The Pizza Margherita is taken so seriously in Naples that it has been given governmental protection. The dough must be rolled manually and baked in a wood-burning oven at a temperature of 905 degrees, making it tender and chewy. Its texture must be soft, elastic, and easily foldable. There are specific dimensions required for a true Neapolitan pizza and there should be a restrained amount of cheese and sauce of the highest quality. These ingredients are found in the surrounding region around Naples, where pizza began as a street food in the 19th century, and which still reigns as the pizza capital of the world.
I knew I had to go to Naples and see what the fuss was all about.
I had heard a lot of rumors about Naples – that it’s controlled by a mafia crime syndicate called the Camorra, that it isn’t safe, and that there are no rules on the road. “Traffic lights are a suggestion,” the local Neapolitan who worked at my hostel explained. “If the light is green and there are no cars, you go. If the light is red and there are no cars, you go.”
These were but minor considerations for me. Growing up in the tri-state area, I was raised on good pizza, and I had to go to Naples, not to judge which city has better za, but to see how they differed, and of course, as writers tend to do, try to glean some greater meaning from all this.
One thing that sets Neapolitan pizza apart is the mozzarella cheese. The famous bufalo di mozzarella is from Mondragone, a small town outside of Naples. It’s unlike any cheese I’ve ever tasted. My travel partners and fellow pizza connoisseurs, Duncan and Roy from England, accompanied me to to a local supermarket and tried it fresh. It was so wet that water dripped off it onto our hands, and it had a full, creamy complexity that was undeniable to the palate. We were served a sandwich of just the bufalo di mozzarella on a small Italian baguette, the cheese so flavorful that it needed nothing else; other ingredients would have masked the flavor of the cheese. It was one of the simplest meals you could have, and as Roy aptly put it, it was so good, because it was “pure.”
This philosophy lends itself to the pizza. According to Italian law, there are only three types of pizza: Marinara, with garlic and oregano; Margherita, with basil and mozzarella cheese from the southern Apennine mountains; and extra-Margherita or “doppio mozzarella”, with fresh tomatoes, basil, and bufalo di mozzarella. The sauce in all of these pies are made from San Marzano tomatoes, which is what the renowned Dom Demarco of Di Fara Pizzeria in Midwood, Brooklyn, imports from Italy, which he selectively uses on the pizzas he cooks with his bare hands. I never thought I’d have pizza as good as the square pie from Di Fara until I went to Da Michele.
Since 1820, Da Michele has been cooking these pies, and these three pies only. Business was better than ever when we arrived, joining a crowd of people who nearly took up the entire street. We were assigned number 88 as they called numero uno and it took nearly an hour and a half to get inside, and then thirty more minutes to be served the three pies. And then there it was, the true Neapolitan pizza in front of my eyes. As Duncan took my picture, I struggled not to begin eating the Margherita as its scent reached my nose. I peered down at the crust, puffy and burnt in all the right spots, which almost reminded me of naan bread, and at the cheese and sauce in perfect proportions. It came as a round pie unaltered. By cutting a pizza into slices, you diminish its quality, so you are given a knife and fork and can cut your own slices the way you want it and then eat it at its freshest.
Of the three pies, I told myself that the Margherita was the best. But I found myself craving the Marinara the most. It was certainly the most impressive. There was nothing lacking without the cheese; in fact, it was the opposite. The small chunks of garlic and oregano over the tomato sauce and olive oil was beautiful in its simplicity. It was remarkably flavorful and even soothing.
There may be a lot of crime in Naples, and the Neapolitans may not obey traffic lights, but when it comes to pizza, they adhere to the law. If there’s one thing the Neapolitans understand, as people who live in a city where violence and crime permeate their daily lives, it’s that they know how appreciate the simple things in life. Too often do we complicate things that we can easily forget to relish that piece of mozzarella cheese.