I’m in love. I’m having a relationship with my pizza.
– Liz Gilbert played by Julia Roberts
The first time I encountered something about Naples that didn’t involve a purse-strap slasher on a scooter was the scene above, in which two tourists decide to eat the whole pizza (and buy bigger jeans) in the 2010 film Eat Pray Love. Pizza and Naples were noted on my radar.
I knew from previous trips that eating pizza in Italy is a set-up for likely disappointment on all future pizza. However, since my last visit to the country, many positive developments had occurred, such as pizzerias around the world importing wood-fire ovens directly from Naples! Surely the gap in the playing field had narrowed.
Now, my first time south of Rome, I wasn’t in a hurry to eat a local pizza because I was so distracted by all the other delicious only-in-Naples options, for starters the fresh seafood and fried snacks. And who knew an eggplant panini could be so good! And Caprese salad within sight of the island, with salty sweet mozzarella as big as my head!
The time finally came to grab a pizza. With sore feet unswayed by the enthusiastic stories of fellow wedding guests trekking for hours across the city and eating THE BEST PIZZA IN NAPLES on sidewalk curbs, we decided to pick up a pie at a place we had seen on the way home. While the red-and-white plastic interior did not look promising, there was a wood-burning oven, pizzaiolos spinning dough, and smiling staff who gamely took my (non-neapolitan dialect) order of “Pizza Margherita grande, … [take-away charade]…, por favor, wait that’s Spanish, per favore.”
While our pizza was tossed, dressed, and fired, I had time to peruse the clippings on the wall. It turned out that the neighbourhood joint was part of the legendary 90-year-old, four-generation Michele family pizza making tradition; the current owner started out in his childhood and “carries on this important legacy by offering religious respect.” I think this will be good, I said sotto voce.
“Buon appetito!” wished the friendly older gentleman waiting for his order behind us as we carefully carried our treasure box back down the street and through the seven doors to our flat. My only regret is that we didn’t sit and scarf the steaming pie down immediately.
At a final festive pizza lunch right on the Golfo, Gio and Maddie did the ordering at their favourite place. After starters, Caprese, and then pizza after pizza was brought out, my initial game plan waned and I lost count of how many slices I’d had. I just wanted to have space for one more incredible bite of any kind of pizza, founded on the crisp crunch of a cloud-like crust bubbled and blackened outside, soft and very slightly yeasty inside, with a bright red smear of sauce still holding the warmth of the sun and the richness of the volcanic Vesuvian soil the tomatoes grew in.
It was in those last wistful bites that I had the epiphany that we can import all the ovens and pizzaiolos from Napoli, but we would still be missing the other essential ingredients, such as those listed by Michele’s:
i migliori ingredienti della terra campana: l’olio evo, il pomodoro San Marzano dell’agro nocerino sarnese, l’aglio dell’Ufita, il Pomodorino del Piennolo, il Fior di latte di Agerola e così via.
When even the garlic is sourced and named, and pizza making is a lifelong career, it’s a whole different, professional level game, and one of the best reasons to hop a plane and travel to the other side of the world. (A great view and the smell of the sea also doesn’t hurt.)
With a last longing look at the final bites on my plate that I could not possibly finish, suddenly the words of the old Dean Martin song made perfect sense:
“When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore.”