A traditional Neapolitan margarita pizza.
A traditional Neapolitan margarita pizza.

In Naples they say that fathers want their sons to be one of two things: a footballer for SSC Napoli or a pizza chef. There are nearly 3,000 pizzaiuoli in the city and the best are “like celebrities in their own world”, says one.

You might not often think about your pizza’s base but, in Naples, a pizzaiuolo is only as good as his crust. The ability to mix yeast, water and flour to make dough, knead and flatten it (the Italians say it has been ammaccata, “crushed”) to create the perfect cornicione — the puffy ledge around the pizza — is a connoisseur’s art. Cross that with Instagram and reputations can be won and lost on the colour and rise of the dough. In a photo, mozzarella rarely looks inedible but you can easily see if a crust is flaccid or burned.

“Our chefs are more obsessed with their dough than with their girlfriends,” says Thom Elliot, who with his brother James founded the successful London Neapolitan-style mini-chain Pizza Pilgrims. “It’s their signature because it is the one thing you can’t hide behind.” More than 90 per cent of the chefs across the eight Pizza Pilgrims restaurants are Neapolitan, and each head chef makes the dough to his own specification. Using someone else’s recipe would, Elliot says, be like trying to write the last chapter of another author’s book.

A Neapolitan pizza crust should have a thin, floppy base, a number of scorch marks (“leoparding”) and an airy cornicione. “Like a good French sourdough with big air bubbles,” says James Elliot, as he flips a slice of margherita to show me the base and prods the ballooned crust. “Not doughy like Domino’s.” Cardinal sins include large black blisters on the crust (because the dough is underproved); if it is consistently brown all over it has not had enough heat. It should be chewy, not crunchy, and with a little charring — in taste, the Italian version of umami.

Perfectly prepped pizza dough.
Perfectly prepped pizza dough.
Image: 123RF / Ahmad Ghazali Ahmad Tajuddin

The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, set up by Naples’ 17 most prominent pizza-making families in 1984, is even more stringent. “A pizza must be round, with a maximum diameter of 35cm and a crust of 1cm-2cm, swollen, golden-coloured and with a little amount of bubbles and burns. The central part must be maximum 3mm thick and, lifting a side of the pizza, the bottom must be golden and without evident burns,” says Antonio Pace, the association’s president, summarising the document that details the qualities required for a pizza to become AVPN-accredited. It runs to 27 pages.

For diehard Neapolitans, pizza is not pizza unless it conforms. “The Roman, Sicilian and other versions aren’t pizzas but variations on focaccia. The only pizza with its own traditional and cultural heritage is the Neapolitan one,” says food historian Antonio Mattozzi, author of Inventing the Pizzeria. In December last year, Unesco elevated Neapolitan pizza-making to “intangible cultural heritage” status.

The first use of the word “pizza” is generally dated to AD997 in Gaeta, north-west of Naples, but Mattozzi says this is probably a corruption of the Byzantine-Greek “pitta”. It can just mean flattened in Italian, and “Che pizza!” is a mild insult.

Only in Naples, argues Mattozzi, could pizza have been born. He dedicates at least nine pages of his book to the city’s unique environs — flanked by the fertile soil of nearby Mount Vesuvius and the mozzarella-producing Monti Lattari (Dairy Hills) — and socio-economic context. A straggling port, squeezed between mountains and sea, Naples had an urban influx in the 16th century that made it the second most populous city in Europe after Paris. Tiny apartments balanced in precarious six- or seven-storey buildings often lacked kitchens. Hunting for trade, unemployed hawkers — lazzari — turned to street food.

As a major trading hub, Naples was key to the import of tomatoes into Europe. Pizza — in the crust/tomato/cheese format we know today — was cheap to make and easy to sell. Whereas a Roman pizza crust is cardboard-thin, brittle and, in the rich capital city, more likely to be topped with meat, the Neapolitan’s high-rise cornicione was intended to mimic the filling feeling of meat, which dock workers could not afford.

Pizza is now one of the most widely eaten foods in the world. Mattozzi estimates that Italy has more than 50,000 pizzerias. According to Euromonitor, the world pizza industry was worth $134bn in 2017.

In Rome, the four spartan ingredients of the Neapolitan dough are enriched with olive oil to make the slimline crust spongier. The pizza makers of Abruzzo make pizza di frigole, whose dough is mixed with pig’s lard. In Sicily, where cooking alla nonna is often preferred, pizza crusts are thicker, bouncier and homelier, in the tradition of focaccia with toppings. Then there is America.

Annabel Wheeler eats pizza every day. She and her husband Michael, a bond trader, missed their New York slice so much when they moved to London that in 2015 they opened NY Fold, a central London diner specialising in New York-style “pizza pie”. They opened a second branch in east London in May.

In Italy, the toppings are almost incidental to the base — one Italian chef told the Elliot brothers that topping a pizza was essentially “seasoning the bread”. In the US, the crust is an edible plate. “It has a thick, bread-like texture,” says Wheeler, dishing out half a 20in pizza on to paper plates. “There’s more substance than a Neapolitan pizza, and because you have that, you can have more toppings.”

In Italy, the toppings are almost incidental. In the US, the crust is an edible plate

She’s not lying. Each slice is quadruple the thickness of a Neapolitan piece and gluttonously layered with cheese. The essential ingredients, though, are the same (plus olive oil, as in Rome, and sometimes sugar) and the method is no less scientific. The dough is double-fermented — Neapolitan style — a process that involves two rises over a 48-hour period. The longer the yeast rises, the less your stomach must work at digesting it. It is also fine-tuned according to the humidity and water. New Yorkers claim the city’s hard, mineral-rich water is what gives New York pizza its crunch.

Wheeler attributes the crustiness — more baguette than pitta — to the Bakers Pride gas-fired oven they imported from the States. Each slice is cooked until 80 per cent ready. The final 20 per cent happens when the slice is ordered.

Then the customer, if a true New Yorker, will take the slice on a thin white paper plate, pinch it into a concertina shape and shovel it in on the hoof. “You have to be able to eat it walking along because in New York you’re always in a rush to get somewhere,” she says.

This is pizza adapted to be eaten at speed, unlike the deep-dish, which was invented in 1943 by enterprising Chicago pizza-maker Ike Sewell. Still the subject of debate in the city’s Little Italy district, Wheeler says, it is made with semolina flour and cooked like a tart in a pie tin. Another variant is the stuffed crust, debuted in 1995 by the Pizza Hut restaurant chain with a $45m ad campaign fronted by Donald Trump.

Prepping the thin pizza base with a tomato sauce.
Prepping the thin pizza base with a tomato sauce.
Image: 123RF / andreykuzmin

In the past few years, a group of Neapolitan pizzaiuoli have invented their own supersize crust. “It’s called pizza a canotto, which means ‘a dinghy pizza’,” says Mattozzi. “But it’s only a way of seeking visibility in the social-media age.”

Market analyst Peter Linden cites social media as one factor in the increase of a more specialised “foodie culture”, alongside multiculturalism, affordable travel and younger generations spending more on food and less on alcohol. “Brands that are succeeding in the current market either have more of a story around their product, are more bold, or have a more specialised focus,” he says.

The number of pizzerias seeking AVPN accreditation in 2017 was nearly double that of five years before. Many are in London. “A pizzaiuolo in London has the opportunity of growth like no other city in Europe currently offers,” says Emanuele Tagliarina, who opened Farina pizzeria in Notting Hill last year. He was one of the first chefs at Franco Manca, a pizza restaurant founded in 2008 that specialises in sourdough bases and now has more than 40 branches.

“People have woken up to authenticity. Six years ago, there were three or four independent pizza restaurants in London. Now there are three or four in these few streets,” says James Elliot, waving a piece of pizza at the Soho pavement outside. He notes that another surprisingly pizzeria-dense city is Tokyo — Japan is the third-largest consumer of pizza after Italy and the US.

In general, the obsession shown by pizzaiuoli towards their dough is akin to that of sushi chefs — something the Japanese call shokunin, the mastery of a craft. “Anyone can cut fish and boil rice,” says Elliot. “But, like a pizza crust, there’s a million different ways it can taste.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.
- Originally published 31 August 2018.

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