See Naples . . . And Eat
Sunday, July 13, 2008
All we wanted to do was step out for a little pizza in Naples on a Saturday night -- a notion that could have been as simple as a leisurely walk down the street from our hotel. Except for two things.
First, there is no such thing as a leisurely walk in this capital of southern Italian anarchy. Second, on our first night in Naples we wanted more than just an average pizza. Our destination was the Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, a place known for turning out some of the best pizza in town and, by extension, the world.
"Yes, it is the best pizza in Naples," affirmed Pasquale, the helpful young man at the reception desk of our hotel.
"But," he said, giving us a long serious look, "do not bring a lot of money; do not wear a watch or jewelry; leave your valuables in the room; take a cab there and a cab directly back."
Of course, we were prepared for Naples, one of Italy's most crime-ridden cities, which this year alone has weathered such scandals as mountains of uncollected trash and dioxin-tainted mozzarella. (The trash has been cleaned up, and Italian authorities moved quickly to remove the bad mozzarella from the market.) Still, Pasquale's warning just a couple of hours after our arrival took us aback.
"One more thing," Pasquale warned. "Do not pay any more than 10 euros for the cab. Ten euros maximum."
In fact, the cab to Da Michele ended up costing 15. The polite young driver seemed to be taking us on a scenic tour while complaining in a mix of Italian and English that Naples's bad reputation was the fault of the sensationalist media and malevolent northerners. When we arrived in the drab neighborhood in front of Da Michele, he explained he was tacking on a two-euro charge (more than twice what is customary, we later learned) for coming to pick us up at our hotel.
After the inflated taxi fare, we faced a 40-minute wait for a table, though these were small inconveniences for truly great pizza. Run by the fifth generation of pizzamakers of the Condurro family, Da Michele is as simple as a pizzeria gets. The storefront, with high ceilings and marble-topped tables, is lighted as bright as a hospital. Niched in the back wall, a bust of Saint Antonio Abate surveys the squad of three men forming an assembly line: One kneads the dough by hand, the next layers on tomatoes and cheese, and the third uses a long wooden paddle to lay the pizza in a wood-burning oven for no more than a minute.
This is pizza stripped to its fundamentals, without the toppings considered superfluous by purists. In a town that seems to have few rules, there are standards when it comes to local food in general and Neapolitan pizza in particular. Da Michele's menu contains two items: pizza margherita (cheese, crushed tomatoes and basil) and pizza marinara (tomatoes, oregano and garlic). It should be noted that the cheese used at Da Michele is, technically, not mozzarella (which is made from water buffalo milk), but fior di latte, a cow's-milk cheese preferred by some master pizzamakers for its slightly drier consistency.
The prices are cheap ($7 for a 14-inch pizza), and the only drinks available are Coca-Cola, orange soda and beer, served in plastic cups.
The crowd spoke the Neapolitan dialect, from families with little kids to a few businessmen in dark suits. What came to the table was pizza that was thin-crusted and (true to Neapolitan style) slightly wet, with fresh white soft cheese and sweet tomatoes. It was simple and delicious, and it went down smoothly, as if melting before it hit the stomach.
Neapolitans, you quickly realize, will put up with a lot. But they won't put up with less-than-perfect pizza.