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What is Neapolitan pizza?

by Giuseppe A. D'Angelo
What makes a Neapolitan pizza

It’s time to define once and for all what is a Neapolitan pizza and what makes it different from any other pizza. And I’m proud to write it down for you. I’m from Naples, born and raised, and nothing makes me happier than sharing my culture with you.

So, without any further ado, let’s dive into the magic world of Neapolitan pizza, where it comes from, and why it is so special.

Where does the Neapolitan pizza come from? 

First, we need to clarify that bakery products similar to pizza were already common more than 3000 years ago in the Mediterranean region. And it’s the very exchange of cultures brought by the merchant ships in that area that landed the pizza on our tables. 

If we look even further, we understand we couldn’t have the pizza we know today without an essential ingredient: the tomato sauce. We imported the fruit in Europe thanks to the discovery voyages to South America. What we mean today as Neapolitan pizza is the one that originated in Naples (Napoli) thanks to the spreading of this fruit.

At first, the tomato was considered disgusting in Spain and France. But at the beginning of the XVIII century, it was brought to the Naples area, grown under the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, and improved thanks to the fertile soil of the volcano, rich in minerals. Many varieties were selected, one of them is the most popular today: the San Marzano tomato.

But the pizza was already a thing in Naples even before the introduction of the tomato into Italian cuisine. The most popular were made with lard, cheese, and ground pepper (called “pizza Mastunicola”), or with bianchetti, the whitebaits of some Mediterranean fishes (“pizza con i cecenielli”). Only with the introduction of tomato sauce, we see the two most famous pizzas becoming a staple in the pizzeria’s menu: Marinara (tomato sauce, oregano, and garlic), and Margherita (tomato sauce, mozzarella and, basil leaves).

The Margherita pizza became also the people’s favorite when it was dedicated to Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889 by the pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito. Although we saw already this could be just a legend and the Margherita pizza was not named after the queen.

Legend or not, the myth of Neapolitan pizza was created. Nowadays it’s so deeply rooted in our culture, that a group of “experts” set a list of rules for its preparation (“disciplinare”). And they even managed to get it registered in the EU quality scheme TSG, the traditional specialty guaranteed, which highlights the main features that define the composition of this food specialty.

How is Neapolitan pizza different

What makes a Neapolitan pizza different from the others? Not only the recipe of the dough but even the way it’s worked. Neapolitan pizzaioli only use their hands to stretch the dough: the rolling pin is forbidden! They press it moving the mass to the outside borders, in this way creating a thin center and the crust (known as “cornicione”). They then add the toppings and lay the pizza on the peel to put it in the oven. Traditionally, it’s a woodfired oven, but nowadays it can be replaced by a gas oven or even electric ones, and get the same results.

It is important, for a Neapolitan pizza, that the oven temperature reaches 450 to 480 Celsius degrees (840 to 900 Fahrenheit). The high temperature allows the dough to rise and cook in about 90 seconds, still keeping a soft and elastic structure. One of the main features of a true Neapolitan pizza is that you can fold it on its sides as it was a wallet: in Naples, small size folded pizzas are actually sold as street food with the name of “pizza a portafoglio”, where portafoglio means wallet in Italian. The thin slice can hold the weight of the ingredients, bending but not breaking.

Another typical feature of Neapolitan pizza is the texture of its cornicione. Amber-hued, slightly charred with leopard spots (pizzaioli call it “mako”). The section of the inside shows the grid developed by the gluten mesh, which looks like a series of spiderwebs.

The very cornicione is different from other pizza crusts. In the Neapolitan style pizza, it must be soft, not crunchy. Nowadays we do concede a thin layer of crunchiness on the surface, but immediately after the bite, it has to be easy to chew. 

Contemporary pizza

In the last decade, Neapolitan pizza had been on the rise thanks to a new generation of pizza makers, who have worked hard to improve it. They have started to study what’s behind the chemical processes of dough’s fermentation. In this way, they have tweaked their recipes changing ingredients, adjusting doses, and blending flours to get pizzas more or less soft, hydrated, crispy, or with an inflated crust.

At the same time, they gave more attention to the local ingredients, sourcing them from the vast variety of Campania region products. Before, we only saw on the menu traditional pizzas like Margherita, Capricciosa, Ortolana, and so on. Now, pizza makers enjoy creating complex and well-thought recipes, often using products from their local area. This evolution of pizza has attracted media attention, which called it “pizza contemporanea” (contemporary pizza) and gave the pizza makers a new status: not called masters anymore, but pizza chefs.

Still, they all keep taking inspiration from the tradition of the “authentic Neapolitan pizza”, which is still very strong in the street of Old Town of Naples. Especially in that street that is generally considered an open-air museum of Neapolitan pizza, due to the high concentration of reputable pizzerias: Via dei Tribunali.

Neapolitan pizza is defined not only by its techniques or ingredients. The main feature is the very same pizza makers, with their gestures, their language, the direct rapport with the diners (a pizzeria is different from a normal restaurant, as the cooking area is clearly visible in the stop): they have been carrying their art on for centuries.

The art of the Neapolitan “pizzaiuolo” was inscribed in 2017 in the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Under this word flag, all pizzaioli are gathered, whether from Naples or not, as they create a type of food that knows no borders anymore. Neapolitan pizza is not any longer tightly bound to its motherland, but it belongs to whoever is willing to learn how to make it, anywhere in the world. People can work to improve it, looking at the future but not forgetting the past. And always respecting the tradition.

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