Eating up the Family Tree–Neapolitan Pizza

Over the past two weeks, I’ve been bopping down the boot of Italy with some much-anticipated visitors: my family. I took advantage of the University’s 20%-allowed-absences policy (only in Italy) and extended the front end of my Easter break so that I could show my Aunt Nancy, Aunt Mary Ellen, and brother John around my temporary home country properly.

We train-trekked it to Torino, Ravenna, Bologna, Assisi, Rome, and Naples. We saw the air-sealed chamber where they keep the shroud of Turin (confidential to Pope Francis—please put it on public exhibition before I leave!), glittering Byzantine-era mosaics in Ravenna’s basilicas and mausoleums, the still-incomplete Basilica di San Petronio in Bologna, the hulking complex of the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi (as well as St. Claire’s weirdly-waxed, semi-incorruptible body), and all the tourist spots in Rome (Colosseum, Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Vatican Museums, St. Peter’s, Borghese Gallery, Piazza Navona, Castel Sant’Angelo…). And of course there was the food, the agnolotti dal plin in Bra, the tagliatelle alla bolognese in Bologna, the bucatini all’amatriciana (my favorite) in Rome. Plus countless gelatos, now that primavera is gracing Italy.

But I was most looking forward to the narrow, gritty streets of Naples, the city where my paternal great-grandparents boarded boats for Ellis Island over 100 years ago. Neither Michele nor Maria was from Naples proper: Michele hailed from Sassano, a small town in the Salerno province; Maria from Potenza in the neighboring region of Basilicata. That said, they both spoke Neapolitan dialect (my Aunt Mary Ellen visited Naples last summer and said that the voices around her reminded her of her childhood), and Naples is a powerful place in my family mythology. I had only ever been there once before, for a quick stop in the port on a tour my family took when I was 16. As we stood on the edge of the Mediterranean, my grandma wept—this was where her parents came from, the place they left behind for Brooklyn.

I am sure the Naples that my brother and I (my aunts left us in Rome to fly back to the States) wandered through last week would be unrecognizable to my great-grandparents. For one thing, aerosol cans of spray paint didn’t exist in the early 1900s (the city teems with graffiti). Nor did the motorbikes that screech down supposedly pedestrian-only alleyways. And a major factor that would make the city feel like home to them—the Neapolitan dialect dripping from locals’ lips—was completely incomprehensible to me, a disappointing realization, since I started studying Italian to better understand my ancestry. If my great-grandparents were alive today, we would be mutually unintelligible.

Perhaps the one thing that my great-grandparents and I would both understand about Naples would be its food, specifically its pizza. In Naples, pizza is sacred. The pizzaioli (literally pizza makers) there strive for purity, sticking to centuries-old recipes and techniques, such that the pizza of today is much like what my great-grandparents would have tasted. There is even a worldwide association for protecting true Neapolitan pizza (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana), complete with a collective brand mark. Pizza is everywhere in Naples, hawked from every eatery in the centro storico, served up spilling over the edges of white plates in sit-down joints or folded in fourths and wrapped in wax paper on street corners.

For our first Neapolitan pizza, John and I went straight to its legendary source: Pizzeria Da Michele. Owned by one of Naples’ original pizza families, Da Michele has been tossing pies since 1870. Their menu hasn’t changed much since then either—they only offer two pies, marinara and margherita. The marinara, named after the sailors it was first fired up for in the late 1700s, is a cheese-less pizza, topped only with tomatoes, garlic, oil, and oregano. The margherita, named after Queen Margherita of the House of Savoy, adds cow’s milk fior di latte mozzarella and basil leaves. At Da Michele, both are scorched in a 700-degree oven and peeled out with a wooden paddle in less than five minutes.

Though the pizzas are speedy at Da Michele, the wait is not: we crowded under the shop’s awning for 45 minutes in the rain on Easter Monday, clutching our numbered ticket, waiting for the cashier to open the door and yell out ottantotto! so we could squeeze into a communal marble-topped table. We opted for one of each pie, upgrading the margherita to a doppia mozzarella, because who wouldn’t want double buttery cheese on a classic pie?

photo cred John Martin - Margherita and Marinara pies

photo cred John Martin – Margherita and Marinara pies

The pies were the thinnest we’ve ever seen, with crisp, blistered edges and gooey centers. They were also among the best traditional pizzas we’ve gobbled up. Neapolitan margherita pizza stays pure for a reason—the combination of a slow-rising dough, crushed tomatoes, fior di latte mozzarella, swirls of oil (in this case, sunflower, so as to not disturb the other flavors), and a stud of basil needs nothing else. My favorite part was dipping the chewy, light crust in the remnants of cheese and sauce that slipped off the paper-thin center. The almost naked marinara pie was just as good, dusted with oregano and slices of garlic. It reminded me of my childhood, when I foolishly peeled the cheese off of the pizzas we would get from Frank’s in Brooklyn.

We ordered up a few other ‘zas while we were in Naples, but none quite matched the simple goodness of Da Michele or made me feel as close to the oldest reaches of my family tree.

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