Neapolitan pizza is an iconic symbol of Italian cuisine recognized around the world. In 2017, the art of Neapolitan pizza making was inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. This designation honors Naples, Italy as the birthplace of pizza and celebrates the tradition and community tied to this delicious flatbread.
The History of Neapolitan Pizza
The origins of pizza can be traced back to ancient times. Flatbreads with olive oil and herbs were consumed by various civilizations throughout the Mediterranean. However, pizza as we know it today has its roots in 16th-century Naples.
At the time, Naples was a bustling port city filled with working class citizens. Simple and fast meals were needed to nourish these busy people. Street vendors sold rounds of dough topped with olive oil, tomatoes, anchovies, and garlic in the poorer neighborhoods. These early pizzas were eaten quickly with the hands, as the working class did not have time for cutlery. This cheap street food was called “pizza” – derived from the Italian word pizzicare, meaning “to pinch or pluck.”
As pizza gained popularity, open-air pizzerias began to pop up throughout Naples. By the late 18th century, the first official pizzeria, Pizzeria Port’Alba, opened and served pizzas from street carts. Pizzerias became community gathering places, and pizza making developed into an art form.
In 1889, to honor Queen Margherita of Savoy’s visit to Naples, local pizzaiolo (pizza maker) Raffaele Esposito created the classic Pizza Margherita. The red (tomato sauce), white (mozzarella), and green (basil) was meant to represent the colors of the Italian flag. The Queen loved the pizza so much that it was named after her. This signature pie cemented pizza’s beloved status.
Soon after, waves of Neapolitan immigrants brought their pizza making skills abroad, introducing pizza to the world. By the mid-20th century, Neapolitan pizza claimed global fame as a culinary icon of Italy.
Defining Neapolitan Pizza: The Basics
So what makes Neapolitan pizza distinct? Authentic Neapolitan pizza adheres to specific ingredients, methods, and presentation.
The foundational ingredient is dough made from high protein Tipo 00 flour, Neapolitan sea salt, yeast, and water. No sugar or oil is permitted. The dough must be kneaded by hand and undergo a slow fermentation process. This results in a soft, chewy, and digestible crust.
For the sauce, only San Marzano tomatoes grown on the volcanic plains south of Mount Vesuvius can be used. These tomatoes have a low water content, few seeds, and intense sweet flavor. The tomatoes are crushed by hand or sliced thinly, with no chunks or purees permitted.
Fresh mozzarella cheese is mandatory, specifically mozzarella di bufala Campana DOP made from the milk of water buffalo raised in the Campania region. This soft, white cheese has a signature milky flavor and delicate texture that melts beautifully.
Lastly, Neapolitan pizza can only be baked in a wood-fired oven at extremely high temperatures, ideally around 900°F. This imparts a perfectly charred exterior and airy, tender interior to the crust.
The Art of Making Neapolitan Pizza
Crafting a perfect Neapolitan pizza requires years of apprenticeship, mentoring under a master pizzaiolo. Only with expertise can one master the nuances of dough prep, ingredient selection, and wood-fired baking.
The pizzaiolo’s work begins early in the morning by activating the yeast needed for the dough. The yeast is combined with flour and water then kneaded slowly by hand until smooth, never using mechanical mixers. This creates the extensible yet digestible dough structure.
The dough is divided into individual-sized balls then left to proof. As they rest, flavors develop and bubbles ferment within the dough. This slow rise of 24 hours or more is crucial for taste and texture.
When ready to prepare the pizzas, the pizzaiolo flattens and stretches each dough ball by hand into rounds. Ladling on the simple, fresh tomato sauce comes next. Drops of olive oil and pinches of sea salt balance the sweetness. Buffalo mozzarella is torn then layered on top, along with basil leaves.
The pizzaiolo closely monitors the rapidly firing wood oven throughout. The floor can reach unimaginable temperatures up to 1000°F. Using a long wooden peel, the pie is slid directly onto the baking surface. In just 60-90 seconds the crust bubbles and blackens beautifully. The pizzaiolo rotates the pizza for even results.
The blistered and charred masterpiece is finished with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of grated cheese. After a visual check, the pie is ready to be sliced and devoured immediately while hot.
The Characteristics of a True Neapolitan Pizza
A finished Neapolitan pizza right out of the 900°F oven is a sight to behold. Perfectly leopard-spotted from the intense heat, the blackened, puffy crust audibly crackles when sliced. Inside, the soft dough retains a lovely chew with slightly yeasty overtones.
The bright San Marzano sauce provides a sweet, fruity balance to the dough’s warmth. When eaten, the texture stands out – silky, dense, and rich with a surprising meatiness from such a delicate looking ingredient. This sauce requires no cooking or additives. Pure, distilled tomato essence.
Creamy, fresh mozzarella envelops the taste buds in milkiness. Soft, creamy strands with a subtle tang make the ideal foil for the charred crust. The mozzarella offers a cooling contrast to the smoke and char. As it melts, it forms hundreds of glistening pools across the surface.
Finishing with olive oil, fragrant basil, and finely grated parmesan or pecorino cheese results in an exhilarating taste experience. Savory, sweet, and smoky flavors mingle with varied textures from the doughy crust to melted cheese. The pungent aroma and trail of cheese pull make for an unforgettable meal.
Variations of Neapolitan Pizza
While the classic Neapolitan pies of Margherita and Marinara reign supreme, pizzaiolos can exercise creativity in their toppings. Some other beloved Neapolitan pizzas include:
Pizza Bianca – The “white pizza,” with no tomato sauce. Olive oil, garlic, and mozzarella adorn the basic dough.
Pizza Capricciosa – “Pizza of whims” with artichokes, prosciutto, olives, mushrooms, and egg.
Pizza Diavola – “Daredevil pizza” spiced up with hot chili pepper and spicy salami.
Pizza Quattro Stagioni – “Four seasons pizza” representing each season with toppings: mushrooms, prosciutto, artichokes, and olives.
Pizza Fritta – Pizza dough stuffed then fried for a delicious pizza street food. Fillings range from ricotta to meatballs.
The VPN Association in Naples governs the allowable toppings and safeguards Neapolitan traditions. Part of enjoying Neapolitan pizza means savoring these classic varieties.
Neapolitan Pizza vs. Other Pizza Styles
Unlike American pizzas laden with lots of melted mozzarella and heaps of toppings, Neapolitan pizza embodies minimalism. The dough itself trumps additions. Getting the fundamentals right matters most.
Neapolitan pizza differs from its thicker-crusted Roman cousin. Roman pizza uses a flour that yields a denser, crunchier dough that can support more weight. Neapolitan crust is thin and soft, meant to be eaten folded.
Sicilian pizza shares some traits with Neapolitan pizza but diverges with its thick, square shape. Its crust gets added flavor from semolina flour. And its cheese usually contains caciocavallo or provolone.
Deep dish Chicago pizzas and New York pizzas are miles away from traditional Neapolitan pizza. From their excessive cheese to their delivery-friendly thickness, they barely resemble the Neapolitan archetype.
When it comes to authenticity, technique, and taste, no other pizza hits the mark like traditional Neapolitan.
Where to Find Authentic Neapolitan Pizza
Seeking out genuine Neapolitan pizza is worth the effort, but finding it requires some research. Look for a certification from the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN). This organization founded in Naples 1984 verifies that members follow strict pizza making standards. Their imprimatur signals a dedication to tradition.
VPN-approved pizzerias exist across the world, including hotspots like New York City, San Francisco, and Chicago. Many VPN members commit to importing the right ingredients from Italy and using specialty ovens that reach the desired temperatures. Some restaurants ship water from Naples said to have perfect chemistry for pizza dough!
Traveling to Naples offers food pilgrims the chance to taste pizza at its source. Legendary spots like Da Michele, Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo, and Pizzeria Starita serve classic pies following techniques unchanged for generations. The pizza there tastes like nowhere else.
For those who cannot make the trip abroad, virtual experiences have emerged to showcase Neapolitan pizza craft online. Interactive sessions led by maestro pizzaiolos based in Naples provide insight into their art for aspiring pizza makers worldwide.
Making Neapolitan Pizza at Home
While challenging, making Neapolitan pizza at home is possible for ambitious novices. Be prepared to put in practice and patience. Beginners can follow tips from VPN-certified instructors. Their advice includes:
- Invest in a pizza peel, pizza stone, and kitchen scale for proper dough weighing.
- Find “00” tipo flour or use a 50/50 blend of bread and all-purpose flours.
- Use a pizza stone heated for one hour at highest oven temperature. Let it heat evenly.
- Stretch dough by hand then dress simply. Don’t overdo toppings.
- Work quickly while assembling to keep dough from sticking.
- Use a pizza screen or baking sheet if dough sticks while transferring.
- Opt for a home pizza oven or outdoor grill if possible. They better mimic real pizza ovens.
Mastering the nuances of dough, ingredients, and tools at home proves tricky but immensely gratifying. For the full experience, visiting a quality Neapolitan pizzeria remains a must.
Neapolitan pizza holds an esteemed place in Italian cuisine and the story of pizza worldwide. Its basic formula of fresh dough, San Marzano tomatoes, and mozzarella seems simple. Yet only through generations of wisdom passed down by Neapolitan pizzaiolos can this deceptively straightforward dish achieve perfection. From Italy to global outposts, the craft of Neapolitan pizza making thrives today. Its community keeps tradition alive while welcoming newcomers into the artistry of Neapolitan pizza. With its UNESCO-recognized heritage, Neapolitan pizza promises to remain an iconic food for life’s most delicious moments.
Bobby Kelly is a bartender at Molly Magees, an Irish pub in Mountain View. He’s been working there for two years and has developed a following among the regulars. Bobby is known for his friendly demeanor and great drink specials. He loves interacting with customers and making them feel welcome. When he’s not at work, Bobby enjoys spending time with his friends and family.