Every Italian city seems to have one defining attraction. Rome has its unrivalled museums, Milan stands proudly at the heart of the international fashion world and Naples – well, in Naples, Italian history and culture crystallizes to create one unforgettable product – the venerable pizza.
In Naples, pizza is more than just a tasty snack. It’s a mainstay of the food table, a cultural icon, a symbol of the city itself. In some ways, it is as important to the city as the national flag, with which it shares an unusual history.
The Neapolitans take their pizza so seriously that they formed an association, Verace Pizza Napoletana, to preserve the standards of Neapolitan pizza and for the visitor, this means that you can’t say you’ve really seen Naples until you’ve sat at a crowded pizzeria table, watching the cooks press out the dough by hand and munching on a piping hot slice of heavenly pizza.
About Neapolitan Pizza
As practically every tour guide and cook book will tell you, the modern pizza began in In 1889, whenQueen Margherita of the new established Savoy dynasty visited Naples. Having heard of the city’s famous peasant food, she was curious to taste it and to present her with the dish, the city’s most famous cook, Don Raffaele, was invited to prepare it.
Three pizzas were presented to show the typical choices of the time: one with cheese and basil; one with garlic, oil, and tomato; and one with mozzarella, basil, and tomato. The queen, impressed by the colors of the last pizza, which resembled the national flag, preferred that one and it was named the Pizza Margherita in her honour, a name it holds to this day. With royal approval secured, the Margherita pizza became the established modern pizza, and to this day, the dish has never lost its status, becoming over the years a cultural and even international icon.
Most pizzerias are unpretentious, bustling eateries. Every pizzeria will have a few common features: The massive oven radiating heat, the marble bench where pizza is prepared, the shelf crowded with the different ingredients and the outer display where freshly made pizza tempts the passers-by. Most will also be so filled that you’ll have to wait for a table – but there’s no point leaving and trying somewhere else, since all the places with really good food will be similarly packed!
There are a quite a few exceptionally famous pizzerias, which have been serving good pizza for decades or in some cases, centuries – Briandi’s, for instance, is the very same restaurant the esteemed Don Raffaele once worked at in 1889, and still proudly serves its famous creation today!
Not surprisingly, pizzerias are a very popular business, with plenty of support from both locals and tourists! According to the Verace Pizza Napoletana, only four variations are considered authentic:
• the Margherita, with tomato, olive oil, grated Parmesan, and mozzarella;
• the Marinara, with tomato, olive oil, oregano, and garlic;
• formaggio e pomodoro, with tomato, olive oil, and grated Parmesan;
• and the ripieno, a calzone filled with ricotta or mozzarella, olive oil, and salami.
Practically every pizzeria will serve these, but most pizzeria also has its house specialties. Most of the really famous restaurants are also popular with tourists and Neapolitans love to put them down. Despite the good-natured ribbing, they still serve great pizza, and with the great number of pizzeria in the city, there’s plenty of other places to try. Every Neapolitan will have a certain restaurant they prefer and a popular pastime for visitors is to explore and choose their own favourite.
Why Neapolitan Pizza is so Special
For visitors more used to the pale imitations offered from chain pizza restaurants, the pizzas of Naples often come as a revelation. The first thing you’ll notice is that the pizza is enormous, quite often overhanging its impressively large plate, unlike the constantly shrinking offering you’d get in a chain restaurant.
The pizzas are less uniformly round, as each and every one is individually hand made; they also tend to be much thinner than those of the chain restaurants, almost more like crepes then the American-style pizza pies.
Neapolitan pizzas are also very simple, with perhaps a sprinkling of garlic, or a toss of meat and mushrooms on top. Most pizzerias look at topping-heavy pizzas as inauthentic, or an easy way to hide bad cooking. In a way, this sparse approach is a guarantee of taste, because what little there is has to be excellent!
Pizzas made in Naples taste different from pizza made anywhere else. A major reason for the difference is the ingredients, which simply aren’t available elsewhere. The fresh, tangy mozzarella cheese, made only with the unpasteurised milk of Italian buffalos raised in Campania and produced the old-fashioned way, is almost impossible to get outside the country. The tomatoes used, far more flavourful than the canned variety you’ll find in supermarkets, are only grown on the rich volcanic soil on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius; and the salami and cured meats are still traditionally made in the small towns surrounding Naples. The combination of these fresh, uniquely Italian ingredients contribute greatly to Neapolitan pizza’s special flavour.
Another reason for Neapolitan pizza’s unique taste is the way they are cooked in frighteningly hot wood-fired ovens (pictured above), which can never be replicated in a conventional oven. The ovens regularly reach 900 degrees and the pizza is only thrust in for about 4 minutes at the most. When it’s pulled out, the pizza will be cooked right through, and most will have a few charred blisters on them, which for many just adds to the taste of the dish.
Pizza is also one of the most reasonable dishes you can have in Italy. Prices average EUR 5, and range from EUR 3 for a simple Marinara to EUR 7.00 for the house special. Add EUR 7 euro for antipasto, EUR 2.50 for you can have a grand meal for only about EUR 16!
A Quick history of Pizza in Naples
Like most things in Italy, there’s plenty of history behind the pizza. The forerunners to the pizzas were probably the flat focaccia loaves, flavoured with herbs and spices, which were served to the ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, but these ‘proto-pizzas’ were usually just baked bread with toppings as an afterthought. It was only when the Indian buffalo and tomatoes were imported to Italy around the year 1000 that pizza began to be evolve from simple spiced bread to a completely separate dish.
In the beginning, pizza was poor man’s food. Long before there were pizza emporiums and chain restaurants, this dish was made and sold piping hot from little handcarts which roamed through the cobble-stoned streets of Naples’ docks. Sailors just returning from a pre-dawn fishing trip would roll unsteadily off their ships and squat beside the carts to devour their meals, a simple dish with fresh tomatoes, oil and garlic and a sprinkling of oregano. Eventually, anchovies were also added and the humble sailor’s breakfast would become the classic Marinara pizza.
The more well-to-do pizza maker would bake their pizzas in ovens and hire help to sell his wares. Usually, the help would be a boy, who would balance a tin stove called a stufa on his head to keep the pizzas warm, and would walk the streets of the city, carrying bread and seasonings and calling for customers at the top of his voice.
The pizza was elevated to the pinnacle of Neapolitan cuisine through royal patronage. One of the first aristocrats to (openly) confess to a liking for such peasant food was the King of Naples, Ferdinando II of Borbone who so enjoyed the pizza made by ‘Ntuono Testa at Salita S. Teresa that he had pizza ovens installed in his own kitchen.
The modern pizza however, had its real beginning with another royal, in the famous ‘Queen Margherita’ episode.
Where to eat Good Pizza in Naples
Below are some of the most popular pizzerias in Naples:
Da Michele: This 19th century pizzeria, which still has its original tables and chairs from the 1880s, is so traditional they serve only pizza marinara and pizza Margherita, plus baked cheese calzone (pizza ripiena). The only variation permitted is double mozzarella. It is often touted as Naples’ best pizzeria by both foreign journalists and locals, though not everyone agrees.
Via Cesare Sersale 1/3; tel. (081) 553 92 04; closed Sundays and three weeks in August.
Trianon: This is probably the most popular pizzeria in the city. There’s always a wait for a table and it’s a favourite spot for the young. The decor doesnt seem to have changed much from its beginnings in the 1930’s.
Via P. Colletta 46; tel. (081) 553-9426; closed Sundays and midday.
Brandi: The historic home of the pizza Margherita, the restaurant still has a 1889 document signed, “sincerely, Galli Camillo, head of the table of the Royal Household”, acknowledging to S.G. Raffaele Esposito, of the then pizzeria “Pietro e Basta CosÏ”, that the pizza he had prepared for Her Majesty the Queen Margherita were found to be excellent. The restaurant is conveniently near the tourist areas of San Carlo, the Royal Palace and the Galleria.
Steps off the via Chiaia, on a tiny side street called Salita S. Anna di Palazzo; tel. (081) 416928. Closed Mondays
Di Matteo: This pizzeria made the news because President Clinton ate here during the G7 Summit in 1993. Located on the main street of the old city, it is particularly known fot its fried foods — pasta cresciuta (dough balls) arancini di riso (rice balls), crochette di patate (potato croquettes).
Via dei Tribunali 94; tel. (081) 455-262; closed Sundays and two weeks in August
Why Neapolitan Pizza is so Special
Cantanapoli: This pizzeria is conveniently near the big hotels by the bay. The pizza is decent, but the main attraction is the live music at night, and the waiters who wear lazzaroni garb from the 18th century!
Via Chiatamone 36; tel. (081) 764 6110