Sunday, May 5, 2019

The Surprising Truth About Real Neapolitan Brick Oven Pizza

Indexing previous reporting from my 2019 Italy trip:
The Naples Diet
Lines in Italy Explain My Exasperation
His Dying Thought: Oh, right; this is how you die in Italy

I’ve eaten many hundreds of Neapolitan-style brick oven pizzas in dozens of cities, so I figured I knew something. But now that I’ve finally tried the real thing in the real place, it turns out that my assumptions were all wrong.

Among those mountains of brick oven pizzas were plenty of dull ones, with flavorless, sticky crusts flecked with vaguely burnt marshmallow-flavored highlights, flabby tomato sauce, indistinct gluey cheese, all hastily strewn into a wet soupy mess. Others were much more refined and thoughtful, boasting subtle, layered flavors. I figured those were the good ones; the authentic ones.

And then I tried this baseline pizza from Da Michele in Naples (yeah, the place in "Eat Pray Love"), and ran straight into gloopy, characterless cheese, unassertive sauce, and sticky crust with vaguely burnt marshmallowy highlights all coming together in a wet soupy mess.

I'm used to looking for high-class cheese, assertive sauce, and characterful bread. Lots of careful quality! Here there’s none of that; just catharsis. A frenzied gobble, followed by sinking back in one's chair in sated bliss. Nothing was the slightest bit distinctive, artisanal or subtle. Rather, it was 100% comfort food. Really, more like baby food, glurking effortlessly down the throat. Chewing’s scarcely necessary. Why bother, with so few attention-worthy nuances? It's to be devoured as if by a starved animal, with no cortical intervention required.

Every checkbox of bad brick oven pizza is ticked...only it's stupendous; by far the best shitty Neapolitan pizza I’d ever had. The stupendousness isn't due to any evident care, ingredients, or methods. Look at the photo and notice the vulgar melt pattern of individual cheese shards and the soupy tomato swamp. That tells you what you need to know. It certainly doesn’t look bad - hey, it wasn’t bad; it was stupendous! - but if you study the photo with care (click to expand it, for starters), it doesn’t look like what you'd associate with great brick oven pizza. It’s, again, best-of-type shitty brick oven pizza.

The worst brick oven pizzas I'd had over the years were actually the most authentic! What they were lacking was balance. That’s what made them shitty; not the unrefined methods or ingredients. Unrefined methods and ingredients - despite propaganda from the Artisanal Neapolitan Pizza Association or whatever the hell that group calls itself - are the stock in trade. The fastidiously careful stuff - anything that makes you stop and think rather than mindlessly swallow - turns out to be inauthentic.

Neapolitans abroad have rebranded their pizza into something glamourous, building mystique around what’s really just a simple way of serving bread. As is always the case in the food industry, mystique is how you justify higher markup (the same trick was applied to Spanish tapas twenty years ago, leaving us associating tapas with sexy Iberian juju, while, in Spain, tapas connote floors strewn with greasy balled up napkins and chicken bones). But there's no mystique here in the ancestral spawning grounds. I paid a mere 5 euros for that good-sized pie. While anyone with human mouth/throat biology would have found it a delightful experience, you could never persuade people to dress up, preen under expensive lighting and pay $60 for this. Real Neapolitan brick oven pizza is less of an enchanted evening of sophisticated French amour, and more of a quick-but-spirited handjob in the alley.

I may sound disappointed and bitter, but I’m not. I was as smitten as any of the historical multitude by this Neapolitan magic trick. I'm just struck by the ironic ending of this half-century shaggy dog story.

Belgian beer, for centuries, wasn’t “Belgian beer”. It was just beer, and Belgians shut up and drank it. It wasn’t until a friend of mine, beer writer Michael Jackson, told the world how beautiful and special it was that Belgians realized they had something exceptional.

Next installment of my Italy trip: The Surprising Truth About Real Sicilian Rice Balls


Steve said...

I have never been to Naples. My favorite neapolitan style pizza is from Pupatella in Arlington, VA A simple pizza with red sauce and mozz costs $9.50. One of my favorites is to add kalamata olives and red onions and garlic which brings the price up to $11.50

I once got a pizza from them takeaway, for my daughter. It looked terrible by the time I got it home, and I live VERY close by. I didn't taste it but I don't have the heart to try it, I will only eat it there. I mention this because I can't help but notice your photo shows a pizza box.

Also, I hear some folks say that the marinara (no cheese) is the definitive Da Michele pizza. Again, I have no experience in this matter. But many internet photos that folks have taken look a lot better than yours.

Jim Leff said...

Fair point...and good eye! Respect!

Fwiw I hustled this box out the door and across the street, where I ate it on the outdoor table of a bar (the locals’ standard approach, allowing you to score a pie within 10 mins rather than waiting in the huge pushy line for tables).

I acknowledge this wasn’t optimal. But I want to restate that my pie was not deficient, it was stupendous. It lacked nothing, there was no disappointment, and I’ve made no criticism. I simply observed that the cheese was characterless, the sauce blurry, and the crust bland (and it didn't matter!)...none of these things being a factor of timing.

As for the “many internet photos that look a lot better”, a lot of it is in how the photo is shot. I was deliberately accentuating the brutality, a super counterintuitive approach when you’re actually in love with something! But even the enraptured photos (ie all of them), if you expand and study them with a dispassionate eye (maybe eat a samwich first), reveal the truth. Eg have a close look at this photo of pizza from equally-respected 50 kalo. Get past the first impression and really study it:ò-napoli-2?select=BPbnVgZoUd2JjmevN4G95w

Finally, I wasn’t looking for the best pie the shop produces. I wanted to experience baseline Margarita. I wanted to learn.

If I had eaten in the store, the difference, I’d imagine, would be yet more deeply worked/in balance and juju. Again, the fundamentals of this pizza were absolutely nothing special. The artisinal glamour instilled abroad is bullshit. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about a glorious balance of stupid things., and I stand behind that conclusion.

Anonymous said...

a bite taken from a folded pizza slice? folded pizza is basically "calzone", and nowhere near as good tasting as sunnyside up pizza. Smell is an important part of taste, and just as a wine glass captures/concentrates the subtle aroma of wine so it can add to the taste perception of the wine, pizza should be eaten as it lays. (and a knife and fork is always available in Italy if it's the droop you are worried about.)

next time, folded pizza trigger warning please.

Jim Leff said...

That's why sandwiches, tacos, rice balls, empanadas, and ravioli have no flavor. The nose can't gather the aroma.

Same for Indians and Middle Easterners who gather/cover food in bits of bread.

The world needs to do better.

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