If you ask my sister, the best pizza is to be found in Rome: paper-thin crust, edges almost crunchy. You can cut a slice and lift it to your mouth, no sogginess. It’s the pizza that is most commonly made all over Italy.
If you ask me, I will go for a Neapolitan over and over. The last time I was in Naples and Capri, I ate pizza every single day, for ten days straight. And always the same: Margherita, i.e. tomato sauce and mozzarella. For me, there is no other pizza and, please, never mention ham and pineapple in my presence.
A Neapolitan pizza is slightly chewy, the crust barely charred and pillowy, the mozzarella pooling in the center, requiring that, when you cut a slice, you fold it in half to lift it to your mouth. A Neapolitan pizza eaten in the Campania region will benefit from the local mozzarella and tomatoes, and from the mineral waters the dough is made with.
Many Americans who visit Italy, and Naples in particular, might be underwhelmed by the local pizza which, like the best Italian cooking, boils down to very few, simple ingredients that, in order to work, have to be at their freshest.
When I first moved to LA, there was only one restaurant that served real pizza, Antica Pizzeria in Marina del Rey, long closed. Everywhere else were poor approximations or Americanized versions I don’t eat to this day. No snobbery on my part – just a lot of respect for pizza.
It’s much easier to find good pizza in LA these days and, it turns out, most of the pizzaioli who churn out first-rate pizza learnt the art from Peppe Miele, the owner of the defunct Antica Pizzeria. Peppe doesn’t have a restaurant anymore but owns a laboratory and a school where restaurateurs can learn the art of Neapolitan pizza, about the proper ovens, ingredients and the right mixer to recreate the closest approximation to a Neapolitan pizza you can get.
Last week I was invited to Peppe’s lab, and besides stuffing my face with pizza that went straight from the oven into my mouth, I also learnt a few of the secrets of what makes a pizza a Neapolitan pizza.
- The dough must be made with just water, salt, yeast and flour and must be let to rise at least eight hours, out of the refrigerator, and up to 18. The flour must be 00 from Italy (which approximates a mixture of All Purpose and Bread Flour). The yeast must be live yeast, not the dry variety (which is harder to find, some Wholefoods carry it and some Mexican bakeries could be persuaded to part with it). The long rising time makes the dough infinitely more digestible than any quickly risen with instant yeast.
- The pizza must be shaped by hand. Those pizzaioli who do it by rotating the dough over their heads are not just showing off. Rolling pins are banned. Moving the air from the center of the dough to the edges ensures the crust will be thick and soft.
- Whole canned tomatoes must be broken down by hand. Buffalo mozzarella must be cut into rectangles and distributed uniformly. Basil gets placed on top of everything else. Extra-virgin olive oil must be poured with a circular motion.
- A pizza must be cooked in a wood-burning oven, at 800F, for 60 to 90 seconds.
- Five. The crust must be between 1 and 2 cm tall, golden but not burnt, and soft.
- Six. A pizza must be no larger than 35 cm and the center no thicker than 4 mm.
And how many calories does such a pizza set you back? A Margherita (with tomato and mozzarella) is 800 calories. Marinara (tomato sauce only) 550. And every single one of them is worth it.