Naples, the Birthplace of Pizza, Has Finally Perfected the Gluten-Free Crust
Some centuries later, the world’s most devout pizza purists have found a way to make flour-free crusts that aren’t gross.
The story goes like this: In 1889, a Neapolitan cook named Raffaele Esposito concocted the “Pizza Margherita,” colored like the Italian flag with tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, to honor Margherita of Savoy, the queen consort of Italy. While many contest the origin story—some tracing pizza to Ancient Greece and even 20th century America—no one disputes that Naples is the pizza capital of the world. Over the past few years, the sacred (and legally protected) dish has become widely accessible to Neapolitans who can’t digest wheat, and this is another story worth celebrating.
In Italy, there are an estimated 600,000 people who have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder treated with a gluten-free diet. A recent initiative called “Alimentazione Fuori Casa” (“Nutrition Away from Home”) has led to over 4,000 restaurants, pizzerias, hotels and ice cream shops following gluten-free guidelines set by Associazione Italiana Celiachia. As awareness spreads throughout Italy, arguably faster than in many other European countries where gluten-free is understood as a fad diet or not understood at all, the food options for people with celiac, long alienated by their inability to eat pasta or pizza in a country where both reign supreme, have improved. Italians are tested for celiac at an early age, and many who test positive receive a monthly stipend from the government for gluten-free food.
“In the last few years every grocery store has started to sell gluten-free stuff,” my friend Francesco, who is from Pisa, told me. “I remember that ten years ago my grandpa used to buy that stuff at the pharmacy because there was nothing in the grocery store.” A woman who lives in the Southern region Calabria told me there’s still progress to be made in many parts of the country. “I went to a pizzeria in Calabria with a friend of mine who is celiac, so she asked the pizzeria owner something gluten-free for her,” she said. “So he offered her a plate of pasta. He probably didn't even know what celiac disease was.”
Fortunately, the pizza capital of the world has a growing number of options for people affected by celiac. Pizzeria al 22, one of Naples’ most esteemed pizzerias, now offers a remarkable gluten-free crust—though make sure to call a few days in advance so they can prepare. And you can find gluten-free Italian pastries—sfogliatelle, graffe (donuts), tiramisu, cannoli—that taste and feel just like the real thing at Senza Glutine Siani, which is only a short metro ride from the city’s center.
If you want to experience the chewy, charred magic that is Naples pizza but don’t want to sabotage your small intestine, check out these three pizzerias that have mastered the crust.
Gino Sorbillo Lievito Madre al Mare
(1 Via Partenope)
Not only do their pizzas look indistinguishable from their gluten-y counterparts, but their crusts are almost exact replicas: chewy, soft, crispy and the ideal vehicle for fresh mozzarella di bufala and local tomatoes.
(115 Via San Biagio Dei Librai)
Opened by the three brothers Vesi in the city’s historic center in 2015, the gluten-free offshoot of Pizzeria Vesi is beloved by gluten-intolerant locals who need a reliable margherita fix.
(120 Via dei Tribunali)
On the pizzeria-studded street Via dei Tribunali, Presidente stands out as one of the best pizzerias in Naples—and its gluten-free pie lives up to the hype. Topped the super fresh ingredients, the fluffy-crispy pizzas are cooked in a separate gluten-free oven and, I’m told, can bring people with celiac to tears.