From beneath the spinning dough, Rosario winks at me, his disc elastic and expanding in a whir of fingertips. Last December, UNESCO awarded pizza making in Naples World Heritage status and I’m beginning to appreciate why.
Not that the heritage committee would recognise anything about my attempt at twirling dough. I stretch it with one hand, then flip it across to the other, spinning it slightly when I toss it back. Slap, slap, slap, flop; it folds in half. My pizzaiolo tells me it takes passion to make pizza — I have that of a limp anchovy.
Naples is where the Margherita was invented in 1889 and so, fed up of the tasteless, bloating pizzas I make at home, I’m at a Pizza Experience class at Pizzeria al 22 in Naples led by pizzaiolos qualified in teaching this centuries-old art. The class begins calmly. Giovanni, one of my two maestros, shows me how to make the dough, swirling the flour and other dry ingredients into a bowl of water and squashing out lumps. I then work at kneading the mixture. On the wall are ageing photos of Giovanni with his grandfather, who started this pizzeria in 1935 and who he began helping after school. “A pizzeria is a very happy place to work,” he tells me, as his staff dance to the radio in the kitchen.
A magician with a well-floured bench, Giovanni’s next trick involves separating the dough into individual pies by stuffing a portion of it into his partly closed fist. As he tightens his fingers, the excess dough balloons out above his thumb. He gives this a gentle twist and — pop — is left holding the smoothest, most perfectly formed sphere of dough. I practise while the wood-fired oven fizzes and crackles behind us. “It’s relaxing, right?” Giovanni smiles. “In the pizzeria you can live a long life.”
Rosario, my other maestro, then lets me have a go at stretching and spinning one of these balls. Inevitably, my effort collapses in a puff of flour, but it’s not a disaster. We squish it back into shape and dress it with fresh ingredients — tomatoes from Vesuvius, hard cheese, mozzarella, basil, oil. Finally, we slide my creation on to a long-armed peel (shovel-like tool) and shimmy it into position alongside the blazing logs.
The spell cast by the gentle rhythms of the past couple of hours is broken. Strictly, Neapolitan pizzas should only spend 60-90 seconds in the oven. No one speaks as we watch the cheese bubble. I lean towards it and almost get my head whacked by the end of Rosario’s peel. “Look out! The baker has right of way!” he laughs as he shunts the shovel quickly in and out again.
Mere seconds later, the room is filled with the aromas of tomato, basil and sweet malty bread, and I’m presented with a Margherita that I would genuinely pay money to eat. I fold a hot, oozing corner into my mouth and smile, a little oil dribbling down my chin. If I can recreate this at home there’s a chance I’ll never eat anything else again.
Q&A: Franco Pepe, pizzaiolo, Pepe in Grani
Because it’s easy to reproduce. First, it was a very cheap dish. It was the food of the people, not so much of the poor. Today, however, it has become a food that can satisfy even the finest, most gourmet palates. There has been a great evolution of pizza, especially in terms of quality.
Your pizza was voted the world’s best in the Where to Eat Pizza guide — what is special about it?
Part of our work is scientific. My bread base is very digestible because I use a blend of my own 00 flour that I came to after lots of research. I also try and create different perceptions for customers, such as with my dessert pizza, for which I use apricot jam and add powdered olives that have been dehydrated in the oven.
You champion local producers and traditional Neapolitan pizzas that only use specific local ingredients. Why?
About 70% of my menu uses products from my territory. With the farmers and workers here we’ve created a micro-economy. I want to show what’s great about the Alto Casertano area, with onions from Alife, local oil, the Caiazzana olive, black pork from Caserta, Romano cheese and local mozzarella.
Why do you still prepare dough the traditional way, by hand?
We have five people in my pizzeria dedicated to kneading dough. It’s all about sensory perception. By touch, they can understand the temperature, the malleability, the gluten level, the elasticity. Some people use machines for kneading but they are an imposed force. They don’t listen to the dough. A machine doesn’t have the same experience as my hands. The dough is alive. By feeling it they know exactly what needs to be done.
Make it at home: Margherita
1 litre of water
1.5g fresh yeast
850g type 00 flour
250g peeled tomatoes
7g extra virgin olive oil
1 Pour the water into a bowl, then add the salt
2 Dissolve the salt, add a small amount of flour and mix
3 Add the yeast and mix until it has dissolved
4 Add the flour and knead for 15-20 minutes
5 Leave to rise for at least eight hours at room temperature, covered by a damp cotton cloth
6 Once the dough has doubled, spread evenly on to a greased tray
7 Add the topping
8 Bake at 250C for 25 minutes until golden
Published in the Trips of a Lifetime guide, distributed with the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)