I’m Neapolitan. I love my city. I don’t think there will be ever a place as beautiful as Naples. And please do not try to change my mind with postcards from Rio, New York, Tokyo… Naples will always be the most wonderful city in the world to my eyes.
At the same time, I consider Neapolitan pizza the best food ever invented, and definitely superior to any other kind of pizza. Not that I don’t like the other types: I just think it beats them all.
That said if you ask me if Naples is the best place where to have pizza in Italy, you would expect me to shout a big “Yes! No doubt on that”.
And yet, nowadays I would reply with a “yes, but…” leaning towards a “not necessarily”.
Let me be more clear. There’s no doubt that if you want to understand the basics of the pizza culture in Italy you have to begin at its source. Always remembering that pizza was not invented in Naples, but it’s this city that gave it the identity and the reputation we know today.
Having a pizza in the old town in Naples is like a pilgrimage to Mecca: every passionate pizza lover needs to do it at least once in their life, and possibly even more than once. Eating pizza in Naples is not just having food: it’s the full package, that includes all the smells, the voices, the colors, the sounds, and the number of exciting sensations you would feel walking on the Neapolitan streets.
How could you ever describe the bewilderment of choosing only one among the dozens of pizzerias lined up every five meters on a single street, when you walk along Via dei Tribunali? Can you explain with words that cozy, warm feeling embracing your senses when you smell the burning wood from the oven as soon you step in one of those pizzerias? Or the joy of holding a slice on an outdoor patio looking at the sea on one side, and Mount Vesuvius on the other?
From this point of view, yes, Naples is the quintessential pizza experience. And it has to be the first step on your journey to understand more about the product, the pizzaioli’s way of life, and the strong connection between the city denizens and their neighborhood pizzerias. You can’t call your experience complete if you haven’t sat at a table while a loud moped is passing you by, climbed the streets of Materdei to try Starita’s montanara, or been in line for two hours waiting for your number to be called at Michele’s in Forcella (well, that was before Covid came, now you need to book).
And the pizza made in the Old Town of Naples is exactly the kind of pizza you would expect: simple, direct, and freaking delicious. The same kind of pizza made more or less with the same procedures and techniques used by generations of pizzaioli through the centuries. Eat it and live it with all the features described above and you will have the best pizza ever.
But is it, though? Here’s why, as a Neapolitan, I think the best pizza you could ever have in your life may not be in Naples. My opinion doesn’t really have anything to do with personal tastes on any particular pizza style (believe it or not, many Italians don’t like the Neapolitan pizza). It comes from the perspective of what happened in the Italian pizza world in the last ten years.
You’re probably familiar with the concept of pizza contemporanea (contemporary pizza) that has seen its popularity in the last decade, and it is now well established in the mind of pizza fans. It would take a whole academic paper to describe the concept, the evolution, the places, and the people that have contributed to the rise of this new kind of pizza that is now a staple.
I might dedicate a full article about it (let me know if you’re interested). But for now, I want to make one thing clear: pizza contemporanea is not only a feature of the Neapolitan pizza world. On the contrary, Naples is the less suitable place to have one.
If we have to define the contemporary pizza with few words, we would say that it’s the product of long and attentive research made on the working process of the dough, joined by a careful selection of high-quality ingredients to provide a tasting experience that goes beyond the classic pizza style meant for quick consumption.
In fact, “tasting” is the keyword. Modern pizzerias that like to enrich their menus with an alluring list of unheard combinations of toppings make the life of a casual diner very hard. Especially when they see the price range, way higher than the usual Margherita.
The ideal way to make the most out of these pizzerias is to organize a party of similarly passionate pizza lovers for a dinner whose only goal is to try and taste every possible pizza on the menu. One slice at a time. Hence the tasting.
This concept was not originated in Naples, but started up north, in Veneto, where master pizza chefs like Simone Padoan and Renato Bosco started to experiment with long fermentations and the sourdough. While working on a pizza that could accommodate different kinds of ingredients and make every single slice worth its hefty price tag.
In the same period, Gabriele Bonci was working to revolutionize the old-fashioned concept of Roman pizza al taglio, while Enzo Coccia was remastering the classic design of Neapolitan pizza. Later, Franco Pepe was able to put his small hometown of Caiazzo on the map, creating a whole concept of hospitality around his pizza.
The contemporary pizza became mainstream in the area around Caserta, which saw an incredible surge of the opening of new pizzerias. Pizzaioli from there started to mark their style with an inflated cornicione (the crust) and the term pizza canotto was coined. The key, again, was long fermentation and high digestibility.
The pizza from Caserta paid a huge debt of gratitude to its Neapolitan roots. But at the same time, it attracted a lot of customers from Naples among those people who were tired of eating always the same old pizza they’ve been eating for decades.
Also, it was easier to market that kind of pizza, especially when social media started to become a popular tool to advertise food businesses: the chubby rim and the vivid colors are the perfect requirements for a viral engagement on photo-based social apps like Instagram.
This style of pizza has seen its fortune throughout the provinces of the Campania regions. Excellent pizza restaurants have been opening up in a lot of unknown, small towns in the hinterland. The reason is to be searched in the strong bond of the young pizza entrepreneurs with the lands that saw them growing, and their will to promote them making the best use of locally sourced ingredients.
This new generation has understood one important thing: that people are willing to drive miles and miles to live authentic experiences. And what is more authentic than a pizza whose toppings are sourced from a farm nearby, perhaps eaten on the cobblestone roads of a small medieval town?
This concept doesn’t belong to Campania only but has spread throughout all of Italy, and the best pizzerias are now located in places that you wouldn’t be able to reach without a car. Pizza has become a food with a level of dignity that in the most extreme cases even reaches a degree of prestige comparable to fine dining restaurants like Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana.
But even looking at it from a mainstream perspective, modern pizza doesn’t lose its appeal. In the last decade, the city of Milan has been invaded by a herd of Neapolitan pizzaioli who decided their product couldn’t be confined anymore inside the walls of their hometown. And Milan is a city that catches up quite quickly with the trends: so if the first pizzerias offered an excellent example of a classic Neapolitan style, the contemporary pizza soon took its place, and the fine-dining pizza restaurants were not late to come. In fact, it’s hard to keep up with the pace at which new pizzerias are opening in Milan, always competing to set new trends.
Where does Naples position its reputation in all of this? Sadly speaking, things haven’t changed a lot over the years. This is not to say there are no interesting places at all, but they are only a few and rarely situated in the tourist part of the city, but mainly in peripherical neighborhoods or the outskirts.
Central Naples is still the kingdom of names like Sorbillo, Michele, Starita, Cacialli, Lombardi, Cafasso, Pellone, and many others. If you look for pizza at its roots, in the authenticity of a hundred years old setting… Then, yes, Naples is the best place where to eat a pizza.
But if you want more in terms of experience, flavors, scenery, and knowledge… Well, there’s not just one place in Italy that can claim the trophy. The whole country is a huge playground for pizza lovers.