Funny how certain flavour experiences stick in your memory. One of the few memories I retain from my first visit to Naples (in 1984 when I was an 18-year-old student) is the pizzette (see glossary below) I bought from a street vendor. All he did was pour a small ladle of tomato sauce onto a tiny pizza base and he changed my life forever! It was so simple but the taste was absolutely incredible. I don’t know whether it was because I was really hungry, or eating outside, or the tomatoes were so good, or all three, but it has lodged itself in my memory forever.
It was a flavour epiphany that led to me getting a full time job as a pizza chef for the duration of my degree. However, the stuff we had to churn out actually put me off pizza for many years and I couldn’t touch it until I went back to Naples fifteen years later. I’m still pretty funny about them now, they have to be relatively thin, simple Margheritas or I don’t want to know. Don’t even think of ordering me a deep-pan, or any extra toppings.
As you’d imagine, the Neapolitans are pretty funny about pizza as well, to the extent that some leading pizzaioli formed the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana which has specific regulations about what makes a real Neapolitan pizza (double zero flour, San Marzano tomatoes, wood-fired oven etc). You will see this sign outside member pizzerias all over Campania.
The thing is, the sign doesn’t necessarily mean they serve the best pizzas, although they’ll still be very good as they meet specific standards. None of my favourite Neapolitan pizzerias are members of the association and each one seems to have their own way of doing things. The most famous, Da Michele uses soya oil!
Ultimately then which one is ‘best’ is just a matter of personal taste. Below are my personal favourites, and reasons why I like them (USP = Unique Selling Point). Please click on their names to go to my more detailed reviews.
My top six pizzerias in Naples, in no particular order:
Sorbillo USPs: bigger pizzas than AVPN regulations, nice ambience
Trianon da Ciro USPs: no queue, fifteen varieties of Margherita!
Starita a Materdei USPs: friendly, good place for a Montanara
Da Michele USPs: cheap, only Margheritas and Marinaras are sold
Lombardi USPs: a fluffier lighter base, nice staff
Pellone USPs: 300g rather than 250g pizzas, good for Pizza Fritta
Another eight that are worth a visit to compare:
Di Matteo USP: very cheap
Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente USP: very cheap
I Decumani USP: good for frittura
Giuliano USP: good for a pizzette
Brandi USP: historic inventor of the Margherita
Vesi USP: an outdoor terrace
Dell’ Angelo USP: stuffed cornicione
Gorizia USP: posh, good service
You’ll find them all, and all the other places I’ve written about, on this Google map.
Who can say who invented pizza? It’s an amalgam of many ingredients, but the base, the tomato sauce and cheese seem to be key.
The origins of the base are lost in the mists of time, for example there is evidence of flatbread with added ingredients existing in the Neolithic period. However no one can doubt that Naples has a strong claim. The Greeks used to eat flatbread with toppings of garlic, onions and herbs, and Naples was founded by the Greeks.
The tomato arrived from the Americas in the late seventeenth century to begin a long Neapolitan love affair. The (unlikely) story goes that San Marzano tomatoes were a present from the King of Peru to the King of Naples and were first planted in the Campanian village of the same name. They quickly found favour with Neapolitans but, because tomatoes are a member of the nightshade family, they weren’t eaten for a long time by other Europeans who believed them to be poisonous.
Another key ingredient is mozzarella cheese. When Brandi chef Raffaele Esposito supposedly (not true according to some) first made the Pizza Margherita for Queen Margherita in 1889 it is said he used red tomatoes, white mozzarella and green basil to represent the colours of the Italian flag. Esposito claimed he was the first person to add cheese but other local pizzaiolos contend the combination existed in Naples before him.
Whatever the truth is, the Margherita is now the de facto meal of choice for school children and most adults all over Italy. Pizza in general is also now the most international food of all with a myriad of regional variations, most best avoided. When I lived in Japan I remember ordering a potato and mayonnaise deep pan from a takeaway just to see that such a thing existed! It’s enough to put you off them for life and I think many people have had a love hate relationship with them, me included. But after years of experience of both the extremes, I think I can honestly say, the best pizzas in life are the simple ones!
Some pizza terminology defined:
Calzone = stuffed, folded in half and baked
Cornicione = the edge or rim of a pizza
Montanara = a pizza which is deep-fried, topped with sauce and smoked mozzarella and finished in the oven
Pizza al metro = pizza by the meter i.e. sold in rectangular slices
Pizza a portafoglio (or ‘a libretto’) to fold into quarters like a wallet (or a booklet)
Pizza Bianca = plain pizza base without tomato (as opposed to Pizza Rossa)
Pizza Dolce = a sweet pizza topped with candied fruit, nuts and other sweet things
Pizza Fritta = stuffed, folded in half and deep-fried
Pizzaiolo = a male pizza chef, also Pizzaioulo
Pizzaiola = a female pizza chef, or a sauce featuring olive oil, garlic, tomatoes and oregano
Pizza Margherita = tomato sauce or fresh cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, basil
Pizza Marinara = tomato sauce, garlic and oregano (nb when pasta is ‘a la marinara’ it’s with seafood)
Pizza Napolitana = no oil used in the dough, generally a thicker, softer more charred crust than Romana, one set method of making
Pizza Romana = oil used in the dough, generally a thinner, crunchier crust than Napolitana, different varieties of dough exist
Pizza Rustica = not a pizza at all but a savoury tart (pizza means pie)
Pizza Siciliana = thicker, spongier, the origin of the deep pan
Pizzette = a small pizza