By Jeff Mandell
One of the things that I noticed last fall, when I was lucky enough to be studying in Florence, Italy with the Bing program, was the incredible regionalism of Italian food. For a country that is about two-thirds the size of California, it is amazing that each state, and sometimes each town, has its own slate of typical dishes that are either not eaten anywhere else or simply never prepared as well. Pasta with Bolognese sauce is all over Italian menus in the U.S.; in Italy, it’s mostly confined to Bologna. Picture how weird it would be if there was a certain great sandwich that you could only find in Stockton, or a drink that was delicious in San Diego and mediocre everywhere else.
Naples is known as the birthplace of pizza. I was there for two days, and I ate five pizzas at five different pizzerias. Admittedly, I didn’t choose the pizzerias randomly; they had all been ranked as being among the best or most famous in the city. As different as Italian pizza is from American pizza — it’s wetter, and is eaten with a fork and knife — Neapolitan pizza is distinctly different in style from all of the other pizza I had in Italy. And it’s really good: there are a handful of great pizzerias in Florence and Rome that might compete on some levels, but those five Neapolitan pizzas were possibly the five best pizzas I had during my three months in Italy. At worst, they were five of the seven best.
Of those Neapolitan pizzas, one clearly stood out from the others. That was the pizza margherita I had at Gino Sorbillo, located on Via Tribunali, 32. It was an incredible experience, as I knew from the first bite that it was the best pizza I had ever tasted. The price was €3.30, or about $4.30 with today’s exchange rates, for a personal pizza around fourteen inches across. That’s less than a Domino’s pizza or a foot-long Subway sandwich, and it was also more food. How is it possible that a pizza can be prepared by a master pizzaiolo using the best dough recipe, the best tomato sauce and fine mozzarella, with the result costing less than fast food?
The farther you go from Naples, the worse the pizza gets. When I visited Venice’s top pizza place, there was no comparison. The pizza was good by most standards, but in Florence and Naples the toppings were more flavorful and the crusts more complex. Part of this is due to the availability of high quality local ingredients, something that is very important to Italians. Since rural Campania (the state Naples is in) is known for both its tomatoes and its buffalo mozzarella, it’s not surprising that Neapolitan pizzas often feature top-notch toppings. But it’s not like Campania is the only place in the world with a climate favoring tomatoes and cheese; Naples’ superiority comes just as much from pride in its traditions. Whenever Neapolitans overheard me talking about pizza, their ears perked up, and many of them could not resist telling the American their favorite places.
When you get out of Italy, there is a dramatic drop in the quality of the average pizza. It becomes a challenge to find even a decent slice. I find it totally bizarre that this is true in an era of electronic communication and rapid transportation. Since people all over the world love pizza, I think that there would be tremendous economic incentive for individuals who know the secrets of great pizza to open restaurants in new markets. And while pizza-making may be an art, I doubt it is necessary to grow up in Italy to learn how to do it well.
Finding good pizza isn’t easy in the Bay Area. My favorite place around here is A Slice of New York, on El Camino Real in Mountain View. New York-style pizza now seems like an entirely different product from what I had in Italy, but I like it. There are some expensive Italian restaurants that people say make great pizza, but my experience in Italy suggests that white-tablecloth restaurants needn’t be our only source. Chefs, entrepreneurs, Italian expatriates: this is a call for some new pizzerias in town. If you don’t act soon, I might have to start one myself!
Questions, comments, suggestions, anonymous tip-offs? Contact Jeff at jeff2013 “at” stanford “dot” edu.