Napoli and Pizza

February 11, 2014

My mother’s family came to America in search of a better life. The youngest of seventeen children (yes, you read right, seventeen!), my grandmother talked often of their life in a small village outside the city of Naples in southern Italy. She talked about day-to-day things, the stuff of life in a small town. She loved America, but there was a part of her that longed for the simple life she had known in her homeland.

But more than anything, my grandmother talked about the food…on and on about the fish markets, the fresh vegetables, the bread, the pasta. She loved the food of her home and cooked each day, recreating the most delicious family recipes. She talked of the pizza wistfully as she kneaded the dough for our weekly Friday night pizza dinners. I loved her pizza, but never really understood what the big deal was, until…

I made my first trip to Italy when I was 22 years old. I remember standing in front of my grandmother’s childhood home like it was yesterday. This tiny building housed this huge, noisy, happy family through holidays, birthdays, school, illness, joy, sadness…and Sunday dinners.

And then I had my first Napolitano pizza.

Finally, after a childhood of hearing about this mythical food, I sampled it for myself. It was all my grandmother said it was…and so much more. The crust was thin and crisp. The sauce was fragrant with cooked crushed tomatoes, olive oil and oregano. I was in pizza love.

I traveled again to Naples. Almost thirty years have passed since my first visit and my love of Italian food (all things Italian, really) has grown into absolute delight with the delicacies I continually discover in Italian cuisine. As I walked through the vegetable markets, my senses overwhelmed with the sights, sounds and aromas…tender artichokes, broad beans, leafy greens, lush tomatoes, fresh fish sold out of huge bins of water, aromatic herbs, hot bread, I thought of my grandmother and all that she had loved in her homeland.

And then I stopped for pizza…again…and hoped I hadn’t created the memory from nostalgia…hoped that the pizza lived up to what I recalled. ‘Esperiamo’…’we hope,’ as my Nonna said.

The handsome (seriously, like in a Zefferelli film) waiter placed the pizza on the table in front of me with a flourish and not a small amount of pride. Being of Neapolitan descent, I recognize that pride in our food. We are a simple people, but man, can we do food! And we know it…and revel in it.

I took a second and breathed it in. The crust was slightly blackened at the edges from the intense heat of the oven. The richly flavored tomato sauce covered the delicate crust in a thick red blanket, with a sprinkle of oregano and just a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. I took my first bite and memories of my grandmother came flooding back as I savored this little piece of Italian perfection.

Pizza is the pride of Naples, as it should be. They boast that they are the creator of this culinary delight (Pizza Margherita and Pizza Marinara being the stars) and have even created an association, ‘Verace Pizza Napolitano’ (real Naples pizza) with an eleven-page handbook for the ‘method of production,’ which regulates everything, even the temperature at which you bake pizza. Making pizza in precisely this fashion gives you the association’s stamp of approval, a Pulcinella as ‘pizzaiolo’ (pizza maker) sign for your storefront and the bragging rights to say you make authentic Neapolitan pizza.

While there is great pizza in other regions of Italy and even here in the United States, there is nothing like the pizza in Naples. Maybe there’s something in the water…or the flour…or maybe it’s the ‘pizzaiolos.’ Whatever the reason, the best pizza in the world is in Naples.

There is more to this beautiful port city than pizza and it would take you more than a week to explore all its wonders and experience its cuisine at its best. But for me, pizza is Naples and each bite takes me back to my Nonna’s kitchen, where each and every Friday afternoon, we made pizza.

Here is her recipe (as best as it can be written; it came from her heart, completely instinctual) so you can create your own pizza tradition.

Pizza alla Marinara
This simple pizza has no cheese and is the most basic of all pizza recipes. You may add cheese or other toppings as you desire, but seriously, try it this way first.

Makes 1 pizza

Basic pizza dough:

1/2 teaspoon honey-flavored brown rice syrup
1/2 cup warm water
3.5 grams dry active yeast
2 1/3 cups 00 flour (can be obtained at an Italian specialty store)*
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
Generous pinch sea salt

2 cups canned chopped tomatoes, with juice
3-4 cloves fresh garlic, crushed
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
Sea salt

Mix together the sweetener, 3 tablespoons of the warm water and the yeast. Set it aside until it bubbles, about 3-4 minutes.

Combine the dry ingredients, mixing well. Stir in the yeast mixture. Slowly mix, adding warm water until the dough gathers together. You may not need all the water.

On a dry, lightly floured work surface, knead the dough for 10 minutes. Shape it into a ball, place it in a lightly oiled bowl and set it in a dry, warm place, covered with a towel for 3 hours or until it has doubled in size.

While the dough rises, make the sauce. Mix tomatoes, half the olive oil and salt to taste in a small saucepan and simmer over low heat, stirring constantly for 5-7 minutes. Set aside.

When the dough is ready, preheat oven to 450o and lightly oil and flour a 14-inch pizza pan. Roll out dough on a lightly floured surface. To fill the pan it will be very thin. Be sure to roll it evenly so it bakes evenly. Transfer the dough to the prepared pan and spread sauce over the dough, covering it completely, but leaving a 1-inch rim around the edge. Drizzle with remaining olive oil.

Bake for 10-15 minutes, until almost cooked. Sprinkle the pizza with garlic and oregano and bake for 5-6 minutes more, taking care not to burn the garlic.

Remove from oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes before serving.

*You can use all-purpose flour for this recipe, but the results will be exceedingly better if you make the effort to seek out Italian 00 type flour.