Pizza Napoletanismo

June 8, 2012

A Philosophy of Pizza Napoletanismo (Part 8: The Mask of Naples)

“Vedi Napoli e poi muori!” (See Naples and die!)
“Un paradiso abitato da diavoli!” (A paradise inhabited by devils!)
—Two popular Neapolitan proverbs


Those who visit Naples or spend some time exploring the city on the Internet, sooner or later will come across the clown-like character wearing a white dwarf hat, black half-mask, and white baggy garb. I am talking about the ubiquitous but shadowy character, Pulcinella, also known as la maschera di napoli (the mask of Naples). His presence is felt almost everywhere in Naples. His pictures and statuettes are omnipresent in the city. Even the two Neapolitan pizza associations of Naples, namely, Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana and Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani, have embraced this obscure character in their logos. Although he is an integral part of the Neapolitan culture, and although Neapolitans hold him in high esteem, he is barely understood by them consciously!

AVPN Logo (left) & APN Logo (right)

Who is this celebrated yet evasive character, Pulcinella? What is his relation to the city of Naples? Pulcinella—thought to be essentially a mythical character that has evolved, mutated, and/or transposed over centuries—is of nebulous origins, possibly traced back to ancient Greece and Rome. No one knows with certainty. However, we do know that since about 1500s (some assert 1600s) onward, this character has been set in motion in works of literature, puppetry, theater (e.g., la Commedia dell’Arte), and opera in Naples. Akin to Don Juan and Don Quixote, Pulcinella has been acclaimed with legendary status. This subject matter can be approached from various perspectives: folkloric, sociological, political, et cetera. Here, I opt to briefly consider this mysterious character from a psychological viewpoint.

Generally, Pulcinella is what Neapolitans call Napoletanità¹: a peculiar mode of being Neapolitan with all its characteristic virtues and vices. (The Italian word “napoletanismo” is synonymous with “napoletanità”, which is a word of the Neapolitan dialect.) More specifically, Pulcinella represents the underlying attitudes of Naples, its moods, its archetypal mental states, its conscience (con-science, “to know with”). Do not expect to find Pulcinella as a coherent character that can be comprehended without difficulties, for he is psychologically ridden with pairs of opposites! He is rational but irrational, wise yet foolish, ecstatic although melancholic, kind even so cruel, rich nonetheless a beggar, sober though intoxicated, full yet always hungry (especially for maccheroni and pizza). One can’t easily predict his behavior, his next mood, his next move. He defies sense and nonsense; he dares commonsense and uncommonsense; he challenges reason and unreason. He is a trickster, a prankster, a provocateur. He is preoccupied with provoking the authorities and people. He breaks the laws, yet he does not promote chaos; he wants chaos, but not lawlessness. If you, so to speak, ever see him, do not make him angry!—yet he gets angry if you don’t make him so. He will be your friend or foe depending on how you think of yourself. He will be a great teacher if you let him get under your skin. He is a master of irony and paradox. Some have even compared him with classical Greek philosopher Socrates, who was the “gadfly” of Athens, provoking the Athenians to think. Yet, do not expect Pulcinella to arouse you Socratically. He won’t tell you “To know the good is to do the good” or “To be or not to be is not the question. . . .” ; instead, he will smack you!

Pulcinella, The Mask of Naples

Psychologically speaking, Pulcinella can be construed as an upshot of what the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961) calls “collective unconscious”: the inherited, mutual, psychic life of the people below the conscious level. (A Jung’s thesis is that the collective unconscious is a myth making part of the human psyche. And, by “myth” he does not mean a lie or fable, but a very profound mode of communicating fundamental and collective human needs, fears, aspirations, and so on.) As such, if you ask an average Neapolitan who Pulcinella is, they often do not know what to say other than “a folk hero” or “a champion of the poor or working class” or else.

Why the mask? Those who have been to Naples and sensibly felt its mystique and mayhem, can tell you that Naples is a heaven that is laid right next to hell! (After all, the city, beautified with the Mediterranean Sea along its bay, lays in the shadow of an active volcano, Mount Vesuvius.) Once a native expressed to me, “Having chosen to live in the land that lies between fire (the volcano) and water (the Mediterranean Sea)—must tell you something about the inhabitants of this city.”

Naples, in between fire and water! (Photo by Mariusz Kluzniak)

Mount Vesuvius in Naples, Italy (Image by NASA)

Indeed, such duality characterizes the city—whose natives call it la città delle contraddizioni (the city of contradictions). During my nine-month stay in Naples in 1984, there were times that I embraced the city with unspeakable joy, and times when I was horrified by it. The affection and generosity of the people is immense, yet Naples can be a cruel place! Throughout its history, Naples has been afflicted with numerous wars, political atrocities, social injustice, hunger, famines, plagues, and other natural disasters; however, Neapolitans have always managed to regain their composure and make outstanding contributions to the city and the world.

The mask of pulcinella is symbolic of the apparent duality of life in Naples. Moreover, the mask is metaphoric of what transcends the mask, what is concealed behind it, namely, the people’s collective possibilities. That is to say, what beauties they can ascend to as a people and, conversely, what destructions they can succumb to. The mask is their own peculiar ways of collectively dealing with their affairs. The mask is Naples! And, few Neapolitans know that where there is a mask, there is a god that has not been recognized yet!

At last, the fact that Neapolitans associate la pizza napoletana with Pulcinella just goes to signify the eminence of the pizza, which is also symbolic of their historical identity.

La maschera di napoli

For those who are interested, an excellent paper, titled “Pulcinella, or the Metaphysics of the Nulla: in Between Politics and Theatre“, was published in 2010 on the origins and political significance of Pulcinella. The paper is authored by professor Agnes Horvath, an associate scholar with Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore (UCSC) in Milan, and it is available for purchase ($25.00) at Sage Journals.

Further, here is a free article, “The Neapolitan Hunchback“, about Pulcinella by historical novelist Charles Buet. (See pages 530 to 532.)

¹ Neapolitans often construe the term Napoletanità as an “illness”, that is a kind of illness that consumes one with feverish longing for Naples and everything it stands for, both good and bad. Most importantly, the Neapolitan music, songs, and—cuisine—are inextricably intertwined with this illness. La sfogliatellala pastierail casatielloil ragùmaccheronila Pizza, and etc. are all part of being Neapolitan.
Next article: Part 9: Being and Time
Previous article: Part 7: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza

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

May 11, 2012

A Philosophy of Pizza Napoletanismo (Part 6: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza)

Having so far made brief appreciation of the Neapolitan pizzas of the modern era (i.e., of year 1889 by Raffaele Esposito, of years 1847 to 1866 by Francesco de Bourcard, and of year 1835 by Alexandre Dumas) in the previous articles, now let us take a look at the pre-modern (i.e., the Renaissance) pizzas of Naples—or what was known as Neapolitan pizza (“da Napoli detta pizza”)—in year 1570.

In his Lectures on Philosophy of History, German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) argues that history does not move directly or straightforwardly toward progress or a goal, but develops dialectically or in a roundabout way that is not clear to consciousness and is filled with paradoxes, ironies, contradictions, and unconscious desires that lead to unintended consequences. Likewise, it seems that what we generally know as Neapolitan pizza today did not follow a straight path in its evolution. A case in point might be the Opera dell’arte del cucinare (Works of Art of Cooking), which is a recipe book, or even a culinary treatise, written by Bartolomeo Scappi (1500-1577). He was an eminent Renaissance chef, and not just a chef—but the papal chef in charge of the Vatican kitchen in Rome. According to Wikipedia:

“He [Scappi] acquired fame in 1570 when his monumental cookbook Opera dell’arte del cucinare was published. In the book he lists approximately 1000 recipes of the Renaissance cuisine and describes cooking techniques and tools, giving the first known picture of a fork. He declared parmesan to be the best cheese on earth. . . . Scappi revolutionized the kitchen of his time through new preparation methods and the use of ingredients imported from America. Scappi died on April 13, 1577 and was buried in the church of Santi Vincenzo and Anastasio alla Regola, dedicated to cooks and bakers.”

Bartolomeo Scappi (1500-1577), the Reneissance Chef

Bartolomeo Scappi’s recipe book “Opera dell’arte del cucinare” (1570)

The Vatican Kitchen, from Scappi’s “Opera dell’arte del cucinare” (1570)

In the book, Scappi provides several pizza recipes. Let us take a look at only three of the recipes:

“[Recipe] 128. To prepare flaky pizza, popularly called a dry napoleon (see footnote #1, below). Get a sheet of dough that is rolled out thin and made as the previous one. [That is, ‘make up a dough of two pounds of fine flour with six egg yolks, four ounces of breadcrumb that has soaked in either goat’s milk or a fat broth, an ounce and a half of leaven moistened with rosewater, three ounces of fine sugar, a suitable amount of salt and four ounces of butter. Knead the dough well for half an hour. Then make a very thin sheet of it. . . .’] Have a tourte pan ready, greased with melted butter, and on that pan put a rather thick sheet of that dough, and on that put ten more thin sheets, greased between each with butter and sprinkled with sugar and elderflower, dry or fresh. Bake it in an oven or braise it. When it is done, serve it hot with sugar and rosewater over it.”

“[Recipe] 121. To prepare a tourte with various ingredients, called pizza by Neapolitans. Get six ounces of shelled Milanese almonds, four ounces of shelled, soaked pinenuts, three ounces of fresh, pitted dates, three ounces of dried figs and three ounces of seeded muscatel raisins; grind all that up in a mortar. Into it add eight fresh raw egg yolks, six ounces of sugar, an ounce of ground cinnamon, an ounce and a half of crumbled musk-flavoured Neapolitan mostaccioli and four ounces of rosewater. When everything is mixed together, get a tourte pan that is greased and lined with a sheet of royal pastry dough (see footnote #2, below); into it put the filling, mixed with four ounces of fresh butter, letting it come up to no more than a finger in depth. Without it being covered, bake it in an oven. Serve it hot or cold, whichever you like. Into that pizza you can put anything that is seasoned.”

Bartolomeo Scappi’s Recipe #121 from the “Opera dell’arte del cucinare” (1570)

“[Recipe] 73. [The book editors specifically referred to this recipe as ‘Neapolitan pizza’.] To prepare a royal tourte with dove flesh, which Neapolitans call “Lady’s lips pizza” (see footnote #3, below). Get the flesh of three doves half roasted on a spit, with the skin, bones and gristle removed, along with the flesh of three boiled doves. Grind it all up in a mortar with four ounces of peeled dates, eight ounces of marzipan paste and four ounces of ground beef marrow—grind it all so finely that it can go through a colander. If you do not have any marzipan paste, use six ounces of Milanese almonds shelled in cold water and four ounces of fine sugar. Into all that add six fresh cream tops—if you do not have cream tops, a pound of fresh curds of ewe’s milk. When everything is put through the colander, put ten fresh uncooked egg yolks into it and four more ounces of fine sugar along with an ounce of cinnamon and half an ounce of cloves and nutmeg together. Have a tourte pan ready, lined with a sheet of somewhat thick dough. and with its flaky-pastry twist around it, made with fine flour, egg yolks, sugar, butter, rosewater and a suitable amount of salt. Put the filling into the pan in such a way that it does not come up too high. It is optional if you wish to bake it with an upper shell made like a shutter’s louvres, although it looks better open-faced and with only a glazing made of melted sugar and rosewater. Bake it in an oven as marzipan is done. When it is baked, serve it hot or cold as you like.”

1. “. . . The earliest appearance of a preparation called a pizza is in the so-called Manoscritto Lucano, ed. Michael Süthold, written in southern Italy at the beginning of Scappi’s century; a colophon makes its origin definite: in Nerula, 3 August 1524. The manuscript contains four sorts of pizza: Picza figliata (Recipe 57), Picza biancha (Recipe 77), Una altar picza (Recipe 78), and Picza riale (Recipe 86; see Scappi’s Recipe 73 above). None of those recipes seems to have made it into Scappi’s collection unchanged; most have some sort of upper crust whether plain or ornamental, like a tourte. See Riley’s comments about the genre in The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, 410.”

2. “Recipe 84 indicates that “royal dough” is a mixture of fine flour, rosewater, sugar and butter.”

3. “Pizza di bocca di Dama [‘Lady’s lips pizza’]. A distinction of most of the so-called royal tourtes (generally Recipes 73-80) is to contain thick cream (or fresh cheese curds or fresh ricotta) instead of, or as well as, ordinary cheese: these are richer custards. In its use of various cheeses, eggs and cream, this pizza of Scappi resembles the four pizzas found in Lucano manuscript (1524) in a general way; see the note in Recipe 128, below. In the edition of the manuscript by Süthold, Recipe 86 for Picza reale, the final recipe in that collection, calls for five varieties of fresh cheese, three of ricotta cheese, eggs, almonds, rosewater and sugar. The 1524 pizza has no meat, however, but may optionally include musk. (The modern boco di dame is described by Riley in the Oxford Companion to Italian Food, 57.) In a dialogue dating from the beginning of the 1600s, Vincenzo Giustiniani [an aristocratic Italian banker, art collector and intellectual of the late 16th and early 17th centuries] had a chauvinistic Neapolitan exclaim, ‘Our monks make things that  . . . give pleasure throughout the world’. . . . It is perhaps no coincidence that Sicily was recognized as the foremost producer of hard wheat at the time, even shipping it far beyond the Mediterranean world. . . .” (End of quote)

Bartolomeo Scappi’s “lady’s lips pizza” may had looked as shown in the picture hereunder. The pizza was prepared by Clifford A. Wright, following Scappi’s recipe.

Lady’s Lips Pizza by Clifford A. Wright

In early 1600s, Neapolitan author Giambattista Basile aka Giovanni Battista Basile (1575-1632) wrote a collection of Neapolitan fairy tales titled Lo cunto de li cunti, overo lo trattenimiento de peccerille (“The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones”, written in the Neapolitan dialect and posthumously published in 1634 and 1636). Sometimes the book is titled as Al Pentameròn, which influenced the fairy tales authored by Charles Perrault and the brothers Grimm. Folk tales such as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast, and etc. are amongst the collection of tales in the book.

Giambattista Basile (1575-1632)

In one of the tales, Basile reflected two pizza ingredients—”sugar” and “almonds”—which are also used in all the above-referenced recipes by Scappi. According to the tale “Two Little Pizzas”:

“Now it happened that Luceta needed to warm up a few carrots . . . and she said to her daughter, ‘My dear Marziella, go, darling, to the fountain, and fetch me a pitcher of water.’ ‘With pleasure, dear mother,’ answered her daughter, ‘but if you care for me give me a little pizza, which I’d like to eat with some of that fresh water.’ ‘Gladly,’ said her mother, and she went to a bread sack that was hanging on a hook and took from it a lovely little pizza—the day before she had baked bread—and gave it to the girl. Marziella put the pitcher on a head ring and went off to the fountain. . . .”

As Marziella stood filling the pitcher, there arrived an old woman. . . . Noticing that lovely pizza right when Marziella was about to take a bite out of it, she said, ‘My lovely girl, may the heavens bless you with good fortune if you give me a little of that pizza.’ Marziella, who had a stink of a queen about her, said, ‘Here, you can have the whole thing, my noble woman, and I’m sorry it’s not made of sugar and almonds, in which case I’d still give it to you with all of my heart.'”

[Later in the book, the author remarked], “The tale of the two little pizzas was truly a stuffed pizza, which everyone savored so much that they’re still licking their fingers.” (The italics are added for emphasis.)

It appears that “sugar” and “almonds” were among the primary ingredients of the pre-modern pizzas of the time, as “tomatoes” and “cheese” are the principal pizza toppings of the modern and post-modern eras.

Today, Scappi’s book is considered one of the invaluable sources on the history of Neapolitan cuisine of the Renaissance period. However, after glancing a bit at the above recipes, one can not help asking: Is Scappi referring to the same Neapolitan pizza extant today? Or, is he dealing with something of a different class of comestibles that has only the name “pizza” in common with what we reckon as Neapolitan pizza today? Might it be the case that different Neapolitan epochs have their own peculiar construals of pizza of Naples? What Scappi interpreted as pizza—within his specific cultural milieu—does not fit the standards of the cultural milieux within which Dumas, Bouchard, Esposito, and Antonio Pace (founder of Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana) found themselves. Take the eternal music of J.S. Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, which are part of the classical tradition that is well-documented for the most part: almost every generation of musicologists and conductors keep coming up with slightly or substantially different interpretations of their music. Who knows?—a millennium from present, Neapolitan pizza may not be the same! As Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher, figuratively stated in an aphorism that has been ascribed to him: “No man ever steps twice in the same river”, meaning that “flux” or “change” is a fundamental law of nature.

Lady’s Lips Pizza (left) by Lupetta & Margherita Pizza (right) by L’antica Pizzeria da Michele

Making interpretations and speculations about the tradition of Neapolitan pizza—an oral tradition that did not inscribe itself, for the most part, within the pages of history, and what literature has survived is scanty—can be a tricky business. In interpreting the surviving texts, it is difficult not to impose our own modes of thinking and thoughts upon them. In other words, it is easy to fall in the trap of wishful, prejudicial, or out-of-cultural-context thinking and construe these works in our own terms, without regarding the cultural frameworks that set the tradition in motion. Given the fragmentary nature of the original or doxographical texts that have survived, it seems to me that we can only make educated conjectures for the most part.

German philosopher Jürgen Habermas (b. 1929) insists that we are interpretive beings, that interpretation is fundamental to human condition, and even operative in formation of the human self. We are always interpreting others’ or our own mental and physical states. Am I sad or cheerful, displeased or pleased, chubby or skinny? When we stop at a red traffic light, we are already engaged in an act of interpreting the color red. The color red can have many other meanings: danger, communist, sexy, and etc. This demonstrates the ubiquity of interpretation—and diversification—in human societies. Perchance, the New York style pizza is an example! History appears, as Hegel puts forth, to be pregnant with paradoxes, ironies, contradictions, and unintended consequences—with “change”, however gradual and undetected, being the principle underlying them all.

Next article: Part 7: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza

Previous article: Part 5: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza

May 10, 2012

A Philosophy of Pizza Napoletanismo (Part 5: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza)

In the previous article, we made a brief appreciation of Francesco de Bouchard’s observation in respect to pizzas of Naples from 1847 to 1866. Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870), a French novelist who authored The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, traveled to Naples in 1835 (about 12 years before Bouchard commenced to write his book on Naples) and recorded his experiences in a journal that was published between 1841 and 1843 under the title Le Corricolo (“The Wagon”). The book is fascinating, to say the least! It was partially, and perhaps too literally, translated from French to English by A. Roland in 1845. Fortunately, the book, retitled Sketches of Naples by the publisher, is freely available on Google Books.

Alexandre Dumas (1855)

Let us see what Dumas relates about pizza in Naples in 1835. Although the quoted passages below are long and some of which may not seem germane, they are hopefully worth your while. Keep in mind that the book was written 26 years antecedent to Naples joining the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, and 54 years prior to Queen Margherita of Savoy being served the Pizza Margherita (named in her honor) in 1889 in Naples. In his Le Corricolo, Dumas writes:


. . .When we traverse Naples, with our liberal ideas, drawn, not from personal study of the people, but from the theories emitted by journalists, and glance lightly at that portion of the surface of this people whom we see lying almost naked upon the thresholds of palaces and in corners, where they eat, sleep and live, the heart is oppressed by the sight and we cry out, in a philanthropic transport: “The Neapolitans are the most wretched people on the globe.”

We deceive ourselves strangely. The Neapolitan of the lower class [known as lazzarone (lazzaroni, plural) or lazzaro (lazzari, plural), a peculiarly poor class of the Neapolitan society] is not wretched; for his necessities are in exact harmony with his desires. What does he wish to eat? A pizza [implying that pizza is a humble food] or a slice of watermelon suffices. How does he wish to sleep? A stone to place under his head is all that he requires to render his slumber delightful. His nudity which we regard as an affliction is, on the contrary, a pleasure in this ardent climate, where the sun clothes him with its warmth. What more magnificent canopy could be asked, to the palaces which lend him their steps, than the clear heaven which shines above? Is not, to him, each star that glitters in the firmament, a lamp burning at the feet of the Madonna! Does he not, with two grains, obtain sufficient each day to supply his wants and have an ample abundance remaining to pay, largely, the improvisator of the Môle and the conductor of the corricolo [wagon drawn by a horse]?

Corricolo Napoli (Neapolitan Wagon)


The Lazzaroni, alas, is passing away; those who desire to see him must come quickly. Naples lighted with gas, Naples with restaurants, Naples with bazars, frightens the careless child of the Môle. The lazzarone, like the red Indian, retires before the approach of civilization. The French occupation of 1799 gave the first blow to the lazzarone. At this period the lazzarone enjoyed all the prerogatives of his terrestrial paradise; he did not give more business to the tailor than our first father, before the fall; he drank in the sun at every pore. Curious and simple, as a child, the lazzarone soon became the friend of the French soldier, whom he had fought [in January of 1799]. But the French soldier, above all things, loves propriety; he accorded his friendship to the lazzarone, he consented to drink with him at the cabaret, to walk with him arm-in-arm; but on one condition, sine qua non, that the lazzarone should put on some clothing.

The lazzarone, proud of the example of his fathers, and of ten centuries of nudity, opposed the innovation for some time, but, at last, consented to make this sacrifice to friendship. This was the first step toward his destruction. After the first article of dress came the vest, after the vest will come the jacket. The day the lazzarone wears a jacket, the lazzarone will be no more; the lazzarone will have become extinct. . . . In the mean time, we have had the good fortune to be able to study this great passing race and will hasten to furnish data to the learned, by the aid of which, in their anthropological investigations, they may be enabled to ascertain the nature of the lazzarone.

The lazzarone is the oldest son of nature. . . . Other men have houses, other men have villas, other men have palaces, the lazzarone has the world. The lazzarone has no master, the lazzarone is amenable to no laws, the lazzarone is above social exigencies; he sleeps when he is sleepy, he eats when he is hungry, he drinks when he is thirsty. Other people rest when they are tired of work; the lazzarone, on the contrary, works when he is tired of resting. He works, not as in the north, . . . his labor is pleasant, careless, embellished by songs and drolleries; interrupted by laughter, and moments of idleness. This labor continues for an hour, a half-hour, ten minutes, or one minute, and in that time brings enough to supply all the necessities of the day. What is this labor? Heaven, only, knows. A trunk carried from the steamboat to the hotel, an Englishman conducted from the Môle to Chiaja, three fish, escaped from the net which contained them and sold to a cook, the hand extended at random in which the stranger laughingly lets fall an alms; such is the labor of the lazzarone.

As to his food, this is more easy to describe; for, although the lazzarone belongs to the species of omnivores, he, generally, eats but two things: the pizza and cocomero or watermelon.

The impression has gone out into the world, that the lazzarone lives upon macaroni; this is a great mistake, which it is time to correct. The macaroni is, it is true, a native of Naples; but, at the present time, it is an European dish, which has traveled like civilization, and which, like civilization, finds itself very far from its cradle. The macaroni, moreover, costs two sous a pound; which renders it inaccessible to the purse of the lazzarone; except upon Sundays and holidays. At all other times the lazzarone eats, as we have said, the pizza and the cocomero [watermelon]; the cocomero in summer, the pizza in winter. The pizza is a sort of bun [talmouse is the French word used by the author, meaning “cheese-cake” or “pastry shell with a filling of cheese”]; it is round, and made of the same dough as bread. It is of different sizes according to the price. A pizza of two farthings suffices for one person, a pizza of two sous is enough to satisfy a whole family. At first sight, the pizza appears to be a simple dish, upon examination it proves to be compound. The pizza is prepared with bacon, with lard, with cheese, with tomatoes, with [petits, “small”] fish.It is the gastronomic thermometer of the market. The price of the pizza rises and falls according to the abundance or scarcity of the year. When the fish-pizza sells at a half grain, the fishing has been good; when the oil-pizza sells at a grain, the yield of olives has been bad. The rate at which the pizza sells is, also, influenced by the greater or less degree of freshness; it will be easily understood that yesterday’s pizza will not bring the same price as today’s. For small purses, they have the pizza of a week old, which, if not agreeably, very advantageously, supplies the place of the sea-biscuit.

The pizza as we have said is the food of winter. On the first of May the pizza gives place to the cocomero; but the merchandise only, disappears, the merchant remains the same. The seller is like the ancient Janus, with a face which weeps upon the past and smiles upon the future. [Janus is an ancient Roman deity, guardian of doorways and gates and protector of the state in time of war. He is usually represented with two faces, so that he looks both forward and backward. According to Wikipedia, “In ancient Roman religion and mythology, Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions, thence also of gates, doors, doorways, endings and time. He is usually a two-faced god since he looks to the future and the past. The concepts of ‘January’ and ‘janitor’ are both based on aspects of Janus.”] On the said day the pizza-jolo [pizza maker] becomes the mellonaro [seller of melons]. The change does not even extend itself to the shop; the shop remains the same. A pannier of cocomeri instead of a basket of pizza is now carried; a sponge is passed over the traces of oil, bacon, lard, cheese, tomatoes and fish which have been left by the winter comestible and all is done; we pass to the comestible of the summer. Fine cocomeri come from Castellamare; they have an appearance at once exhilarating and tempting; the lively rose color of the pulp is heightened by its contrast with the black seed. But a good cocomero is dear; one of the size of an eight pound ball sells for from five to six sous. It is true that a cocomero of this size, in the hands of an adroit retailer, will be divided into ten or twelve pieces. Every opening of a cocomero is a new exhibition; the opponents stand opposite and each endeavors to surpass the other in the adroitness and impartiality with which he uses the knife in dividing it. The spectator judge. The mellonaro takes a cocomero from the flat pannier where it is piled, with twenty others, like cannon balls in an arsenal. He smells it, he raises it above his head like a Roman Emperor the globe of the world. He cries: “It is like fire!” which announces, in advance, that the pulp will be of the finest red. He cleaves it open at a single blow and presents the two hemispheres to the public one in each hand. If, instead of being red, the pulp of the cocomero is yellow or greenish, which indicates that it is of an inferior quality, the piece fails, the mellonaro is hooted, spit upon and cursed; three failures and the mellonaro is disgraced for ever. If the mellonaro perceives by its weight or odor that a cocomero is not good, he makes no avowal of the fact. On the contrary, he presents it, more boldly, to the people; he enumerates its fine qualities, he boasts of its savory pulp, he extols its icy juice: “You would like very much to eat this pulp! You would like much to drink its juice!” he cries; “but this is not for you; it is destined to delight more noble palates than yours. The king has ordered me to keep it for the queen.” (End of quote)

Lazzarone (Drawn by R. Armenise, 1884)

To take a closer look at the pizzas described by Dumas in the above-quoted passages, let us consider the pertinent part of the original French text side-by-side with a slightly different English translation thereof:

The original French text:

“La pizza est une espèce de talmouse comme on en fait à Saint-Denis; elle est de forme ronde et se pétrit de la même pâte que le pain. . . . Au premier abord, la pizza semble un mets simple; après examen, c’est un mets composé. La pizza est à l’huile, la pizza est au lard, la pizza est au saindoux, la pizza est au fromage, la pizza est aux tomates, la pizza est aux petits poissons; c’est le thermomètre gastronomique du marché: elle hausse ou baisse de prix, selon le cours des ingrédiens sus-désignés, selon l’abondance ou la disette de l’année. Quand la pizza aux poissons est à un demi-grain, c’est que la pêche a été bonne; quand la pizza à l’huile est à un grain, c’est que la récolte a été mauvaise. Puis une chose influe encore sur le cours de la pizza, c’est son plus ou moins de fraîcheur. . . .”

English translation:

“Pizza is a sort of talmouse [the French word for “cheese-cake” or “pastry shell with a filling of cheese”] like we bake at St.-Denis [in France], and is round in shape and molded by the same dough as bread. . . . At first glance, the pizza appears to be a simple dish; after examination, it manifests as a compound dish. The pizza is with oil, the pizza is with bacon, the pizza is with lard, the pizza is with cheese, the pizza is with tomato, the pizza is with small fish; it [pizza] is the gastronomic thermometer of the food market: it [pizza] increases or decreases in price depending on the course of the ingredients named above, depending on the abundance or scarcity of the year. When the pizza with fish is priced half a grain, the fishing has been good; when the pizza with oil sells at one grain, the harvest has been bad. The more or less degree of freshness of pizza also has an impact on its price. . . .”

Dumas’ overall description of Naples’ pizzas, extant in 1835, seems concentric with Bouchard’s description of pizza, extant between 1847 and 1866. While Dumas makes references to the following ingredients:

1. Bread dough,
2. Bacon,
3. Lard,
4. Cheese (It is not clear that exactly what type of cheese he refers to),
5. Tomatoes,
6. Small fish, and
7. Olive oil,

Bourcard makes references to the following constituents:

1. Oil,
2. Salt,
3. Oregano,
4. Garlic,
5. Cheese or formaggio (It is not clear that exactly what type of formaggio he refers to),
6. Lard,
7. Basil,
8. Tiny fish,
9. Muzzarella,
10. Prosciutto,
11. Tomatoes, and
12. Clams.

One should wonder to what extent the lazzaroni participated in the development of Pizza Napoletana as known today in Naples. Did it develop in their hands, for instance, the way Flamenco was developed in the hands of the gitanos (gypsies) of Spain, another race of similar social status as the lazzaroni? Below are pictures of lazzaroni boys of the modern era. (The pictures were found at the following websites: site #1 & site #2.) It is not known specifically when the photos were shot. For more information on lazzaroni, click on the following links: link 1 and link 2.

Lazzaroni boys of the modern era, Naples (the sources and dates of these pictures are unknown)

It has been said that Neapolitan pizza has a humble origin, inspired by poverty and necessity. How about art? Can the phenomenon of Neapolitan Pizza be viewed as a reconciliation, as some have suggested, with the traumatic history of Naples and its unfulfilled dreams of self-determination and independence? “History is the slaughter-bench at which the happiness of peoples, the wisdom of states, and the virtues of individuals have been victimized,” according to German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel (1770–1831). Can pain and suffering breed art? German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900) was of the conviction that “art” brings about “redemption” from life’s pain and suffering. Is it the case that Neapolitans basically have, however subconsciously, found solace in the pizza?—which is fundamentally an icon and reminder of their historical identity and the past glory of Naples.

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

Previous article: Part 4: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza

May 9, 2012

A Philosophy of Pizza Napoletanismo (Part 4: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza)

In an interview, Sen. Ciro Leone (the proprietor of Trianon da Ciro, a prominent Neapolitan pizzeria in Naples, Italy) stated: “But there is no ‘evolution’ of the pizza. Its tradition remains.” This is a puzzling statement made by Sen. Leone; I am not sure how to interpret it. Does he mean that the Neapolitan pizza never underwent any development and diversification from its earlier forms—that it fell as a complete package from the womb of time? Surely, every time-honored tradition has a beginning, however uncertain, and undergoes a developmental phase until it is cultivated and well-rooted in the culture which nourishes it. Or, does he imply that the evolution of the Neapolitan pizza has already reached the summit of its development and perfection, that there is no more room for change? Whatever the case might be, the history of Neapolitan pizza, however scanty and fragmented, should shed some light on this issue.

Sen. Ciro Leone, the proprietor of Trianon da Ciro in Naples, Italy

Having made a very brief appreciation of history of Naples in a previous article, let us now briefly and selectively consider, in this article and other future articles, certain pivitol points in the history of Neapolitan pizza, not in a chronological order but in a backward fashion, starting before the historic visit of Queen Margherita of the Kingdom of Italy to Naples in 1889. Bear in mind that Naples became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861. In 1866, Francesco de Bourcard, a writer who had great passion and admiration for the Neapolitan culture, completed a two-volume book on the lives of people of Naples. The book, titled Usi e Costumi di Napoli (Traditions and Customs of Naples), has been instrumental in understanding certain aspects of daily lives of the Neapolitans within a timespan from 1847 to 1866. According to the online version of “Libreria Neapolis” (Neapolis Library, located in Naples, Italy):

“Vent’anni impiegò, dal 1847 al 1866, Francesco de Bourcard per realizzare i due grossi volumi dedicati agli ‘Usi e costumi di Napoli e contorni descritti e dipinti’. Un’opera preziosa, sia per l’accurata descrizione di usanze del tempo, di personaggi popolari, feste, cerimonie, culti, che per i cento disegni acquerellati che ‘dipingono’ le descrizioni. Il libro è un’altra testimonianza dell’interesse che avvinse a Napoli scrittori di vari paesi: il De Bourcard era oriundo svizzero, nipote del Maresciallo De Bourcard capitano generale del Regno di Napoli, distintosi nella guerra dei sette anni e nella presa di Roma nel 1789-99. Il nipote si napoletanizzò perfettamente, studiò le cose di Napoli, volle offrire un atto di amore alla terra in cui era nato, dedicandosi alla non lieve fatica di mettere insieme scrittori e artisti in un’opera che – anche per la parte grafica – può dirsi monumentale per quei tempi.”

“It took twenty years, from 1847 to 1866, for Francis de Bourcard to build the two large volumes Traditions and Customs of Naples and Described and Painted Surroundings. It is valuable both for the accurate description of the customs of the time, popular characters, festivals, ceremonies, rituals, and for one hundred watercolor drawings that ‘paint’ the descriptions. The book is another testimony of the interest that gripped Naples writers of various countries: De Bourcard was a native of Switzerland, the grandson of Maresciallo De Bourcard, who was the Captain General of the Kingdom of Naples, and who distinguished himself in the Seven Years War and Capture of Rome in 1789-99. The grandson perfectly Neapolitanized, studied the affairs of Naples, desiring to offer an act of love for the land where he was born, dedicating himself, to no small effort, to bring together writers and artists in a work—even for the graphics—that is deemed monumental for its time.”

The Book “Usi e Costumi di Napoli” by Francesco de Bourcard

Il Pizzaiuolo (watercolor drawing from Francesco de Bouchard’s “Usi e Costumi di Napoli”)

The Oil Peddler (watercolor drawing from Francesco de Bouchard’s “Usi e Costumi di Napoli”)

The Eggs Vendor (watercolor drawing from Francesco de Bouchard’s “Usi e Costumi di Napoli”)

The Coffee Peddler (watercolor drawing from Francesco de Bouchard’s “Usi e Costumi di Napoli”)

The Zeppole Vendor (watercolor drawing from Francesco de Bouchard’s “Usi e Costumi di Napoli”)

The Sorbet Peddler (watercolor drawing from Francesco de Bouchard’s “Usi e Costumi di Napoli”)

In his illuminating book, Bourcard revealed some valuable information about the pizzas of Naples:

“Le pizze più ordinarie, dette coll’aglio e l’oglio, han per condimento l’olio, e sopra vi si sparge, oltre il sale, l’origano e spicchi d’aglio trinciati minutamente. Altre sono coperte di formaggio grattugiato e condite collo strutto, e allora vi si pone disopra qualche foglia di basilico. Alle prime spesso si aggiunge del pesce minuto; alle seconde delle sottili fette di muzzarella. Talora si fa uso di prosciutto affettato, di pomidoro, di arselle, ec. Talora ripiegando la pasta su se stessa se ne forma quel che chiamasi calzone.”

“The more ordinary pizzas, such as coll’aglio e l’oglio (“with garlic and oil”), have the oil for seasoning, and over it spreads, besides the salt, oregano and finely chopped garlic. Others are covered with formaggio grattugiato e condite collo strutto (grated cheese and seasoned neck lard), and then topped with a few leaves of basil. To the first one is often added tiny fish, to the second one thin slices of muzzarella. Sometimes you are using prosciutto slices, tomatoes, clams, and etc. Sometimes folding the dough over itself as what is called calzone.”

So, in the above-quoted passage, Bourcard basically describes two types of pizzas if I am not mistaken:

The 1st Pizza:
The first pizza contains oil, finely chopped garlic, oregano, and salt as toppings. Tiny fish are often added to the preceding toppings. Perhaps, the picture below exemplifies the described pizza.

Antichissima (“ancient”) pizza by Ciro Salvo: oil, garlic, oregano, & cecenielli (whitebait)

The 2nd Pizza:
The second pizza seems to bear formaggio grattugiato (“grated cheese”), seasoned lard, and basil leaves as toppings. Thin slices of mozzarella (spelled “muzzarella”) are often added to the preceding toppings. And, sometimes prosciutto, tomatoes, clams, and etc. Perchance, the picture below can serve as an example for the described pizza.

Pizza Mastunicola by Franco Pepe: pork lard, Romano, oregano, pepper, & basil

Some are of the belief that garnishing a pizza with tomatoes became customary only after Queen Margherita’s visit to Naples in 1889. Nontheless, the above-quoted passage seems to bear witness to the usage of tomatoes as a pizza topping prior to Raffaele Esposito preparing the Pizza Margherita for the Queen in 1889.

Pizza Margherita by L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in Naples, Italy

Next article: Part 5: Fragments of History of Neapolitan Pizza

Previous article: Part 3: The Mediterranean Phenomenon

May 1, 2012

A Philosophy of Pizza Napoletanismo (Part 2: A Brief History of Naples)

I posit that, Neapolitan pizza was not born in a vacuum!—that it is an aftermath of a tediously long historical process, which spans over a period of 2700 years. Accordingly, I think it would be beneficial to have a very brief historical perspective on the issue. In short, history of Naples is a melting pot of different civilizations (Greeks, Romans, Germanics, Byzantines, Normans, Arabs, Spaniards, French, and etc.) who have left their marks on the city that once upon a time was considered a jewel of Europe.

Naples has two distinct histories that are sometimes not easy to distinguish from one another: (1) Neapolitan history according to myths and (2) Neapolitan history according to historians. As claimed by legend, history of Naples begins when Parthenope, a Siren, was drowned and washed ashore on the Bay of Naples. When Parthenope’s singing voice could not allure Ulysses (“Odysseus”, in Greek), who was sailing past her, she became distraught and threw herself into the sea. Her corpse was washed up to the islet of Megaride (the site of Castel dell’Ovo in Naples), on the Bay of Naples, where the early Greek colonists discovered her corpse and arranged for a solemn burial on Pizzofalcone hill.

Islet of Megaride at Bay of Naples

Historians tell us that Naples was founded by a colony of Euboean Greeks of pre-antiquity, who migrated from the Greek island of Euboea to the Island of Ischia in the Bay of Naples. Around 750 B.C., they ventured onshore to Cumae, northwest of Naples. Thereafter, the Cumaeans established a settlement further inland on the hill of Pizzofalcone, which became known as the city of Parthenope. At last, around 470 B.C., the Cumaeans established another settlement further inland, which became known as Neapolis (meaning, New City), i.e., Naples.

Migration of the ancient Greeks from Euboea to the new territory, which became Naples

Neapolis (Naples), 470 BC

The ancient Greek became established as the language of the region. Later, Naples was incorporated in the Roman Republic until the Germanics, i.e., the Kingdom of Ostrogoths, took over the city after the decline of the Roman Empire around 467 A.D. Thereafter, the Byzantine Empire took over until the ducal period (the succession of dukes) commenced, whereby Naples gained its short-lived independence by about 840 A.D. Later, Naples became a kingdom as opposed to dukedom, ruled by various Neapolitan, French, and Spanish kings. For a long time, roughly from 1503 to 1714 A.D., Naples was a part of the Spanish Empire, whereby it became a center of arts, math, sciences, and philosophy. It is worthy of note that Naples has had an intimate connection to the world of music. Founded in 1737, Teatro di San Carlo in Naples is the oldest opera house in Italy and all of Europe. Once upon a time, when Naples used to be a music capital of Europe, some of the greatest composers dreamed of performing at the theater. Illustrious composers such Johann Adolph Hasse, J.C. Bach, Joseph Haydn, Christoph Willibald Gluck, Gioachino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini, Giuseppe Verdi, Giacomo Puccini, Pietro Mascagni, Umberto Giordano, and many more—they all have graced the theater with their immortal music.

Teatro di San Carlo (Naples, Italy)

Throughout the period of the Spanish occupation of Naples (1503 – 1714 A.D.), there were intermittent attempts to emancipate Naples from the Spanish Empire and make it independent again. After centuries of wars, economic hardship, and political uncertainty, by 1861 Naples joined the Kingdom of Italy (or, some assert that the Kingdom of Italy appropriated the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies) as part of the “Italian Unification” in order to put an end to foreign domination. (From 1816 to 1860, the Kingdom of Naples and Kingdom of Sicily were joined together as the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.) To this day, there are Neapolitans that are still against or are apprehensive about the Italian unification, and they view the event as an economic and political exploitation of the South by the North. There is currently a Neapolitan movement, amongst others, known as Movimento di Insorgenza Civile (Civil Insurgence Movement) which actively protests aspects of such alleged injustice against the South. Take notice, in the picture below, that only the southern half of Italy (what used to be the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies prior to the Italian unification) appears in the emblem adopted by the movement.

The official emblem adopted by “Movimento di Insorgenza Civile”

A poster by Insorgenza Civile, stating: "150 years of exploitation; You have been reduced to bone; It's time to change with INSORGENZA CIVILE!"

A poster by Insorgenza Civile, stating:
“150 years of exploitation;
You have been reduced to bone;
It’s time to change with INSORGENZA CIVILE!”

Several years after the Italian unification, the Queen of Italy, Margherita Maria Teresa Giovanna, ventured down to Naples to win the hearts of her new subjects. Reportedly, she diplomatically opted to enjoy some Neapolitan pizzas as a gesture of solidarity with the Neapolitans. According to American Heritage: Collections, Travel, and Great Writing On History, when the royal palace commissioned the Neapolitan pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito to create a pizza in honor of the visiting Queen, he prepared three varieties. And, “of the three contenders he created, the Queen strongly preferred the pie swathed in the colors of the Italian flag: red (tomato), green (basil), and white (mozzarella).”

Queen Margherita of the Kingdom of Italy

Per La Repubblica, an Italian journal, “Three varieties [of pizza] were prepared by Naples’ best pizzaiolo: one with oil, cheese, and basil; one with cecenielli (whitebait); and one with mozzarella and tomato to which the pizzaiolo’s wife, Maria Giovanna Brandi, added a basil leaf, inspired by the color of the Italian flag.”

This event, which unfolded on June 11, 1889, either at the royal palace Capodimonte or at the establishment today known as Pizzeria Brandi, underscores the cultural importance of the Neapolitan pizza—that it is more than just a comestible item. Perchance, queen Margherita reckoned that the way to the hearts of the Neapolitan people was through their pizzas, one of which—the one garnished with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil—was thereafter named after the Queen: “Pizza Margherita”.

La Pizza Margherita by L’antica Pizzeria da Michele

Nowadays, Neapolitans (not all!) celebrate the occasion by enacting the event of the Queen’s visit, as pictorially illustrated hereunder. Sometimes I wonder if the celebration is more about Pizza Margherita than Queen Margherita! No doubt, there is an aspect of sacredness to this humble source of nourishment. As pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia expresses, “This pizza isn’t just a food. It’s a way of beingNeapolitan. . . . The Queen did a publicity stunt in Naples to gain acceptance. In coming to Naples and eating their pizza, she let Neapolitans know she was a queen ‘of the people.'” In a future article, we shall see that Queen Margherita was not the first royalty encountering the beloved pizzas of Naples. Also, we shall see, in another future article, that it might be a dubious assumption that a pizza topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil was unprecedented before Queen Margherita’s visit to Naples.

Enactment of the Queen’s vist to Naples, June 11, 2009

Enactment of the Queen’s visit to Naples, June 11, 2009

Enactment of the Queen’s visit to Naples, June 11, 2009

Enactment of the Queen’s visit to Naples, June 11, 2009

It is notable that during the 10th century A.D., after the conquest of Malta and Sicily (which became the Emirate of Sicily) by the Moslem Arabs, many Islamic influences poured into Naples, which had made alliances with the Arabs in order to ward off the hostilities from the North. The first Arab attack on Sicily occurred in 652 A.D., and they were intermittently repeated until the eventual conquest which led to a long period of occupation by the Arabs (roughly 827-1091 A.D.).

Below are five maps from five historical periods of Italy: 1000, 1494, 1796, 1810, and 1861. (For more information on the maps click here.)

Four Maps of Italy from 1000 to 1810 AD

Italian Unification (1861)

Verily, Naples has a very rich history, not divorced from its culinary tradition as we shall see. It would be imprudent not to take the historical process into account in understanding the origins and evolution of Neapolitan pizza. The pizza is a symbol of Naples’ nostalgic longing for political independence, which never became eventual. Yet, the pizza has remained as a proof of their historical identity. It is in this sense that I stated in the previous article: “A pizzaiolo napoletano is a custodian of the Neapolitan tradition that he has inherited.”

For those who have further interest in history of Naples (particularly from a cultural perspective), The book Shadow of Vesuvius: A Cultural History of Naples by Dr. Jordan Lancaster is recommended. The book is enjoyably easy to read and understand, and it can be used as a guide for those who visit Naples.

Next article: Part 3: The Mediterranean Phenomenon

Previous article: Part 1: Introduction

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

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