To begin, I would like to propound a basic question: What is pizza napoletana (which is the Italian phrase for “Neapolitan pizza”)? On the surface, the question seems simple and straightforward; however, I assure you that it is not as uncomplicated as it seems. It is a question with thorns! Moreover, the question becomes even thornier when strictly considered within the framework of the time-honored tradition which gave birth to the Neapolitan pizza. Although I am not sure if I fully qualify to answer the question, I will make an attempt. And, if my attempt fails to any degree, I hope it would at least clarify the issue.
Before entertaining the question, allow me to introduce myself. My name is Omid, currently working as an aspiring pizzaiolo in San Diego, California. My fascination with the traditional Neapolitan pizza commenced in 1984, when I stayed nine months in Naples, Italy. Although I have spent a substantial amount of time in educating myself about the tradition of Neapolitan pizza, I do not consider myself an authority, yet I hope this blog will be worth your while. I hope to offer a unique approach—an approach that is culturally, historically, gastronomically, artistically, and philosophically oriented toward understanding and appreciating the beloved pizzas of Naples, especially when this phenomenon is gaining more and more momentum and popularity in the United States. Please, keep in mind that what is presented here is only one view amongst many on the subject matter.
So, what is the traditional Neapolitan pizza? As you may know, the city of Naples, situated in Campania region of Southern Italy, is deemed as the cradle of pizza.
The genesis of this phenomenon can be arguably traced back to the ancient Romans. Perchance, Virgil (70–19 BC), an ancient Roman poet, can portray the zygote of this development in the following excerpt from his national epic poem Aeneid:
Beneath a shady tree, the hero spread
His table on the turf, with cakes of bread;
And, with his chiefs, on forest fruits he fed.
They sate; and, (not without the god’s command,)
Their homely fare dispatch’d, the hungry band
Invade their trenchers next, and soon devour,
To mend the scanty meal, their cakes of flour.
Ascanius this observ’d, and smiling, said:
‘See! we devour the plates on which we fed.’
Aeneid, Book VII, translated by John Dryden (The italics are added for emphasis.)
Here, in the United States of America, we are, to various degrees, cognizant with the concept “pizza”. After all, it is said that it was in New York City where the Italian immigrants engendered a new and different style of pizza, i.e., the New York style pizza, in the early 1900s. Since then, the New York pizza, and other divergent American types of pizza, have become a favorite food genera in America and abroad. According to The American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition), The word “pizza” is defined as follows: “[noun:] A baked pie of Italian origin consisting of a shallow breadlike crust covered with toppings such as seasoned tomato sauce, cheese, sausage, or olives.” It is of importance to understand that for the Neapolitans (who are distinct, not separate, from Italians), the Neapolitan pizza fundamentally and mostly subconsciously signifies something more than just “a shallow breadlike crust covered with toppings”. It is more than just a comestible item to eat and enjoy. It is also an “ism”, or “ismo” in Italian. Hence the concept “pizza napoletanismo”: the phenomenon of Neapolitan pizza, not merely as a culinary event, but also as a state of being Neapolitan.
In passing, I should warn the readers that, it is not easy, if possible at all, to fully capture an oral tradition, such as the Neapolitan pizza tradition, in words. A tradition is primarily experienced and kept alive by living it. This reminds me of the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates (469–399 BC) who left us no written records of his philosophy; nonetheless, he is regarded as one of the most distinguished and influential thinkers of Western civilization. Socrates had quite consciously decided not to write philosophy because for him philosophy had to be kept alive and in motion by living it, discussing it, having live dialogues.
§2. A MATTER OF INTERPRETATION
It is one thing to know a tradition and another thing to interpret what one seems to know about the tradition. As German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) insists, knowing is always perspective knowing, that knowledge is interpretive and never absolute, that it always reflects perspective and context. Of course, Nietzsche does not imply that we can never comprehend anything at all, but that our ability to shift perspectives makes it possible for us to better understand a phenomenon: “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ will be.” (Genealogy of Morals, book 3:12)
From a phenomenological standpoint, the Neapolitan pizza manifests itself as a (1) historical and cultural ontogeny, (2) culinary tradition, (3) art, and (4) ontology or a way of being:
1) As an “ontogeny”, it involves the historical and cultural circumstances that have shaped this phenomenon into its present form, which has evolved throughout its saga.
2) As a “culinary tradition”, which is an oral tradition for the most part, it involves specific methodologies, techniques, rituals, ingredients, and tools in preparing and baking pizzas in accordance with the gastronomical sensibility of the Neapolitan people.
3) As an “art”, it involves a creative process, which entails, in a cyclical fashion, (1) experimenting with the spatio-temporal mediums of this art (2) examining their objectifications or end results, and (3) evaluating the creative process used in this endeavor. Also, above all, it imperatively involves self-reflection and self-direction in order to recreate oneself (to build artistic “character”), besides creating the edible artwork! The interplay and interdependence between the creator and that which she or he creates is of vital importance in this art. This creative process finds practical and aesthetic expressions in this art.
4) As an “ontology” or “way of being”, the Neapolitan pizza, in a very subtle manner, serves as a symbol or metaphor which profoundly expresses a sentiment that is not even immediately or consciously fathomed by average Neapolitans, yet they participate in it whether they know it or not. In a sense, pizza to Neapolitans is what the book The Epic of Kings is to Persians. After the Arab Empire conquered Persia in 7th century AD, the conquerors began to systematically divest the Persians of their language, heritage, and culture. Ferdowsi (940-1020), the illustrious poet and author of the book, sensed that the Islamic civilization was eclipsing the pre-Islamic identity and glory of Persia. So, to make a long story short, he authored the book, The Epic, which took him thirty excruciating years, in order to save the Persian language and culture therein. The book is a profound embodiment of the myths, customs, and traditions that shaped the pre-Islamic, Persian civilization. (An Egyptian scholar once remarked that a reason Egyptians speak Arabic today is because they did not have a Ferdowsi to preserve their own language.) So, today, Persians believe that true Persia exists in the book, as a home and as a source of their historical identity. Likewise, the same sentiment can be ascribed toward the Neapolitan Pizza. Indeed, when we engage in the ritual of making Neapolitan pizza, we are engaged in something more than a culinary tradition that needs to be approached with reverence and care. This elusive facet of the Neapolitan culture will be better understood when I provide, in my next article, a very brief account of history of Naples. La maschera di napoli (“The mask of Naples”)—i.e., Pulcinella—is also another integral aspect of the Neapolitan culture and identity, which I will cover in a future article.
Although the Neapolitan pizza seems to be an outcome of an ancient tradition that began in Naples, this prototypical pizza (from which the New York pizza is said to have originated) is still in its infancy here in the United States. It is often misconceived by the general public, and perhaps it will take time for the American public to develop a relative and appreciable understanding of the traditional Neapolitan pizza and its delicate gastronomy. In the American culture, where impulsive gastronomy, excessive emphasis on quantity rather than quality, super-sizing, and exaggerated use of ingredients often seem to be a general norm, I am not sure to what degree we can live up to the Neapolitan ideal. Of course, America is not Naples, where the gastronomical sensibility of the people is markedly different than the general American sensibility. Perhaps, it may be beneficial to cite an advice I was given by a Neapolitan pizzaiolo:
“If foreigners thoroughly understand the Neapolitan pizza tradition from our vantage point and learn how to fully appreciate it, then they may not need to distort it at all according to their own sensibility or in ways that are incompatible with our tradition. Of course, they should make pizza the way they enjoy, but should not name it ‘Neapolitan pizza’ if it does not conform to our tradition. Neapolitan pizza is a revered part of our culture and identity as the Neapolitan people, and it displeases us to see it deformed by opportunism or ignorance, as foreigners would not like to see someone distort symbols that are sacred to them.”
Consequently, I am of the conviction that one needs the right perspectives to properly approach and understand the Neapolitan phenomenon; in other words, one needs to learn about and participate, as much as possible and practical, in the Neapolitan culture in order to perceive the tradition from their unique perspective, not from an American perspective which has ironically shaped how non-Neapolitans around the world generally view pizza. In my estimation, no understanding of the Neapolitan pizza is complete without understanding the historical and cultural forces that have shaped the tradition over centuries. Understanding the Neapolitan history and culture can enhance one’s understanding of the Neapolitan pizza tradition, although they may seem irrelevant at first glance. Naturally, the Neapolitan pizza would be nonexistent today without the underlying cultural and historical ontogeny which serves as the foundation for the culinary tradition.
I believe no introduction to the traditional Neapolitan pizza can be all-encompassing in its scope, as this is a very rich and extensive tradition that did not come into being overnight. The Neapolitan pizza symbolically represents the centuries-old political and cultural ambitions of the Neapolitans in a subtle manner; it is a profound symbol of the spirit of the Neapolitan people. In due course, I will elaborate on this.
§4. TRADITION & AUTHENTICITY
It is imperative to understand what is meant by the phrase, “traditional Neapolitan pizza”. One ought to understand what it entails. What is a “tradition”? In general, a tradition is a fundamental frame of reference that provides a mode of commitment. More specifically, a tradition is a system of thought and behavior shared by a group of people. In addition, the system of thought and behavior gives the group a fundamental frame of orientation and an object of devotion (an ideal) to adhere to. At last, traditions, such as the Neapolitan pizza tradition, are historically and culturally informed.
The authenticity of Neapolitan pizza is fundamentally found in its traditionalism. The word “authentic” is a derivative of the Greek word αὐθέντης (authentēs), meaning “author”. In this sense, the Neapolitan tradition is the author—and the authority.
Therefore, to understand the authenticity of Neapolitan pizza, one ought to understand (to stand under) the Neapolitan tradition, and the historical and cultural forces which gave birth to it. To make authentic Neapolitan pizza, one needs to be committed to the tradition, i.e., to the system of thought and behavior.
§5. THE NEAPOLITAN PIZZA TRADITION
Anyone who wholeheartedly commits oneself to learn and understand the Neapolitan pizza tradition—which is, as I have already mentioned, an oral tradition—will soon be face-to-face with the issue of: Who is to say what the tradition entails? How is it supposed to be carried out? Who is to say which Neapolitan pizza is authentic and which is inauthentic? Verily, the issue of authenticity or traditionalism of the Neapolitan pizza has been a daunting controversy in and out of Naples. Perhaps, Antonio Pace (one of the founding fathers of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana) said it the best:
“Neapolitan pizza has no inventors, no fathers, no masters, but is the fruit of the creativity of the Neapolitan people.”
Yes, the people—not just any people, but the Neapolitan people. But, “people” is a tricky concept. It definitely does not imply a single individual; it may not convey a democratic process of establishing consensus among the people either. Perhaps, this is where a crucial role of artists (pizzaioli napoletani) becomes essential: to artistically bring to conscious awareness the spirit of a people, their aspirations, their creative potentials, their existential possibilities.
§6. ART & SEDUCTION
Neapolitan pizza is more than a Neapolitan way of preparing a flattened dough garnished with certain toppings. In Naples, pizza is a way of life and an integral part of the Neapolitan culture and society, so much so that it partly defines the identity of people of Naples. Making Neapolitan pizza is an “art”, perhaps in the fullest sense of the term: creatively sculpting from raw materials a symbolic artifact (arte factum, “something made with skill”) that aesthetically feeds the eyes and the soul, besides feeding the stomach. This process is akin to a sculptor transforming a pure piece of marble into a beatific work of art that seduces her or him to life! (Yes, art has the power to seduce one to life.) A pizzaiolo’s marble is the dough, and her or his hands are the chisels. By imposing form upon the formless mass of dough, a pizzaiolo creates a work of art that, unlike a sculpture or painting, can be intimately felt through the senses of smell, taste, and oral tactility.
§7. ARTISTIC CHARACTER
My philosophy is that recipes do not create pizzas, that what are more fundamental in making Neapolitan pizzas are the underlying principles and, above all, the character of the pizza-artisan. Consider Michelangelo’s statue “David”, which is a masterpiece of Renaissance art. Was it a recipe (a set of instructions) that essentially breathed life into the block of marble out of which “David” was born, or was it Michelangelo’s artistic character and following a set of principles—in accordance with the sensitivity, temperament, temperance, style, and virtues of his cultivated character—that begot this magnificent work of art? It is said that when Michelangelo carved “David”, he simply chiseled away whatever that was not human in the block of marble, and at last the creator set “David” free from the mass of marble. In his own words, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.” A pizzaiolo’s task is to do the same with his marble.
Whatever pizza recipe a pizzaiolo devises and the way he executes the recipe in crafting pizzas will directly correlate with his artistic character and the principles he apprehends and follows. In essence, it is one’s cultivated artistic character and the way one employs the principles of dough production that should dictate and animate a dough recipe.
Often I envisage that the quality and worth of a pizza is principally contingent upon the ethos or character of the pizzaiolo who gave birth to the pizza. Perhaps what is more decisive in preparing pizza is character (derived from the Greek word kharaktēr, meaning literally “a stamping tool”) rather than technical skills of a pizzaiolo. Besides, the right attitude fosters the right aptitude. According to Friedrich Nietzsche,
“Giving style to one’s character—a great and rare art! It is exercised by those who see all the strengths and weaknesses of their own nature and then comprehend them in an artistic plan until everything appears as art and reason . . . under a law of their own.” (Gay Science, book 4:290)
The pizza you make reflects your character.
§8. INSIDE-OUT PROCESS
As an art, learning how to create Neapolitan pizza fundamentally appears to be an inside-out process, involving psychological transformation, meaning that one needs to overcome internal (psychological) obstacles in order to overcome external (physical) obstacles in this artistic pursuit. One learns to create an artwork by recreating oneself, bringing one’s own impulses under control and sublimating them into new channels of activity. This carries the implication that, again, recipes and techniques do not make pizzas; they are merely instrumental in the act of creating. Something deeper or primordial seems to be at work here. Handcrafting pizza napoletana, as an artistic expression, involves self-actualization and self-expression, not devoid of devotion for the rich Neapolitan tradition—which is, figuratively speaking, the shoulders of a giant upon which a devotee must stand! The giant, dwelling in the subterranean labyrinths of Napoli, has already set the paradigm. And, there always will be a Theseus who will have to find the way out of the maze without being devoured by the Minotaur!
§9. ART & TRADITION
Art creates, not just copy. Some orthodox pizzaioli of Naples are of the belief, however vague, that the “evolution” of Neapolitan pizza was completed over a century ago (supposedly in 1889, when Queen Margherita visited Naples), that there is no more room for any changes or modifications. Does this conviction imply that the ideal pizza of Naples (i.e., the necessary qualities that make a pizza Neapolitan) has already reached the summit of its formal development and, therefore, the tradition should live on pristine? Or, does it imply that the two actual pizzas of Naples (i.e., Marinara and Margherita) are the ultimate material archetypes? Or, does it imply that the Neapolitan pizza is strictly defined in terms of both its formal (specific qualities) and material (specific ingredients) constituents as consummated in 1889? Whatever the case might be, the orthodox posture reminds me of the composer Ludwig van Beethoven, who was cognizant that to create new music, the old laws had to be broken or modified. According to Walter Kaufmann’s interpretation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of “the artist’s morality”,
“The great artist does not stick to any established code; yet his work is not lawless but has structure and form. Beethoven did not conform to the rules of Haydn or Mozart; yet his symphonies have form throughout. Their form and law Beethoven created with them [namely, the legacies of Hayden and Mozart]. To create involves going ‘beyond. . .’.”
(Nietzsche, Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist; Part 3:8, 4th Edition)
The man who sculpted “David” loved and copied ancient Greek and Roman statues, yet he set out to better them within their own traditions.
§10. ENIGMA & SUPERSTITION
Formation of a balanced dough can be an enigmatic process, filled with conundrums and surprises. Whence the enigma? In a literal sense, an inoculated dough is alive. As an organic mass, it is filled with millions of fermentative microorganisms that are sensitive and responsive to their surrounding environment. The hydrolytic, enzymatic, catalytic, and other reactions within dough evade direct human perception. Further, such chemical reactions are complex and contingent upon various variables (such as duration of time, temperature, humidity, pH level, protein and starch content, and etc.) that are difficult to control all at once. Hence, predicting the outcomes of these reactions with a high level of accuracy is a challenge. Therefore, one should not wonder why many have developed all kinds of procedures, rituals, and superstations (some of which are nonsensical and even neurotic) in respect to making dough. In making dough, often we implement steps for which we have no explanations other than “that’s what everybody else does” or “that’s what I have been told” or else. This is tantamount to laughing at a joke that has not been told yet. As German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) expresses, “Dare to think for yourself.” And, in this endeavor, perhaps it would be beneficial to heed the Socratic maxim: “True wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.” In other words, if one assumes that one knows everything, then one is not likely to question one’s own assumptions. Question everything; take nothing for granted. When knowledge is lacking, superstations often pervade.
§11. PRINCIPLE v. CONTENT
Once upon a time, a philosophy professor advised me as follows, “In learning anything, aim to understand the underlying principles as opposed to just memorizing the content; for if the content becomes obsolete, you will be obsolete with it if you have no knowledge of the principles that are at work. However, if you know the principles, then you can always create your own content.” Often, in learning how to make dough, we subserviently rely upon measurements and instructions as given in a recipe—without understanding the invisible principles which dictate the measurements and the instructions. As a result, once the recipe (the content) stops producing the desired results, the recipient becomes baffled in distraught. However, if the recipient understands the rationale (the principles) underlying the recipe, she or he can diagnose and hopefully solve the problem.
§12. SIMPLICITY (“Ockham’s Razor”)
In my opinion, the Neapolitan culinary tradition, as far as preparing pizza is concerned, is fundamentally predicated on simplicity in both dough formulation and procedures for its implementation. Hence, it is advisable to keep the entire undertaking as simple as possible. A principle of simplicity known as “Ockham’s razor”—which is commonly, yet subconsciously, used by professional pizzaioli—has practical application in this respect. According to scholastic philosopher William of Ockham (1288–1348), Entita non sunt multiplicanda praeter necessitate: “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity” or, more technically put, “The number of entities used to explain phenomena should not be increased unnecessarily”. In other words, of two or more possible explanations for a phenomenon (such as formation of dough), choose the one that explains what is to be explained with the fewest assumptions and explanatory principles. And, as the great Aristotle (384–322 B.C.) had advised, this is a “rational” (indicative of ratios and proportions) process. The eloquent statement of Pericles (495–429 B.C.) can serve as an exemplary motto, encapsulating the beliefs and ideals underlying the Neapolitan culinary tradition:
“We are lovers of beauty, yet simple in our tastes. . . .”
Since here we are concerned with causation in transforming wheat flour to a particular type of dough, Aristotle’s “four causes” may be of assistance. Aristotle, who had examined the nature of flour and bread, was of the belief that to understand a natural phenomenon (e.g., formation of dough), one should determine the four following causes thereof:
1. “Material Cause” (change produced out of which or what),
2. “Formal Cause” (change produced into which),
3. “Efficient Cause” (change produced by which), and
4. “Final Cause” (change produced for the sake of which)
If we walk on a beach and see footprints (the formal cause) on the sand, we can legitimately infer that a human being (the efficient cause) must have walked there before we did. Because of past experience, we might even be able to tell the person’s weight by examining the size and depth of the footprints. Pay heed that in the preceding example we reasoned backwardly, form the “footprints” (the formal cause, or “effect” as the modern science would call it) to the “human being” who efficiently caused the prints. So we reasoned from the knowledge of effect (the footprints) to the knowledge of cause (the human being) since we were not present at the beach to witness the occurrence. In our case, the formal cause is the Neapolitan dough that must possess the attributes that will be enumerated under section §16 below.
§13. GENERAL STAGES OF MAKING NEAPOLITAN DOUGH
In 1989, at a pizza festival in Naples, after I had devoured numerous pizzas and with no desire for more, I, nonetheless, tasted a pizza marinara that bewildered my taste buds. I piteously begged the pizzaiolo, with my terrible Italian, how he accomplished the feat. He did not seem burdened with my plea. So, to charm him, I lowered myself to my knees and desperately began to sing Giuseppe Verdi’s aria “Le minacce” from his opera La forza del destino, which I knew very well, word by word:
Le minacce, i fieri accenti
Portin seco in preda i venti;
O fratel, pietà, pietà! . . .
Fierce words and threats
Are carried off by the wind;
Forgive me, have pity,
Brother, have pity, have pity! . . .
After a round of applause by the festive onlookers, the maestro wrote down on a piece of greasy napkin the following (which took me a long time to decode and literally translate to English):
[Propound!] and attune your elements, water, salt, leaven, flour
Mix some partially
Hydrate the flour
Add the rest and knead
Make dough balls
More fermentation and Levitation
Don’t break your wrists, make love!
No measurements, no weights, no temperatures, no timings . . . It even reads like a poem! Perhaps, I can continue this trend, but in a more prosaic language. According to my construal of the Neapolitan tradition, stages of dough production (in a commercial environment, using either a fork mixer or double diving arms mixer) can be very briefly outlined—as a general guideline—in the following manner:
1. Mixing – The dough ingredients are schematically and methodically mixed in the following order (or a variation thereof):a. Water (the first element to be introduced into the mixer bowl)b. Sea saltc. Sourdough culture or baker’s yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae)d. Flour (by gradual addition)2. Kneading – The mixture is effectively and sufficiently kneaded in order to achieve:a. Consummate hydration of flourb. Formation of gluten (up to a point)c. Formation of internal dough structure and dough skin (up to a point)d. Homogeneity of the mixture in terms of its consistencye. Punto di pasta (point of pasta), which is the summation of all the above, “a” to “d”3. Repose4. Initial Fermentation – The dough mass undergoes the initial fermentation (warm fermentation, meaning no refrigeration) for a befitting period of time5. Forming Dough Balls – Dough balls are methodically formed out of the dough mass6. Final Fermentation – The dough balls undergo complementary fermentation (warm fermentation) for a suitable amount of time until dough maturation is reached
It is essential to understand that the above scheme is only one rendition; there are other variations.
§14. IT IS ALL IN THE DOUGH
As evident above, it takes perseverance, close attention to details, extensive experience—and, of course, passion—to learn how to craft Neapolitan pizza, employing the Neapolitan tradition as the foundation. According to the tradition, good pizza begins with the dough. I repeat emphatically: fundamentally, it is all in the DOUGH. In making Neapolitan pizza, extra attention and effort need to be poured into making Neapolitan dough, which is distinct from bread dough and other types of pizza dough. In this undertaking, again, the culinary tradition of making pizza needs to be respected, either as the destination or as the point of departure. The early Neapolitan pizzaioli employed certain dough techniques that they had inherited from their ancient predecessors. The advent of modernity, commercialism, and industrialization has caused abandonment of many of such techniques. Of course, the wheat flour produced today is characteristically different than the flour used in antiquity, even different than the flour used a century ago. Different types of flours often require different methodologies and techniques, although the fundamentals of dough production remain the same.
§15. METHODOLOGY & TECHNIQUE
So, without any compromise, extra attention and effort need to be put into making Neapolitan dough, which is traditionally composed of only four elements:
2. Sea salt;
3. Sourdough culture or baker’s yeast; and
4. Medium or slightly weaker strength wheat flour “type 00”.
And, of course, of primary concern are methodology and applicable techniques in metamorphosing a mixture of the above-mentioned elements into dough. In the context of dough production, the terms “methodology” and “technique” are defined as follows:
●Methodology: The systematic organization of knowledge of the principles and processes which cause and regulate dough formation, fermentation, and maturation.
●Technique: The term (derived from the ancient Greek word tekhnē, meaning “skill” or “art”) denotes a systematic procedure by which dough formation, fermentation, and maturation are accomplished by deliberation, skill, and command—not chance—in handling the fundamentals of dough production. Hence, this requires practical knowledge and special skills arising from extensive experience. It is the accumulation and organization of such knowledge and skills over a long period of time by the Neapolitan pizzaioli that eventually crystalized into an art as part of the culinary tradition of the Neapolitan pizza.
In making Neapolitan dough, employment of the right methodology and techniques are quite critical and decisive—not to mention utilization of the right dough mixer (such as a well-engineered fork mixer or double diving arms mixer) that can effectively knead the dough while properly regulating dough turbulence, friction, temperature, and oxygenation. Without the proper methodic handling—i.e., timely, orderly, skillfully, and schematically mixing the ingredients in a well-executed manner—dough may not optimally form. Throughout the process, dough should not be manipulated aimlessly. Handling dough needs to be executed deliberately and skillfully at every stage: during mixing, kneading, fermenting, forming dough balls, opening dough balls into discs, and etc.
A Neapolitan pizzeria can possess all the right ingredients and culinary tools, yet if the dough they produce is not properly prepared, the pizzas produced by the pizzeria will be gastronomically unmerited (by the conservative estimation) of the title “Neapolitan pizza”, does not matter how mouthwatering, flavorful, scrumptious, and Neapolitan-looking they are, and does not matter how people rave about them.
§16. ATTRIBUTES OF NEAPOLITAN PIZZA BASE AND CORNICIONE
Within the Neapolitan framework, there are diverse ways to accomplish balanced dough. However, whatever recipes—and techniques to execute the recipes—are used to create the dough, at the end they should produce a Neapolitan pizza base (i.e., the crust) that by the tradition should possess the following attributes:
1. Soft, thin, and non-crispy pizza base;
2. Pliable and slightly moist pizza base that does not break or crack when folded into what Neapolitans call portafoglio napoletano (Neapolitan wallet) or libretto napoletano (Neapolitan booklet);
3. Texturally light pizza base and cornicione that are not hard to chew (Neapolitans metaphorically refer to this as la scioglievolezza, meaning, “it easily melts in your mouth”);
4. Fluffy and airy cornicione that is inflated around the flat, roundish pizza disc (“roundish” does not mean perfectly round);
5. Pizza base that is not too thin for its flavors to get lost among other flavors;
6. Pizza base that is not too thick to suppress other flavors and make chewing uneasy;
7. Aromatic and full of subtle flavors;
8. Vivacious in color and composition;
9. Light and easily digestible
It is of utmost concernment to infer that the pizza base is more than a vessel embracing the toppings. According to the New York Times interview of June 25, 1989 with Salvatore Condurro of L’antica Pizzeria da Michele (a classic Neapolitan pizzeria of Naples that ardently advocates a fundamentalist approach toward preparing pizza):
“The first thing is the crust, it has got to be soft and light. That is why we always prepare the dough the day before it is used, using the smallest amount of yeast possible, letting it rise about 15 hours. Most places these days pour in loads of yeast to make the dough rise instantly. The result is a tough crust with a yeasty taste.”
In its September 25, 2002 issue, The Washington Post printed an article entitled “Naples, by Pizza Possessed”, which begins with the following account of a pizza-making contest in Naples:
“The pizzaiuolo, the pizzamaker, shuffled his feet nervously as he stood by the stern judge. He was defending his pizza’s crust—it was crunchy. Unfortunately for the contestant, crunchy is a no-no in the heartland of pizza. ‘Stupid move,’ the judge said tersely. ‘Why enter a contest of Neapolitan pizza if you can’t make one the right way?’ A hard crust may be something consumers across the globe associate with 21st-century pizza, but here crackle is unthinkable. Chewy is also out. Crust is not even a proper description for the billowy circumference of pizza. Neapolitans call it the crown, and it is as thin and light as pastry. . . . They [Neapolitans] are on guard against a kind of globalization boomerang. Italian foods that have won the hearts of consumers worldwide return to Italy in adulterated form: frozen, thick-crusted, piled with ingredients, as if volume could make up for artistry.”
It is necessary to minimize dough oxidation (distinct from dough “oxygenation”) from the moment mixing of the ingredients begins all the way to when the dough reaches maturity. (Oxidation is the rightful office of the Neapolitan oven, where oxidation accelerates to immense heights. Even then, the extraordinary thermal engineering of the faithful Neapolitan oven incredibly regulates the rate of oxidation whereby the texture and flavors of pizzas are preserved as long as the handling and timing is flawless.) Why minimizing oxidation? It is a scientific generalization that friction/heat promotes oxidation of matter. And, according to science of gastronomy, excessive oxidation deprives various types of human food of their lively colors, textures, and flavors. For instance, the more a piece of raw beef stake is oxidized (i.e., grilled), the more it loses its red color, tender texture, and flavor. Thus, the rate of oxidation needs to be carefully regulated.
The same principle applies to pizza dough. If using a mechanized mixer, such as a fork mixer or double diving arms mixer, the dough should be kneaded at a slow rate in order to minimize oxidation of dough and to minimize generation of gluten matrix to a proper degree. In addition, unreasonably Lengthy kneading and undue turbulence during kneading can also contribute to excessive dough oxidation and improper gluten formation. In general, the faster dough is kneaded and, hence, heated and oxidized,—the tougher, pale-colored, and less flavorful pizza base and cornicione will be produced at the end. Moreover, in general, the more gluten is generated in dough during kneading, the tougher pizza base and cornicione will be produced at the end. Lengthy, fast-speed kneading can damage, de-flavor, toughen, and bleach the vivacious white color of dough. Therefore, as a generalization, a baked dough is tougher, more bleached in color, and less flavorful in proportion to how much the dough is worked.
After the initial fermentation of dough is over, dough balls need to be methodically individuated from the dough mass. Sculpting dough balls is an important stage in dough production. After the dough balls are formed, they undergo further fermentation in order to procure a relaxed posture and buoyant constitution (i.e., dough maturation). Again, properly controlling the time and temperature is indispensable here.
At last, by employing specific techniques, the dough balls are drafted into dough discs and adorned with the toppings. How prosaically (cf. agitatamente or staccato) or poetically (cf. appassionato or animato) the hands draft the dough discs will greatly impact the gastronomic and aesthetic qualities of the pizzas. Moreover, this is a last chance for a pizza-artisan to physically stamp his signature on the blank dough canvas, and to find himself in his own creation. German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883) eloquently articulates this sentiment as follows:
“As man works on nature outside himself and changes it, he changes at the same time his own nature.”
As mentioned earlier, manipulating a dough ball upon opening it into a dough disc needs to be done with care and skill. A perfectly balanced dough can be ruined—in terms of texture and flavor—if it is mishandled. Banging on a dough disc, exhaust-stretching it, and incorporating excessive amount of flour therein will create a pizza base and cornicione that are bitterly insipid in flavor, heavy in texture, and unaesthetic to the look.
§18. FOR THE SAKE OF CRUST
From a rudimentary vantage point, the pizza toppings are there not for their own sake, but to accentuate the subtle flavors of the pizza base. Simply put, the toppings must not dominate and mask the flavors of the crust. By way of analogy, this is akin to an Italian bel canto opera, wherein the music played by the orchestra does not generally subdue, but elevates the voices of singers. In a sense, the music is merely a commentary upon what the singers sing. In the same vein, the pizza toppings are merely commentaries about the pizza base. (In Naples, it is not uncommon to view each distinct flavor of pizza as a musical note! Imagine the Italian composer Antonio Salieri relating to Mozart his sensation of a well-prepared pizza marinara: “With the first bite, the marinara tasted ridiculously simple . . . modest . . . unpretentious. The pungent, yet tempered, flavor of the crushed tomatoes lingered on, like a monotonous musical pulse—made by bassoons and basset horns! Then suddenly, high above it, the garlic—that is the oboe—as a single note appeared, hanging there unwavering, until the oregano—the clarinet—took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight. But, that was just the prelude, paving the way for the delicate flavor of the crust to deliver the final blow—the crescendo.”) Quantitatively balancing the toppings toward the crust and qualitatively harmonizing the flavors of the toppings, not against, but toward the flavors of the curst is the key.
§19. THE TEMPLE OF BRICKS
In this endeavor, the il forno napoletano (the Neapolitan oven) is not just a tool, but an indispensable ingredient—il quinto elemento (“the 5th element”, after water, salt, fermentative agent, and flour), which has the ancient Roman myth of Prometeo at its core. (Prometeo was a Titan who stole fire from the gods and bequeathed it to mortals for their benefit.) The brick oven is the sacred temple where the flavors of the toppings enchant one another for the sake of ornamenting the subtle flavors of the pizza base. Furthermore, the oven insinuates and blesses the pizza with a flavor and texture that it would not otherwise have. At last, in this marriage ritual, beneath the canopy (dome) of the oven, form (design) and matter (the dough and toppings) are wedded!—a work of art is born. And, borrowing the words of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768), a prominent German art scholar of the 18th century, “In the presence of this miracle of art, I forget all else, and I myself take a lofty position for the purpose of looking upon it in a worthier manner.” Alas, culinary art works have not been granted the status they deserve.
§20. SENSIBILITY & GASTRONOMY
Now, the sensitive issue of gastronomical sensibility! Briefly put, gastronomy is a very comprehensive science and art of good cuisine and good eating, plus the physiology of taste and smell, and anatomy of food textures, aromas, and flavors. In my observation, the Neapolitan gastronomical sensibility is different than the American sensibility as each culture values certain food characteristics. In general, the way Neapolitans enjoy their pizzas repels many Americans and vice versa. A cheese-less pizza (i.e., pizza marinara) is inconceivable for many Americans. While the jovial expression “a pizza without cheese is like a kiss without squeeze” captures an American way of feeling about pizza, Neapolitans poetically express their attitude as follows: “Pizza with cheese is like a beautiful blue sky bejeweled with patches of pure, white clouds; pizza without cheese is like a beautiful, sunny day where all is clear.”
On a visit, in 2001, to L’antica Pizzeria da Michele, a respectable American tourist, with whom I shared a table, made a comment, “Is this pizza or uncooked tomato pudding? These guys don’t know pizza. They should learn from us!” A French tourist, who also happened to be there, commented, after the American gentleman left, “Americans know how to eat, but not taste.” Europeans generally believe that Americans are gastronomically uneducated or not critical enough. Perhaps this assertion is meritorious. Many reputable European food and wine companies dump their substandard products (products that Europeans would not buy due to low quality) here in the US because they know we are uncritical judges of quality. Some of the imported Italian cheeses and wines—which we think of as the crème de la crème and pay top dollars for—are actually considered low-grade and inferior by the Italian standards. They sell them to us because they know that we do not know any better.
We need to train our taste buds in order to discern textures and flavors better and make more critical and informed value judgments. Like a pianist training her ears or a painter training his visual color perception, taste buds can be trained to consciously discern flavors that we did not even know were there. To untrained eyes, Michelangelo’s “David” may seem no more than a pretty piece of marble shaped in form of a man. However, to more sophisticated eyes, this masterpiece of Renaissance art may represent an embodiment of the ideals of humanity: beauty, truth, courage, strength, and wisdom.
§21. IL PIZZAIOLO
By legacy, a pizzaiolo napoletano is essentially a care, a burden, a culture-carrier—carrying centuries of customs, traditions, and history that go beyond just a culinary phenomenon, as we shall see in future articles. A pizzaiolo napoletano is a custodian of the Neapolitan tradition that he has inherited. Those of non-Neapolitan origin who aspire to take on this role should beware; being a pizzaiolo is ideally a solemn role in the Neapolitan society. Perhaps it is no surprise that a favored pizzaiolo of Naples, Gino Sorbillo, was popularly asked to participate in the mayoral race in 2011.
“Pizzaiolo” is a prestigious title in Naples that one earns after years of diligently working and accumulating experience in all kinds of culinary disciplines involved in a Neapolitan pizzeria. (The Italian suffix “-aiolo” or “-aiuolo” designates one who practices a profession.) One does not become a pizzaiolo overnight; it is a long commitment.
A pizzaiolo is well-disciplined as a dough preparer, banconista (one who assembles raw dough and toppings into pizzas), and fornaio (one who manages the oven and bakes pizzas). Besides having consummate mastery over such disciplines, an excellent pizzaiolo is fully aware of the virtues of all the ingredients to be employed, and the pizzaiolo is able to quickly adapt to the elemental limitations and the demands they impose on the pizzaiolo’s culinary efforts. Furthermore, a masterful pizzaiolo is able to quickly adapt to his environment, its limitations, and the demands the environment imposes on the pizzaiolo’s culinary efforts. A great pizzaiolo, with a great degree of accuracy predicts the outcomes of his culinary efforts, and the pizzaiolo is able to successfully modify or change course of action when a previous course of action becomes problematic. In doing so, the pizzaiolo does not compromise the integrity of the dough to be made into pizzas. At the end, the pizzas baked by the pizzaiolo reflect his character and creativity.
The journey into the genesis of Neapolitan pizza is an odyssey, and every odyssey has an inbuilt sense of return to a distant past. To move forward, we must look back!
Next article: Part 2: A Brief History of Naples