The best little pizzerias in Naples

David Downie samples three savory pizzerias in Naples.


David Downie
April 14, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

The off-duty taxi driver took a bite of hot pizza and looked up from the taxi stand near Naples' seafront drive. I followed his eyes. He mumbled something about volcanoes. To the east, thrusting skyward, smoky old Vesuvius seemed about to erupt. I blinked and realized the picturesque gray wisps were coming from the smokestacks of a steel mill at the volcano's base.

Naples and smoke are inseparable. An old saying about con artists goes, "The guy's selling the smoke of Vesuvius."

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But Vesuvius and its neighboring rust-belt steel mill aren't the only source of smoke in the Siren City: Naples has dozens, maybe hundreds, of wood-burning pizza ovens scattered around the atmospheric old city. Neapolis, the "new city" 2,000-odd years ago, is a layer-cake of ancient Greek, Roman, Barbarian and Mediterranean civilizations -- all of them, apparently, pizza-eating.

"Naples is pizza and pizza is Naples," quipped the witty pizzaiolo at Pizzeria Vesuviana, a Spartan place in the edgy Porta Nolana district, abutting the train station. Cool tiles, a picture of Padre Pio, a cash register. Outside the eatery, fish mongers waved live octopuses and paper-wrapped bouquets of fresh fish. Market customers jostled into the Vesuviana for their breakfast: pizza alla marinara. It was only 8 in the morning.

The pizzamaker bounced his ball of dough, punched it and tossed it in the air. I watched its trajectory. It peaked, then free-fell in front of a giant painting of Vesuvius. In the painting, an enormous pizzamaker cooked his giant pizza over the mouth of the smoking volcano.

"You have everything you want over there," said the flesh-and-blood pizzamaker, putting on an act for me, l'americano. He caught the falling dough, gave it a spin and set it down. "You have everything in America, so for goodness sake, leave us our pizza." He said it jokingly, politely, but he meant what he said.

After swirling the dough with fresh tomato sauce, he flicked some herbs and fresh garlic on. Another pizzamaker -- the oven man -- held out his long-handled paddle, then slid the rosy round pie into the mouth of the beehive-shaped oven. A miniature Vesuvius.

"Now they tell us pizza was invented in America," said the first pizzamaker. "Soon we're going to have pizza fast food joints." His colleague glanced into the oven and used his paddle to lift and spin the disk counter-clockwise, a quarter turn at a time.

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A third, plump, pizzaiolo appeared.

"We've been eating pizza since, since, forever," he added. The oven man withdrew the baked confection. "We eat pizza for breakfast, for lunch, for snacks, for dinner. Pizza comes from here," continued the plump one. "It's our invention."

The oven was hot, very hot: Vesuvius domesticated. It had taken under a minute to bake my pizza marinara -- which, contrary to its name, doesn't count fish among its ingredients. In Naples, the marinara is what the sailors and fishermen ate when going to or returning from their boats. It has no fish and no cheese. It is exquisitely simple.

"Naples is pizza and pizza is Naples," the first two pizzamakers repeated, one after the other.

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My table was cool, clean and barren: a salt shaker and a knife-and-fork rolled in a paper napkin. I'd never eaten pizza for breakfast. It was good -- actually, better than good.

The first pizzamaker came over. I thought he was going to give me a hug. He touched my arm. "Drink, capo? Coke?" I raised an eyebrow. "Whattsamatter, we drink Coke with it. Or white wine."

I asked for sparkling water, an uncontroversial choice at 8 in the morning. "You eat it like this," said the third pizzamaker. "You cut a piece off, then fold it and pick it up with your fingers. Nothing formal about it. This is poor people's food. Always has been."

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Out in the congested streets around the pizzeria, the Porta Nolana market was in full swing. I made my way past the live octopuses, the glowing purple eggplants, the pendulous provolone cheeses and pennuli plum tomatoes, the spluttering Vespas and three-wheeled Ape trucks with live chickens. Everyone seemed to be wolfing pizza -- small, round, take-out pizzas folded over into quarters and held in grease-stained brown paper.

"Wallet style," said a portly woman I buttonholed. "We
call this pizza al portafoglio because it's folded like a
wallet." She gobbled her tomato-rich wallet, picked up her
shopping bags and pushed off through the market, oblivious
to the sirens, the smells, the scooters, the decaying
medieval towers scarred by eruptions of volcanoes and
rioting paupers, the buildings bombed in 1944 and still only
half rebuilt.

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Simple, cheap, easy to eat: Pizza al portafoglio sang
of Naples. It rang true to me, a truer song than "O Sole Mio" -- which, after all, is about Santa Lucia, a marina where the
rich dock their yachts and tourists spend too much at
mediocre ristoranti panoramici.

Crazy, chaotic, fantastic Naples -- the Siren City.
Sirens from mythology and sirens from contemporary hell:
ambulances, police cars, carabinieri's armored vehicles. Did
Homer's Sirens eat pizza, or offer it to Odysseus' sailors?
When Vesuvius spewed its lava sea in the year A.D. 79, were the citizens of nearby Pompeii snacking on pizza
and sipping white wine?

I once read somewhere that Publius Paquius Proculus,
the celebrated baker of Pompeii, was baking something
pizzalike as the lava rolled into town. Publius' breads
are kept in a room in Naples' archeological museum. The
room has been closed to the public for 18 years, but I talked my way into this
sanctum -- only to be disappointed: If that was pizza, then I'm
an Etruscan.

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But the essential thing is, the Neapolitans believe it was pizza. Perhaps, I thought, Publius
Paquius Proculus had eaten his pizza while fleeing from the
lava and had left the bread behind. That's what I would've
done.

In the Tribunali neighborhood half a mile from Porta
Nolana, the lunch crowd curled onto the sidewalk in front of
Antica Pizzeria da Michele. This place, too, was Spartan:
tiled walls, marble-topped operating-style tables, St.
Anthony in a niche surrounded by take-out pizza boxes and
a huge brick oven glowing in the corner. St. Anthony,
patron of a variety of wonders including fire, protects
pizzamakers.

Antica Pizzeria da Michele, one of the city's oldest, has
been family-run for generations; the current padroni -- Don
Antonio and Don Luigi Condurro -- were delivered here, by
a midwife, perhaps on a pizzamaker's paddle. People call
them "Don" in sign of respect. The two "Dons" make only
two kinds of pizza. One, la margherita, has tomato sauce, fior di latte cow's milk mozzarella and basil. The other
has neither cheese nor basil. You're lucky if you get a
salted anchovy.

"Simplicity," said Don Antonio as he kneaded his
dough. "We like them simple. You want other toppings, you
have to bring them yourself."

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I asked about the cow's milk fior di latte -- Americans
seem to prefer mozzarella di bufala. "Buffalo-milk
mozzarella is too fatty, too heavy, too wet -- it ruins a
pizza."

Don Antonio led me toward a small, monastic dining
room. He tapped on a framed fan letter, addressed to the
pizzeria. "Read it," he suggested. "It's a poem." 'Twas a humble pizzeria, claimed the fan letter-poem. Not nearly as fancy as famous Pizzeria Brandi, but
just as good, tra-la. The padroni watched me read it, then Don Antonio
made me a marinara, an outsized one. The letter writer
may have been a poetaster, but she was right about the
pizza.

I strolled toward Pizzeria Brandi, through the knife-slit
alleys of Spaccanapoli. The city's oldest neighborhood, it
was built on the ancient Greek settlement that had been
improved into a grid by the Romans.

Family-style scooters -- papa pilot, mamma behind,
bambini sandwiched between -- flew by, horns squealing.
Drug dealers hawked plastic bags and cellular telephones.
Hatmakers made magnificent hats in the cluttered
courtyards of once-magnificent palaces. The ships' sails of
laundry flapped in the O Sole Mio breeze. All the
stereotypes were there, in deafening stereo, but no one
was paying attention.

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"Fancy" is not the term I would choose to describe
Pizzeria Brandi. Less Spartan than most other such
eateries, yes, but "fancy," no. Here, too, were the wood-burning oven, St. Anthony in his niche, white-aproned
pizzamakers tossing and topping and baking their pies.

The padrone, Don Vincenzo Pagnani, wore a suit and
a broad smile. He showed me dusty books and documents
attesting to the ancientness of his family-owned
establishment. It is commonly held that a Pagnani ancestor
named Raffaele Esposito invented the pizza margherita
about 110 years ago. Here's the story:

Margherita, a Savoy from distant Turin and queen of
freshly united Italy, visited Naples on a whistle-stop tour of
her vastly enlarged kingdom. She was served pizza, the
local specialty per eccellenza, poor people's food fit for a
queen.

Pagnani's great-grandfather, or something like that,
whipped up a classic, thin-crust Neapolitan, sprinkled the
red tomato sauce with white mozzarella and then cast
about for something green. It had to be green. He hit upon
basil.

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Queen Margherita from distant Turin politely asked
what the odd-looking edible disk was. "It's red, white and
green, your majesty," said Pagnani's great-grandfather.
"The colors of the new Italian flag. It's a Pizza Margherita!"

Upstairs, in Don Vincenzo's comfy dining room, I had
my third pizza of the day. A margherita, needless to say. It
was perfect: thin, moist, fragrant of basil. Everyone else seemed to
be drinking Coke; I had white
wine, from the island of Ischia, in Naples' gorgeous bay. I
wondered if Queen Margherita from distant, chilly Turin had
drunk white wine with her pizza, if she'd liked it, if Pagnani's
ancestor had used buffalo-milk mozzarella. I meant to ask
the padrone, but he was busy scarfing a pizza and I didn't
dare disturb the ritual.

I walked back to my seafront hotel across the broad,
pizza-shaped expanse of Piazza Plebiscito, pausing to raise
my eyes over the tiled roof of the rambling Royal Palace.
Neapolitan kids played soccer against the palace walls.
Others slumped on their Vespas and gobbled pizza al
portafoglio. Smoke rose on the horizon: a steel mill with
Vesuvius behind.

The tourism office really should change that old
saying, "See Naples and Die." How about "See Naples, Eat
pizza," instead? You're eating a culture, a way of life, a
siren song baked by Vesuvius. Simply delicious.

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David Downie

David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

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