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The Serious Eats Guide To Pizza In Naples

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, except where noted]

A few months ago, my wife and I spent all of 24 hours in Naples on our way home from Sicily. It was probably the second-most pizza-packed 24 hours of my life (the first being when I took my Colombian brother-in-law on a whirlwind pizza tour of New York). We hit over a half dozen pizzerias over lunch alone, and a few more for dinner.

Nobody said the life of a Serious Eater is an easy one.

We talked to pie-men, timed ovens, watched dough being stretched and topped, and all that other fun, nerdy stuff that pizza-obsessives enjoy doing. (Ok, my wife may have been a bit of an unwilling assistant in this endeavor. Bless her for always being a good sport).

Here now, I present to you the Serious Eats guide to Eating Pizza in Naples.

Identifying a Neapolitan Pizza In The Wild

If you're to ask the Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana—one of the few certification organizations that dole out authenticity certificates to pizzerias around the globe—what constitutes a true Neapolitan pizza, you'll be met with an extraordinarily stringent set of rules. God help the pizzaiolo who claims to be making true Neapolitan pizza and gets audited on his process.

Among the criteria (which is outlined on this 11 page document) are such things as:

And so on. I sense a lucrative business in certification guarantees would be possible if an enterprising lawyer decides to take it up.

Natural Gestation Habitat: Wood-Fired Oven

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The blue oven at Pizzeria Di Matteo

The traditional domed, wood-fueled ovens that a Neapolitan pizza is baked in has remained identical in design for several hundred years. Made with stone or brick and completely sealed (aside from the door and the chimney), it's this oven that allows a pizzaiolo to stoke wood fires (oak, ash, beech, or maple are recommended, though there is no restriction other than that it must be free of moisture or excessive smoke) up to crazy high temperatures. A minimum floor temperature of 905°F and a minimum air temperature of 800°F are required.

There are strict protocols in place for oven sizes—the dome must be 45 to 50 centimeters high, while the door must be 22 to 25 centimeters. The floor space is defined at 140 to 150 centimeters in diameter.

To aid browning of the upper surface, a pizzaiolo might lift the pie up to the top of the dome of the oven for a few seconds as the pies finish, a process that should take between 60 and 90 seconds. Talk about fast food!

Remember folks: these are all rules set up by the extraordinarily strict Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. It's not to say that excellent Neapolitan-style pizza can't be made via methods that don't quite fit their stringent criteria. Most pizzerias we love in New York wouldn't make the cut for veracity, but they sure as s$%t are damned delicious nonetheless.

Identifying Markings: Leopard-Spotted Bottom

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A great pie from Pizzeria Di Matteo

When inserted into the oven, the moist, loose Neapolitan pizza dough should instantly start to puff, creating bubbles with thin walls and micro-bubbles on top of them, with even thinner walls. These thin walls will quickly brown in the air of the oven and against the hot stone floor while the rest of the pizza will remain more pale. It's this interplay of smoky, slightly bitter notes that comes from the charred spots and the soft, mild, pale dough in between that gives a Neapolitan pizza its great complexity.

By-Products: Soupy Center

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Antonio Starita's masterful pies from Starita

Unlike a crisp-crusted New York-style or hefty Deep Dish Chicago-style pies, a Neapolitan pizza will have a soft, tender, nearly soupy center. Some folks find this off-putting. I personally like the sauce, oil, and whey-soaked bits of tender crust that form down in there, and I'll fight my wife for my share of it.

Other Characteristics: Sparse Toppings

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A margherita and a montanara from Starita

There are two "basic" Neapolitan pizza styles that cover the vast majority of the pizzas you'll find in Naples: the Pizza Marinara, which combines tomatoes, oregano, olive oil, and garlic (and in which "the green of the oregano and the white of the garlic has perfectly amalgamated"), or the Pizza Margherita which uses tomatoes, olive oil, fresh mozzarella di bufala (water buffalo milk mozzarella), and basil leaves (applied before cooking so that their green color has been "slightly darkened by the cooking process.").

That's it, as simple as that. Some of the fancier pizzerias will offer variations with toppings, but in all cases, the toppings are added extremely sparsely, with an eye towards balance and simplicity. You will never see an American-style "Pizza Supreme," that is so loaded with toppings that the crust is entirely lost. Neapolitan pizza is first and foremost about the interplay of dough, sauce, and olive oil.

How Neapolitans Eat Their Pizza

Option One: Knife and Fork

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A margherita from Da Michele

At a sit-down pizzeria, this is how it's done. You will never see a pizza come pre-cut into "slices," as that would cause the very soupy toppings to seep underneath and turn the whole thing soggy. You could try to manually cut it into slices, but they'll be so floppy that you'll need several extra fingers just to hold them out.

In other words, perhaps Donald Trump should consider moving to Naples.

Option Two: The Quad-Fold

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A folded slice from Pizzeria Presidente

Before I'd actually been to Naples, I'd heard over and over that "pizza in Naples is always eaten with a knife and fork." Always.

I don't know whether things have changed in recent years or it's simply misinformation, but Naples actually has a very lively no-utensils-required street-pizza ("street-za?") scene, with many of the older pizzerias selling whole pies out of display windows on the street for only a euro or two.

So if they don't cut them into slices, how does one eat them? The Quad-Fold. The pizza is placed on a sheet of heavy duty paper, folded in half once, then folded again, much like you'd see in a Paris crepe-shop.

What you end up with is a tidy little pizza package, ready to be picked at with your fingers, or waiting for you to dive right in mouth first. Does it disturb the sauce and cheese distribution? Yeah, sure it does. But Neapolitan pizzas are a pretty slapdash affair to begin with. Don't worry, it'll still taste plenty good.

Where to Get Pizza in Naples

It's impossible not to run into a decent pizza if you take a stroll down Via Tribunali, a street which runs between the train station and San Domenico Maggiore. Most of the old pizzerias in Naples are in that neighborhood, getting sparser and sparser as you move away. Here's a map of eight of the best and most notable—a good full days' eating if you want to plan a trip around pizza.


View Pizza in Naples in a larger map

The Street-za

Sure, you can sit down at any one of these fine and historic establishments, but their real draw (particularly for pie-heads with a schedule to keep!) are their heated outdoor display windows, where for a couple euros (usually less!), you can grab a hot pie to go.

Antica Pizzeria e Friggitoria Di Matteo

The best of the Street-za's we tried, though it may have been luck of the draw—our pie had come fresh out of the oven, the crust still crackling slightly as it was folded. Very sparse on the cheese (what can you expect for a single euro?), but a bright tomato sauce and a great charred flavor to the tender crust.

This is the pizzeria President Clinton visited during the 1994 G7 summit in Naples. You can see his picture up on the wall.

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Pizzeria di Matteo

Via dei Tribunali, 94, 80138, Naples, Province of Naples, Italy (map).

Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente

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Riding on the coattails of the fame that Clinton's visit brought to Di Matteo, the brother of the pizzaiolo at Di Matteo opened up his own restaurant—this one actually named after Clinton—just down the block. Even though the place should technically be called Il Fratello del Pizzaiolo del Presidente, we won't knock him for it, because his product is (almost) every bit as good as his brother's.

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Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente

Via dei Tribunali, 120-121, 80138 Naples, Province of Naples, Italy (map)

Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba

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At over 182 years old, Pizzeria Port'Alba is widely regarded as Napoli's first pizzeria, and as such, perhaps the first official pizzeria in the world. Am I allowed to disparage such a storied pie? I won't hold back—the pie we had was a little pale and lacked significant charring, but the texture was still wonderful, with a melt-in-your-mouth tenderness and bright, fresh-tasting tomatoes.

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Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba

Via Port'Alba, 18, 80134 Naples, Napoli, Italy (map)

The Classics

Once you move out of the street-za and 1 euro+ category, a couple of pizzerias immediately jump out as must-visits.

Pizzeria Trianon Da Ciro

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Equally swamped with tourists and locals alike, Trianon is a sprawling, three floor pizzeria that offers more than 20 toppings variations. Check out the work station on the first floor as you walk in for an up-close view of the action. Just don't expect the harried pie-men to stop and smile for the picture.

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The pies at Trianon are nothing to scoff at, but certainly not the best in Naples. If you find the traditionally soupy Neapolitan pie to be too wet, you may well prefer the pies here, which come out with sturdier, denser crusts, and a drier top. It's almost dry and crisp enough to pick up a slice with your hands.

While the sauce is as bright and fresh as anywhere, the cheese you'll find is drier and stretchier than most.

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Pizzeria Trianon Da Ciro

Via Pietro Colletta, 44/46, 80139 Naples, Province of Naples, (map)

Pizzeria Da Michele

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Yes there are lines. Yes, it's packed with tourists who want to "eat at that place Julia Roberts at at in Eat, Pray Love!". Yes, the service is quick (though in Neapolitan fashion, always friendly). And yes, they WILL kick you out of your seat if you plan on lingering.

All that said, the line moves fast, and its easy to forgive the servers their brusqueness when your pie appears in front of you.

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The pies are cooked rapid fire in the brick-lined wood-burning oven in the front of the dining room. They cook so fast that two pizzaioli work in tandem, one lowering a pie onto the oven floor just as the other removes one.

I pulled my timer out (as I always do at a first time pizzeria visit) and measured the cook time for the pies.

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One minute nine seconds! Seriously! It's the fastest pizza cook time I've ever recorded anywhere. The resultant pies are also significantly different than most I've had.

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They're soft. Very soft. Like, the texture of a thick blanket, soft. And wet. Very wet. Good luck even thinking of eating these guys with anything but a fork and knife.

Da Michele uses sunflower oil rather than olive oil on their pies (an Italian sign on the wall explains that they want to let the tomatoes and cheese stand out—I say they just want to save a few bucks), but the pies are nevertheless spectacular.

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If you don't like soupy pizza (Serious Eats Overlord Ed is in this camp), you may well find it disappointing. Negative online reviews are most often of then "this was so soupy" or "the sauce slid off the pizza onto my boyfriends shoes when we were walking down the street" variety.

But if you can handle the wetness, you'll find a perfect balance of char, bread, bright tomatoes, and fior di latte (they don't use buffalo mozzeralla here either) that melts on your tongue in a way like no other pizza I've had.

Pizzeria Da Michele

Via Cesare Sersale, 1, 80139 Naples, Province of Naples, Italy (map)

The Best: Pizzeria Starita

Luckily, the best pizza I tasted in Napoli happens to be available right here in New York as well. Starita is run by Antonio Starita, a legendary pie-maker who loves to chat with customers as his team makes his fantastic pies (that he doesn't speak any English and we speak no Italian, but that didn't stop him from trying to engage us).

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And yep, that's the same Antonio Starita who trained protégé Roberto Caporuscio of Kesté in the West Village. Last year, Don Antonio opened in midtown, near Times Square, also run by Caporuscio. The pizzeria is named after Antonio Starita, and features a menu with some serious nods to his pizzeria in Naples.

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Margherita pie

The Margherita pie is a little firmer than the true Neapolitan style you'll see at Da Michele, but to my mind, it's the perfect level of soupiness to crispness. The juices definitely pool in the center as you eat (take a look at the photo up at the top of this post), but the edges and underbelly still retain a thin, thin layer of crispness that adds textural contrast to the whole deal. It's a really exquisite pie.

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Montanara pie

Starita may well be better known for his Montanara pie, a pizza which is first deep-fred before being topped with sauce and smoked mozzarella and finished off in the oven. The end result is extra crisp, well-puffed like a cruller, and not at all greasy.

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The seasonal appetizers we tried were also fantastic. I particularly enjoyed our ricotta-stuffed deep-fried zucchini blossoms which were rich in the center and crisp on the outside.

Pizzeria Starita

Via Materdei, 27, 80136 Naples, Province of Naples, Italy (map)

Also Notable: Europeo di Mattozzi

Ed's favorite pizzeria in Naples is Europeo di Mattozzi, a healthy 20 minute walk from the downtown cluster of pizzerias, and a big step up in terms of decor and service. It's a charming restaurant with some seriously delicious food beyond the pizza.

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Octopus salad at Europeo di Mattozzi. [Photographs: Gianluca Rottura]

We enjoyed the octopus salad, as well as a dish of pasta with clams and broccoli, perfectly simple, and perfectly delicious.

The pizza itself was also great, though to my mind, a little too firm and cheese-laden. It's understandable why some might call it the best in Naples, though.

Europeo de Mattozzi

Via Marchese Campodisola, 4, 80133 Naples, Province of Naples, Italy (map)

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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