This blog post was updated on July 21, 2016.
Last week, I set off to Naples, Italy with only one goal – to eat pizza! One of my Italian friends forewarned me, “Once you eat in Naples, you can die and go to heaven.” Each day I bit into the warm, fresh, crispy dough, crowned with creamy, melt-in-your-mouth cheese; sweet, juicy tomatoes; and earthy basil leaves, I felt I was getting closer to heaven!
As I obsessed over the world’s greatest food, I explored its fascinating history and traditions.
What is the origin of pizza?
It is believed that the most internationally well known pie was born in late 1700s and early 1800s in Naples as poor man’s fast food. Street vendors sold these simple flatbreads out of warmers. It was cheap and filling.
Italian immigrants brought the recipe to US and since then it has become a staple. Gennaro Lombardi opened the first documented pizzeria in New York City in 1905, which is still serving today.
Did you know? The oldest pizzeria noted in the world is Antica Pizzeria Port’alba in Naples. It opened in 1830 and is still operational. Back then, patrons were asked to pay for their pie 8 days later, so that they come back and purchase another one, and the buying cycle continues. If you died in that week, it would have been your last free meal!
Why is Napoli pizza so different?
When I first tasted an authentic Neapolitan pizza, it was very different than what I was used to. The pizza did not come sliced and had an extremely thin crust. Actually, it looked more like an Indian naan or Middle Eastern pita with a slim layer of toppings. This is no surprise because the inspiration behind pizza how we know of it today probably came from Jewish matzah, Greek plakous or Persian flatbreads.
What makes up the topping?
The first pizza created was “pizza marinara” with only olive oil, garlic, oregano, and no cheese, on a soft round bread with crusty edges. It was Naples based, Rafaele Esposito of Antica Pizzeria Brandi (established 1780 and still open today) that presented a patriotic pie (red, white and green like the new Italian flag) to Queen Margherita in 1889 as a special delivery, which is now popularly known as Pizza Margarita. The toppings include a thin layer of San Marzano D.O.P tomato sauce, slices of buffalo mozzarella cheese, and fresh basil leaves.
What’s the proper way to eat pizza?
Anywhere you order pizza in Naples, it will not come sliced for you. Restaurants do offer forks and knifes, though that’s not the traditional way to eat this pie. When I asked a local about this, he responded, “You can decide for yourself how big of a slice you want to eat!” Traditionally, Napoli pizza should be folded in and eaten with hands only.
Where are the best places to eat pizza in Naples?
You really can’t go wrong at any pizzeria in the city, though locals tend to have their favorites. Here are some of the ones I tested:
Tip: To avoid waiting, go early (before 8pm) and get a seat at the communal table right away.
Dal Presidente Pizzeria – Sitting in the shadow of an old church, overlooking the busy narrow streets, I tried an interesting combination of buffalo mozzarella and pumpkin cream topping, on a crispy thin crust. It was a little sweet, but delicious.
L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele – This place has been around since 1870 and was featured in the movie “Eat Pray Love.” With the popularity of the book and movie, it now receives large crowds everyday. For $4, I got a huge pie of pizza marinara that I couldn’t resist devouring. I can see why Elizabeth Gilbert would need a bigger pair of jeans after this!
Pizzeria Di Matteo – There was a waiting list running three pages long when I arrived here. But a local tipped me that you can order to-go to avoid waiting in line. So, I walked right up to the counter and got my pie in less than five minutes. The pizza margarita was oozing with fresh tomato sauce and melted cheese. It was a little soft but one of the best I had.
Note: President Clinton dined here during his visit to G7 Naples for G7 in 1994.
Antica Pizzeria del Borgo Orefici – This five table restaurant has been run by the same family for over 50 years. Though located off a busy shopping street, there was plenty of seating and quiet atmosphere. Here I found the tomato sauce to be sweeter and the pie had a nice crisp on the edges.
Tip: Get away from the famous via Tribunali to try some of the lesser known, but equally good pizzerias.
Can pizza be made at home?
I signed up for a pizza cooking class with Context Travel and realized that Neapolitan pizza is not as easy to make. Aside from fresh ingredients, you need skillful hands to stretch out the dough (without a roller), slide it on to the paddle (without making holes), and rotate in the oven 4-5 times so it cooks evenly. Also you can never really make this at home because you need an oven that reached temperatures of 800-900F. The high heat makes the pizza cook in only 45 seconds and gives it a texture of soft center and crusty sides. Watch video of how to make Naples pizza in less than a minute.
Story by Sucheta Rawal. All pictures courtesy Sucheta Rawal/Go Eat Give.