Pizza Napoletanismo

June 11, 2012

A Philosophy of Pizza Napoletanismo (Part 9: Being and Time)

“Celebration . . . is self-restraint, is attentiveness, is questioning, is meditating, is awaiting, is the step over into the more wakeful glimpse of the wonder—the wonder that a world is worlding around us at all, that there are beings rather than nothing, that things are and we ourselves are in their midst, that we ourselves are and yet barely know who we are, and barely know that we do not know all this.”

—Martin Heidegger

Pizzaiuolo at work (Pizzeria Trianon da Ciro, Naples)

Having so far briefly considered the Neapolitan pizza within its historical and cultural contexts, it should be clear by now that, as I stated before: “By legacy, a pizzaiuolo napoletano is essentially a care, a burden, a culture-carrier!carrying centuries of customs, traditions, and history that go beyond just a culinary phenomenon. . . . A pizzaiuolo napoletano is a custodian of the Neapolitan tradition that he has inherited.” Some of the pictures hereunder are amongst the most antique depictions of Neapolitan pizzaiuoli on the Internet. The pictures are quite revealing; they are silent and intangible manifestation of what German philosopher Martin Heidegger referred to as “Being and time”—which to him is a matter of celebration!

The pictures, below, are ordered chronologically, to the best of my knowledge, from past to present. The 1st picture (from Lessing Photo Archive) illustrates an ancient Roman mosaic, depicting a Roman baker (from the first half of 3rd century A.D.) who seems to be placing a bread dough inside a wood-fired oven. The Neapolitan ovens in service today strikingly appear similar to the oven in the picture. Although the Roman baker is no pizzaiuolo, he serves, if you will, as an archetypal image that surreptitiously glimpse into what was to come through waves of history!

The 2nd picture, origin of which is unknown, depicts a female who seems to be a Renaissance baker of some sort, baking what appears to be a flatbread, stuffed or not, inside a pan held over open fire.

The 3rd historic picture (from Civica Raccolta delle Stampe “Achille Bertarelli”, which holds the world’s largest collection of printed works in Milan, Italy) portrays a Neapolitan pizzaiuolo. The drawing was done in 1830. The 4th historic picture (from Francesco de Bourcard’s book Usi e Costumi di Napoli) is dated sometime between 1847 and 1866, the years wherein the author wrote the two-volume book. The 5th historic picture has been adopted from professor Antonio Mattozzi’s impressive book Una storia napoletana, published in 2009. Per the book, the drawing is from 1800s. My personal assumption is that it is from mid-1800s. The 6th picture, whose origin is unknown, is probably from mid-1800s as well. The 7th picture appears to be an actual photograph of unknown origin. It is probably from late 1800s. At last, the 8th picture is Don Luigi Condurro who has been working as a pizzaiuolo at L’antica Pizzeria da Michele since time immemorial!

With respect to the pictures, please take notice of the following factors:

1. The pizzaiuoli in the 3rd to 6th pictures appear to be outdoors, shouting and announcing to the public, “pizza, pizza, pizza”, as was a custom of that time. However, the pizzaiuoli in the 7th and 8th pictures are no longer outdoors, but indoors, inside actual pizzeriaswith chairs and tables enclosed within walls under a roof. As discussed in a previous article, it was around 1830 or early 1800s that actual pizzerias began, gradually, to be part of the Neapolitan social structure. As such, the two pizzaiuoli in the 7th picture are not shouting and selling, but crafting pizza on the bancone (workbench) inside a pizzeria.

2. The pizzaiuoli in the 3rd to 7th pictures are  equipped with mobile wooden banconi, which are identical in construction, except the 4th one. Don Luigi’s bancone, in the last picture, is not a mobile one as he works for a well-established pizzeria. Nonetheless, the two pizzaiuoli in the 7th picture utilize a mobile bancone, although they are indoor in a pizzeria.

3. The pizzaiuoli in the 3rd to 6th pictures are also equipped with knives, implying that, unlike today, Neapolitan pizza was sold by slice in those days. Some slices are already observable in the pictures. For whatever reason, the pizzaiuoli are holding the knives in the same position! No knives appear in the 7th and 8th pictures.

4. Perchance, we can visually figure out what pizza types are used in the 3rd to 6th pictures. The 5th one seems to have two kinds of pizza on the bancone: some kind of bianca (white) pizza (possibly using a partial combination of toppings, as discussed before, such as lard, bacon, cheese, garlic, herbs, small fish, oil, and etc.) and some kind of rossa (red) pizza with tomato and fior di latte or mozzarella di bufala. The 3rd and 4th pictures seem to show white pizzas as well. I make no conjectures as to the 6th one since the picture is not in color.

5. All the pizzaiuoli in the pictures are wearing hats and aprons. Notice that each pizzaiuoli in the 3rd, 5th, and 6th picture is wearing stripped shirts, which is believed to had been fashionable amongst the Neapolitan sailors and lazzaroni. Interesting!

1. Ancient Roman Baker Mosaic (first half of 3rd century A.D.)

2. Possibly a Renaissance baker (1500s?)

3. Depiction of a Neapolitan pizzaiuolo (1830)

4. Depiction of a Neapolitan pizzaiuolo (1847-1866)

5. Depiction of a Neapolitan pizzaiuolo (Possibly from Mid-1800s)

6. Depiction of a Neapolitan pizzaiuolo (Possibly from mid-1800s)

7. Photograph of two Neapolitan Pizzaiuoli (possibly late 1800s)

8. Pizzaiuolo Don Luigi Condurro of da Michele (2011)

At last, let’s take a close look at the bancone, in the picture below, used by Don Luigi at L’antica Pizzeria da Michele. The bancone is not mobile, and it is, unlike the mobile ones above, topped with a slab of white marble. Moreover, it is not equipped with any kind of refrigeration. The bancone unpretentiously holds 7 pizza condiments only: (1) crushed tomatoes, (2) fior di latte, (3) garlic (4) oregano, (5) basil, (6) either grated pecorino or parmigiano reggiano, and (7) seed oil.

The bancone at L’antica Pizzeria da Michele, Naples

Here’s a Youtube video on da Michele:

Next article: Part 10: A Philosophy of Art

Previous article: Part 8: The Mask of Naples


May 13, 2012

A Philosophy of Pizza Napoletanismo (Part 7: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza)

This is possibly a Renaissance baker, baking her products in a pan held over open fire. This is probably one way the pre-modern pizzas were baked. (The origin of this image is unknown.)

So far, we have briefly considered the pizzas of Naples of the following historical periods (with the exception of 1700s):

●1889 by Raffaele Esposito,
●1847 to 1866 by Francesco de Bourcard,
●1835 by Alexandre Dumas,
●1700s by Vincenzo Corrado,
●1600s (early period) by Giambattista Basile, and
●1570 by Bartolomeo Scappi

As I mentioned, there is one period of the fragmentary history of Neapolitan pizza (i.e., the 1700s) which I deliberately have omitted to cover to any extent so far, mainly because I have not been able to obtain substantial, primary, historical documents to rely upon. Presumably, major developments occurred within that period, which marks the beginning of modernity. Although the pre-modern origins of pizza during the antiquity, Middle Ages, and Renaissance are shrouded in mystery, it seems that Neapolitan pizza, as we know it in the modern and post-modern eras, is a divergent development that began in early 1700s. Apparently, with the advent of modernity, a paradigm shift took place in the early 1700s in the way pizzas of Naples were perceived, prepared, and baked. We conspicuously noticed that the pre-modern pizzas described by Scappi in 1570 and by Giambattista Basile in early 1600s do not have much in common with the modern pizzas described by Dumas in 1835, with the pizzas described by Bourcard from 1847 to 1866, with the pizzas prepared by Esposito in 1889, and with what is deemed as the traditional Neapolitan pizza today in the post-modern Naples. It appears that pizzas of Naples in 1700s underwent major transformations—in terms of their logistics (employment of specific ingredients and tools), orchestration (the way of production), and gastronomy (physical and gustatory/organoleptic attributes of the end product). In addition, with the decline of Medieval feudalism and advent of industrialism and capitalism, the early pizzerias gradually began to emerge in this period. So, we would like to inquire into the changes that took place in 1700s—when dressing pizzas with tomatoes (pomodoro or pomo di oro in Italian, literally meaning “golden apple”) and baking them predominantly in wood-fired ovens (nowadays known as forno napoletano) presumably began to become culinary norms in Naples.

Depiction of a Neapolitan Pizzaiolo (19th century)

As a plant of the New World, tomatoes arrived in Naples, via Spain, in mid-1500s. (Year 1492 is referred to as the “Discovery of the Americas” by Christopher Columbus, who was from the Republic of Genoa. And, from 1503 to 1714, Naples was under occupation by the Spanish Empire.) In his cookbook titled Lo scalco alla moderna (“The Modern Steward”, published in Naples in 1692 and 1694), Antonio Latini (1642–1692) reflected what is said to be the oldest known recipes for tomato sauce. The book, however, does not contain any mentions of tomato sauce being used either on pizza or pasta. Later, a book authored by Vincenzo Corrado (Oria, 1736 – Naples, 1836) is said to report on the uses of tomatoes on both pizza and pasta in Naples. So far, I have not figured out which book by Corrado makes the reference. It might be his classic work Il cuoco galante (Gallant Cooking, published in 1773, which does not seem to have been translated to English yet) or some other book by him.

Vincenzo Corrado (Oria, 1736 – Naples, 1836)

Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture has issued a legal document, in association with the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (a Neapolitan pizza association, established in 1984 in Naples, which claims its function is to protect, preserve, and promote the traditional Neapolitan pizza), in order to have the European Union (EU) officially recognize and protect the true Neapolitan pizza as a Specialità tradizionale garantita (STG) or Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) product. The document is titled Disciplinare di Produzione della Specialità Tradizionale Garantita “pizza napoletana” (“Disciplinary Production Specifications of Traditional Speciality Guaranteed Pizza Napoletana”). Article 4 of the document (which appears, translated into English, in section “3.8” of the EU Commission Regulation) states:

“The first appearance of the ‘Pizza Napoletana’ may be dated back to the period between 1715 and 1725. Vincenzo Corrado, a native of the town of Oria, and chief cook for Prince Emanuele di Francavilla, in a treatise on the foodstuffs most commonly used in Naples, stated that the tomato was used to season pizza and macaroni, thereby associating two products which have been the source of the fame of the city of Naples and the reason for its inclusion in the history of gastronomy. This quotation [i.e., ‘the tomato was used to season pizza’] marks the official birth of the ‘Pizza Napoletana’, a disc of dough seasoned with tomato.” (The italics are added for emphasis.)

Since February 5, 2010, the EU has officially recognized la pizza napoletana as a STG (TSG) product.

In his fascinating book Pomodoro!: A History of the Tomato in Italy (published in 2010), David Gentilcore, a professor of modern early history, wrote about two Neapolitan physicians Achille Spatuzzi and Luigi Somma who researched on and wrote about the state of dietary health of the vast poor class of the Neapolitan society in mid-1800s. Gentilcore writes:

“. . . The Neapolitan doctors offer us invaluable evidence of two local uses of tomatoes. . . . They refer to the poor’s subsistence on something called pizza (and they italicized the word, for the particularly Neapolitan form they had in mind had not yet entered the Italian or any other language). They explained for the benefit of their readers that the pizza was seasoned on the top with an abundance of oil or pork fat, with cheese, oregano, garlic, parsley, mint leaves, with tomato especially in summer, and finally sometimes even with small fresh fish. Tomato was not a yet a basic element of pizza, but only one possibility among several. For those who could afford it, tomatoes appeared in another new guise: ‘They form the customary seasoning for macaroni, and not a day goes by when they don’t appear on the tables of the middle class. This is perhaps the earliest reference to pasta as a staple food, accompanied by a tomato sauce.” (The italic and bold letters are added for emphasis.)

The quoted passages from the doctors themselves are attributed to their work titled Saggi igienici e medici sull’alimentazione del popolo minuto di Napoli (“Food Hygiene and Medical Essays on the Common People of Naples”, published in 1863)

According to the Italian website “Taccuini Storici” (which offers a historical approach toward Italian cuisine):

“The pizza has ancient origins, some suggest even in the era of the Etruscans [about 500 BC]. Of course it was something that vaguely had the shape and appearance of the pizza today . . . The word [pizza] was voiced before the year one thousand, as in ‘pizza de pane’, and it was cited by 16th-century authors as a focaccia [a flat oven-baked Italian bread which may be topped with herbs or other ingredients] that accompanied meat and other comestibles, may be seasoned with mostacciuoli . . . Since about mid-18th century, pizza has been cooked in wood-fired ovens of the shops (which were often the dwellings of the shop owners) and sold in open-air stalls along the narrow streets and alleys of the city [Naples]. Balanced on his head, a boy would carry a ‘stufa’ [literally a ‘stove’; otherwise a cylindrical, copper, pizza box that maintained, up to a point, the temperature and moisture therein] to deliver warm pizzas to clients at their homes or to sell them in the streets while announcing himself with loud and sonorous calls.” (The italics are added for emphasis.)

Stufa boy (Naples, Italy, Mid-1900s)

Stufa boy delivering pizzas (Naples, Italy, Mid-1900s)

Stufa of Pizzeria da Michele (not L’antica Pizzeria da Michele)

Demonstrating how pizzas are placed inside stufa

Demonstrating how pizzas are placed inside stufa

According to section “3.8” of the EU Commission Regulation:

“There is no doubt that the first ‘pizzerie’ (pizzerias) appeared in Naples where, until the middle of the twentieth century, this product was exclusive to the city and its pizzerias. In the eighteenth century, the city already had several shops known as ‘pizzerias’. The King of Naples, Ferdinand of Bourbon [1751-1825], heard of their reputation and, in order to taste this dish in the typical Neapolitan tradition, breached court etiquette and visited one of the most renowned pizzerias. Since then the ‘pizzeria’ has become a fashionable location, a place devoted to the exclusive preparation of the ‘pizza’. The most popular and famous pizzas from Naples were the ‘Marinara’, created in 1734, and the ‘Margherita’, which dates from 1796-1810. The latter was presented to the Queen of Italy [i.e., Queen Margherita of Savoy] upon her visit to Naples in 1889, specifically on account of the colour of its seasoning (tomato, mozzarella and basil) which are reminiscent of the colours of the Italian flag.

Over time pizzerias appeared in every town in Italy and even abroad. However each of them, despite being located in a town other than Naples, has always linked its existence with the words “pizzeria napoletana”, or used a term which in some way evokes its link with Naples, where for more than 300 years this product has retained its authenticity.”

In regard to King Ferdinand of Bourbon (1751-1825), Deirdre Heekin and Caleb Barber reported in their enchanting cookbook In Late Winter We Ate Pears (published in 2009):

“A man named Antonio Testa [also known as ‘Ntuono’ or ‘Ntuono’] was baking in his small shop [said to be at ‘Salita S. Teresa’ near ‘Chiesa di Santa Teresa a Chiaia‘ or ‘Chiesa di Santa Teresa deli Scalzi‘] in Naples, plying the citizens with pizza and calzone, and causing a sensation, so much so that even the crowned head of Napoli could not resist the temptation. It is said with certainty that the Bourbon King Ferdinand I [1751-1825], defying all the rules of protocol, paid a visit to the bakery of Antonio Testa; he acquired a taste for the savory treat. But his wife the queen [Maria Carolina of Austria] detested the rustic simplicity of a single-plate meal. In the late-night hours . . . the king would disguise himself as a regular Neapolitan and dine at the city’s pizzeria and hope to never be caught by his wife.

It wasn’t until the next Bourbon monarch ruled that this round delicacy became acceptable in the aristocratic salons of Naples. Ferdinand II [1810-1859] commissioned another famous pizzaiolo, Don Domenico Testa, to offer his art in honor of the ladies of the court at the magnificent garden of the royal Capodimonte estate [known as Reggia di Capodimonte in Naples]. Brought to the king and queen by four horses in a royal carriage painted blue and gold, he served forth at the king and queen’s table, and this time the new queen [Maria Cristina of Savoy or Maria Theresa of Austria] gave no debate. Don Domenico’s pizza sent the king into such ecstasy that he bestowed the pizza maker with the title of Monzu, an honorable designation and a corruption of the French monsieur, which was reserved for only the French chefs de cuisine who worked in wealthy Neapolitan households. Ferdinand II is said to have been so enamored of such dishes from Campania, especially the pizza, that he had wood-fired ovens built into the palace so that he and his guests could delight in this fancy whenever he chose.”

I should point out that the book provides no citations for the historical information presented in the above-quoted passages. However, I have been informed that the history book titled La fine di un regno (“The End of a Kingdom”, published in 1895) by Italian historian Raffaele De Cesare (1845-1918) may partially or entirely support the historical information in the passages.

Per Virgil’s Golden Egg and Other Neapolitan Miraclesauthored by Michael Arthur Ledeen (published in 2011):

“. . . The pizza we know and love is distinctly modern. The ‘margherita’ was created in 1889, and named after Queen Margherita of Savoy, the wife of King Umberto I. By that time, pizza had acquired considerable fame—it made its first literary appearance in 1866—and had already been served at court. King Ferdinand II [1810-1859], perhaps the most beloved Neapolitan monarch, loved food to excess, and spent hours in the kitchen preparing lavish meals. In the mid-1830s he invited the city’s leading pizzaiolo, Domenico Testa, to the summer palace, Capodimonte (now a marvelous museum), where Testa prepared some twenty pizzas for the king and his guests.

This single dinner made Testa’s fame and fortune, because when Ferdinand asked him what he would like in payment for the meal, Testa said he wanted a title. Not a title of nobility, mind you, but he wanted to be able to call himself Monzù, a corruption of “Monsieur,” which was restricted to the personal chefs of Neapolitan aristocrats. The king readily agreed, and a few years later Testa opened a pizzeria in via Purgatorio, ‘Pizzeria di Monzù Testa.’ It was a huge success, led to other restaurants, and finally to immortality, when a famous popular actor wrote a smashingly successful comedy set in Testa’s pizzeria.

The Margherita, long since the most popular version, is patriotic pizza. It was created in 1889 by Raffaele Esposito, whose pizzeria was (and is) in via Sant’Anna di Palazzo. In a replay of Testa’s triumphal dinner half a century earlier, Esposito was invited to Capodimonte, where he prepared a pizza with the colors of the Italian national flag . . . for Queen Margherita.”

I should point out that the book provides no citations for the historical information contained in the above-quoted passages. However, I have been informed that the history book titled La fine di un regno (“The End of a Kingdom”, published in 1895) by the Italian historian Raffaele De Cesare (1845-1918) may partially or entirely support the historical information in the passages.

Palace of Capodimonte (now a museum) in Naples, Italy

In respect to the oven, the website for the oven brand “Forno Napoletano” states:

“The authentic Neapolitan oven, produced according to centuries-old tradition handed down from generation to generation, . . . is a key element for the production of Neapolitan pizza. The particular method of construction and special materials (such as the Neapolitan yellow tuff stones, Vesuvius volcanic sand, and oven hearth made out of biscotto di Sorrento) have been known since the birth of Neapolitan pizza in Naples in early 1700s. First the famous Ntuono, and later his son Domenico, were known for their knowledge of the secrets of crafting Neapolitan ovens in 1700s and 1800s, so that Domenico was called to the court in 1832 by King Ferdinand II to build a pizza oven in the garden of Palace of Capodimonte.”

Reportedly, until about 1830, pizza was sold out of street stalls and by street vendors. Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, located in Naples, is a case in point. According to Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletano, the pizzeria initially produced pizzas for the street vendors in 1738, the year the pizzeria was established. About a century later, in 1830, it became a full-fledged pizzeria-osteria with tables and chairs. Thereafter, the pizzeria took on the name Port’Alba.

One possible explanation for the emergence of the early pizzerias might be found in the decline of the Feudal Age (roughly, 9th-17th century). When the European feudalism and manorialism gradually subsided, serfs were no longer under obligation (bondage) to their feudal lords. (In addition, the French Revolution of 1789–1799 and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars of 1803–1815 further dismantled the feudal and manorial institutions of Naples and reshaped its economy and life.) Consequently, the Neapolitan serfs needed a new mode of subsistence, which meant that in the ensuing age (i.e., the age of modernity), they needed jobs or professions in order to make wages and support themselves. Hence, it seems logical that people (such as, perhaps, the lazzaroni, as an outcast social class) were compelled to migrate to metropolitan centers of Naples and take on professions. If this is what indeed happened to the lazzaroni (who reportedly had a reputation for being excellent cooks), perhaps we can hypothesize that they brought with them a revolutionary way of preparing pizzas in 1700s! As I mentioned before, in part 5, “One should wonder to what extent the lazzaroni participated in the development of Neapolitan pizza [and even the Neapolitan oven and early pizzerias] as known today in Naples.” Perchance, poverty and necessity impelled them to consume tomatoes (which were reportedly deemed to be poisonously inedible) and use them to season their pizzas—maybe even prior to 1700’s—rather than using sugar and almonds which seem to be the customary pizza ingredients of the pre-modern era as implied by Scappi and Basile. Might it be the case that, under the new societal and economic circumstances of post-feudal Naples, the influx of the lazzaroni (who reportedly were an isolated social class) to the metropolitan centers of Naples ushered in the advent of a novel culinary tradition of preparing Neapolitan pizza—a practice that may had already existed amongst the lazzaroni? Having researched history of Neapolitan pizza, I tentatively feel that the art of Neapolitan pizza, on one hand, and the arts of flamenco and tango, on the other hand, were developed in parallel, meaning that I see, in principle, certain developmental similarities between the two. Flamenco and tango were originally the art forms of the impoverished outcasts of Spain and Argentina respectively; nonetheless, nowadays these art forms—akin to the art of Neapolitan pizza—are considered national treasures of their respective nations and are enjoyed by all social classes, both poor and rich.

Here’s an English-translated version of Vittorio De Sica’s film “L’oro di Napoli” (“The Gold of Naples”), which discloses a bit of the history of Neapolitan pizza. The movie, which was debuted in 1954, is a remarkable bouquet of six short stories as a homage to the people of Naples—la città delle contraddizioni (“the city of contradictions”), as the Neapolitans say! One of the stories features Sofia Loren as a lusty pizzaiola who allegedly loses her wedding ring while stretching a dough ball (for making fried pizza) as her husband mans the pan of hot oil and keeps records of the pizza credits/loans he extends to his patrons. As the saying goes (written on the sign behind the characters in the first two pictures below), “Mangiate oggi e pagate fra 8 giorni” (“Eat today and pay in eight days”). Pizza loan was a Neapolitan custom at the time. Obviously, pizza—besides having a humble origin—was a street food for the poor class of Neapolitans, who bought them on credit! As revealed in the movie, this is how early pizzerias were before the rise of the full-fledged pizzerias in Naples: modest houses consisting of tiny rooms that directly open to the streets. In such humble houses, the pizzaioli and their families both lived and made pizzas for sale. Today, Pizzeria Starita, established in 1901, still stands at the very site where Sofia Loren made the pizzas in the movie. According to the website “Luciano Pignataro” (a prominent Italian website dedicated to pizza and other Italian foodstuffs): “Antonio Starita [the current proprietor of the pizzeria] was 12 years old when the staff of the film ‘L’Oro di Napoli’, directed by Vittorio de Sica, spent a week in the pizzeria which was the location of the scene.”

Sofia Loren in “L’oro di Napoli” (“The Gold of Naples”)

Sofia Loren in “L’oro di Napoli” (“The Gold of Naples”)

Pizzeria Starita (Naples, Italy)

As I stated in my initial article in this blog, “The genesis of this phenomenon [of la pizza napoletana] can be arguably traced back to the ancient Romans.” The supposed pizza references of antiquity (such as found in the epic poem Aeneid, authored by the ancient Roman poet Virgil¹) may serve as zygotes of this phenomenon, which eventually developed into what we know as the traditional Neapolitan pizza of today.

“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.)

A bust of Publius Vergilius Maro (aka Virgil) in Naples, Italy

Considering the complex history of Naples, its origins, and its way of life, it is important to understand the distinction between the Italians and the Neapolitans. In an interview, when Barbara Walter referred to Sofia Loren as an “Italian”, Sofia remarked: “But I’m not Italian, I am Neapolitan! It’s another [thing]!” Likewise, it is essential to discern and comprehend that the traditional Neapolitan pizza of the modern/post-modern era differs significantly from other styles of pizza outside of Naples. The logistics (employment of specific ingredients and tools), orchestration (the way of production), and gastronomy (physical and gustatory attributes of the end product) of the traditional Neapolitan pizza markedly distinguish it from the rest.

¹ Publius Vergilius Maro (aka Virgil) plays a significant role in the history of Naples. He was schooled in Epicurean philosophy in Naples, per Catalepton, and buried there. According to Wikipedia:

“When Virgil died at Brindisi in 19 BCE, he asked that his ashes be taken back to his villa just outside of Naples. There a shrine was created for him, and sacred rites were held every year on his birthday. He was given the rites of a heros or hero, at whose tomb the devout may find protection and counsel (as from Orpheus’ oracular head). Virgil’s tomb became a place of pilgrimage for many centuries, and Petrarch and Boccaccio found their way to the shrine. It is said that the nearby Chiesa della Santa Maria di Piedigrotta was erected by the Church authorities to neutralise this pagan adoration and ‘Christianise’ the site. The tomb however, is a tourist attraction, and still sports a tripod burner originally dedicated to Apollo.

 It is said that Virgil’s Bones protected Naples for many years, and attackers usually suffered from plagues of flies. (It is interesting that one of the legends of Virgil has him constructing a Magic Fly to control the Neapolitan flies. Like the hero Heracles, he appealed to Zeus Muiagros, or Fly Catcher. Gervase of Tilbury knew of two churches that used Virgil’s spell to control flies.) Eventually, in 1194 Emperor Henry VI, who was well-schooled in classical lore, was able to conquer Naples, for it had been discovered that there was a minute crack in the ampule. Thus the Hermetic seal was broken, and Naples fell by force of arms for the first time in a thousand years.

 It is said that a certain English scholar Ludowicus, acting secretly for the Norman king Roger II (c.1136 CE), who was trying to conquer Naples, came looking for Virgil’s bones and his book of magic. Using secret arts Ludowicus found them. The people of Naples prevented him from taking the bones because they protected the city, but he was allowed to take the book, the Ars Notaria. John of Naples showed parts of this book to Gervase of Tilbury around the year 1200. The bones were placed in an ampule (ampulla) in the Castel dell’Ovo, where they guarded the city. (Many cities were similarly protected by heroes; for example Aristotle’s bones guarded Palermo, and other cities were protected by Orpheus, Hesiod, Alcmene, Plato and others.) Other sources say that it was Robert of Anjou who placed Virgil’s bones there.”

The poem inscribed at Virgil’s tomb, ascribed to the poet himself, reads, “Mantua bore me, the Calabrians snatched me away, now Naples holds me. . . .” It has been said that without the literary works of Virgil—and those of immortal Dante’s—the Italian literature would receive an indefensible blow! There are those who view Naples as “the armpit of the world”!—they know not, alas, of its rich history and cultural importance. Fortunately, there are still those who make offerings of Pizza at Virgil’s tomb!

The Piedigrotta entrance to the tunnel reputed to be Virgil’s tomb in Naples, Italy

Next article: Part 8: The Mask of Naples

Previous article: Part 6: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza

September 27, 2011

A Philosophy of Pizza Napoletanismo (Part 1: Introduction)

Pizza Marinara & Margherita by L’antica Pizzeria da Michele in Naples, Italy

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, historicallygastronomicallyartistically, 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.

City of Naples located in Campania, Italy

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.

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.

Pulcinella, La Maschera di Napoli (The Mask of Naples)

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 many practitioners, and perhaps it will take time for Americans to develop a relative and appreciable understanding of the traditional Neapolitan pizza and its simple yet complex gastronomy. Of course, making Neapolitan pizza is not quantum physics. It is simple; Neapolitan pizza is an offspring of “simplicity” and “balance”, which constitute its “beauty”. Yet underlying the apparent simplicity is an uneasy complexity with multifarious facets. For a practitioner, it takes time for the simplicity to emerge into her or his sensibility—after toiling at learning and hard work. 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.

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.

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.”

Antonio Pace among the Neapolitan pizzaioli

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.

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.

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.

Michelangelo’s “David”

Metamorphosis of pizzaiolo’s “marble”

Metamorphosis of pizzaiolo’s “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.

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!

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.

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.

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. . . .”

Bust of Pericles (Roman copy, 430 B.C.)

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.

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;
Perdonatemi, pietà,
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 salt
    c. 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 flour
    b. 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 consistency
    e. Punto di pasta (point of pasta), which is the summation of all the above, “a” to “d”
3. Repose
4. Initial Fermentation – The dough mass undergoes the initial fermentation (warm fermentation, meaning no refrigeration) for a befitting period of time
5. Forming Dough Balls – Dough balls are methodically formed out of the dough mass
6. 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.

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.

So, without any compromise, extra attention and effort need to be put into making Neapolitan dough, which is traditionally composed of only four elements:

1. Water;
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.

Double diving arms mixer (left) & fork mixer (right)

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.

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

Portafoglio/Libretto napoletano (Neapolitan wallet/booklet) by pizzaiolo Ciro Salvo

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.”

Dr. Karl Marx (1818–1883)

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.

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.

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.

The Neapolitan oven at Il Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon, PA

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.

By legacy, a pizzaiolo napoletano is essentially a care, a burden, a culture-carriercarrying 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.

Pizzaiolo Don Luigi Condurro of L’antica Pizzeria da Michele, Naples 2011 (picture by Pizza Pilgrims)

§22. Odyssey
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

Create a free website or blog at