Whenever I read an enthusiastic review on a frozen pizza and how delicious it is, I’m overwhelmed with sympathy. “Poor sod,” is what I think, “if only they knew.” A pizza from the freezer of a supermarket can only be OK (Sorry, but I simply can’t use the term ‘delicious’) in comparison with other pizzas from the freezer of a supermarket but never with THE PIZZA as such. The Pizza with capital letters can only be found in Naples, Italy. There are several good pizzerias in this city, but the No 1 is indisputably the Antica Pizzeria Da Michele in Via Cesare Sersale 1. Once you’ve eaten there, all other pizzas fade into the B league or worse.
The pizzeria is easy to find. Coming out of the Central Train Station you go down the broad street Corso Umberto and turn right at the first traffic lights and walk up the street a bit. From the outside it’s so inconspicuous that you can overlook it easily if you go there at noon on a weekday. If you go there in the evening or any time during the weekend or, God forbid, at Saturday night, you’ll see people queuing outside. When the establishment is full, numbers are handed out to new customers who willingly wait for an hour or longer to get in.
What is it that makes this place so special? Not the outside, as I’ve already said, but not the inside, either! The first pizzaiolo (pizza baker) of the Condurro family started learning the trade in 1870, in 1906 a certain Michele Condurro opened the first pizzeria in Naples which had to move, though, because of construction work. In 1930 the pizzeria was transferred to the present site which over the years has acquired the nickname ‘The Sacred Temple of Pizza’. They have been making pizza there for five generations now.
The pizzeria still has its original tables, on the whole it’s very simple furniture-wise. The tables seat eight customers each, how many tables there are, I’ve forgotten to count, but not many, that much I remember. The walls are covered with white and black tiles creating the ambience of an old indoor swimming pool. The only ornaments on the walls are a religious statue and two long poems in Neapolitan dialect praising the two kinds of pizza on offer, Margarita and Marinara. Fans and lovers call the M and M pizzas ‘edible poems’!
The customers are seated wherever there’s room, if you’re alone or come with a partner, you’re sure to find yourselves at a table with strangers. You can watch the pizzaioli do their job, the oven stands in the room where the guests are sitting. You don’t have to watch for too long, though, as a pizza needs only 3 ½ minutes until it’s finished. This is definitely not a restaurant for an evening out, it’s a place where you eat pizza and when you’ve done so, you’d rather move on so that others may have their share, too.
So it’s the food that attracts people. As I’ve already mentioned, only two types are on offer: Margarita with a topping of tomato, mozarella cheese, basil, the colours representing the Italian flag. It was created in 1889 by Raffaele Esposito to honour the Queen consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy. Btw, he was the first to add cheese to the pizza. And Marinara, the older of the two, with a topping of tomato, oregano, garlic and extra virgin oil. It’s not called Marinara because it has seafood on it – it never has – but because it was prepared for seamen returning from their fishing trips by their wives, ‘la marinara’ meaning the wife of a seaman. You can choose between two sizes, normal and large, and that’s it. No frills, no junk toppings like pineapple pieces or other aberrations.
Contrary to what many foreigners think, one doesn’t drink wine with pizza but beer (or coke or other soft drinks should you so wish). The small pizza costs 4,50 Euro, very little for the quality you get.
In December 2009, the pizza Napolitano was granted Traditional Speciality Guaranteed status by the European Union. The pizzerias making the traditional pizzas are organised in the Pizza Napoletana Association. What is the secret of ‘the real thing’?
– The dough stretching technique is vital, a pizzaiolo needs at least 2 to 3 years of apprenticeship to become perfect.
– The dough is made the day before it’s used so that the yeast can rise for at least 10 to 15 hours. The result is a soft and light crust.
– The pizza can only be cooked in wood burning brick ovens.
Doesn’t sound too complicated, does it? And yet, it isn’t easy. If it were, there would only be top notch pizzerias in Italy (and the world), but as it is, Antica Pizzeria Da Michele is the undisputed No 1 establishment, they just know best how to do it. Here ‘each component is the essence of what it is meant to be at its highest potential of being. The components interact in a sublime equation, their ratios perfect: charred to non-charred crust, crust to sauce, crust to cheese, and sauce to cheese – the Platonic ideal in pizza form’ as one aficionado confesses on the net.
Can we say that the Antica Pizzeria Da Michele is famous not only in Naples, not only in Italy, but worldwide? Well, it’s fame has spread at least across the Atlantic. Clinton was there and also Julia Roberts for the Italian part of the film Eat, Pray, Love. Rumour has it that they didn’t have to queue, heehee.
So Pizza and Naples are synonyms? Not really, only the pizza as we know it nowadays. The origin goes back to ancient times. Already the Babylonians, the Phoenicians, the Israelites, the ancient Egyptians and other Middle Eastern cultures used to eat flat, un-leaven bread seasoned with olive oil and spices and cooked in mud ovens. A great leap forward to what we eat and love nowadays happened when the tomato came to Europe after the discovery of America.
Pizza is even a healthy food! Tomato sauce provides vitamin A, mozarella cheese protein and calcium, dough and oil complex carbohydrates. Vegetarians don’t have to be afraid of hidden meat, the lactose intolerant can eat pizza without cheese. People who can’t stomach acidic tomato sauce can eat so-called white pizza containing only crust, cheese, spices and oils.
I’ve been to Naples several times in my life but sadly, I heard about the Antica Pizzeria Da Michele only before my last visit. I don’t know if I‘ll ever go there again, the pizza Margarita I had there would certainly be a reason. What my one visit resulted in is that I can’t enjoy pizza as much now as I did before I savoured the Real Thing. Is that good or bad?
Whatever, let’s come to the end with a line of Dean Martin’s cheesy (mozarella?) song, “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie – that’s Amore!”