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The Neapolitan renaissance

The Neapolitan renaissance

Pizza was born in Naples but made in America. Now, says Samantha Weinberg, the original doughboy is making a comeback

Pizza was born in Naples but made in America. Now, says Samantha Weinberg, the original doughboy is making a comeback

Samantha Weinberg | June/July 2019

With its mosaic cupola and arched mouth, the pizza oven at 50 Kalò in London looks like the duomo in an ancient Italian town. Ciro Salvo, the high priest of pizzaioli – pizza chefs – lifts a pillow of dough from a tray, places it reverently on the marble worktop and gently shapes it into a ball. Then he starts to flatten it, using the tops of his fingers and the palms of his hands, lifting, spinning and pressing until it expands to the size of a large plate. He ladles on a slick of vibrant-red passata, made from tomatoes grown on the slopes of Mount Vesuvius, scatters over chunks of fresh mozzarella and tops this with six flawless basil leaves. Then he coaxes the pizza onto a long-handled paddle and through the open mouth of the wood-fired oven.

“My grandmother Rossa opened Pizzeria Salvo in Naples in 1968,” Salvo explains. “My father Giuseppe made the pizza. As a child, the dough was my toy. When I was 18, it became my work.” A minute has passed and the pizza is slid out of the oven. The crust has ballooned and displays the right amount of charred leopardo – leopard-spotting – and the cheese has relaxed into a molten lake of tomato. It is about as perfect as a pizza can be. And it costs just £7.50 ($10).

You see pizza everywhere in the world, but until recently it was hard to find a genuine Neapolitan pizza outside Italy. No longer. Restaurants serving Neapolitan pizza are thriving, as customers eschew baroque combinations of toppings in favour of simple margheritas.

In ingredients, cooking method and taste, Salvo’s pizza is almost identical to the one that Queen Margherita of Savoy ate in Naples 130 years ago. According to received wisdom, the queen was touring the city when she saw street vendors with trolleys selling flatbread topped with chopped tomatoes. In what was possibly the first example of a royal takeaway, she ordered a courtier to get one for her (the history of pizza is fiercely contested but this is one of the few areas of consensus). Pizza lore relays that one pizzeria owner invented a new pizza in her honour, adding mozzarella and basil to the tomato to represent the red, white and green of the Italian tricolore.

Today, there will be a margherita on most pizza menus across the globe. It will consist of the same four basic ingredients: dough, tomatoes, cheese and basil. It may be cooked by a Japanese, Russian or Ethiopian pizzaiolo. It could well have its photograph taken – pizza is comfortably the most posted food on Instagram. It is also one of the most popular foodstuffs in the world. The world pizza market was worth $145bn in 2018, according to PMQ Pizza Magazine. If pizza were a country, it would rank between Hungary and oil-rich Kuwait in terms of GDP. But pizza is not constrained by borders: an estimated 83% of Americans eat pizza at least once a month, as frequently as most Italians (who rarely eat pizza for lunch); there are over 25,000 pizzerias in Brazil; in China, Pizza Hut is opening 1,000 new restaurants this year. Pizza has been appropriated to such an extent that most people think of it as the taste of home.

Though the margherita is definitively Neapolitan, the cooking of flatbreads dates back to neolithic times. The word itself may derive from pita (or pitta), which means pie in Byzantine Greek, making a nonsense of the American term “pizza pie”. It has been assimilated into countless cuisines. In Turkey, you can eat lahmacun, flatbread topped with minced lamb and tomatoes; in Nice, pissaladière includes onions and anchovies. But pizza as we recognise it today probably originated in Naples in 1760, when tomatoes – which had arrived in Italy from Peru two centuries earlier – were introduced to dough and found to be perfect oven-mates.

As the century drew to a close, this Neapolitan peasant food started to travel, first around Italy and then farther afield. The dish migrated to the New World with the burgeoning Italian diaspora. It was easy to cook, cheap to buy and included all the main food groups. But as it moved, it mutated. Each pizzaiolo kneaded the original recipe into a new shape in response to local tastes and available produce. Roman, Florentine and Sicilian pizzas had different densities of crust. In Argentina – which by 1900 was home to 2m Italians – meat was cheap and abundant, and so found its way into toppings. But it was in America that pizza was adapted most dramatically. According to Daniel Young, author of “Where to Eat Pizza” and a self-confessed pizza obsessive, “The immigrants got it the wrong way round: they made their spaghetti soft and their pizza al dente.”

The reasons for this were fundamental: differing climates and soils led to different flour, tomatoes, cheese and herbs; gas- and coal-fired ovens operated at lower temperatures than the wood-fired Neapolitan ones. Since pizzas took longer to cook, they dried out to become crispier and so were able to support a greater weight of toppings. Each area developed its own type of pizza: in Chicago, it was deep pan, piled high with toppings; the New York pizza had a thinner crust and was typically sold by the slice; in Detroit, the toppings were put on before the tomato sauce (which was pre-cooked, unlike the fresh passata used by Neapolitans); in California, they piled on eccentric choices such as barbecued chicken and fresh coriander; a Hawaiian pizza (apparently invented by a Greek-Canadian in Ontario) controversially featured pineapple.

“American pizzas are all about the toppings. Italian pizzas are about the dough,” says Thom Elliot, who, with his brother James, founded Pizza Pilgrims, a chain of Neapolitan-style pizza restaurants in London. In the decades following the end of the second world war, American pizzas made a bid for global domination through chains such as Pizza Hut, which was founded in 1958 in Kansas and offered low-cost fast food on an industrial scale. Domino’s, born two years later in Michigan, cornered the delivery market. Ready-to-cook pizzas appeared in supermarket fridges and freezers. The fruits of this imperial expansion were not always happy. “In the worst hands,” says Young, “pizza is a salty, fatty, greasy, denatured heap of processed food thickly piled onto rubbery, spongey rafts of absorbing bread substance.”

For what is essentially a baked disc of dough, pizza has a remarkable ability to shape-shift: it caters to every kind of taste and wallet, from food trucks to restaurants such as Nino Bellissima in New York, where a caviar-and-lobster topped pizza costs $1,000. This versatility makes pizza the most democratic of foods and accounts for much of its global popularity. But in the last few years pizza has come home, boosted by a renewed craving for authenticity and craftsmanship. This supremacy was recognised in December 2017 when UNESCO listed Neapolitan pizza-twirling as an “intangible cultural heritage”, alongside Spanish flamenco. But where most things on the list flourish only in their place of origin, there are people twirling dough everywhere.

At 50 Kalò the smell of cooked dough, accented with sweet tomatoes and the freshness of basil, infuses everything. A pizza is withdrawn from the oven, anointed with olive oil and brought to us. I watch Daniel Young as he approaches the margherita. The thin base, cooked very briefly, is still floppy. He folds a slice and then tucks in the tip to prevent the topping from spilling over the plate. He then takes a large bite and smiles. “As a New Yorker, pizza was my first solid food. But I only experienced my pizza epiphany in Naples eight years ago when I ate my first real Neapolitan pizza,” he says. I copy him, taste the tomato and soft cheese, and let the dough melt in my mouth. The taste is simple and sublime, but the texture feels odd to those of us who have been brought up on thin ’n’ crispy.

It takes a few bites to understand it. The resistance comes not in the crunch, but in the chewiness of the dough (the texture, apparently, was created to simulate meat, for people who couldn’t afford it). It is delicious. You rarely see uneaten crescents of holy Neapolitan dough left at the edges of plates. Now I know why.