Wednesday, May 13, 2015

6. Pizza e gelato!

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Antica Pizzeria da Michele
Corso Vitt. Emanuele, Napoli, 12 May 2015—
OF COURSE I WRITE about our meals just about every day; I’ve been doing that for years, at Eating Every Day. And so I rarely write about eating here, on the theory that this blog is reserved for really consequential matters, requiring really serious attention on my part, and even more dedication from you, gentle reader, if you’re there.

But it’s time to record the results of our short but scientific survey of pizza and gelato, matters of considerable significance to certain members of my family and therefore perhaps of more general interest. Naples is considered, I’m not sure why, the origin of pizza. I think this may be partly because of its importance as a center of Allied occupation in 1944, after the first Allied invasion of the European mainland, at Anzio, not that far from here. Pizza was of course already well established in Naples at that time, a staple at a time when foodstuffs were in short supply, and very tasty to the American G.I., who was heartily tired of G.I. fare by then, I’m sure.

Pizza is of course nothing more than flatbread, and flatbread’s been around for millenia. There isn’t a Mediterranean cuisine that lack it; hasn’t been since recorded culinary history. (You can probably find pictorial representations of it from prehistoric times, if you’re academically inclined.) It’s absurd to think that Naples “invented” pizza, any more than China “invented” pasta, pace Marco Polo.

But Naples is proud of its pizza, proud and even a bit purist. At Da Michele, for example, two large signs on the walls present literary — well, poetic — admonitions on the subject:

           Don Michele
cu l'aglio, l'uoglie e arecate      
oppure a pummarola
pare na cosa facile
ma a pizza e' na parola

n'ce vo na pasta morbida
s'adda sape' n.furna'
o gusto i chi a prepare
pe nun ve n'tusseca'

a pizza e' nata a napule
ma poche indo' mestiere
ve ponne da' o' piacere
i farvela mangia'

surtanto don michele
che' fino pasticciere
ve fa na pizza spendida
ca ve fa cunzula'
      —A. Galante

      A Margarita
a quanto sta' o benessere
a gente penza a spennere
e mo' pure o chiu' povero
o siente e cumanna'

voglio una pizza a vongole
chiena i funghette e cozzeche
cu gamberetti e ostriche
d' ‘o mare e sta citta'

al centro poi ce voglio
‘n'uovo fatto alla cocca
e co liquore stok
l'avita annaffia'

quando sentenne st'ordine
ce vena cca na stizza
pensanne ma sti pizze
songo papocchie o che'
ca se rispetta a regola
facenna a vera pizza
ch'ella ch'e' nata a napule
quase cient' anne fa

questa ricetta antica
se chiamma margarita
ca quanno e' fatta a arte
po gli ‘n'anza a nu re

percio' nun i cercate
sti pizze cumplicate
ca fanne male a sacca
e u stommaco pati’

—G. Esposito
A. Galante’s poem is little more than an ode to Michele, the eponymous original pizzaiolo of one of the most highly touted pizzerie in Naples: “pizza was born in Naples, but few are given the mastery… above all don Michele, whose pastry skill developed that splendid pizza…”

But G. Esposito’s lines, from what little I can make out from the napolitano dialect, go further into the question. It’s not pizza that the Neapolitans invented, but authentic pizza, which has only four ingredients: the dough, the tomato sauce, the garlic, the oregano. When you’re poor, you may dream of clams, mushrooms, oysters, shrimp; a cooked egg, salt-doc broth, and all that: but you make do with what you have, and what you have, if you’re lucky, is tomatos, garlic, and oregano. And just as well: because those complicated pizzas will only wreck your bladder and leave your stomach swollen.

Well: I’m a little confused here. Esposito is writing about Pizza Margherita, and it’s aready unnecessarily complicate, secondo me, in my opinion, because it adds cheese to the classic Pizza Marinara, the tomato-garlic-oregano pizza. There’s a story there, too, of course: Queen Margherita was slumming one day in Naples, and wanted a pizza: the pizzaiolo, thinking she deserved something special, entirely new, added dollops of mozzarella to the classic (and in fact only) version, thus adding white to the otherwise red and (barely) green colors. Red, white, and green are of course the national colors of Italy; Margherita was the first queen of the newly unified nation; the result was as patriotic as Verdi. (Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia; get it?) So jingoism interferes with the true course of cultural necessities, like opera and cuisine.

In any case while my companion reached into other corners of menus, even as far as salt-cod-and-mushroom pizza, I remained true to scientific principle, comparing apples only with apples, oranges with oranges. I have tasted only pizze Marinara, and when it’s come to gelato, I’ve been loyal to fior di latte (crema when there is no latte) and limone. And the results have been absorbing.

•7 May: Pizzeria da Michele, Via Giuseppe Martucci, 93; +39 081 1957 6887: The pizza menu here begins with Marinara and Margherita, and while there are other, more complicated combinations listed, we of course went no farther. We split a Marinara "Maxi", about twenty inches across says my Contessa, beautifully leopard-spotted on its bottom side, a little soupy in the Neopolitan style, edgy and pointed with good tomato flavor and delicate oregano and garlic. Oh: there was basil involved too. Not authentic.

•8 May: Starita, Via Materdei 27,28; +39 081 5573682: This one was perhaps just a tad better. I think the reason was the nicely cooked little basil leaves — okay, maybe that is authentic — and the sweet thoughtful tiny chunks of garlic. The tomato was a little mellower than yesterday’s, which is nice, though I did also like, just as much, the assertiveness of yesterday’s: each version is first-rate, smooth, rich, nicely balanced.

My Contessa, always fond of baccalà, ordered the "stock" pizza: stockaffisa, the Italian version of dried cod, black olives, capers, garlic, chopped parsley, and cherry tomatoes. It was very very good, delicious in fact, an inspired combination. The cod, or baccalà, or brandade, or whatever you like to call it, was very smooth, deep-flavored, set off nicely by the perfect tomatoes. The waiter told me it was strictly local, made here in Naples from locally caught merluzzo. I want to believe that, and I think I do.

•11 May: L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, Via Cesare Sersale, 1/3; +39 081 553 9204: Here there are only two pizzas: Marinara, which is tomato sauce, a little garlic, and oregano — no basil! — and Margherita, which adds mozzarella to the mix. And there are three sizes: small, medium, large. To drink you choose Coca-Cola or beer or water. The pizza arrived almost immediately. I think perhaps it arrives too quickly, and while I’m no pizzaiolo I think the pizza may  not have been cooked long enough. The bottom of the crust is nicely blackened, but the spots are too big, leaving whiter spots that also seem too big. I’m sure the oven was up to temperature, but as we left I watched the pizzaoli at work: there were two working the one rather large oven, one shoving uncooked pizzas in, the other dragging cooked ones out. It’s probably a mistake to go to da Michele during rush hour.

The tomato sauce was fine, though perhaps not as dense as at Starita. The dough was very hard to cut with the table knives we were given. (I should explain: in Naples one eats one’s pizza with knife and fork, and they arrive at table innocent of any kind of pre-cutting: you don't lift a wedge already cut and eat it from your hand. Non si fa: it isn’t done.)   Anywhere else this would be a marvelous pizza. In my opinion, here in Naples, it wasn’t quite up to its closest competitor — and I do like a glass of red wine with my pizza!

Fabio, whose restaurant Partenope we went to one evening, up in Vomero, has an uncle who is a pizzaiolo. They were both horrified when I admitted that we’d had our first pizza here. Yes, Starita and the real (Antica Pizzeria) da Michele, they’re competent enough. But Fabio says, reasonably since it’s in the family, the best pizza in Naples is made by his uncle, at Acunzo Pizzeria Vomero (via. B. Covenzio 4/6; Vomero Napoli; +39 081.0491868). Unfortunately for one reason or another we never got there. Next time.
ON THE SUBJECT of gelato I’ll have less to say. In spite of our best intentions, I only sampled four or five gelaterie, maybe six; and so irresponsible am I I took proper note of only four, and even then misplaced the name of one — which is of little consequence.

We’ve been sampling gelato for years, and I have developed my own approach, which is to taste the simplest flavors, some might say the blandest, if I’m intent on making comparisons. I love certain other, bolder flavors and textures. Perhaps my favorite is riso, gelato based on rice custard, but that is now very rarely found. It used to be common: I recall delicious ones in Venice and in the small southern Tuscan town Capalbio. Those days are apparently gone.

I like chocolate, of course, and some nut-based gelati, and licorice, and some really odd ones like the tobacco-flavored and whisky-flavored gelati you can find on Rome, where we’ll be in a week or so. But when I’m on a scientific errand I stay with two flavors: Crema and Fior di latte. Crema is what Americans might think of as “French vanilla,” except that there’s little if any vanilla, and it isn’t French. It’s simply a cream-based custard, and it can be absolutely wonderful.

Fior di latte — well, I’ve never been sure what that is. It’s lighter than Crema, of course; it’s undoubtedly flavored with a bit of vanilla; but principally it is milk. My companion could tell me a lot more about this, if I asked her, but she’s reading the newspaper. In Naples I never saw Crema, so I abandoned my usual procedure and substituted Limone for it, thinking of Carlo Ponti and his marvelous song “Gelato a limon.”

We began the survey our second day in Naples, at a shop that came readily to hand after our pizza at Starita. Gelosità, like most of the other gelaterie sampled, is a chain of shops; a franchise in fact: but we’d happened upon the mother ship, you might say, and the young woman who served me said, when I asked, that the gelati were all made on the spot.

I had Fior di latte and Limone, and thought them both good, but not exceptional. The flavors were clean and direct, the textures smooth with no graininess at all; but the finish seemed short to me — but then, I’d just eaten a very good pizza.

The next day we put my new friend Fabio to the test. We’d read that one of the best shops in Naples was Fantasia Gelati, but when I mentioned that to him on our walkabout in Vomero, he said — quietly and without contradiction, as is his style — yes, many people like it; personally, I prefer (and he pointed to it, across the street) Casa Infante.

Both are on the Piazza Vanvitelli, and there we were: so we went first to Casa Infante, where I had Fior di latte and Limone, and my companion substituted the Nocciole (hazelnut) for Limone.. Then to Fantasia for the same, my companion by now abstaining altogether. She thought the Limone slightly better at Fantasia, but I disagree: it was less intensely flavored at Casa Infante, but it was also deeper, less superficial, and had a cleaner finish. And the Fior di latte was much creamier at Casa Infante. I have to agree with Fabio.

A couple of days later we found ourselves walking past the one shop on everyone’s list that is apparently one of its kind, not a chain, not having opened a branch office anywhere. On the other hand, Gay-Odin is not simply a gelateria; it is primarily a cioccolateria specializing in chocolate candies of various kinds, running its gelato operation on the side.

Nothing marginal about its quality, though. I thought the Fior di latte more or less average, but the average is very high; it was easily up to those I’d had earlier. And the Limone was smooth, clean, rich; a very beautiful thing; a semi-frozen lemon custard managing the difficult marriage of citrus and cream and egg with no awkwardness at all.

As I say, the average in Naples is high. We stopped at an ordinary run-of-the-mill commercial gelateria with no pretensions to artigianalità that I could see, across the street from the Duomo — strange that no art gelateria had staked out real estate here; perhaps it’s simply too expensive — where my two gelati, you can guess what flavors, were as good as anyone could decently demand. Not breathtakingly superb, perhaps, as I think Casa Infante and Gay-Odin can achieve. But very very good.
Writing like this appears in three of my books: Roman Letters, two month-long stays in Rome; Mostly Spain, a month touring Madrid and Andalucia; Venice: and the idea of permanence, reflections on a couple of month-long sojourns in Venice. Look for them in iBooks or simply by clicking on the title.

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