A brief school update before pizzapizzapizza:
Our intrepid and vastly talented teacher Andrea has left the school for a few weeks to tour America. He’ll be giving lectures at various universities and cooking for the insanely prestigious James Beard Foundation.
Not a problem exactly, it just means that a few classes for the next several weeks will be taught by alternate chefs with different levels of specialization. This was illustrated today when I showed up for Creative Italian Cuisine. We were supposedly supposed to learn about butter sculpting. Nothing wrong with that; it actually sounded fairly interesting. The only problem was that our substitute chef didn’t do butter sculpting. Nope, not even a little. Halfway through an odd and confusing “lesson” one of the guys in the class asked “Um, since this is so educational do you mind if we drink some beer?”
Finding no disapproval from the professoressa he left briefly and returned with a few large bottles. Several of the students were sipping away and shaping butter, sipping and shaping, shaping and sipping, when in walked Il Barba (The Beard), the head of the Advanced program. He surveyed the situation:
“Well, you are so bored I see you have turned to drinking.” The beer buyer attempted to sputter an excuse. Il Barba raised an eyebrow. Then he grabbed a glass, snatched the bottle from the prevaricator’s hand, poured himself a tall one and downed it in one swift motion. He inhaled deeply. “Now” he said, “it is not only your problem. Get to work.” And with that he was gone.
You have to love school in Italy.
But I digress. Let’s talk pizza:
So Naples is fun. Naples is always fun. It’s like Italy’s own little Calcutta, except it’s built on the side of a volcano. Naples is dirty, frenetic, loud, and infinitely picturesque. Motorcycles speed down sidewalks, women sell cigarettes from third story pulley systems, the illegal seafood trade is booming, and everywhere there is pizza.
Pizza in Italy seems cliché. In any major town you can find more than a few hawkers of this flatbread specialty along pretty much any street. But in Naples it’s different. These people live pizza. They invented it. They’ve enacted laws to protect it. They erect plaques and statues in its honor. It sparks discussions, debates, arguments and brawls. Most importantly though, it’s damn delicious. Pizza was why we came to Naples.
More accurately, Pizzafest ’06; the eleventh incarnation of a gala devoted to all things dough, sauce and cheese. You may wonder how many pizzas three people can actually eat in two days. Well if you’re us, the answer is ten. It would have been a significantly higher number except for some odd business hours and a few miscalculations on our part, but that’s neither here nor there.
What is there (yes! totally nailed that segue) are some pretty spectacular incarnations of our friendly and beloved pie. In Naples, there are really only two real types of pizza- Marinara and Margherita. Marinara is just topped with tomato sauce, garlic, olive oil, oregano, and sea salt. Margherita with tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella (buffalo is the best), and a few basil leaves. They only come in one size and they’re never cut before arriving at your table.
We arrived latish on Friday night. We dropped off our bags and made a bee-line over to Da Michele. Da Michele is a super old school place that is touted in many guide books of various languages as having pretty much the best pizza in town. Girliepants and I had eaten here once before five or so years ago and remembered it quite fondly.
As always, there was a huge line out front. They don’t do reservations. You show up, take a number and then stand around until a brisk little man pokes his head out the door and mumbles your number quietly. We were number 40. After several hours of loitering around and drinking some pretty bad local wine we heard him call 46. What the hell? We went in waving our sad little scrap of paper and got everything worked out.
We were seated at one of their communal marble-topped tables and ordered pretty much right away as there are only two things on the menu. Oddly, since they are so militant about every other tradition, Da Michele is one of the only places in Naples that offers different diameters of pie. We got two margheritas and a marinara, all in the classic size.
The pizzas were fantastic, but not quite as good as I remember. It seemed like the oven was a bit hot, imparting the prized charred bits before the rest of the dough reached the delicious golden brown stage. It made for a pizza that was a bit on the squishy side and perhaps a little too soft. The tomato sauce was amazing though. It wasn’t too runny and had a nice dispersion of olive oil. The smell of the garlic and oregano on the marinara actually makes your mouth water before the dish reaches the table.
My favorite thing though was the cheese distribution on the margheritas. Cheese is always applied judiciously in Naples, but it takes real skill to cover a pizza in a sparse and seemingly haphazard fashion while still managing to insure gooey dairy deliciousness in every bite. For this feat alone props are owed to Da Michele’s pizzaiuolo (pizza maker fer you ‘mericans). All in all fabulous, but with some room for improvement.
The next day we killed time (in many awesome ways) until we could start our trek over to Pizzafest proper. Round about eight we headed out on the metro to a large convention centerish complex on the outskirts of town. When we got to the front it was a loud, boisterous mish-mosh of hundreds of people milling about, various snack venders (who needs snacks at Pizzafest?) and what appeared to be several people trying to get in line while riding their scooters.
As I have probably mentioned, Italians seem to have some kind of mental block on the concept of a line. Signs were posted all around urging ticket buyers to rispettare la fila, or respect the line. And I have to say surprisingly, it seemed to kind of work. Of course, there were event endorsed scalpers patrolling the edges of the crowd willing to sell tickets for a euro extra if you just couldn’t wrap your mind around the dizzying and dystopic proposal of forming an orderly queue. The scalpers were doing a bustling business.
When we finally got our passes, they included tickets for a pizza, a beer or coke, a coffee, and a limoncello. You just have to love a place were they feel that it’s only right to include an after dinner drink with the price of admission.
Inside the gates, booths were arranged in a large open-air horseshoe. For the festival, they had brought in two dozen huge, multi-ton wood burning ovens (these people are serious about pizza). Twenty-four pizza venders occupied tents and next to the tents each had a seating area for about fifty people. To get a pizza from a certain place you simply had to sit in their area and give them your ticket. It seemed very straightforward.
Right off the bat we decided that we’d try three pizzas from three different places. We did a reconnaissance lap to suss out the prospects. We picked the three best looking stands and headed over to the first, Il Fratellini di Bufalo. The place was busy, but several seats were open so we made our way to the tables. In mid sit, an insane eyed and disheveled waiter started running toward us screaming unintelligibly and flapping several large plates animatedly. Right, apparently there was a waiting list.
We got up apologetically and attempted to add our names. No luck. We asked again only to have waiter guy wave his huge red baboon ass at us some more. After several more attempts and more displays of simian posterior we came to a mutual agreement that we would not be eating at this particular booth. Fine.
On to Vesi. Vesi was next on our roster and they were turning out some seriously good looking food. This time we started with the list and we were seated fairly promptly. We shared our table with two really interesting Neapolitan couples: an architect, a lawyer, an engineer, and a mathematician. We talked to them for a long time which was fun, but then we realized that no one had come to take our order. Drinks appeared. We looked at each other. Were we missing something? The locals sent them away explaining to the staff that they weren’t ours. Still we hadn’t ordered. Pizzas appeared. These too were moved off to another table.
Finally, a guy with a pad popped up beside our table in full order taking mode. We ordered a marinara and a margherita. “Two margheritas,” the guy repeated. No, a marinara and a margherita. “Yes, two margheritas.” No, ONE MARINARA and a margherita. “Two margheritas.” Obviously, we were being punished.
Apparently it wasn’t our poor language skills as our Italian friends were also shaking their heads in dismay. One of them helpfully stepped in and explained, for quite some time, what we actually ordered. “Ooooh,” it dawned on the waiter, “one marinara and one margherita.” Victory. Shortly thereafter some pizzas arrived and were placed before us. Unfortunately, these too were not our pizzas. “Only in Naples,” the engineer proclaimed.
The correct food finally made its way out and it was certainly worth the wait. The crust was perfectly cooked and of just the right thickness. It possessed the trinity of soft, chewy, and crispy. The tomato sauce was wet but not watery and seasoned so well that you probably could have just eaten it with a spoon.
If I had to criticize one thing (and apparently I do) I will say that the cheese could have used a little work. It all kind of melted together in a central pool and got a bit too browned, not able to maintain the allure of individual pockets of snow white yumminess. Regardless, these were the best pizzas that I could remember having in a long while.
Continuing in our vein of bizarre events, I feel it’s worth mentioning that halfway through eating we were approached by a Chinese film crew doing a documentary about Pizzafest for Chinese TV. It was very strange. They came up and talked to the Italians first. I couldn’t really understand what they were saying but they talked for quite a while and then the interviewer grabbed one of their pizzas and ripped off a hunk with his hands and started shoving it into his mouth. He kept talking while he was chewing and then one of the Neapolitans started to interview him using a plastic knife as a microphone. Hey, whatever works.
Next he interviewed us, but I don’t think his English was that great as he seemed very reserved when talking. He asked us where we were from and then asked me for three simple words to describe pizza. He talked to the two girls about how many times they had been to Naples. That was pretty much it. Then they packed up and left.
The next booth we visited was Villa Martusciello. It was a disaster. The crust was intensely salty and had the wrong texture. The sauce was not only salty but also really runny. It slid right off half the pizza and formed a sad little puddle on the opposite side. They did have a really great staff and it was definitely interesting to see so clearly how two very different outcomes can be reached using the exact same ingredients and equipment. However, I don’t think I’d go back for their pizza.
We wrapped up Pizzafest around one with our limoncellos and headed back to our place via cab since we had outlasted all of the public transportation. If I ever get to come back, I definitely think I would spread it out over several days and show up earlier. There were just too many pizzas and not nearly enough time.
On our way out of town we managed to squeeze in one more restaurant, Pizzeria Brandi. Brandi is renowned because it is supposedly the place were the pizza margherita was invented. It’s a little touristy, but they still turn out some pretty amazing food. Mme. Pants and I first ate here on our honeymoon and couldn’t resist an encore visit.
We started with a nice little antipasti plate where everything was tasty, but not as tasty as the little fried zucchini slices that were freaking delicious.
We followed this up with three pizzas which were possessed of all of the key pizza qualities but were a bit on the thick side. They were perfectly prepared and were certainly the prettiest pies we had on this trip. If they had been a bit thinner I might have liked them more than Vesi’s, but as it stands I think Vesi holds the edge for the best all around pizza that we had.
I look forward to pitting them against future competitors.