Touchdown Napoli
(Dec 2014)

After a 48-hour journey (Jaipur > Taj Mahal > Delhi > Paris > Naples), my friend and I, hungry, disheveled and excited, finally landed in Naples, Italy. I have always had a penchant for Vespas and vintage Fiats and dreamt of road tripping across Italy in one of them. (Me and half the people in the planet haha) So we picked up our bags, made a beeline to the rental car center and rented a funny little Fiat. This car (luckily or unluckily not that vintage) would be our loyal companion during our escapade to the Amalfi Coast.

Having watched Roman Holiday a million times growing up and being an ardent pizza lover (and pizza-snob), this trip was more than a dream come true. Our first meal was going to be authentic Neapolitan pizza, at the birthplace of pizza. HELLS YEAH! Since this was going to be our only meal in the city before we set off to Amalfi, it was crucial that we choose the right pizzeria. After a ton of deliberation and some nudging from Julia Roberts, we settled on Da Michele.

Cloudy with a chance of pizza

With pizza on our minds and drool in our mouths, we whizzed out from the rental car center into the crazy, chaotic madness that was Naples. The roads were teeming with honking pint-sized cars, entire families on speeding scooters with papa at the front, mamma at the back and little Mario sandwiched in between, shouting obscenities in the most beautiful language ever spoken; scattering locals as they sped. Naples is quite unlike any other Italian city; it is dirty, reckless, chaotic, and yet so vibrant, bursting with energy, and unabashedly charming.

We squeezed through narrow streets, crisscrossed with laundry lines hanging from windows and across buildings, listening to Italian women screaming from their windows at their children playing football in the streets. We circled around Da Michele desperately trying to find a place to park our car. After what seem liked centuries (ok fine maybe an hour! I’m dramatic, I can’t help it, it runs in my veins), we finally struck a shady parking deal in what seemed liked someone’s garage. We were so ravenous that we would have joyfully traded in Fiat for a slice of pizza, had someone offered. Luckily, things were not that bad, not yet at least. Although, Naples being the land of the Camorra (Neapolitan Mafia) and all, who knows what could happen?

As soon as we stepped out of the garage, there was a loud clamoring, and tiny rocks started falling on us. Bewildered, we looked up to see the sky pouring down with tiny hailstones. I had never seen a hailstorm before, and it was simply amazing. We gleefully ran to take cover under the simple awnings of Da Michele.

L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele

Rumor has it that the lines outside Da Michele are akin to the crowds outside an Apple Store during the launch of a new iPhone. Luckily, the hailstorm dispersed all crowds when we got there, and we were seated almost immediately. FTW unexpected hailstorm!

A family-run pizzeria, Da Michele has been tossing ridiculously good Neapolitan pizzas since the first time it fired up its oven in 1870, shortly after the unification of Italy. Some interesting quirks at Da Michele and Italian pizzerias in general:
1> They only serve two kinds of pizza – margarita and marinara. Both are so darn good and make you wonder, why would you order anything else?
2> Toppings? Nope, can’t do. Simplicity is key.
3> Pizzas are cheap, 4euros a pie. Cash only.
4> You are expected to eat an entire pizza. We discovered that the hard way. We forgot to withdraw money at the ATM on the way over *smh* and had money for just about one pizza. So naturally we ordered ONE pizza (we even repeated the order to the server in Italian: “uno pizza” Lol). Guess what he did? He brought TWO! One WHOLE pizza for each person and was not willing to listen to our explanation. He neither had the patience to listen to our “Italian” nor the time for our BS. He shook his head furiously and walked away. I agree I’m a sort-of glutton, but I have never finished an entire pizza in one go. But that was besides the point really, we barely had money. Luckily, we discovered a stash of ten-cent euros at the bottom of our bags and paid the bill in coins. What a narrow escape! We came very close to spending the rest of our vacation washing dishes at Da Michele. That would have been something else huh? Anyhow, moving on.
5> You will be kicked out if you don’t eat the crusts. Haha, I kid. But nobody in the right frame of mind would waste a crust.
6> You will never see a pizza come pre-cut into slices. Deal with it!
7> Everything about this pizzeria exudes happiness and the pizza served inside is no exception.

The margarita pizza was so incredibly simple, and oh SO good. Where do I begin? The crust was thin and the right balance of doughy and crisp and ever so slightly burnt. The base was a juicy tomato sauce (made from San Marzano grown on volcanic soil FYI) and was topped with creamy clouds of fresh mozzarella, basil leaves (placed before the pizza is baked, lending it a dark green color and a delicately cooked taste) and drizzled with real extra Virgin Olive Oil. Flavor explosion with every bite, I tell you. I’m usually not a sucker for tomato-based pizzas or pasta, but this was something else. God damn! If there was ever a time to unbuckle your belt in public shamelessly, it was in Napoli, at Da Michele. No judgmental haters here, only pizza lovers and they would understand. Needless to say, we finished the entire pizza in less than Cinque minutes.

Pizza Police

Yeah, you read that right. 😉 La Vera Pizza or VPN is a title awarded by ‘Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana’ aka Pizza po-pos to pizzerias that adhere to traditional pizza-making methods. The pizzaiolo or the head pizza honcho is usually expected to have at least 2-3 years of apprenticeship up his sleeve. Some of the rules:

  1. The pizza must be baked in a wood-fired, domed oven at 485° C for no longer than 60 to 90 seconds.
  2. The pizza dough must be hand-kneaded. The dough stretching technique is critical.
  3. The pizza must not exceed 35 cm in diameter.

Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. The rest of the criterion list is lengthy but quite fascinating. Click here if you are interested to read more.

Man’s best invention since sliced bread: Pizza Margherita

In the 19th century, the Europeans greatly feared the tomato. When the Neapolitans realized that the tomatoes weren’t poisonous, they started consuming a lot of it (to make up for lost time) with baked bread dough. However, the pizza didn’t have a special title until the summer of 1889. In June of 1889, King Umberto I visited Naples to evaluate the progress of a road construction project he began four years earlier. While the king was busy inspecting roads, his wife (and cousin – gross!), Queen Margherita, was doing her royal duty… sampling pizzas 😛 At that time, the pizza was still only a Neapolitan specialty and had not yet spread to the rest of the newly unified country. The queen had heard a lot of this about this baked ‘pièce de résistance’ from the writers and artists at her court (the Yelp of the 18th century if you will ;)) and wanted to see what the buzz was.

Tucked away in a narrow alley in Napoli was a famous pizzeria “Pietro il Pizzaiolo” (called Pizzeria Brandi today). The Queen summoned its owner Esposito and told him of her wish. I suppose it’s not every day that the Queen comes knocking at your door asking you to cook for her, is it? And naturally Esposito was quite honored and thrilled. He then prepared three different kinds of pizzas for the esteemed Queen. One with small fish, another seasoned with cheese and olive oil and, finally, one of his creations: topped with mozzarella di buffala, crushed tomatoes and fresh basil; resembling the red-white-green colors of the Italian flag to honor the royal couple.

The Queen could not have enough of this tricolor version of pizza and lavished Esposito with praises. It was then that he decided to call his masterpiece “Pizza Margherita”. News of this spread and soon then there was pizza everywhere because if it’s good enough for the Queen, it’s good enough for everyone else eh? 😉

Thanks to a curious Queen, a patriotic pizzaiolo and a crazy city, our first six hours in Naples kicked butt. Here are some of my favorite postcards.

Hope you enjoyed seeing my photos as much as I enjoyed taking them. Signing off with some Vespa love.

Have you been to Naples? What did you think? Did you love the pizza or did you love it? 😉