat downstairs surrounded by vintage photos. The pizza was actually quite good if a little soupy.

Antico Forno Marco Roscioli, 34, Via dei Chiavari, 06-68-75-287. Very good pizza by the meter that makes a perfect walking lunch (or even a walking appetizer on your way to lunch somewhere else).
Da Baffetto, 114, Via del Governo Vecchio, 06-686-1317. Da leccarsi i baffi means whisker-lickin' good, which is at least as good as finger-lickin' good. The name "Baffetto" and the pizza—the same classic Roman/Neapolitan pizza dished out here since the 1960s—makes me want to lick my whiskers.
Dal Paino, 34, Via del Parione, 06-68-135-140. First-rate crisp, thin-crusted pizza, made by the son of the owner of Da Baffetto. It may not be pizza to a Neapolitan, but anybody else would be very happy eating it. The fried and stuffed zucchini flowers were a tasty treat, too.
Il Forno di Campo de' Fiori, 22, Piazza Campo de'Fiori, 06-68-806-662. I was crushed when we went by II Forno the first time and it was closed for lunch. Thank God I prevailed on Maurizio to come back at 4:30, when it reopened. Both the pizza bianca and the pizza with tomato sauce are positively addictive. It is virtually impossible to limit yourself to one piece of each.
The next day we started our pizza hunt at L'Europeo, a trattoria and pizzeria located in a commercial district just off the water in one of the ancient parts of Naples. Before we made it to the restaurant, I tried a Neapolitan street pizza that I saw many people eating while they walked. The pizzas are sold from heated boxes in front of these trattorias, and they come right from wood-burning ovens. The one I got was fresh, doughy and very tasty. Trying to fit in, I folded it in thirds, the way I had been told Neapolitans eat pizza on the go, and walked as I ate.

Maurizio, Bruno, and I arrived at L'Europeo, and Bruno alerted the owner to what I was doing. Alfonso Mattozzi was among the warmest and most gracious restaurateurs I have ever met or seen in action. He brought us two pizzas, a Margherita and a marinara, and they were not just good, they were astounding. The lip, what the Italians call the cornicione, was puffy and almost two inches high. The crust was light, ethereal and cloudlike. The San Marzano tomatoes were sweet, and the melted mozzarella di bufala was creamy and slightly tart. "See, Ed," Bruno said with a wry smile, "good pizza should melt in your mouth."

As we talked about the pizza, pointing at its features, holding it up to get a better look at the crust, rolling our eyes at the flavor and texture, an elegant-looking man at an adjoining table chimed in. "I have lived in Naples my entire life," he said, "as have two generations of my family before me, and I can tell you that the pizza you are eating is one of the best in Naples, and therefore anywhere in the world." Mr. Mattozzi introduced this man, a Neapolitan shipping magnate named Mr. Grimaldi. He was dressed in a custom-tailored, three-piece suit, and had chosen to dine today on pizza from L'Europeo. "The great province of Naples has the longest and best pizza-making tradition in the world. But pizza is everywhere in Naples, so I am very careful about where and when I eat it. I'm trying to think of ten pizzas I would finish here. There's here, maybe Lombardi, Ettori, Ciro a Margelline, Cafasso." He stopped, falling way short of ten. "Even here, for a few months after Mr. Mattozzi lost his pizzaiolo, he went through four or five people, and the pizza was no good."

Our discussion became quite heated and animated. Soon Mr. Mattozzi, his newfound pizzaiolo, and the restaurant's oyster shucker, a toothless elderly man dressed in a fisherman's sweater, joined in the discussion. Maurizio said, "The frame [the crust] should have holes, like great bread. It should be thin in the center but not too thin. When you bite into it, it should melt in your mouth. All the elements should come together when you are in the hands of a great pizzaiolo." The oysterman waved his hand dismissively at Maurizio. Bruno translated with a chuckle: "He says that you are talking about pizza as it were a work of art. Michelangelo was an artist. Now he had hands. This is just food. There is only one thing that makes things taste good: hunger. The best chef is hunger." It was obvious that Neapolitans care a great deal about pizza and could talk about it for hours on end, the same way New Yorkers could talk about pastrami, or Parisians about baguettes.

The rest of the food at L'Europeo was absolutely delicious: eggplant parmigiana made with smoked mozzarella that was nothing like the stuff we eat at American pizzerias; pasta with potatoes and basil and onions; focaccia with cured meats. Signore Mattozzi even had his pizzaiolo fry up some pizza dough just to illustrate how light it is. Sprinkled with powdered sugar, it tasted like the best zeppole I could imagine. It practically floated off the plate. Signore Mattozzi said, "Put your finger on one of the holes. It will spring back." To illustrate, he put his knife on one of the holes and depressed it. It sprung back immediately. "That is the sign of good Neapolitan pizza dough," said Maurizio.

Over the next five days we went to just about every pizzeria that either Maurizio or Bruno knew to be good, fifteen in all. Our test pizzas were a Margherita and a marinara. Sometimes we would augment those two with a specialty. At Lombardi's, for example, we had a very fine pizza made with lard.

We went to Da Michele, where they deviate from Neapolitan pizza orthodoxy by offering three sizes of pizza. It didn't matter. All three sizes tasted the same. We went to Brandi and ate pizza surrounded by Japanese and even a scattering of Americans. We went to Trianon and Lombardi's (Steingarten's favorite), Ciro a Mergellina, and 165-year-old Port'Alba and Cafasso, an off-the-beaten-path spot that famed cookbook writer and Italian food expert Faith Willinger had recommended. And we went to Di Matteo, where President Clinton ate while attending the G7 economic summit in 1999. And guess what? The pizzas at virtually every place we went to tasted eerily similar. They all baked for less than two minutes in a 700°F, wood-burning oven. They all had a very high lip, at least two inches. The crusts were all slightly bready, with a taste-enhancing charred flavor. There wasn't a crisp crust in the lot. They all used locally sourced mozzarella, fior di latte, which not one pizzeria made on its own. Mozzarella di bufala was available upon request for a little extra money.

The canned tomatoes were not drained, and this, combined with the rather large splash of oil (sometimes olive oil and sometimes sunflower seed oil!) and the moisture given off by the cheese, made for wet pizzas that occasionally bordered on swampy.

Although occasionally underbaked with a resulting gummy crust, the pizzas were all very tasty. But ... with the possible exception of the pizzas at L'Europeo, none were exceptional enough to have me swearing off Pepe's or Sally's or Totonno's.

On the second-to-Iast night, we ate at a bustling trattoria and pizzeria, Da Ettore. We had memorable pasta with langoustines and some very fine pizza with a crust that at least approached crispness. When Maurizio went to the bathroom, Bruno whispered, "You see, Ed, there just isn't that much variation between pizzerias in Naples. The difference between the best and worst isn't all that great. In Naples, pizza is pizza. We are proud of it but, as you have seen, there are many places to get real Neapolitan pizza in Naples."

On our last day in Naples, Maurizio and I went back to L'Europeo. We had two pizzas: a Margherita and one with arugula and prosciutto. Both were fantastic: fresh tasting, yeasty crust and not too wet. We also had fabulous fried zucchini flowers stuffed with ricotta, incomparable foccacia topped with thin slices of pork belly that melted in our mouths, and the best pasta e fagiole (pasta with beans) I'd ever had. We were taken care of with grace and charm by Mr. Mattozzi. I realized that I loved just about everything about Naples—its people, its sights, the food—everything, that is, but the pizza. I couldn't bring myself to tell Maurizio. It would break his heart. So as we left Naples on the way to the Rome airport, I merely nodded when Maurizio said, "Now you see, Ed, what I have been talking about all these years. Now I know you understand about our pizza. You are on your way to having a Neapolitan heart and soul."

Ed Levine is a regular contributor to the New York Times Dining section and is author of New York Eats and New York Eats More. He also maintains a blog: Ed Levine Eats. This entry is an excerpt from his book Pizza: A Slice of Heaven, published on Slice through special arrangement.

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