Even though Naples is a huge city (Italy’s third-largest), it’s still a small town. The community is close-knit, and “networking” operates on a more primal level than LinkedIn and business lunches. On arrival at Napoli Centrale train station, I hopped into a taxi. The driver asked where I was from. When I said, “Seattle,” he said, “Oh, my friend moved to Seattle many years ago. He opened a pizzeria there — Via Tribunali. I helped him import all of his equipment. Brick pizza oven, everything, it comes from here. I put it on the ship myself.” Five minutes in Naples, and already I’d met the close friend of a guy whose pizza I’ve eaten back home.
I’m not surprised that the common denominator between Seattle and Naples is pizza. The best pizza I’ve eaten anywhere is in Naples — as well it should be, since pizza was invented here.
On this trip, I ate at Antica Pizzeria da Michele, which pizza purists insist is the best in town. You have just one choice: marinara or Margherita? And that’s it. Like In-N-Out Burger back home, Michele understands that when you achieve perfection, you keep things simple.
When the pizza arrived at our table, my Neapolitan friend Virgilio was in ecstasy. “Aha! You taste that? The perfect crust. Thin, soft, a leetle sour. You don’t even need to chew it. You just put it in your mouth and…” He pantomimed a delicious glob of pizza sliding down his esophagus, ending with a big smile.
Watching me gingerly nibble at my slices, Virgilio said, “This is the correct way to eat a pizza.” He cut out a wedge, rolled it up into a bundle, sawed off a lengthwise chunk, and jammed it into his mouth. I tried it. And in one perfect bite, I got the gooey middle, the singed crust, and a squirt of tomato sauce — all in just the right proportions.
Strangely, my favorite pizzeria experience on this trip had nothing to do with pizza. One day, I naively showed up at lunchtime on Via dei Tribunali — the namesake of that Seattle pizzeria, it’s a street buried deep in the historical center, lined with several of the planet’s best pizzerias. A mosh pit of hungry pizza patrons crowded around the Pizzeria da Matteo. Occasionally they’d spill out into the cobbled street just long enough for a delivery truck to beep them back up against the wall.
Some of the patrons were elbowing their way up to a window, where a busy vendor was tossing deep-fried snacks the size of tennis balls into takeaway bags. I joined the mob and worked my way to the front, where I ordered a couple of fried UFOs.
Retreating to a park bench on a seedy square, I peeked into the bag at the two items I’d randomly requested. One was an arancino, a deep-fried ball of rice that really did resemble the “little orange” it’s named for. I’d eaten arancini before, and they were dry, crumbly, and forgettable. But this one was heavenly. When I bit in, the filling — rice mixed with tomatoes, ragú (meat sauce), and a few peas — melted into my mouth as soon as my teeth broke through the fried skin. It was moist, piping hot, and delicious…instantly setting an impossibly high bar for all of the arancini I’ll ever eat.
Then I turned my attention to the other item in my bag, a frittatina. I’d never heard of this before, but it was oblong and had irregular edges. Taking my first bite, it was clear I’d discovered the perfect food: macaroni and cheese, with a bit of meat sauce mixed in, rolled into a ball, dropped into a fryer, and served steaming hot.
I love it when cultural cliches live up to the fuss, and Neapolitan pizza certainly does. But you have to go beyond the cliches, too.