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On Neapolitan Pizza

Warning: high horse.

I think Neapolitan pizza is one of the most confusing types of food for foodies, and I use that term with some sarcasm. The real thing is a very particular beast, made with minimal ingredients and a crust that is everything the average American doesn't want in a pizza. On one side, you have influential food bloggers who know what it is supposed to be, who geek out over the details, and reward the dedication of particular hard-working pizzaiolos with positive press on their blogs. On the other side, you have legions of people who read food blogs, who think they're seriously knowledgeable about food, yet are ultimately so ignorant that they think that their platonic ideal of pizza, formed in their youth in a booth in Dominos, should match some food blogger's recommendation of an excellent Neapolitan pizza. When they don't like it, the cognitive dissonance is hard to take, and they must ask themselves: is the well-known food blogger who recommended this place wrong? Is my palette wrong? Are my tastes pedestrian? Do I just not get it? Is the restaurant overrated?

Some go quietly into the night, some wake up and try to learn more, and some go out and scream from the rooftops through their keyboards that Pizzeria Napoli Number Nine is overrated.

I have been, at some point, each of those people.

I say all this as someone who in part thinks Neapolitan pizza is not nearly as good as many other styles of pizzas, someone who has eaten them at the "best" places in Napoli, yet still someone who enjoys the sensory memory triggered by a real Neapolitan-style pizza, that can bring back memories of gritty, thieving, criminal Napoli, with its beautiful museums, amazing shellfish, and nutella-filled bombolini warmed up in microwaves, in the way of the local tradition.

Can we all just have a moment of sanity, and agree that the true Neapolitan Pizza is not really a crowd pleaser? That it is a bit eccentric and odd, in the way that a perfectly good donut, subjected to a microwave, is a bit odd? That it might satisfy you in certain ways, but leave you wanting something a little different in other ways?

Can we also agree that the proliferation of pizzas made in wood ovens is a Good Thing, to borrow a phrase from Martha? That putting good fresh mozzarella on pizzas, rather than fake pre-shredded cheese, is a good thing? That we don't all have to like the same things?

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  1. We definitely don't like the same thing.

    2 Replies
    1. re: scarmoza

      Where's my copy editor? I mainly wanted to focus on what might generate so much confusing discussion about Neapolitan pizza. My statement that Neapolitan pizza is not nearly as good as many other styles of pizza is indefensible, and I caught myself in my own cross-hairs. I don't think it's my favorite type of pizza, but I still love a good one.

      1. re: SteveG

        I've been through Naples once, and that was driving a little Fiat with my mom and sister, trying to follow the signs to "Camping Vesuvio". When we got there the giant outdoor pizza oven was undergoing repairs (by two German students in exchange for free food and their camping space), so we had fried seafood from the ristorante next door. The only pizza I had in Italy was from a wood-burning oven, yes, but over in Puglia, at a place favored by the Americans from the NATO base nearby.

        I do agree pizzas in wood-fired ovens is in itself a good thing, that the simplest ones made with sterling ingredients are the best ones. The first Margherita of my experience was dough, olive oil, a bit of salt, cheese, fresh basil and sliced plum tomato, period, and I adored it. Was it True Neapolitan? How the hell should I know? It was in a brew-pub in Nashville.

    2. Warning: sane horse.

      "...platonic ideal..." "...cognitive dissonance..." "...tastes pedestrian..." Yeah, that is one high, snooty, sounding horse. Foodie type snobs will never get through their pretentious minds, that pizza is pizza, meant to be cheap, peasant style food, not some monster created from the hands of puck. There is bad, electric oven, bizare topping, production line style pizza, and better quality, simple, coal fired, crispier crust kinda pie. I would agree, however, that the pizza you grew up with, is one that you might always favor later in life

      16 Replies
      1. re: BiscuitBoy

        " Foodie type snobs will never get through their pretentious minds, that pizza is pizza, meant to be cheap, peasant style food, not some monster created from the hands of Puck."

        I agree with that. You can take your California Pizza Kitchen and your avocado-kumquat-peekie toe combo, and, well, take it. It's good old pepperoni and mushroom, or hamburger and jalapeno, or salami and fresh garlic, for me. This gourmetization of pizza is rebarbative.

        1. re: Perilagu Khan

          And when the late owner of the most beloved pizza joint in our section of LA County insisted, for all to hear, that the only proper mushrooms for pizza were CANNED, you couldn't have thrown a rock through the flock of horrified foodies that responded to that one. Probably the same ones who think vitello tonnato ought to be made with fresh tuna...

          1. re: Will Owen

            Canned mushrooms are an abomination, on pizza or elsewhere.

            And I like my vitello tonnato with canned tuna (or fresh tuna carpaccio with a nice veal sauce.... but that's probably too 'high horse' for some out here)...

            1. re: linguafood

              High horse? I eat any kind of horse, even on my pizza. Reindeer meat in Norway & finland too.

        2. re: BiscuitBoy

          If I rewrote that post in more low-brow language, would you have a different response? What vocabulary should be used to discuss Neapolitan pizza?

          Hint: I went over the top on purpose. Discussion about pizza deserves a little bit of self-aware humor.

          And last, limiting pizza to cheap peasant-style food is just as bad as limiting pizza to the province of fancy wood-burning stoves installed at great expense with permit wavers in urban centers. Pizza should be for everybody--and that means that there should be cheap pizza and expensive pizza, targeted at different consumers. This isn't the USSR.

          1. re: SteveG

            I don't think he suggested building a gulag.

            1. re: SteveG

              I lived a year in the USSR. there was no pizza; bad metaphor.

              1. re: Passadumkeg

                Not a metaphor. Just a statement that the USA is not a command economy. If someone wants a pizza made with fancy expensive ingredients, I would encourage someone else to make and sell them that pizza. The snobism wrapped up in discussing Neapolitan pizza gets ridiculous, but so too does the anti-elitism that goes on when some people get so distracted by a pizza costing $18 that they can't even bring themselves to give it a fair shake, flavor-wise.

              2. re: SteveG

                Anti-snobbery and high-falutin' language rarely go well together.

                I think what you're saying is essentially true: Neapolitan style pizza isn't for everyone. Whether that's due to taste, style, price, a perception of elitism, probably varies from person to person.

                1. re: tommy

                  Tommy, help me. I grew up in the New Brunswick/Perth Amboy area in the 50/60's. I have eaten pizza in Italy and Naples. Is the Jersey style pizza Neopolitan style? I always felt it was.
                  Bon Jovi and I are alumns.

                2. re: SteveG

                  It sounds as if you just finished a creative writing course, taught at night, by some novel writing wannabe, with all those fancy phrases (uh oh, semi-alliteration!). Write like you talk, man!

                  There shouldn't be expensive pizza, and THAT makes it for everybody. Like panna cotta, pasta fagioli, and broc rabe...it shouldn't be twisted and adulterated by a trendy cook and upcharged. And finally, in the region I live in, neopolitan style pies are the standard all others try to duplicate. Coal burning ovens, not wood

                  1. re: BiscuitBoy

                    I'm not sure if you're referring to CT and Sally's and Pepe's and their ilk, but that's likely not the style of pizza the to which the OP is referring.

                    I don't really talk that way, but it makes me seem smart.

                    1. re: tommy

                      T, what is Nepo. pizza to you?
                      Just a Jersey Pollack,

                      1. re: tommy

                        Oh no, not you Big T, I was playin with the OP

                      2. re: BiscuitBoy

                        Why can't people do with/to their pizza whatever they want? If you want pineapple on it fine. I'm not eating it, but you are welcome to it.


                  2. Very well said. Bravo for taking the time to write this piece.

                    1. There were, at last count, 67 different types of pizza including Neopolitan, Sicilian and Brooklyn They are all excellent.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: beevod

                        I'll say quite honestly I've hated only two pizzas that I can remember. One tasted okay but destroyed the roof of my mouth, the other had a tomato sauce that tasted exactly like Campbell's tomato soup. Some have been boring, a few have been deliriously good, but even boring pizza is better than none. Red Baron, anyone?

                        1. re: Will Owen

                          Totino's, even. I will happily polish off two at one sitting.

                      2. I have had good Neopolitan style pizza and bad. I've had it from the same pizza place. Cooking consistent pies in a wood fired oven is an art. Leave it too close to the fire or too long on one side and you have a pie with burnt crust. If you're sloppy with the sauce and leave too many bare patches you can get burnt pie. If you use bad ingredients...bad pie. So many variables it's no wonder people decry the simple margarita. Add in what Americans are used to and you are headed for confusion.

                        When I make pizza at home I never make them as simple as the Italians, but they're not meat megalopolis' either. A little red sauce and a few thin slices of tomatoe. I like two different cheeses, mozzarella and robusto and a sprinkle of Parmigiano. I guess that's three. Some good, dry salami and some pinches of italian sausage. And of course home made dough. Mmm, I'm getting hungry.


                        1. Different expectations for different styles. I do agree with the opinion that many seem to declare Neapolitan as the best type and that it's always better than a ho-hum pie I'm fine with most types of pizza, as long as they don't over do it and actually know what they're doing.

                          There are a lot of pizzeria/restaurants nearby, which is fine, but they all over do it. For whatever reason, they seem to think that doubling as a restaurant means slopping on everything on a pizza. A regular pie at these places is equivalent to getting extra cheese at others. I'm sorry, but putting more (bad) cheese on a pie doesn't make it better - It makes it worse, since the crust/sauce/cheese balance is thrown off.

                          Then there are those that just don't seem to get the basics. For me, a good test of a pizza place is to order a pie with vegetables (This is after the initial test of sausage and mushrooms, to see what type they use). A lot of places just put on everything at the start and cook the pie like any other. Predictably, the result is a soggy mess, and if I weren't so against throwing out "food," it'd go to the garbage.

                          Cheap pizza made in a gas oven with yellow/processed mozzarella can still be good. It can still have a nice balance and that nice crunchy/chewy bite. Sometimes, that's the type I'd choose over a Neapolitan. And, sometimes I'd even go with dominoes (Closest, and one that reheats the best).

                          8 Replies
                          1. re: ediblover

                            Is dominoes even worth eating? I've never eaten one?

                            1. re: Passadumkeg

                              There are sufficient alternatives to Domino's, and it really is boring enough, that I can easily follow our family's boycott of the chain for sociopolitical reasons that we will not go into here because it's not remotely about food. Pizza Hut is so easily superior that it's painless.

                              Yes, I've eaten one. No reason I can think of to eat two.

                              1. re: Will Owen

                                I haven't eaten Pizza Crud since '69 either. Grew up on Neo-style. After 3 mo. in NM, will try the local joint, Sufr Shack, tonight for a green chile and sausage 'Za. Here's hoping.

                              2. re: Passadumkeg

                                Domino's is slightly better than Pizza Hut, which is vastly superior to Papa John's, IMO. That said, I see no reason to patronize the Big 3 when better pizza abounds across the fruited plain, and even in most grocery stores.

                                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                                  Yup, Surf Shack green chile and sausage pizza tonight, no, make that double green chile. When in Rome......

                                  1. re: Passadumkeg

                                    Pick up a sack of those NM red chile tater chips while you're at it.

                                2. re: Passadumkeg

                                  Are we bashing to impress? It doesn't make sense to me to bash something you haven't tried in over a decade. I dislike a lot of ingredients, but it doesn't hurt to try it at a new place to see their take.

                                  Within a 10 minute driving window, I'd rank Dominoes in my top 5, and put it ahead of a brick oven place. To me, being excellent in a mediocre group is better than being mediocre in an excellent group. Everything has its place. To me, Dominoes is incredibly reliable and has a good balance. As long as I'm only getting the pizza, with limited toppings, I'm fine with going to them.

                                  1. re: ediblover

                                    Hey, Edi, I was only asking if Doms. was worth it.
                                    I will make a generalization. I will try Mom & Pop places over chains,
                                    for a lot of social, political and culinary reasons.
                                    I simply do not frequent chains.
                                    Carpe chow!

                              3. I like all kinds of pizzas and I make my own pizzas:


                                ...and I seek out pizzas across the country and now across the world. My standards keep changing but what I am finding is the exquisiteness of simplicity and taste of pizza is like sampling fine wines. Last week I had my first true Margherita DOC pizza at Ristorante Les Gaga in Naples, Italy. It was nothing but San Marzano tomatoes, di Bufala mozzarella cheese, 00 flour, one fresh basil leaf, extra virgin olive oil, salt and yeast baked in a wood-fired oven. I don't have any idea how it stacked up to the rest of Naples but it tasted like perfection. What is perfection? A perfect blend of simple but quality ingredients and the CRUST.

                                1 Reply
                                1. re: Davydd

                                  To each their own... I love all pizza but a true napoletana margherita is the pinnacle of pies.

                                  Has nothing to do with what a food critic told me to like or what the masses don't prefer, it's about what I have tasted and consider the epitome of pizza.

                                2. After reading through, I submit my maxim:

                                  Pizza can be simple but it should never be pedestrian.

                                  1. I guess everyone has their opinions of what a good pizza is. I definitely think the a pizza from napoli is best. Simple, light, healthier and fresher. Not to mention a perfect crust with only flour, water, salt and yeast. Lets see some of the other guys accomplsih so much with so little.


                                    4 Replies
                                    1. re: artigiano81

                                      TOTALLY agree. No other pizza compares to Napoli as far as I am concerned. Simple pure fresh ingredients. Charred wood-fired oven crust. That's it. Nothing more.

                                      1. re: chefathome

                                        I'm with you, guys. Although I've never had one that came labelled "Napolitana" or whatever, that simple, lovely Margherita I mentioned at the beginning of all this was exactly that: simple dough, simple topping, simply wood-fired and simply perfect. And I have heard from Nashville that the brew-pub took it off their menu years ago, because nobody wanted an un-gloppy pizza.

                                        1. re: Will Owen

                                          Exactly. Crispy, yet chewy crust, fresh tomatoes, fresh mozz and fresh basil fired in a wood oven. I'm lucky to live in an area that has several go-to spots for this (and yet also hundreds of gloppy places for the rest ;)

                                        2. re: chefathome

                                          I live pretty much in constant search of pizzas I've had in Napoli. One time i almost missed my plane from there because i had to stop and have one more pizza. As well, one of the pizzas i had there was with anchovies and capers, and i didn't know that both are more often kept 'sotto sale' (cured in salt) than the oil/vinegar ones you see in the states. It was a devastatingly salty pizza that gave me an unparalleled salt freak out thirst reaction that i didn't recover from for about until 8 hours had passed and 2 liters of water and some beer had been consumed. So I guess Naples hits the mark for the best and worst pizza experiences of my life. But the good ones keep compelling me, and I embarked on a 'Pizza Project' a couple of years ago, trying all the pizza, at all the hip and less hip (these days usually hip) places that pop up around the Bay Area, and other places I happen to be visiting. Have had some great ones in Germany-where lots of Italians have moved.

                                          Anyway, I am most interested to hear people's faves around the bay, especially people like artigiano and chefathome, with whose palette, at least in terms of pizza, I seem to be aligned.

                                          In the end, I have enjoyed Oliveto's perhaps the most. Delfina was pretty good. The one in the marina was not so good, the night i was there...Pizzaiolo varies depending on who is cooking. Chez Panisse has been just alright, not spectacolare...haven't tried Un Pizza Napolitano in the city...what about your opinions?! of which there are of course many...