Simply Neapolitan

zac o?yeah | Updated on November 27, 2019

Table, please: Hordes of tourists outside Da Michele, a pizzeria that featured in the Julia Roberts film Eat Pray Love   -  ZAC O’YEAH

In Naples, the birthplace of the pizza, fancy toppings and experiments with the dough don’t do the trick

Arguably the greatest culinary development since the discovery of fire, pizza has been the love of my life. And pizza has loved me back, faithfully satisfying me. That is, until I went to Italy.

In Rome, sitting for the first time in a genuine pizzeria, my anticipation is shattered by dyspeptic depression. So, what’s wrong with pizza in Italy? Well, I’ve seen scary pizzas in my life such as one in rural Sweden that was topped with French fries, or a Maggi-noodle-Chinese pizza in Gujarat. But those were edible, almost addictive, as junky junk food tends to be.

Indeed, pizza should be impossible to destroy because it’s the simplest dish in history, concisely described in Encyclopaedia Britannica as “flattened disk of bread dough topped with olive oil, tomatoes, and mozzarella cheese, baked quickly and served hot” — essentially a blank canvas upon which food art can be created. Etymologically, the noun “pizza” is as hotly debated as its most authentic variety. Lexicons suggest it was first mentioned in 1845 (though Wikipedia optimists have fielded the year AD 997). It might be derived from Latin’s picea or “pitch” — perhaps referring to its colour when baked for too long — or Greek pita, which might be descended from the ancient word peptos (cooked). Or it may have a prehistoric Germanic origin — bizan, which is the root of the modern word “bite”. In Italy, a pizza means a lot more than a pizza: Fruit cakes and even cans that contain cinematic film reel.

One version of Roman pizza is the local favourite snack bianca, a basic (and tasteless) focaccia topped with salt, olive oil and herbs (believed by some to date back as far as 2,500 years); there’s rossa, another variety, with tomato and oregano but also without cheese; the fast-foodish a taglio consists of toast-sized squares of pan pizza; and then there’s the full-sized wood-fired a legna. But this specimen in front of me is a blob of cheesy grease on cardboard-tasting dough with a few sagging mushroom slivers. I don’t want to blame the Roman restaurateurs. It’s probably just the way these people are used to making pizza. When I later tell my Italian friend Stefano about my resolve to not eat another pizza, he scolds me. “Why are you eating pizza in Rome? It is a Neapolitan dish, for heaven’s sake,” he says.


Classic case: The invention of the margherita is attributed to a baker named Raffaele Esposito   -  ZAC O’YEAH


A dip into my culinary-history books confirms this. Experts agree that the pizza originated in the city of Naples, 220 km south of Rome, as the standard breakfast, lunch and dinner of peasants, fishermen and the poor in the 1600s — around the same time when tomatoes came to Europe from America and mozzarella was invented after the medieval crusaders brought Indian-origin water buffaloes from Asia.

The original is called alla marinara (or sailor-style), which, despite its name, has no fish on it and also no cheese, but only tomato, oregano and olive oil. Later, it was upgraded into margherita, the invention of which is attributed to a baker named Raffaele Esposito. He thought of adding mozzarella and fresh basil leaves in 1889 — to bring to mind the colours of the national flag and impress the visiting Italian queen Margherita. She apparently vouched for this particular concoction, which was promptly named after her. Experts doubt this story’s veracity, as it is a known fact that the author Alexandre Dumas (who, apart from popular adventure novels, wrote on cooking) seems to have sampled Neapolitan pizza topped with tomatoes and cheese in the 1830s.

From Naples, the pizza travelled as Italian migrated in search of jobs: It reached the “Little Italy” neighbourhoods of US, circa 1900, where, after WWII, it mutated into the thick-crust pizza pie served in modern fast-food chains. It arrived in my native Sweden in 1947 when hundreds of Italians came to work at the multinational energy company ASEA (now ABB), then headquartered at Västerås; they apparently used the company canteen to cook pizza. India’s earliest pizzas were probably sold in the late-’70s, at Nirula’s in Delhi’s Connaught Place area — though it is also said that Italian hippies in Auroville were the first to bake pizza in the country. Since 2017, the pizzas of Naples are on the Unesco Heritage List; they’re also protected by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (“True Neapolitan Pizza Association”), which sets rules that involve ingredients sourced from the Neapolitan area, hand-kneading instead of pin-rolling dough to a specific size and thickness (approximately 33 cm x 0.3 cm), and wood-firing.


Anytime is pizza time: Classic marinara, caffe and grappa for breakfast at Pasticceria Scaturchio   -  ZAC O’YEAH


All this makes it essential for me to leave Rome by the superfast Frecciarossa train the next morning. As the train reaches Naples in about an hour, it feels still early for pizza, so I wander off along Via dei Tribunali, the historical centre’s congested main artery, to find a café, as Naples also, supposedly, does better coffee than Rome. Down a narrow alley I find myself in Piazza S Domenico Maggiore lined with bakeries that, in fair weather, set out tables in the square. At the Pasticceria Scaturchio’s counter, I order a caffe and sfogliatelle — a classic Neapolitan version of mille-feuilles pastry stuffed with sweetened creamy ricotta, which clings to the teeth and makes my tongue curdle with its extraordinary sweetness. After gobbling it down, I need something savoury. It is then that I notice the pizzatondo slices of classic marinara. In Naples, anytime is pizza-time, so I buy one. Sadly, dry pizza without cheese doesn’t score high on my hit list, and when I ask for the bill I don’t feel sure my breakfast was really worth €12.50 (₹992).

I do some sightseeing. The city has a colourful past starting with a Greek colony founded hereabouts in 750 BCE, which supposedly influenced local food traditions (some say pasta was invented here by those ancient Greeks) and I’m also reminded of how old the baking traditions are when at nearby Pompeii, the city that was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in AD 79, I spot a fossilised bread loaf discovered in the oven of a bakery during excavations. Though it isn’t shaped like a pizza, it does make me hungry again.

After rebuilding my appetite, I start on my list of pizzerias. Brandi is supposedly where Esposito worked at the time of the invention of the margherita, but it’s so popular with tourists that I can’t get in without a reservation — and one has to book days in advance. So I head to Sorbillo, which, according to academic studies, is the best, but I find two outlets of the same name in Via dei Tribunali, both claiming to be the original. Confused by this, I instead search for Da Michele, which is the most famous because Julia Roberts eats in it in the film Eat Pray Love and its menu has only two items — marinara and margherita.

But when I reach the unassuming eatery, hordes of Americans swarm outside and are in a lynching mood, claiming to have waited for hours when I try to squeeze in. Finally, I end up at the classic Di Matteo, which, being founded in the 1930s, ranks among the old-school pizzerias, and its most useful feature is that even if the restaurant is jam-packed, it has a takeaway window where margheritas are sold straight from the oven at just €1.50 (₹119) for a full pizza folded up in a paper wrap. The pizza is hot, extremely soft and chewy, rather primitive-feeling with not too much topping — perfect to munch on while I sightsee.


I’m reminded of the old rule of thumb asserting that better food is usually where there are no tourists, so, at dinnertime, I look for a quieter pizzeria and pick a newish joint promisingly named Caravaggio — after the painter — so here I should presumably get some real food art. Incidentally, Caravaggio’s work was so realistic and his behaviour so outrageous that he caused scandals in Rome and ultimately fled to Naples in 1606, where he painted in churches towards the end of his short but dramatic life. He was severely wounded in a brawl in 1609 and died from malaria the following year, but I suppose he must at least have sampled the pizza’s cheese-less precursors while bar-hopping. I order yet another margherita (€5/₹397) and the flavours are quite mild, but the sourness of the tomato is pleasantly offset by the gooey cheese and freshness of the herby garnish. And yes, it does look like a painting that one could almost hang on the wall.

That’s really all there is to a Neapolitan pizza! Rather than complex molecularity and fancy toppings, the genius of this dish hinges on its simplicity.


Zac O’Yeah is a part-time travel writer and part-time detective novelist;

Email: zacnet@email.com

Published on November 27, 2019

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