Pizza Napolitano


Ready to fire

I love pizza. There, I said it. Hear that burgers, fries, hot dogs, and donuts? Not that I don’t have a soft spot for some of you. It’s just that if I had to pick a deserted island food, it would be pizza. Maybe a little pasta too. Of course I couldn’t live without coffee, wine, chocolate, olive oil, garlic, and a few other things, but since I’ve never been on an island that didn’t have amazing things to eat, I’m not going to stress about it.

I grew up eating my grandmother’s Sicilian pizza. It was yeast leavened dough, pressed into a rectangle pan, and strewn with canned tomatoes she squeezed through her fingers, onions fried in oil, cooked ground beef, dried oregano, mozzarella, and for the grownups, chopped anchovy. It was really tasty whether it was served hot, warm, or cold the next day. While growing up I had pizza in restaurants but it was never as good as my grandmothers. Sometime around 1980, after attending a concert in Berkeley, I stumbled into the Chez Panisse Cafe upstairs and ordered a sausage pizza. It gave my grandmother’s pizza a run for its money and, at least for the evening, made it difficult to divert my attention away from the pizza and onto to my soon-to-be ex-girlfriend. When Paragary’s Bar and Oven opened in 1983, my dad and I stopped in for a lattice covered pizza pie. Aside from looking like a work of art, it was, all at once, smoky, rich, garlicky, creamy…amazing! We wolfed it down. Not long after that I become a pizzaiolo at Paragarys and made hundreds of pies a week out of the original brick oven. An oven so inefficient it burned over a cord of wood a week! (It was eventually replaced with a dome style oven that used a fraction of that amount)

About 10 years ago I started hearing about Neapolitan style pizza being made in the states. By that time I had been to Italy many times and eaten pizza in various parts of the country but never in Naples. I began planning a trip that would begin in Genoa and end in Positano. Every stop on the trip would be somewhere I’d never been and I’d devote several days to Naples.

Naples is not a pretty city like Venice, Florence, or Rome. It’s gritty and chaotic. The traffic is relentless. The buzz of motor scooters swirl around the turnabouts like a swarm of locusts. My only chance to make it across a busy street was to walk in the shadow an elderly person, using them as a human shield. Naples is a serious city and has seriously good food with shops devoted to nothing but fried food, pizza, pastry, and coffee. One of my first stops was Da Michele, maybe the most well know pizzeria in Naples. The place offers three types of pizza, each of them a variation of the margherita. It’s a bare bones operation. It’s all about efficiency and consistency. A single pizzaiolo shapes and composes while another cook manages the wood burning oven. Each pizza is shaped in seconds and baked in under two minutes. The pizzas come out of the oven perfectly blackened and blistered. Everyone orders their own and everyone eats the whole thing. To eat pizza at Da Michele is like eating it for the first time. A perfect marriage of ingredients, technique, and fire. After years of eating and making them, pizzas were new again.

blistering the crust

Before Spataro opened, I knew I wanted to make pizzas like the ones I had in Naples. After eating in all the best pizzerias in Naples I had developed the taste memory but needed help with technique. I’d read about the Verace Pizza Association and their efforts to promote the virtues and protect the authenticity of Neapolitan pizza. There was a training program in southern California that would teach the techniques necessary to qualify a restaurant for certification from the association. I signed up and flew down to Marina Del Ray to train under Pepe Miele, the president of the North American arm of the Verace Association. The training took place in a busy pizzeria owned by Pepe. I learned how to prepare the dough using cake yeast and “00” flour imported from Naples. I was taught the techniques of stretching curd and coaxing it into oozing balls of fresh mozzarella. After three or four days of “training” I was given my certificate of completion and flew back to Sacramento to open Spataro.

Five years later, making Neapolitan style pizzas out of the wood fired oven it still the single most satisfying kind of cooking I can think of. And the best thing I can think of to eat on a deserted island.