Humble Pie


Pizza as we know it was invented at Lombardi’s—then a bakery—around 1895, inspired by flatbreads fabricated in Naples since Roman times. Heck, Pompeii boasted a pizzeria. Earlier this year I made a Neapolitan pilgrimage to trace the origins of America’s favorite pie. That charming city, where laundry hangs from every window in trash-strewn streets, is as enamored of pizza as we are. In fact, Naples reminded me of Brooklyn; both places you can hardly walk a block without passing a pizzeria. The pizzas are strikingly different, however. Naples’s are a foot in diameter, calculated to satisfy only one person. Delivered uncut, the pies must be eaten with silverware, and it’s comical to see an Italian boho clad in jeans and torn sweatshirt hop off a Vespa, run into a pizzeria, then daintily scarf her pie with a knife and fork.

I sought out Da Michele, one of the oldest pizzerias in town, founded in 1870. The premises are located in the thronged Spaccanapoli district, not far from the train station, an area jammed with hawkers of counterfeit handbags and used electronics. The entrance is adorned mainly with air-conditioning units, and the agreeably spare interior is tiled green and white. Pizzaioli wearing baseball caps double as waiters, orbiting a squat brick oven. Need I say it burns wood? A solemn elderly gentleman in a lab coat and tie assembles pies at a marble counter, under the watchful eye of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, whose dried blood liquefies once a year in the duomo, three blocks distant, on the saint’s feast day.

The menu is limited to a pair of amazing pies. Most modern is the margherita (4 euros)—invented in 1885 on the occasion of a visit from Queen Margherita of Savoia, probably the first pizza to feature cheese, which joins sieved canned tomatoes, a generous pouring of olive oil from an antique pitcher, a basil leaf or two, and sea salt on the surface of the pie. The older of the pies, called marinara (3.5 euros), has its origins in Mediterranean antiquity, an irregular round of hand-patted dough with tomatoes, raw garlic, and—oddly, I thought—dried oregano, making it seem almost Greek. The dough rises with a decades-old starter, rather than commercial yeast, baking up as soft and pliable as glove leather. You certainly can’t pick it up like a New York slice. The overall effect of both pies is a sublime blandness. Four beverages conclude the commendably brief menu: mineral water, Italian beer, Fanta, and Coke. Coke? Maybe that beverage deserves its own DOCG designation.

Good as the pizza was at Da Michele and the just-around-the-corner Trianon, where the toppings are more varied and profuse, both places were blown out of the Golfo di Napoli water by the street pizzas in the maze-like markets west of the railroad station. Amid stands spilling cauliflowers, artichokes, oranges, and ropes of garlic onto the filthy sidewalks were stands selling pizzas and hot salted zeppole. These pizzas were tossed steaming into the display cases every five minutes. Greasy, with a slick of tomato sauce, some raw garlic, and a little heap of fresh mozzarella, they cost only 1.1 euros. This, I thought, as I joined a knot of bystanders wolfing them down, is the true pizza of Naples.