Pizza. It’s universal these days. But in Italy, where one of the world’s favorite foods was born, Naples pizza (pizza napoletana) is now officially recognized by UNESCO.
Indeed, in December 2017, the pizzaiuoli–the skilled Neapolitans who spin and twirl the dough–won a spot on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Today, about 3,000 pizzaiuoli in Naples practice the art of creating a food that “fosters social gatherings and intergenerational exchange, and assumes a character of the spectacular…”
The proud history of Naples pizza
Like many foods, pizza was first made by the poor. In the 18th century, flatbread was topped with tomatoes, imported from Peru and considered poisonous by the wealthy. In 1889, a baker named Rafaela Esposito invented Pizza Margherita when Queen Margherita of Savoy came to town. He topped it with fresh tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil to represent the Italian flag.
Although there are pizza training courses, the craft is handed down through generations, children learning from grandparents. Singing and story-telling are part of the process, adding to the cultural aspect.
Fiercely proud of the history and significance of Naples pizza, in 2009 the pizzaiuoli started a campaign to make the UNESCO list. They gathered two million signatures, lobbied committee members, and provided sweet drawing by children. It took three tries, and in 2017, they succeeded.
My lesson from a pizzaiuolo
There are four precise steps to make an authentic Neapolitan pizza, from making the dough to baking it in a wood-burning brick oven. During a trip to Naples, I took a class in hopes of learning the secret of this classic food. Although my instructor didn’t speak English, with gestures–and a little help from his assistant who knew a few words–I made my own lunch.
#1 The dough: Only highly refined flour grown in the Naples region can be used, as well as fresh brewer’s yeast. The dough is kneaded for 15 minutes, then rests for twelve hours before being made into balls that will become individual crusts. Once it rises, the dough cannot be rolled, but must be shaped by hand. A pizzaiuolo knows how to twirl it in the air, stretching it to create the perfect thin circle. I failed miserably.
#2 The toppings: Raw, pureed San Marzano tomatoes–don’t even think of any other kind. Mix them with oregano and garlic, then spoon on lightly. Drizzle with olive oil. That’s all you need for a Pizza Marinara. To make a Pizza Margherita, add fresh mozzarella and a few basil leaves. Like most Americans, I’m used to lots of cheese, so I had to be controlled. How could something that seems so simple be so delicious?
#3 The oven: Here’s where authenticity happens. According to the AVPN (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, the organization that regulates the process ) the pizza goes into a wood-fueled brick oven heated to 800 degrees Fahrenheit (427 Celsius) for 90-120 seconds. Yes, it cooks that quickly! Most restaurants can’t reach that level of heat–believe me, it was a blast furnace! Wood causes the oven to heat unevenly, so the pizzaiuolo must also learn how to adapt to his or her stove.
#4: The eating: Your pizza arrives in a beautiful circle, edges perfectly browned. In Naples, you start with a knife and fork. Cut it Ito quarters. Neapolitans agree on this, but some say the entire pie is eaten with utensils. Others say to begin to eat, using knife and fork. When it’s cool enough to handle, you can pick up a quarter, fold in half and eat with your hands. A true Naples pizza slice is floppy, so it can’t support itself. I saw people doing both, so I did a little of each. Watch a video by one of my favorite travel bloggers, Sherry Ott, to learn more.
Think about all that next time you bake a frozen pizza for a quick dinner. I know I do!
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