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On Pizza (Naples P.II)

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I’m in love. I’m having a relationship with my pizza.
– Liz Gilbert played by Julia Roberts

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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.

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When in Rome (mangiamo!)

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“Cut the guanciale likRomee this, in matchsticks.” Paolo held the pig cheek on a kitchen table cutting board, giving me time to write the steps as he efficiently prepared carbonara and vittelo for six.

It was hard to believe that we had only arrived in the Eternal City that afternoon. We had flown down the west coast of Italy, arriving in Rome under that impossibly deep cerulean blue bowl of a sky. After a breathless drive across the city with soundtrack of hardcore and horns, Paolo, Stefania, and their black lab welcomed us to the apartment with a so-called “light lunch” of deceptively simple delicacies of local breads, meats, cheeses, and gorgeous tomatoes, followed by a blueberry digestivo. Then, in case there was any doubt that we were really and truly in Rome, we drove to the Colosseum. There were no lines, so we walked right in, up, down, and around the nearly 1000-year-old landmark, selfie-ing as we went. On the way home, we stopped to pick up a lasagne pan of tiramisu that Stefania’s mamma made in the time it took to mention we couldn’t wait to try tiramisu in Italy.

And that set the pace for the following days. Like exploring the set of a film that we’d seen a hundred times before, we wandered ancient streets with buildings in all the warm shades of sienna, bustling with daily life, scooters, and the smell of something incredible to eat. On our own we checked off must-see Rome: the Spanish Steps higher, the Trevi Fountain more spectacular, the Piazza Navona more impressive in real life than on film. With Stefania and Paolo we discovered more: a lake in the crater of a dormant volcano, a hilltop town that celebrates the harvest by pumping wine through the fountains, a secret keyhole with a perfect view of St Peter’s.

We quickly fell into a new eating routine: a mid-afternoon stop for gelato, a late-afternoon aperitivo that was usually an Aperol spritz. In the evenings, dinner was the main event. One night our hosts took us to a traditional Osteria where we didn’t have to order anything: dishes quickly and magically appeared from the wood-burning oven. That meal, which consisted of at least ten different types of meat along with cheeses, showcased the variety of local Italian cuisines beyond pizza and pasta. Another night we went to have Puglian barbecue: speciality cuts of meat driven up from the heel of Italy included bombette: delicious pork encasing cheese, herbs, and other ingredients, grilled to order in a custom oven with flames coming out the sides so that grease doesn’t drip down into the coals or wood. Served with baked potatoes and salads, it was all housed in an unremarkable building that from the entrance looked like a butcher shop.

Our last day in Rome, we braved the skip-the-line touts at the Vatican and took our chances in the shady queue. It was worth it to finally arrive in the glorious Sistine Chapel and marvel at the bright colours and intricate detail of Michelangelo’s masterwork. After a final spritz, we found the perfect vantage point over the Tiber to watch the sun set over the largest church in Christendom. As the Romans do, around ten p.m. we enjoyed one last carbonara, the perfect finale to our six evenings in the ancient capital, feeling mille grazie that the road had led us to Rome.