Guide to the true Neapolitan pizza, or in Italian: verace pizza Napoletana.
Sometimes I suffer from a severe case of pizza nostalgia. Nothing brings back the memories of the chaos, grit, splendour, and contradictions of the fascinating city Naples more than the intense smell of a Neapolitan pizza. When this happens, I instantly crave that thin slice of baked bread dough covered with slightly acidic tomatoes, garlic, mozzarella, a splash of extra virgin olive oil, fresh basil, and the intense scent of oregano.
The very ancient ‘Pinsa’ origins of the Neapolitan Pizza, and, the quest for its re-make
The Etruscans, Greek, Romans, they all ate baked versions of an unleavened bread topped with a variety of meats and vegetables. The word pizza is probably a corruption of the Latin word ‘pinsere’ or ‘pinsa’, which means to crush, to pound the dough in a certain shape by hands.
In the Aeneid, Virgil describes the making of a ‘pinsa’. A peasant in Lavinio grinds grains and kneads the flower with water, aromatic herbs, and salt to a low and oval cake. He then bakes the unleavened bread on hot coals to a delicious thin ‘focacce’ ‘pinsa’ or ‘schiacciatine’.
Pinsa Romana became popular again. The reinterpretation of the ancient Roman recipe, combining ancient bread-making techniques with scientific research, became a real science. Pinsa dough is now made of wheat, soy, and rice flour, with more water, and less salt than a pizza. The dough mix creates a lighter, airier crust that is easier to digest, has fewer calories, lower fat, and less sodium than a pizza. Nowadays there are more than 5000 Pinserie all over the world.
Pizza’s history does not seem to originate in Napoli
In May 997 AD the word pizza appears for the first time in an official notarial document found in the archives of the cathedral of Gaeta, in southern parts of the province Lazio. The first written pizza record mentions twelve pizzas as a form of payment for the rent of a mill.
Fast forward to the 16th century
The origin of the present-day pizza, however, can be placed between the 16th and 17th century in the Kingdom of Naples. It is not clear which style of pizza came earlier. The Cecinelli pizza, seasoned with small white fishes called ‘bianchetti’, or ‘cecinelli’ in the local dialect. Or, the so-called Mastunicola pizza with lard, garlic, and salt in the cheaper versions and squeaks, sheep’s cheese -caciocavallo-, pepper and basil in its richer, more expensive version. No tomato yet. The red fruits of the South American plant called ‘tomati’ were only introduced into Europe after Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés captured Peru and Bolivia in 1521.
Out of the marriage of the tomato with the slowly risen dough, the style of the true, classic, traditional Neapolitan pizza transpired
The addition of the tomato, or as some say when the tomato married the pizza, was paramount for the development of the classic Neapolitan pizza style. Called Marinara, the pizza is made with garlic, oil, tomato, and a sprinkle of oregano. For the traditional classic pizza, you need natural tomatoes. No peeled tomatoes, preserves, or purées. Real tomatoes stored in airy places, in piènnule (large bunches), from which they are then torn. These tomatoes give the real Neapolitan pizza its arid, slightly sour scent and taste. When crushed with their peel, don’t use fine salt. Fine salt is not a good thing for these tomatoes, they need coarse salt. I still hear the voice instructing me.
From about the mid-eighteenth century on
During the later part of the 18th-century people start to bake pizza in wood-fired ovens at home, in small shops, or on the street. The seller brings the hot “stove” on his head and delivers the pizzas directly to customers. It is between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the physical location of the pizzeria emerged in the shape we know it now. The wood-burning oven, the marble counter with the ingredients for the filling on display, where the pizza is prepared and sold to passers-by.
Pizza Margherita, a royal pizza fit for a queen
It is through Raffaele Esposito, the owner of “Pizzeria di Pietro e Basta Cosi” -now known as Pizzeria Brandi- that pizza Margherita gained its name and fame. In 1889, the Italian King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy visited Naples. Queen Margherita wanted a slice of the best local food Naples had to offer. Pizza maker Raffaele Esposito was summoned to the palace and prepared three different pizzas. The queen loved one pizza especially. The pizza representing the Italian Tricolore: basil for green, mozzarella for white and tomato for red. Esposito thereupon named his pizza ‘Pizza Margherita’ to honor the queen. The letter queen Margherita wrote to thank Esposito is still on display in Pizzeria Brandi for all to see.
Gold of Naples (1954) by Vittorio De Sica with Sophia Loren as coveted wife of a pizzaman
The dough is the protagonist of the Neapolitan Pizza
Genuine tomatoes, basil and oregano, and other quality raw materials such as virgin olive oil are the secrets of pizza, but the dough is the protagonist. There are precise rules for the preparation and processing drawn up by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana APVN, the Vera -real- Pizza Napoletana. The base has to be produced with a wheat flour type “00” that needs 10 to 12 hours for a perfect rising. To name a few more:
* cooking has to be done strictly in a wood oven;
* oven temperature has to be at 485 ° C;
* cooking time needs to be no more than 60-90 seconds;
* the base, a disk of dough, must be done by hand;
* pizza’s diameter cannot exceed 35 cm;
* the central thickness cannot be more than a third of a centimeter;
* Basically, two types of Pizza are permitted: ‘Marinara’ and ‘Margherita’.
The art of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo
Quando dici Napoli, dici Pizza, dice Pizzaiuolo, or in English: when you say Naples, you say Pizza, you say Pizzaiuolo. Recognizing the art of Neapolitan pizza making can help preserve the ancient pizza tradition one would think. It took until 2017 before UNESCO inscribed the “Art of Neapolitan ‘Pizzaiuolo’ on the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The art of the ‘pizzaiuolo’, the art twirling the dough to “oxygenate” it, is only one part of the 4 skills a pizzaiolo needs to master. The use of natural yeast – chemical agents are forbidden-, control of the longlasting rising of the dough, and the correct use of the wood-fired oven is part of the art as well. And, it doesn’t stop there. The art also includes the songs and stories that have turned pizza-making into a social ritual.
Your slice of Neapolitan cultural heritage
While in Naples lookout for the Pizza Vera signs issued by the AVPN above restaurant doors. Yet, I use another method. To see if the pizzeria has garnered enough collective approval of the locals, I always look for the queue on the street outside.
Wines to go with Neapolitan pizza
If you’re keen on Italian wines, choose a Falanghina from Benevento, Teroldego from North Italy or Barbera d’Asti, light styles of Sangiovese, Frappato from Sicily, or you might consider a Zinfandel, as well as a Gamay in the bottle of a Beaujolais Cru.