A few years ago in Napoli, I sat down at Gino Sorbillo’s airy seafront location for another taste of his iconic pizza napoletana. A few days before, I had waited in a crowd, shoulder to shoulder, for over an hour for his pie, and I needed more. Daily, hungry groups gather outside his original location on the famed Via dei Tribunali hours before they open, hoping to score a table at his two-story restaurant where hundreds of margherita pizzas are made daily. I quickly savored mine, and in the much less-crowded location on Via Partenope, I also had time to explore the menu a little more.
With fluffy, raised cornicione edges and a thin center, Sorbillo’s pizza can reach 35cm diameter, overtaking its pizza plate. Sorbillo is one of many disciples of the written edict that true Neapolitan pizzas should be between 22-35 cm, just one of several rules put forth by the Napoli Association of “Real” Pizza Napoletana (AVPN), whose mission is to protect and celebrate the local tradition. Globally-recognized master pizzaioli (“pizza makers”) tout their Margherita Pizzas as exemplary because they, like Sorbillo, have strongly-held beliefs on process and ingredients. The center of this pie is thin and is topped with less than five ingredients, which are also the culinary gems of the Campania region: peeled and crushed sweet tomato sauce, melty strips of buffalo mozzarella and after the 90 second bake in a 430-480℃ wood-fired oven (also a requirement), a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and few basil leaves. Shortly before my visit in 2017, UNESCO added the art of Neapolitan pizza to the Intangible Cultural Heritage list, adding a level of prestige to what Sorbillo and his fellow pizzaioli of the AVPN have been working towards for years.
While the art of pizza making–from the treatment of the dough to the wood in the oven–is essential, the raw ingredients themselves are arguably as important. While the AVPN does not require it, many pizzaioli choose to source DOP products, ingredients that are produced in the Campania region. DOP, short for Denominazione di Origine Protetta (“Protected Designation of Origin”), is a government-recognized certification that ensures products are made using traditional raw materials and methods.
This certification signals quality, equity and sustainability. In most Neapolitan establishments, mozzarella di bufala will not be called mozzarella at all unless it’s DOP, made from buffalo milk and produced within the Campania region. Although essential for pizza napoletana, mozzarella can also be eaten on its own: Sorbillo serves “zizzona 1 kilo” and “mezza bufala”, half of a mozzarella di bufala. I ordered both. The mezza bufala arrived at my table in solitary splendor–no bread, olive oil or even salt. If I hadn’t been at a restaurant, my temptation to pick it up like an apple for a juicy bite would have overcome me. Zizzona, which translates to “a woman’s breast” in Neapolitan slang, looks like it too. This absolutely massive mozzarella ball is handmade: the bigger it is, the softer and tastier. Like the mezza bufala, it’s served as-is on a large plate. Porcelain white, the cheese is made with fresh buffalo milk, known to be rich in fat and proteins, and is fragrant with a slightly sour, milk-like freshness. The domestic buffaloes roam the plains around Paestum, Salerno and Caserta outside Naples, where hundreds of small producers make this prized mozzarella.
The other iconic DOP pizza ingredient is the San Marzano tomato, star of the pizza alla marinara, a cheeseless pizza topped exclusively with San Marzano tomato, extra virgin olive oil, oregano and garlic. (There are plenty of signature Campanian dishes besides pizza that use San Marzano tomatoes, including eggplant parmigiana, polpette in tomato sauce, and pasta al ragù.) The Campanian climate, along with rich volcanic soil and fertile coastal plains, makes the region Italy’s leader in the production of tomatoes. San Marzano tomatoes–grown in the Sarno Valley in the rich soil of Mt. Vesuvius–are thick-skinned, sweet and meaty, with fewer seeds than other varieties. The sauce from San Marzano tomatoes is deeply flavorful and low in acidity.
DOP regulations prevent any producer from adding “San Marzano” to their label to charge a premium–controversial, especially in the U.S. In 2019, customers in San Francisco, claiming lack of authenticity, sued an importer who put “San Marzano” on their label without the DOP.
Although the most iconic DOP products of Campania are mozzarella di bufala and San Marzano tomatoes, there are 19 throughout the region; my curiosity and appetite will bring me back to try all the others, including caciocavallo cheese, Nocerino green onions, Cetara anchovies, white figs from Cilento, Gaeta olives and ricotta, made from the leftover buffalo milk during mozzarella production, prominently featured in pizza fritta.