Wednesday, September 24, 2008

One Pizzaiolo, two cups: Spatula practice with Enzo Coccia

So my pizzas still aren't round. How do I know this? Because Enzo, the master-pizzaiolo at La Notizia, screams "non va bene!" in my ear every time I make an egg shaped dough. "Making the dough is not like massaging a woman, Gustavo" he says standing behind me. "You need more force. Piu forte! PIU FORTE!" How do my fingertips, the only part of my hands that should be applying pressure, gain more strength? Finger push-ups against the wall, of course. 
Besides finger push-ups we started another exercise today; working with the pizza spatula. Twenty minutes after working on proper foot stance, arm placement, and wrist flicking, Enzo brings us two plastic cups filled to the brim with water. Thinking that he has rewarded us for our hard work, I say "grazie". He gives me a look that says we are far from be finished. Check out this video to see our new exercise:
We worked in rotations of tens. Each of us had to slide the pizza in between the cups at a perfect angle. If a drop was spilled, we'd have to start over. Tomorrow, Enzo says we get to stick the spatula in the actual oven. 

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Working at Pizzeria la Notizia

Yesterday I was scalded pretty bad for cutting  my sausage too thick. In italian. In the small back kitchen of Pizzeria La Notizia. I can't say I wasn't excepting something like this to happen. But when I saw Enrico, my short squat boss, look at my pile of half-cooked sausage links, I knew I was in for it. He came in screaming, making gestures that I've only read about in books. This went on for a few minutes while I stood there dumbfounded- being both slightly frustrated and slightly relieved that my lack of italian prevented me from explaining myself. At one point two waiters came in to see what the commotion was about. They saw Enrico waving his open palms towards the sky and quickly left the way they had entered. Ten minutes later he was patting me on the back and apologizing. Five minutes after that, we enjoyed our break by splitting a coke. "I'll do better tomorrow," I told him in italian. He flashed me a grin and responded, "no, tomorrow you just won't do the sausages."
It's strange being an immigrant dishwasher (I'm working at La Notizia through a course program in Naples). My seven weeks at Middlebury's intensive language program hasn't done me much good when it comes to communicating in the kitchen- a place where its less important to know the conditional and more important to know the word for ladle, dustpan, and lettuce. By the time its taken me to formulate a grammatically correct response they either a) have told someone else to do it or b) have grabbed me by the arm and attempted to show me my task through a rough pantomime. Either way, my responses of si or capito are rarely trusted. In fact, I'd say that over the last week of working under Enrico, I've learned less italian from him than I have italian gestures; the finger point below the eye, the palms pointed towards the sky, and my favorite, the italian wink. The italian wink should not be confused with the american wink- with is usually expressed as a sign of congenial complicity. No, the italian wink is used far more liberally and is generally directed towards speechless american dishwashers who are actually paying to dry pots and chop half-cooked sausages. On second thought, maybe the italian wink has the same meaning as the american one. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Pizzafest 2008

Okay. This was it. Every year Naples puts on the world's biggest pizza celebration. For ten days straight, over two dozen pizzerias from all over the planet compete for bragging rights when it comes to true Neapolitan pizza. Before lthe night began, I had a vague concept of what "true" meant when it came to Neapolitans and their pizza. But now I've been set straight. Neapolitans are purists when it comes to culinary tradition and Pizzafest-which felt as much like a laboratory experiment as it did a food festival- might best exemplify their idiosyncratic, almost stringent nature . "Fair is fair," seemed to be the underlining motto of the night. The creators of Pizzafest set out to create a controlled environment where each pizzeria had to work against the norm to come up with something special. Each pizzaiolo was given the same space and same tools and told to make the same pizza (only margherita and marinara)The theory here being, that the only thing differeniating one pie from another is the talent and hardship gone into the creative process.  To help level the playing field, each pizzeria, I counted 25 in total, had to use a special wood burning oven that was no different than their fellow competitors . That's right, someone paid for 25 wood burning pizza ovens to be brought into the Mostra d'Oltremare fairgrounds.  I don't want to give the impression that all these pizzas were the same. They weren't. But for Neapolitans, true greatness in the pizza arena is found in the most
 minute differences. For them, the scrutiny in dissecting every aspect of a pie is almost as fun as the actual eating. 
Margaret and I showed up around 7:30, a half an hour after the fest was
 supposed to begin. We found ourselves waiting in a long line full of angry, pacing italians. Twenty minutes later that pacing had turned into shouting and banging on the ticket booth window. If I've learned one thing so far it is this: don't keep italians from their pizza. Despite the excruciatingly long wait (I had been purposely starving myself all day), we eventually were able to buy tickets. I was pleasantly surprised to find that for ten euros, you get a ticket for a pizza, coffee, beer, and desert limoncello
Last year's Champion 
In a fairgrounds dedicated to the art of pizza filled with 25 of the best pizzerias around, where do you start? Last year's winner, of course, Makoto Onishi from Salvatore Cuomo's Japanese pizzeria. By the time we had arrived at Cuomo's tent, a military band was already there to greet last year's champion. Margaret and I both split one margherita and one marinara.  What can I say other than it was delicious pizza? I preferred the margherita over the marinara but I think that will almost always be the case. The dough was especially thin, even by neapolitan standards but held everything together remarkably well. It was pliable, chewy, and the bottom was crunchy. The charred spots on the dough were more than just a sign of a good oven . Each spot was really baked into the dough, adding a completely new taste that helped the pizza as a whole. Each ingredient was fresh and distinctive, but nothing dominated the overall flavor. Everything worked together symbiotically sort of like Live Aid or a phish concert. Okay, maybe not a phish concert. 

    Pizza from Salvatore Cuomo

I wanted to show how pliable the crust was, 
but instead, it just looks like I'm holding up a slice of pizza...
Our next stop was at the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN) tent. Margaret and I debated our margherita. She claimed that the overall flavor was better than the Cuomo pizza while I said that there was too much oil and mozzarella. After a slow digestive walk around the fair, we tackled our fourth and final pizza at L'antico Molo. We were both pretty stuffed and decided to go with a marinara. I can't say that I'm able to give this pie a fair description. I was too full. But I will say that there was a nice spicy kick to the tomato sauce. 

For your viewing pleasure...

Pizza tossing with the VPN guys

Me (dumb tourist) and them (pizzaioli)

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Ristorante "Ciro a Mergellina"

Located across from the bay, Ristorante Ciro a Mergellina is stuck between a row of fish vendors and parked vespas. After first glancing at the menu posted, I thought this might be another done-up tourist trap (The menu was, after all, written in english as well as Italian, good english). But after seeing the fast moving, white-jacketed waiters, I began to see a certain old worldly, almost anachronistic charm to Ciro's that I haven't seen in Naples, yet. Finally a place where people could see me for what I truly am; a top-hat wearing, ivory cane twirling gentleman. I lacked the hat and cane, but it was no matter. They gave us a table anyways.  In actuality, the only reason we ended up at Ciro's was because we were completely lost (looking for neapolitan tombs or something). I saw the pizza di Ciro through the big glass window and decided to give it a shot. 

What I ate: a Margherita 
What Margaret ate: nothing. She sat there, drinking a coffee and complaining about stomach problems
The Crust:
A very thin, incredibly chewy crust that reminded me of flat bread in some strange way. There was also something pleasantly sweet to the dough. I couldn't put my finger on exactly what the flavor was, and I doubt very much there was any sugar added. That is, after all, a big no-no in Naples. But still, I enjoyed having to work through each bite. Whatever made the crust so chewy also made it very flimsy. This pie was an unabashedly soupy pizza. If you still don't know what I mean by soupy have a look at this photo:

A fork and knife kind of pizza. Scratch that. A spoon and straw kind of pizza.

I was both excited and little bit terrified to cut into this pizza. I watched my knife go through first, a level of oil on top, then a creamy thickness of buffalo mozzarella and tomato sauce, and finally another layer of oil that "separated" the sauce from the crust. In reality, I couldn't tell where the toppings stopped and the dough began. This pizza was a swamp of flavor. 
In fact, I'll go so far as to say this was the definition of a soupy pizza. Sitting next to the Mediterranean sea, staring at the large aquarium filled with fish that would surely soon be someone's meal, I got the impression that "soupy" might have been exactly what they were going for. Maybe "oceanic" is a better word. Naples is known to have world class sea food and perhaps this pizza is a tribute to the sea without making you eat anything from it. Wait, so its possible that someone actually tried to make a soupy pizza? It's not just the result of using fresh tomatoes and creamy cheese? Maybe. This realization came as a little bit of a shock to me, considering  my own philosophy on crust, which states that cardboard thin pizza is good, but only as good  as the toppings it can literally,  support. 
So did the pie at Ciro a Mergellina win me over to the soupy side? Not really. Most days, I'm still going to prefer a slice with structural integrity over one lacking a backbone. But that's just me. If you want to try a good soupy pizza, and I mean a really good soupy pizza (and I think you do), go down to the metro, hop on the blue line, and get off at the stop labeled " The marshlands of pizza: Ciro a Mergellina". If you can't find that stop, and the woman at the information desk stares at you, just get off at the "Mergellina" stop instead.      

 The toppings:
I've briefly mentioned the mozzarella already. But its worth saying again; an abundant amount of an overly creamy cheese. Some of richest I've had so far. At the risk of offending cheese lovers, I might even say there was a little bit too much. No, wait, that's impossible. The most renegade and, perhaps, my favorite part of this margherita pizza was its inclusion of parmesan. Neapolitans are very strict about what constitutes a margherita pizza (mozzarella, tomato sauce, and basil. that's it). Parmesan definitely can't be thrown on as an afterthought. In fact, since my arrival two weeks ago, I've almost entirely forgotten about parmesan (the mozzarella has been that good).  But this pie brought it back to me in a very refreshing way. The sharp, aged flavor of the parmesan helped balance the richness of the mozzarella and also complimented the chewy sweetness of the dough. Throw in the tanginess of the tomato sauce and bam! you've got yourself a very complex, very tasty pie.

I would recommend grabbing a pie at Ciro's to anyone, just so long as they know what they are getting. This is a very creamy, very rich pizza. Just make sure that your stomach can handle it because I promise your taste buds won't be disappointed. 

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba

Antica Pizzeria Port'alba:

     Antica Port'alba claims to be Naples' (and the world's) oldest pizzeria. Opening its doors in 1830, this unassuming restaurant can be off of Piazza Dante. Stuck between a number of used book stores, you don't see it the first time you walk by. We didn't at least. In fact, I was hesitant that I had even found the right place. Sitting outside was the restaurant's pizzaiolo, a somber sad eyed man who motioned for us to sit down in a shaded patio area. 
What I ate: Pizza diavola (a "deviled" pizza)
What Margaret ate: Pizza margherita 

The Crust:
     This was arguable the best part of both pizzas. Even as I watched our waiter carry our pizzas across the alleyway, I could see a golden brown crust that almost glowed in contrast to the white buffalo mozzarella. Before I even took a bite, I knew I was in for something exceptional. How did I know this? Well, for one, I could hold the slice in my hand. After being in Naples for about a week, and eating at least one pizza a day, I've already had my fair share of what food critic Ed Levine calls "soupy" neapolitan pizzas. These are hot, freshly cooked pizzas that don't have the structural integrity that most American pizza eaters take for granted.  In many neapolitan pizzerias, often the amazingly creamy buffalo mozzarella and the locally grown tomatoes, once cooked, liquify into a deliciously white and red puddle that forms at the center of the pizza. This puddle, while delicious, is also difficult to eat.  Most crusts are too thin to support the center of the pie, and as a result, become soggy and hard to pick up. The pie loses its crust, it's texture. It's something special. 
     This, however, was not the case at Antica Pizzeria Port'Abla. The crust here was slightly thicker than its other neapolitan brethren and singed to a lightly golden color. It was a comfort to eat a pizza with my hands again. But at the same time, I didn't find many dark, charred spots on the edges and bottom of the crust (a neapolitan signature and also one of my favorite parts of a good pizza). 

The Cheese (Mozzarella di buffala): 
     Both the margherita and the diavola were topped with mozzarella di buffala. This cheese was creamy, fresh, and by american standards, exceptionally good. But in the city that claims to have invented pizza, nothing made this mozzarella memorable. Since I've arrived, I have tried better mozzarella (on worse pizza) in other pizzerias around Naples. I will say, however, that the cheese seemed to work better on the margherita than it did on the diavola. To be honest, I think this is probably more of a reflection on the salumi on my pizza than it is on the mozzarella itself. 

The Sauce: 
The sauce on both our pizzas seemed to fit into the same camp as the mozzarella. In America, I would probably be quick to rave about it as being above par. But graded on a neapolitan scale, this sauce was good enough not be noticed, really. Not too sweet. Not too tangy. It seemed to hover in that spot where mediocrity and blandness meet (did I really just use mediocrity to describe a pizza sauce?). 

The toppings:
Perhaps the most disappointing element of the pizza at Antica Port' Alba was the basil. For me, adding basil to a pie is as much a symbol as it is a culinary choice. A freshly cut leaf of basil represents the freshness of a pie's ingredients and the labor of love that has gone into bringing those ingredients together. All that amazing flavor and aroma packed into one small leaf. Biting into that leaf should be a punch to your taste buds (Sometimes when I'm feeling really sinister, I'll plan how I'm going to eat my pie according to the placement of the basil and rearrange the leafs to better suit each bite). But at Antica Port' Alba the basil was dry, flavorless, and burnt. This was particularly frustrating considering the fact that good basil could have really helped draw out the flavor of the mozzarella and sauce. Why was the pizzaiolo so sad looking when we approached? Perhaps he was lamenting his herb selection. 
As for the salumi on the pizza diavola, each slice was cut into awkwardly shaped squares that drew attention away from its flavor, which was actually pretty good. Keep 'em thin and flat, I say. 
      One more thing I'd like to mention about the actual pizza at Antica Port'Alba: one of my biggest pet peeves about eating a pizza diavola is the fact that often there is nothing spicy or "deviled" about the pizza. My pizza here was no exception to this. Sure, I occasionally found  small pepper flecks. But what's the fun if I have to look for them? A good pizza diavola is very much like a good strip show (sorry mom, but the metaphor sort of works. I mean, I imagine it works, seeing that I've never been to a strip show myself but have only heard about them): the excitement is in what isn't seen, or, in our case, tasted. The pepper flecks and spicy salumi have to stimulate (what other verb could I use?) your taste buds to the breaking point of being too spicy, to a point where the flavor becomes distracting and starts to eclipse the other flavors of the pizza. But a good pizza diavola (maybe I should say a great pizza diavola) takes you to that breaking point without crossing over. In short, its an amazing tease. The diavola at Antica Port'Alba went the opposite direction into a complete absence of spice. There was nothing alluring or tantalizing about the taste. It was like trying to watch a strip show where the dancer wears a full-body jump suit and refuses to show you any skin. 
    The equivalent of a terrible pizza diavola

The Atmosphere: 
Located in a nice shaded side street full of american tourists and students (like the one writing this review). A margherita pizza will run you about five euros, which seems reasonable, but there is a coperto, or cover charge, for a few euros more. Also, our waiter, a very nice elderly italian man, knew how to squeeze money out of every situation. After we had paid and he came back with our change, he looked me in the eyes and said "For me?".  

     After reading this review to Margaret for feedback she candidly told me that I was giving Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba, one of the world's oldest and most famous pizzerias, a terrible review. I tried to protest. But upon remembering that Margaret is about twice as smart as me, I realized that she is probably right. Bashing Port'Alba was never the point of this review. In fact, I really enjoyed eating there and will surely go back at a later date (I just won't probably get the diavola again). In general, I do spend a little too much time fixated on the negative aspects of a pizza. The reason being; if something is good it is good and there usually isn't much more you can say beyond that. But if something is bad it can usually be better.  So why not try to fix it?