Where Pizza Was Born

By David Downie

Published on May 17, 2007

"There are no secrets," Don Antonio Condurro assures me, eyeing the embers in his old brick oven. He straightens his tie and brushes flour from his starched white smock. Above him, on the white-and-green-tiled walls of his pizzeria, Da Michele, in the Tribunali area of Naples, is a statue of Saint Anthony—who, claims Don Antonio, is the protector of firemen and pizza makers. "Anyone who says there are secrets to making authentic pizza is trying to be mysterious. It's just experience." He has plenty of experience himself. Don Antonio is descended from one of the city's original pizza-making families, and was born in his father's pizzeria.

Under Saint Anthony's benign gaze, Don Antonio and his brother Luigi, high priests among Neapolitan pizza makers, or pizzaiuoli, take turns whirling pats of naturally leavened dough. They top them with fresh tomatoes and chopped garlic, cow's-milk fiordi latte mozzarella, a drizzle of oil, a sprinkle of oregano or basil—then bake them in a blistering 700° oven. If you want fancier toppings—and many young Neapolitans do—you have to bring them yourself.

The brothers watch as I savor what is possibly the perfect pizza: thin, crisp around the edges, fragrant, flavorful, and light. Like many Neapolitan purists, the Condurros frown upon the "brick-heavy, bastardized focacce" that are marketed as pizzas from Anchorage to Zanzibar, and that range from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The pizza business worldwide is now worth in the billions a year, according to Italian pizza expert Orietta Boncompagni Ludovisi. That adds up to a lot of pizza servings, or acres and acres of pizza. But is it really pizza?

Not to the Neapolitans. There are those who say that the celebrated baker Publius Paquius Proculus of ancient Pompeii made pizza before Vesuvius blew its top in A.D. 79. That's possible, though the word pizza doesn't appear in print until 900 years later in a Latin codex—and though tomatoes, today the defining ingredient of pizza, probably weren't eaten in Naples until the late 1700s. At about this time, the original pizza marinara—one of the two classic Neapolitan pizzas, made with tomato sauce, garlic, oil, sea salt, and oregano—was invented. It takes its name from the marinai, or sailors, who worked out of the port of Naples, and for whom it was first baked.

The other local classic, pizza margherita, has an official birthdate: June 11, 1889. Affable pizza kingpin Don Vincenzo Pagnani, great-grandson of the margherita's inventor, spins me the yarn at his fabled pizzeria, Brandi, which has been in the family since 1780. One day, says Don Vincenzo, the humble pizzaiuolo Raffaele Esposito was called to cater a royal feast for Queen Margherita di Savoia. To the classic marinara, he boldly added mozzarella cheese and basil leaves, as an homage to the red, white, and green of Italy's flag. Asked for the name of his new creation, Esposito diplomatically responded: "Margherita, Your Majesty!"

Countless pizza ovens in the city's densely populated centro storico pour plumes of smoke into the air, scenting the city with the aromas of burning oak and baking dough. You breathe pizza, almost literally, in Naples. You eat it as soon as you're weaned. You fold it over hot from curbside stalls and wolf it on the way to school. You nibble it on your first date. Pizza lives in Neapolitan poetry, song, and literature—and in the city's largely untranslatable street jive. Farsi una pizza, one popular expression, suggests that this age-old food is a drug, to be "done."

And despite what Don Antonio Condurro says, there are secrets to making the perfect pizza. Cocky Giuseppe Leone, of Trianon da Ciro, refuses to reveal how he and his ancestors have made consistently feather-light dough since the early 1900's. "The recipe is simple—flour, water, salt, and brewer's yeast. But there's a secret, and I can't tell you or it wouldn't be secret anymore."

Other pizza masters, like Vincenzo Pagnani, or Vincenzo Buonocore at Canta Napoli, are more forthcoming. Pagnani says the ideal dough is leavened not with yeast but with a starter; Buonocore uses yeast. Both agree that the dough must rise undisturbed, for at least four hours (Pagnani lets it rise overnight). Then it's thrown to a thickness of about a quarter inch, with the rim thicker than the center. The disk is swirled with crushed tomatoes and fior di latte mozzarella, then drizzled with oil—which must never dampen the edges. The hotter the oven, the better, say these experts; if the pizza's not cooked in two or three minutes, it's no good. Just before sliding it in, wood shavings are tossed on the embers to raise a flame, and the pizza is gently lifted and turned while the rim crisps and swells.

Sound easy? Maybe. But as Salvatore Sorbillo, born in his parents' pizzeria, warns, "One slip of the wrist and the topping can spill onto the bricks." And, Vincenzo Pagnani points out, "There is nothing worse than a doughy, badly cooked pizza." Indeed, in Italian, pizzoso means hard to swallow.

Una vera pizza, on the other hand, means the best in Naples—which is to say the best in the world.

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