Bill and Suzy Menard live la dolce vita in Forest Hills, DC and in Italy. Occasionally, they share their Italian adventures with us.
by Bill Menard
Once in a while an idea comes to you that is so perfect in its elegance, so suited for time, place and people, and so darn delicious that everyone wants to take credit for it. Such was Pizzapalooza, my very own brainchild. My idea that we take our final few days in Italy after the conclusion of our Cucinapalooza cooks tour and spend them in Naples in search of the perfect pizza napoletana. This is the story of our pizza odyssey, which my wife Suzy, and longtime friends and traveling companions Pete and Nancy can all agree – was my idea.
After six days of intense cooking in Umbria, working alongside of some of the most beloved chefs from Perugia to Montefalco, we were ready for a change of pace. Just not a huge change of pace. Pizzapalooza was just that diversion and during our two and a half days together (plus an extra day of just Suzy and me), our group of four forged from pizzeria to pizzeria like modern day Pacmen, straying only occasionally from our culinary itinerary to sup on a bit of Naples’ history (such as our visit to the Archeological Museum and a walking tour of Naples), to give a little cultural balance to our carboloading. But the focus of our brief visit to the capital of southern Italy, the birthplace and pretty much the undisputed home of pizza was unmistakable – to consume as much gooey, doughy goodness as our consciences and belts would allow.
And we did a pretty good job of it. Over the course of five non-breakfast meals we tucked in at eight different pizza establishments, downing upward of 20 pizzas. Throw in the two preliminary rounds we undertook in Ischia the days before our arrival in Naples and one final last gasp (literally) by Suzy and me after Pete and Nancy’s departure and you can see why by the end of this all we were channeling the classic Alka Seltzer commercials of the 1970s. “I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.”
But all this folderol about pizza was much more than just folly. We had prepared for our excursion with laser guided precision, having researched the most revered and historic shrines to the pizza gods, plotting them out on a map to ensure we could fit them all in (even if they did not all fit in us). And we developed a scientific rating process to ensure consistency of our reactions and abject fairness as we compared and critiqued those who have devoted their lives to making the masses happy, one pie at a time.
Our rules called for us to try two or three pizzas at every establishment, a guideline we mostly adhered to until the excessive cheese intake began to clog our arteries, as well as in cases where we were downing a pizza in piedi – standing on the sidewalk outside the pizzeria when we were sampling from one of Naples’ numerous pizza stands. In those cases, the act of dividing our pizza into four by hand-tearing it and trying to down the semiliquid, fully gooey mess into our mouths, often without a safety net of napkins, without spilling the molten cheese portion onto exposed skin, clothing or the ground, argued for us to limit our efforts to just one pizza.
But in the many upscale ristorante-pizzerias or even the simple indoor pizzerias we frequented, we tended to order the full Monty which our rules called for. In those cases we ordered the standard required under our disciplinario – the classic pizza margherita – along with whatever was deemed to be the house specialty (which often carried the name of the restaurant or was recommended by the waiter as one of their best) and, in the best cases a third that appealed to our panel of expert judges. The actual best cases were when we threw caution to the wind and ordered una per ognuno – one for each of us which, if you can do the math, meant ordering four different circles of doughy deliciousness.
The margherita was the common pizza-shaped thread that tied each of our subject establishments together and provided a consistent baseline for judging them. And margherita was chosen for good reason, not just because it is usually the first item to appear on the menu. For the Neapolitan or Napoletano, pizza margherita is pizza. This cunningly plain pizza with just four elements (dough, tomato, mozzarella and basil) is anything but plain. And expressed in those four simple but simply delicious elements is the essence of pizzaness itself which speaks to all the senses – touch, smell, sight, taste and, yes sound. Well not so much sound unless you count the food noises made by your fellow diners after tasting this classic meal. In the pizza margherita, which is so fundamental to la vera pizza napoletana, one finds the true meaning of pizza. And for this reason the association of pizzaioli napoletani has even created a certification system for pizza margherita, which governs the precise ingredients used, the requirement of hand stretching the dough and which limits the cooktime of the pizza in a woodburning oven to no more than one minute. In addition to making millions of Naples residents and visitors happy, the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana has made the Italian firewood association very happy as well.
And while the margherita served the purpose of establishing a consistent baseline for comparing each of our contestants, it also served the purpose of educating our palate as to what constitutes a truly great pizza. And in our nine contestants we did find some truly great pizzas, simple, humble unadorned pizze margherite, ones that made you sit upright, shake your head in disbelief and order another.
But our rating system did not rely solely on the margherita. Just as man does not live on bread alone, our rating system depended not just on margherita but also on its bready base, the crust. For each of our assessments looked carefully at the restaurant’s ability to make a memorable crust, not just on the margherita but across all the pizzas we were to try.
Pizza crust, la crosta, like most foods in Italy, responds heavily to regional influences. The same sensibilities that cause a Roman, who likes his porchetta from Ariccia, to scoff at the Marchigiana variety, give rise (no pun intended) to much crust snobbery across the regions. In our native Umbria the distinct preference is for a thinner crust and one that is firmer and approaching crackery, with a bit of crunch when it is cut and chewed. Such is not the case with Naples pizza, where a more doughy, chewy crust – but one with a certain chewy and dare I say crunchy mouthfeel – is de rigeur. And in Naples we consistently found that puffier volumetric crust, a puffiness that doesn’t approach the wonderbread quality of American pizzas like Dominoes, but whose greater volume and voluptuousness appeals to the southern palate more than the crackery goodness that appeals to our Umbrian paesan. On this one, I think our group were all Neapolitans.
But as we were to learn, dough is not sufficient to guarantee an upper-crust crust. Much depends upon the cooking, which in Naples is done always in a woodburning oven, at a temperature high enough to melt glass, upwards of 1000 degrees (F). In these super hot ovens, the pizza doesn’t have a chance and under the rules of the local pizza consortium, a sort of cosa nostra of pizza, cooktime cannot exceed one minute. Pete and I dutifully stood around a number of ovens at the restaurants we visited and can verify obedience to this rule. From the time the pizzaiolo shoveled the raw pie into the domed shaped oven to the time it emerged fully cooked, was on average around 50-55 seconds. Interestingly, too, in the final seconds of cooking, the pizzaiolo typically lifts the pizza from the oven floor with his paddle and waves it through the air toward the hotter top of the domed oven, presumably to give a final melting and fusing of the ingredients and to encourage a bit more char on the crust.
The intense heat of these ovens tends to cause large blisters of crust to rise and those thinner pieces as well as portions of the edge and bottom will char, intensifying the flavor of the crust and even bringing out the flavors on top of the pizza. If you doubt me, next time you try a simple bruschetta topped with fresh olive oil try burning or scorching a corner or two of your bread (this is easily done if toasting your bread on a grill) and compare the final product with a lightly toasted sample. You will immediately taste a much greater intensity in the olive oil on the scalded bread. (Sprinkle a few flakes of sea salt to pump up the volume to a shattering roar of deliciousness).
Finally, a word about ingredients and toppings. Eschew the Ragu®. Naples pizza uses tomatoes, not tomato sauce, with some establishments adorning their pizzas with a minimalist topping of sliced filets of San Marzano tomatoes (which have fewer seeds and less acidity than other varieties) that results in a thin, runny sauce that transforms the crust into a gooey puddle of breadiness (in a good way). Others create a rich, thicker tomato sauce that similarly bathes the crust but which stands out as its own independent taste center. Hams, porchetta, cheeses – we tried the gamut and while our opinions were mostly consistent with one another, as with most things, beauty, or in this case, the perfect pizza, is in the eye of the beholder.
As Dino Martini (Dean Martin) is fond of saying “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.” We found amore and lotsa more in Naples.
Now that you know how they’re rating the pizzas, head over to their blog, billandsuzy.com, for detailed reviews. And now, the finale of their story:
With the departure of Pete and Nancy the following morning, Suzy and I proclaimed ourselves officially through with pizza. After all of this you can forgive me if I say that we were a bit pie-eyed when it came to the idea of more pie. Nonetheless, after spending the morning packing up and catching up on business into the early hours of the afternoon we decided to wander the streets of Naples to see if we could find an adventure. And perhaps just a bite to eat.That day happened to be Labor Day in Italy, and when we emerged from the Romeo in the middle of the afternoon, we emerged into a completely different Naples than the one we had experienced the days before. The usual roar and buzz of traffic had been replaced by the slow soft shuffling of thousands if not tens or hundreds of thousands of Neapolitans wandering the streets, pushing strollers and enjoying their day off. It was an eerie feeling to see Naples moving so slowly, but a welcome one. And so we wandered, too, enjoying the calm but also growing hungrier by the minute and unable to find an open eatery that gave any hint of serving halfway decent food.
Then after about an hour and a half of wandering we came across the Pizzeria di Mattozzi, a centrally located pizzeria run by the same family that runs the ristorante Europeo. We entered the nearly empty Mattozzi and eventually found a waiter, and obtained his permission to seat ourselves at one of the many outdoor tables, nearly all of which were, strangely, empty on this holiday. Sitting in a piazza overlooking the main thoroughfare Via Toledo, our outdoor table was perfect for watching the Neapolitan holidaymakers pass by. We ordered a margherita, for old times sake, and took in the sights and sounds. A while later, when our food arrived, we agreed that neither the pizza nor the service was particularly up to the standards that had been set earlier in the week, perhaps due to a wee bit of resentment among the pizzaiolo and the waiter that they had been singled out, among millions of Neopolitans to be the only two who had to work on Labor Day. Our margherita was seriously undercooked, with the cheese not melting and the flavors not fusing into one another as they do here. And the crust, barely dappled with char, belied the fact that perhaps the oven was not up to temperature on this lazy holiday afternoon.
But despite the imperfections of Mattozzi’s margherita on this holiday we could not help but feel that life was good. We had come to Naples – our second time visiting this city of incredible contradictions – with some trepidation, not at all sure if we liked Naples or not. Not sure if our time would be better spent elsewhere. It was then that I – not Suzy, Pete or Nancy – came up with the idea that guaranteed we would indeed find the time well spent. Make it about food. And over our three days in Naples we did make it about food – some meals better than others but all, even the Labor Day margherita, better than the stuffed crust, the p’zone, the Armands and even the excellent and well-intentioned D.O.C. pizzas now available in the U.S. For if we learned one thing about pizza during our three days in Naples it was a lesson we had already learned on countless other trips to Italy. There’s no substitute for eating, enjoying and experiencing food and life than at its source.