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Friday, December 2, 2022

Visiting Campania, the Birthplace of Pizza

It all started out with truffles. Those that are white, from Alba, are shaved over a butter-daubed slice of bread, and then a heady black kind, from Irpinia, is used in the same manner. My evening pizza marathon kicked out with an exhilarating boom as I sat in the patio of the renowned pizzeria Concettina ai Tre Santi in Naples, and I watched my waiter with wide eyes as my pizza order was brought to me.

After some time had passed, he came back and topped a dish with tomato sauce that was as black as sumac and reminiscent of Sunday family dinners in this southern Italian city. He then added a handful of basil leaves and a snowfall of hand-grated Parmesan cheese. After putting a gingham handkerchief around my neck, he finished the composition off by adding a deep-fried puff of dough. It was a typical montanara pizza inverted upside-down, with the sauce on the bottom, to maintain the pizza’s signature texture of having a crisp outside and a pillowy inside.

I was on the first stop on a pizza pilgrimage across Campania, the Italian province where pizza was originated and where some of today’s pizzaioli are lifting it to sparkling new heights. Campania is known as the “Pizza Capital of the World.” Ciro Oliva, who now works for Concettina and is 29 years old, is one of these pioneers. When he was 19 years old, he took over his family’s delivery company with aspirations of greatness. In recent years, Mr. Oliva and other high-flying restaurant owners in Naples and the surrounding area have taken the tasting menu, that haute-cuisine sign of five-star dining, and applied it to the meal that is the most popular and generally appreciated by the general public: pizza. I spent three days invigorating my life by indulging in life-affirming gluttony and ecstasy while touring the most revered outposts in Campania that offered pizza tasting menus to observe how the region is elevating its iconic dish.

My adventure started in the Sanità neighbourhood of Naples, at a restaurant called Mr. Oliva’s. Sanità is a rough-and-tumble district that is centred around a cacophonous market street. This year, Sanità was recognised by Time Out as one of the 51 coolest neighbourhoods in the world. This improvement in fortune is due in decent part to the local pizzaiolo. Mr. Oliva, who is a boisterous and high-energy Vesuvius of a man, can typically be found handing out high-fives and praising his pizza and his neighbourhood to the celebrities, dignitaries, and food fans who flock to his outpost in this gritty yet evermore vibrant part of Naples.

The next morning, I saw Concettina as she was getting ready for the day. Bubbles of dough were aggressively kneaded by a gang of pizzaiolos with Popeye forearms, who then placed the dough bubbles on wooden platters. In a stainless steel bucket, a chef crushed San Marzano tomatoes by hand to make sauce. Clams, escarole topped with black olives, and friarielli greens seasoned with pepperoncino were all cooking in their own pots on the stove. The cheeses of the day came, including fior di latte, smoked provolone, buffalo ricotta, and buffalo mozzarella that had been prepared that morning and were still warm. When I bit into a slice of the mozzarella, it erupted with juice. The creation of pizza as an art form starts here.

After touring the nearby Ipogeo dei Cristallini, an ancient Greek necropolis recently opened to the public, I travelled to Caiazzo, a small hill town located to the north of Naples with a population of 5,000. Caiazzo is reachable by travelling on the autonomous EAV railway company, which operates a single-car train that resembles a toy train.

Although Mr. Pepe is an official ambassador of the Mediterranean diet, he emphasised the nutritional value of his menu; yet, the category of “health food” is expansive in the context of Italian cuisine. The first pizza that was delivered to me was deep-fried, and it was a blaze of flavours: a delicately cured anchovy of virtually raw strength, a sunshine-sweet tomato slice, and a shimmering note of citrus zest that was highlighted by peperoncino’s little fire.

The I Masanielli pizza is located along the main drag, in a building that was once a car dealership, and it is surrounded by a petrol station and a bargain children’s clothing store. From the outside, the pizzeria does not seem to be very impressive. But the pizza that Francesco Martucci makes here is another one of Caserta’s magnificent quirks; it is the most gastronomically daring creations I’ve had on my tour to the land of pizza.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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