If there is one thing Italians like to talk about most, it’s food. If there is one thing Italians like to argue about most, it’s food again. And if there is one food Italians like to talk and argue about more than any other, it’s PIZZA! Just the mention of the word ‘pizza’ will bring to the majority of folk around the world a smile to their faces, a drool to their mouths and an undoubtable rumble, irrelevant of hunger levels, to their stomachs. The topic of stone-baked dough topped with an assortment of mouth-watering ingredients is rather unbeatable and if I were not the wiser, I would be first to believe that Italy, champion of all pizza makers, arose into the world under a shower of rich passata sauce and a cloud of yeast and flour.
But bringing us back down to earth and the boot shaped Peninsula of Italy, where Italian weather reporters may be able to foresee the chance of rain or hail but regrettably no prospect of pizza particles in the atmosphere, let’s take a look as to why a seemingly innocent conversation, so you would think, can get so very heated. The debate has been long-going. It’s partial, it’s subjective and it’s most probably never-ending. Two of the land’s leading cities claim their wood-fire oven pizza victor to all. Pizza Napoletana vs Pizza Romana: as to which is best, well that’s down to you to decide.
For millennia, us humans have been ‘pushing the dough by hand’, being a literal translation of the Latin word pinsere from where the Ancient Roman pinsa derives, a flat-bread so worthy of worship, it was laid down for the gods to devour. Another nine hundred years were to pass until the first reference to pizza emerged from the small seaside village of Gaeta, which coincidentally (or not) lies bang in the middle of Naples and Rome. The pathway to the perfect pizza was looking progressively sweeter with the arrival of the tomato in Europe during the 16th century and if we fast forward to the year 1889, Neapolitan chefs were chopping them in haste in anticipation of Her Majesty’s visit; Queen Margherita of Savoy. Basil, mozzarella and passata were laden on dough; their colours paying tribute to the newly established Italian flag. Fit for a queen, fit for all, the Pizza Margherita was born.
While the Italian monarchy may be long gone, the pizza still reigns supreme: bold, brazen and eternally scrumptious. There are 63,000 pizzerias throughout the country and a staggering 1.6 billion of the crusty delights bought and devoured nationwide per year! In mention of crust, it is here, at the pizza’s doughy foundations that we arrive at the catalyst to the two cities’ dispute. A traditional Neapolitan pizza boasts a fantastically thick and airy outer edge that thins into a soft and chewy centre. Pick up a slice and the inner dough will begin to droop, surrendering to its toppings and urging you to tuck in quick. Although cold-cut meats, various vegetables and even eggs may be offered as garnish to your pizza, the key to enjoying the very best in Naples is in keeping it simple. Many Neapolitan pizzerias will serve just two classics – the Margherita and the Marinara (simply tomato, garlic and oil), where minimal ingredients and the optimal quality will proudly steal the show. Cooked for a maximum of 90 seconds at a mighty 450 degrees, the city’s pizzaioli (pizza chefs) are put under pressure by the AVPN (the True Neapolitan Pizza Association). Should they wander away from tradition or skimp on excellence in any form, this group of so-called ‘pizza police’ will be there at the ready, their pizza-cutters up in arms!
A couple of hundred kilometres up the coast and the Romans are munching (and crunching) on a whole different breed of crust. It’s thin, it’s light and its crisp; it’s Pizza Romana. Dubbed ‘scrocchiarella’ (the crunchy one) by many; even the word itself falls from the mouth with a pertinent crunch. Whilst Neapolitans refrain from the use of fat in their dough, the Romans cut back on water and add a good glug of oil to the floury mixture. This allows more weight and further stretch and the dough can be rolled out as thin as desired. A firmer structure allows for a more generous topping but again, as with its Neapolitan counterpart, team Simple takes the lead. Pizza Rossa (tomato), Pizza Bianca (plain with a drizzle of oil and a sprinkle of salt) or Pizza con Patate (topped with thin slices of potato and rosemary) are three Roman variants that will win all hearts. Although served and most definitely enjoyed in the round, a real speciality of Roman cuisine is that cut by the slice. Joints serving Pizza al Taglio are dotted at every corner of the city and a slab (or two, three or four!) is a low-cost, lunch-time (not forgetting snack-time) dream come true.
Ciro Oliva, who as head pizzaiolo and owner of one of the great headquarters of Neapolitan pizza, Concettina ai Tre Santi, proclaims that “Neapolitan pizza is culture, tradition, love and passion. It is the most democratic form of food. Tasting a Neapolitan pizza is like tasting the entire city of Naples.” While Pizzeria Da Baffetto, a temple of Roman pizza that lies at the heart of the eternal city, declares their pizza “truly reflects the Roman reality: humble, crisp and full of seasoning. A real delicacy for the palate.”
So, let’s keep up the squabble (as where’s the fun in life without) but I would like to leave this particular doughy dilemma at this: whether you like your crusts puffy and fluffy or with a crisp and a crunch, sink your teeth into that first bite of pizza, from either Naples or Rome, and you will soak in a slice of Italy’s soul.