Cats. Sharks. Pizza – without them the Internet would be little more than Teletext with trolls. Two of these are sadly beyond the remit of this space, so: pizza.
The world’s most popular food is rarely far from the headlines. Whether it be an attention-seeking chef (if you’ll forgive the tautology) showering truffle shavings over one, or some hick town which has made the biggest in the world and usually also the most unappetising, a pizza-themed headline seems to pop up in my timeline on a daily, if not hourly basis. Here comes one now: a ‘human behaviour expert’ claims that you can decode someone’s personality by the way they eat pizza. (Apparently, ’folders’ are essentially Neanderthals; they might as well just go eat some Soylent and be done with it).
I rarely let a bandwagon pass without lassoing its tailpipe and hopping aboard my hoverboard so, today, right here, right now, I am going to tell you, definitively and forever, where to find the best pizza in the world. Ever. Of all time.
“Pizza is simple, right? Some kind of bread affair cooked in an oven with tomato sauce and cheese on top. Stray much beyond this, and—as Jon Stewart once said of Chicago pizza—we are talking ‘a fucking casserole’.”
Stewart championed New York pizza, those thin-but-dense-based, floppy slices of congealed tomato scab with their heavy-handed sprinkling of dusty oregano and some kind of pukey, pre-grated faux-parmesan. So, nope, the best pizza is not to be found Stateside. Nor is it in Tokyo, even though the Japanese often do Italian food better than the Italians – I had a great pizza at Seirinkan in Nakameguro recently, for instance.
Meanwhile, Northern Europeans consume more frozen pizza than anyone else in the world (those little perma-frosted lumps of red pepper: what kind of medical school did Dr Oetker graduate from anyway?), so that rules them out. And in Paris, pizza is considered the lowest rung of the culinary ladder, so let’s forget the French, too, for once.
“What about Italy? Merely crossing the Alps is no guarantee. Roman pizza is bafflingly second rate, for instance.”
How can some Italians get something so very right, and others so very wrong? The city’s much-lauded Pizzarium? I hereby un-laud it. Pizzarium seems to have become the default ‘Best Pizza Place in the World’, online at least, but this hostile little hole selling overpriced, over-topped focaccia squares out of convection ovens is no such thing. The base is far too bread-like and the toppings over-the-top (Broccoli? On a pizza?). Plus, you have to eat on the street, which is unnecessarily stressful.
So, Roman pizza, no.
You know where this is heading, don’t you? All roads lead, of course, to Napoli, that great roiling, boiling garbage dump of a city. Only in the heart of Italy’s Southern capital can you find truly authentic, unsurpassable margherita, right? Well, kind of.
I was there recently, pottering along the ridiculous Amalfi coast, circumnavigating Vesuvius, and venturing into the clotted heart of Naples itself, and the truth is, I ate the best pizza in the world everywhere I went there. From the usual guide book places in the centre of Naples, like Presidente, or Polone, where you have to queue with cruise ship passengers for hours, to the restaurants recommended on the food nerd noticeboards out in the suburbs, to what should have been the worst kind of lazy tourist traps, every pizza I had during five days of eating nothing but for lunch and dinner was exceptional.
“We ate at a plastic table on the the pavement within sight of the entrance to Pompeii. And you know what? It was The. Best. Pizza. I. Ever. Had.”
One time, we literally ate at a plastic table on the the pavement within sight of the entrance to Pompeii—the biggest tourist attraction in Southern Italy—amid the exhaust fumes, pick-pockets and Romanian postcard hawkers. And you know what? It was The. Best. Pizza. I. Ever. Had.
The soft, chewy base had that gorgeous, crisp, bubbly-blackened edge like the rim of some still-smouldering caldera with none of that uncooked flour-and-yeast flavour; there was a thin, even layer of sharp-but-fruity tomato sauce; islands of melting tangy-fresh buffalo mozzarella; and the regulation two basil leaves.
The previous night, arriving late at our rental apartment in Amalfi itself, we had crossed the street to the only restaurant still open, and again, there too: TBPIEH. Another time, my GPS left us lost and bewildered but, by chance, outside some random local family joint, Il Cavallino, in San Vitaliano at the foot of Vesuvius. You guessed it. TBPIEH.
“I’m not particularly interested in defining ‘authenticity’, or learning how to make TBPIEH at home; in fact, I don’t think either is possible.”
Obviously, the oven is important, and it should be wood-fired to about 400-450 degrees Celcius. Copenhagen-based chef, Christian Puglisi, who spent some time roaming Naples researching pizza prior to opening his own place, Bæst, in Nørrebro (the best pizza I have had outside Italy, by the way), told me the oven to have is one made by Ferrara and costing EUR 8,000.
The type and quality of flour, too, is vital, as is the proving time for the dough, the water, the wood and even the temperature and humidity of the kitchen. Then you have the type of tomatoes: San Marzanos grown on the slopes of Vesuvius ideally, but might they be adversely affected by being transported long distances? I suspect so.
I am sure you could get pretty close to the Platonic ideal of a Neapolitan pizza at home with a lots of work and a great deal of expenditure, but it would never quite be as good as one eaten in situ. Things never are. So, if you are looking for the best pizza in the world, get a compass (the circle-drawing kind), a pencil, and a map of this part of Italy, and describe a circle roughly six centimetres in diameter around Vesuvius. Go there, order pizza. Use a knife and fork. I promise you it will be The Best Ever.