Acting on a hot tip from chef Nancy Silverton, writer Jonathan Gold travels to Italy to meet the modern-day oracle of pizza.
Naples, it is well known, is the spiritual home of pizza. The pizza around every corner may be the greatest of your life. You can spend your days there sampling sfogliatelle from the splendid old pastry shops, delicate fried sardines from the friggatorie or thick hot chocolate from the cafés, but the two hours you wait in line for the city's best pizza will reward you with pies as eventful as a long afternoon in Pompeii. Starita, where a young Sophia Loren made pizza in Vittorio De Sica's 1954 film L'oro di Napoli, still produces its famous montanara, flash-fried before it is baked. And Brandi, which claims to have created the Margherita pizza in 1889, in honor of the Savoy queen, still serves its signature pie.
In Naples, however, pizza has a kind of secondary meaning. It evokes green fields; Campania's wild, volcano-molded landscape; long Sunday drives. Pizza may be the essential taste of the city, but its savor depends on the thick-skinned tomatoes that grow on the slopes of nearby Mt. Vesuvius, mozzarella made from the milk of bufala around Caserta and Paestum, and fragrant olive oil from hillside groves.
Lately, the pizza one hears about the most comes from Pepe in Grani (pepeingrani.it), in the old Roman town of Caiazzo, about an hour northeast of Naples. Its chef, Franco Pepe, who cooked for years in his family's pizzeria a few hundred yards away before opening his own place, has been inching onto the international celebrity-chef circuit. Not quite 20 months old, this Caiazzo pizzeria already draws much of its weekend clientele from as far away as Rome. "My pizza is wireless," Pepe is fond of saying. His dough is worked by hand in wooden boxes, left to ripen for hours and never refrigerated. The pork for his sausages, the olive oil and the bufala mozzarella come from just down the road.
Pepe even offers tasting menus that include Margherita pizza; pizza with scamorza and onions from the nearby village of Alife; pizzas topped with the incomparable local chickpeas, with capers and sweet anchovies, with figs and strong cheese, or with potatoes and mountain herbs. You can find similar toppings on other local pies, but not necessarily of this quality or this provenance. In Pepe's pizzas lie all the flavors of Campania. He and an agronomist are even working on reviving ancient local varieties of grain.
So when Nancy Silverton came back from vacation last summer raving about a pizza she'd tasted near Naples, I knew exactly where she had been. I didn't know how her life had been changed, though. Her Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles is usually considered among the best pizzerias in America, famed for its organic ingredients and risen, fermented crust. Her pizza isn't traditional, but it is superb. "Neapolitan pizza isn't my style," Silverton says. "I've never had pizza in Naples that I've liked. But if I'd known about Franco Pepe before I opened Mozza, I probably wouldn't have made pizza at all. People have been making it for hundreds of years in Campania, but it feels almost as if Franco invented pizza and everyone else is just copying him. It's like chefs doing molecular cuisine after Ferran Adrià at El Bulli. It's kind of hard to explain, but Franco has this glow around him. His is probably the best pizza in the world."
So I booked a ticket to Italy. And not long afterward, I found myself behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo Giulietta, winding up the narrow road toward Caiazzo, twisting past what seemed like an infinite number of bufala mozzarella shops and rustic pizzerias, the scent of wood smoke and garlic almost permanently in the air. To drive into the Caserta hills is almost like driving into a pizza itself. And when you get to Caiazzo on a Saturday night, the modest hill town is full, every parking space taken, the main street through the centro storico clotted with pedestrians—and you realize, when you walk down the steep, cobbled side street toward the restored 18th-century palazzo occupied by Pepe in Grani, that almost everyone you see is waiting for a table in the restaurant. The wait, you are told, is three hours. You leave your name and wander into town for a drink.
Franco Pepe is a third-generation pizzaiolo, brought up with the smell of oregano in his nostrils. In the early part of the last century, much of southern Italy was still basically run on the sharecropping system, where farmers on leased land were largely paid not in cash, but in crops. Pepe's grandfather, a wheat farmer, realized that his grains would be worth more made into bread and pizza than as a commodity. The family's pizzeria, a modest restaurant facing the Piazza Porta Vetere, near Pepe in Grani, became a landmark in Caiazzo—the Osteria Pizzeria Pepe is still featured in some guidebooks to the region; they especially praise its ethereal white calzone stuffed with escarole and cheese. "The story of our family pizzeria," Pepe says, "is a story born in hunger. I can never forget that."
In the kitchen of Pepe in Grani, there is a gleaming metal canister in the kitchen crowned with a festive conical lid. This is where they keep the pizza a libretto, so called because it is eaten folded in four like a booklet. The tiny pie is sauced with only tomato and a bit of oregano. Pizza a libretto is the original street version from the 18th century. The staff here bakes the pizzas at the beginning of the evening, before the crowds arrive, and stacks them in the box. Locals know that they can come in and order one for only a euro and a half—it is the local fast food. Pepe makes about 70 each day. If you get to the pizzeria before they sell out, you can munch on one while you wait for a table.
When Pepe's ambition inspired him to break free from the old pizzeria, to open a showplace grand enough to attract the world, he cried with fear. When he was restoring the palazzo, coming in past midnight after working a full day at the other pizzeria, he wasn't sure if he was doing the right thing. Italy was in an economic crisis then, and many shops in the centro storico were closing. His friends thought he was crazy to spend so much on a new restaurant—equipping the old building with sleek dining rooms and romantic terraces, with top-floor hotel rooms and a big screen so that customers could watch the balletic tumult in the kitchen—when the old restaurant was doing just fine.
Many people have discovered themselves to be anti-Neapolitan when it comes to pizza. True Neapolitan pizza is not paved with half an inch of melted cheese. It is made in wood-burning ovens, but smoke is rarely a factor in its flavor—it does not cook long enough to absorb the taste of the wood. It must be thoroughly cooked, with no raw spots, but its surface must not be overly caramelized. In fact, the aesthetic, at least as expressed at Pepe in Grani, is absolute softness—the crust absorbs enough of the sauce so that the two components are essentially one: supple, thin and yeasted, but neither sour nor particularly risen. The suppleness of Pepe's pizza may remind you of the first time you ever experienced a Shanghai soup dumpling or a master's pappardelle. It is perfect.
After service, I go upstairs to watch Pepe make the next day's dough, his arms buried in the oozing mass, a drippy glob stuck to his forehead above his left eyelid. He works a huge tub of dough, digging deep, kneading and punching, turning it back onto itself. I had never quite contemplated the idea of the dough for 400 pizzas a night being turned out by hand. I was surprised that his forearms didn't bulge like Popeye's. "I am the primitive man of pizza," he says. "We have no machines here, none. The only technology we permit is a thermometer for the oven, but really, it is better to observe the color of the flames. Technology can make the process better, perhaps more precise, but it is no substitute for your fingers, your eyes, your nose."
He wipes his hands on a towel and points at a picture on the wall showing the family's old pizzeria kitchen, taken in the 1930s. "Notice—no sink," he says. "The cooks had to carry cast-iron containers up from the well each day and warm the water in the embers so that we could use it to make the dough." He says that hot water from the tap is now acceptable. But there is a distant look in his eyes. The corners of his mouth twitch down, and you can tell he thinks the old way was better.
Jonathan Gold, a Pulitzer Prize–winning writer, reviews restaurants for the Los Angeles Times.