My Naples Pizza Experience
When we exited Autostrade A1 onto E45 on our way to Pizzeria Salvo in Naples the plan was to rely upon Google’s map turn details (sans cellular connection) because in Naples there are no street signs. I wondered how would we know when Via delle Repubbliche Marinare becomes Via Provinciale Botteghelle di Portici? (That was the point at which the directions said to drive five hundred meters and then turn left.) When we faced a straight road with low buildings, few trees, and litter scattered about, we saw a single car crawling forward inch-by-inch. Its driver ― with an arm extended out the window, has hand holding a leash ― was "walking" the dog.
My friends in Rome have always refused to go to Naples with me despite its being less than ninety minutes away and, because I had read or received plenty of warnings like “Stay away from Naples,” “Don’t drive in Naples,” and “You should read Gomorrah,” I had yet to visit.
I know. A person with my passion for pizza and impetus for food experiences should have hopped aboard a cheap train years ago to stop in at the meccas Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba and Pizzeria Brandi for what I am sure are heavenly pizza experiences. But when in Italy I’ve always been happy with pizza in Rome and everywhere else I’ve gone and ― in the US at least ― I've often found Naples-style pizza to be soggy in the center.
This summer, since I would be traveling with my family and our friends and their family, and since these friends wanted to go to Naples because the husband’s ancestors had emigrated to the United States from Casalnuovo di Napoli and he wanted to see it, it was finally time to try pizza in Naples.
I called Scott Wiener. He’s a pizza expert who owns a pizza tour business in New York. He’s been to Naples and I figured he’d have good advice. He said I should go to Pizzeria Salvo, an old and well-respected place in Naples’ southern neighborhood of San Giorgio a Cremano.
“You think that’ll be good enough?” I asked him. “Or should I brave the roads and head to the harbor, find a parking lot, and eat at one of the famous places?”
“No,” he said. “First off, if you have a car and try to go to the center of town, there are no parking lots. When you pull up to the restaurant, a guy will come up to you and offer to take your keys and take care of the car while you eat.”
“Does he work for the restaurant?” I asked.
“No. But anyway,” he added, “Pizzeria Salvo is really good.”
That settled it. I wasn’t about to drive my family and lead my friends, all of us in rental cars with who-knows-what insurance, into the center of Naples in order to hand the keys over to a sketchy car parker guy, all so that I could taste one pizza over another.
To discuss Naples-style pizza one must consider its crust, which I find both cursed and blessed at the same time ― mainly due to the wet factor. Don’t get me wrong ― I like it. But in nearly every experience I’ve had with this kind of pizza (most of them in New York City), I’ve needed fork and knife.
A good Naples crust ― at least around its puffy perimeter ― offers all the complexity, salt, and chew of good baker’s bread; but the center ― thin because this is the style, and soft due to a quick high-temperature cook time ― doesn’t merely sag, it falls.
At Salvo, pizzas measure about fourteen inches in diameter and come in several combinations. I wanted to compare the flavor and effects of mozzarella di bufala with those of fior di latte (fresh cow’s milk mozzarella), so I tried two different pies. The biggest and most general finding of my test confirmed something I already knew: variance of items on a dough affects strength-of-crust. While both pizzas had the same crust the one called Margherita del Vesuvio (a “white” pizza with grape tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, extra virgin olive oil, and basil ― 4 Euros) provided superior sturdiness ―I believe because it had no sauce. You could pick it up!
The other ― a standard fior di latte Margherita (7,50 Euros) ― turned soggy in the middle within a minute or two.
(Scroll from this photo of the fior di latte margherita to see the sturdier but blobbier Margherita del Vesuvio.)
On the menu, Salvo provides sourcing information for all of its ingredients. The grape tomatoes on the Vesuviopizza were canned Pomodorini del Piennolo del Vesuvio DOP di Casa Barone; the mozzarella di bufala was from the Caseificio Golino & Bellopede; and the olive oil was from Villa Dora. The pomodorini were juicy and sweet and rendered sauce unnecessary.
Sadly, the mozzarella di bufala was thick and chewy; Salvo’s blobby application of it made me wish for less. It also made me appreciate the Roman pizza al taglio method for cheese: rather than cooking mozzarella di bufalathey add it to baked pies in the form of small room temperature hand-pulled strands.
Meanwhile, though Salvo’s fior di latte Margherita did suffer from soggy interior, its cheese more than made up for the downside. It was extraordinary: creamy and rich, just the right amount of salt, and not at all blobby. The sauce was sweet but in a non-sugared way and, as with the Vesuvio, the pedigree of all of its ingredients is listed in detail on the menu. Here's Salvo’s menu.
When I asked the owner’s son, whose name I did not find out, which cheese is the true pizza mozzarella, he said fior di latte is more traditional. Then he elaborated on Salvo’s philosophy: “For us, every pizza is a dish. We use only ingredients from Campania. We don’t want products from industry. Even the beer we have is artisanal beer.”
(The view from Pizzeria Salvo in Naples.)
We got lost after lunch. The directions said, “Head southeast on Via S. Cristoforo toward Via Giovanni Farina,” but we didn’t know which street was Via S. Cristoforo and I was feeling too stubborn to stop and ask someone for directions. So I guessed. Maybe, I thought to myself, we would succeed in finding our way out as we had when found our way in.
At step three, we turned behind another car onto a road and then drove straight for about a mile or two. The pavement became more choppy, the road’s width narrowed some, it sloped upward, curved a few times, and became even narrower. It started to seem as if we were going nowhere fast and that the road might soon dead end. We also observed increasing quantities of garbage in piles all around us. Finally, I acknowledged to my wife ― she’d been saying this since we first turned onto the road ― that we were going the wrong way and that we were climbing the live volcano, Mount Vesuvius. I turned us around.
Lesson One: If I could go back to Salvo I would attempt to finagle a fior di latte pie with no sauce, just cherry tomatoes. I like my pizza sturdy.
Lesson Two: When driving around Naples (and throughout much of Southern Italy, for that matter), get GPS!