Naples is known as the birthplace of pizza. But, there’s more than just classic Neapolitan pizza in the Città del Sole (City of the Sun)
Pizza origin story
People have been putting things on bread to make it tastier for at least 10,000 years. And, the ancient Greeks put oil, herbs, and cheese on pita bread, sort of a proto-pizza, 3,000 years ago. But, modern pizza was invented (evolved, really) in Naples over 200 years ago when tomatoes were added.
The legend of the creation of the famous Pizza Margherita says that Queen Margherita was due to travel from her home in Turin to Naples in 1889. The local big-wigs, wanting to make a good impression, commissioned Naples pizza maker Raffaele Esposito to make a dish to honor the Queen. Mr. Esposito created three pizzas for Margherita to try, including one with the flag colors of the recently unified Italy; red (tomaoto), white (Mozzarella), and green (basil). This pizza was the Queen’s favorite and after her visit she had a note sent to Raffaele expressing how much she enjoyed it.
Raffaele named the new pizza Margherita in honor of the queen and used her stamp of approval to promote his restaurant, Pizzeria di Pietro e Basta Cosi. Today, the note is still posted on the wall of the restaurant which is now called Pizzeria Brandi.
The importance of Neapolitan Pizza cannot be overstated. The popular dish has migrated around the world and there are now countless versions of pizza to be found (New York style, Roman style, Deep dish, Sicilian, Tavern style pizza, etc. etc.) But, the pizza of Naples remains my favorite. It bakes up so nicely in the super-hot wood fired oven, with its crispy and slightly charred, yet chewy crust. My favorites have a raised crust around the edge to hold the tomato sauce and cheese in place. And yes, you will eat this with a knife and fork!
Real Neapolitan Pizza is governed by a set of strict rules on ingredients and preparation outlined by Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana. And, Neapolitan Pizza has been recognized as an Intangible Cultural Heritage item by UNESCO and a Traditional Speciality Guaranteed (TSG) product by the EU.
For me, more important than certifications is the way the pizza is prepared and the ingredients used.
Best Pizza in Naples
Of course, the best pizza in Naples is subject to vociferous debate.
Da Michele got a lot of love even before its appearance in the Julia Roberts movie “Eat, Pray, Love.” After all, the family has been at it since 1870!
Pizzeria Di Matteo also has had famous patrons. President Bill Clinton had pizza here (before he became a vegan) in 1994. Di Matteo makes a great pizza, but get there early for lunch, the line can be long.
Starita does Pizza Fritta, which means the dough is fried, sauce and toppings are added, and then the pie is cooked in a pizza oven. Definitely something to try and quite delicious. Oh, and they’ve had famous people at Starita, too. The Pope visited in 2000.
My favorite pizza in Naples is at Gino Sorbillo. Sure, some folks say it is too touristy, or that their pizza is too earthy, but I love it. I recommend getting there early (before the restaurant opens) if you want to get a seat without waiting too long.
Gino Sorbillo’s has had famous customers, too. A picture of NYC mayor Bill De Blasio hangs outside. Owner Gino Sorbillo is a bit of a rock star in Italy, appearing frequently on TV shows. A few years ago his restaurant was burned in a fire. The story is that Gino adamantly refuses the Mafia protection money (pizzo) and they burned the shop in retaliation. Two days later, he set up tables on the sidewalk, turned on the ovens, and started making pizza for customers among the debris. My kinda guy.
And the pizza is pretty freakin’ fantastic.
Pizza and the Pope
Shortly after Jorge Mario Bergoglio was elevated to Pope (Francis), he was asked what he missed most about his pre-papal life. He said he wanted to go into a restaurant and order a pizza anonymously, something he couldn’t do in his new role.
An enterprising pizza shop owner from Naples, Enzo Cacialli, of Pizzeria Don Ernesto seized on the opportunity. When the Pope visited Naples in 2015, Enzo stood behind the barricades. As the Popemobile made its way down the street, Enzo jumped the barricade and personally handed the Pope a pizza he had made with his own hands.
Afterwards, Pizzeria Don Ernesto took advantage of the publicity. He even had a small TV in the shop showing his encounter with the Pope on an endless loop.
Unfortunately, the story has a less than happy ending. Pizzeria Don Ernesto closed and Enzo was arrested on charges of defrauding the elderly.
I prefer to think of happier times when Enzo was so excited to hand a pizza to the Pope.
Types of Pizza in Naples
The two most famous kinds of Pizza in Naples are Margherita (mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil) and Marinara (tomato sauce, garlic, oregano, olive oil). Of course there are many other toppings you can order, but these are the two most traditional.
The Pizza Fritta (Fried Pizza) is also popular in Naples. Then, there’s something called Pizza di Scarola, which is more like a Calzone, stuffed with Escarole.
How to eat pizza in Naples
There’s two basic ways to eat pizza in Naples, with a knife and fork or folded.
If you order a pizza (or a slice) at the counter of a Naples restaurant, it will likely be handed to you folded, often twice. This makes it much easier to eat while walking.
Sit down and order a pizza in a restaurant and you’ll see most people eating it with a knife and fork. This is because the center of Neapolitan Pizza is usually “soupier” than American pizza. Put a slice in your hand and the contents are likely to slide right on to the floor.
This thinner tomato sauce is the reason you will often see people on the street in Naples taking a bit of the folded crust and dipping it into sauce, sorta like a pizza fondue.
Whether you get your pizza sitting down or standing up, pizza is cheap in Naples. Expect to pay 1 to 2 Euro for a slice and 3 to 6 Euro for a whole pie. An incredible bargain, especially when you consider that you’re getting the best pizza in the world!
Then, there’s Fried Pizza. As if pizza weren’t perfect enough!
There’s two kinds of Pizza Fritta. The first, and original, has cheese and other ingredients placed between two pizza crusts. The two dough discs are crimped with the filling inside and deep fried.
Masardona’s has been making this kind of fried pizza for three generations in Naples. This is the where to go to get a traditional Pizza Fritta.
If you’ve been to New York, you might’ve seen the second kind of fried pizza, although it too, originated in Naples. For this fried pizza, only the dough is fried. Then, toppings are added and the pizza is baked in a pizza oven.
Starita was the originator of this kind of Pizza Fritta and still the best place to try it, though getting there early is recommended. There always seems to be a huge line.