Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017
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Taking the upper crust

How Neapolitan pizza got its own protected status

Food writer Burton Anderson once commented that if Naples had patented its world-famous pizza, it would be one of Italy’s wealthiest cities, instead of one of its poorest. That might change yet: the World Trade Organization last year decided to “protect” the distinctively chewy and cheesey creation, designating it worthy of “DOP” status, or Denominazione di Origine Protetta (akin to the French AOC, Appellation d’origine contrôlée, used for wines and cheeses).

A relative of the ancient tradition of flatbread, pizza comes in many shapes and sizes — from deep dish in Chicago to sushi-topped in Japan — but Naples, Italy is the place that gave rise to the modern prototype.

Recently, I was in Naples and on the hunt for the Real McCoy. One guide warned there are easily 1500 pizzerias to choose from, yet only a handful are considered authentic by locals. Da Michele (13 via Cesare Sersale, Piazza Garibaldi, Naples; tel: 39-081-553-9204; www.damichele.net), with two downtown locations, is often touted as king. On a warm evening, sixth-generation pizzaiolo, or pizza maker, Michele Condurro whips up a Margherita. “It’s the only one for me,” he says of the classic marriage of fresh mozzarella and intensely sweet tomatoes topped with a couple of vibrant, whole leaves of basil and a splash of oil. It was named for Italy’s Queen Margherita who visited the sunny, port city in the 19th century and inspired its creation.

“Pizza is poetry,” says the 51-year-old, who started making this edible art at age 14. Indeed. Condurro’s slightly sticky Margherita had a soft centre, a crust marbled with char from the blazing hot oven and scant yet tasty toppings. It bore no resemblance to the heavy, cardboard-and-ketchup standard delivered to home in Toronto.

Clinton’s Favourite

Next stop was Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente (120/121 via Tribunali, Naples; tel: 011-39-081-210-903; www.
ilpizzaiolodelpresidente.it)
, in the historic city centre, and it delivered a similarly perfect product. It takes maestro Ernesto Cacialli less than three minutes to make a pizza, from the moment he picks up the pocketbook-sized pack of dough, to the moment he slides it out of the oven.

Cacialli, who renamed his business in honour of a 1994 visit from then-president Clinton, estimates he and his small crew serve more than 1000 pizzas a day. What’s the secret? “Practice and technique,” he says, pressing his fingertips together.

Back for another sample at Da Michele, Condurro explained the basics: the soft dough, made with yeast, salt, water and a popular, local flour (the Caputo brand), rises overnight, for 15 hours or more, “so it’s light,” he says. There is minimal handling — and absolutely no rolling pins — for stretching the 300-gram piece of dough.

The tomatoes are the regional plum variety called San Marzano and the cheese, sliced not grated, is shipped in daily from a nearby farm. Da Michele uses fior di latte, fresh cow’s milk mozzarella, and not the traditional water buffalo mozzarella because it’s less milky, he says. He adds a sprinkling of grated pecorino, or sheep’s milk cheese, and a splash of vegetable oil, again straying from the traditional olive oil. The toppings are simple, chosen for their individual strength of character, and applied with a light hand.

The wood-fired oven, built to pizza-baking specifications and seen in the best Neapolitan pizzerias, has a domed cavity for proper air circulation. Da Michele uses aged oak and beech wood for flavour. The temperature of about 450°C means the thin-crusted pizza cooks in two minutes, max. 

Neapolitan know-how

At Trio Pizzeria (3239 Yonge Street, Toronto; tel: 416-486-5786) in north Toronto, owner Eduardo Beccati works with pizzaiolo Romolo, who was born near Naples and trained at Da Michele. “We do everything here like he learned to do in Naples,” says Baccati.

He rhymes off the list of ingredients: UBUB (unbleached, unbromated) flour, olive oil, salt, yeast and spring water to make the dough; San Marzano tomatoes and a mix of mozzarella and brick cheese from Saputo. The oven doesn’t have a thermometre. “Romolo just knows when it’s ready,” he says.

At Toronto’s new Neapolitan-style pizzeria, Libretto (221 Ossington Avenue, Toronto; tel: 416-
532-8000; www.pizzerialibretto.com)
, proprietor Max Rimaldi and chef Rocco Agostino go to great lengths to emulate the original.

Rimaldi, whose family hails from around Rome, explains the two kinds of Italian pizza: “There is the Roman kind, it’s like a cracker. The Neapolitan kind is soft, you fold it. That’s why we named our place Libretto,” he says.

Rimaldi and Agostino are using standards set by the True Neapolitan Pizza Association (VPN or Associazione Veraca Pizza Napoletana). The organization, based in Italy and the US, has thousands of members worldwide, with each shop identified by a sign carrying a Pulcinella figure wielding a pizza paddle.

The VPN, which lobbied the WTO for years, wrote the rulebook for DOP pizza, which covers everything from size to topping — no pineapple and ham here. Libretto follows suit with a wood-fired oven that burns at about 450°C and was assembled in Naples; San Marzano tomatoes, a locally sourced fior di latte and naturally leavened dough. “We’re as close as possible,” says Agostino. “But this is Toronto. We can’t really say we’re DOP.”

Ironically, neither can Da Michele. It doesn’t comply with some of the DOP standards: the pizzas are too big, the oil is not olive and the cheese is not bufala. But do they care? “No one can tell me this isn’t Neapolitan pizza,” says Condurro.

And in Canada, Torontonians seem to agree that close is pretty darn good: you can expect to join a queue for a table at either pizzeria.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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