What is Neapolitan Pizza?

Va’ fa Napoli” is one of Italy’s favorite insults. It translates directly to “Go to Naples” but, in actuality, it’s a broadcast-safe homophone for a much more personal insult that we won’t repeat here

Naples, of course, is the birthplace of pizza. It’s a mecca for the greatest food known to man and anyone who reveres Italian cuisine would do well to make a pizza pilgrimage to Naples.

So, if you ever get hit with a “Va’ fa Napoli,” you can simply smile and say “Grazie. Lo farò.” That means “Thank you. I will!

Wondering why the Neapolitan is so special? You’ve come to the right place. Here’s everything you need to know about the pizza that started it all:

The History: Where it all started

Pizza is the food that unites us all, transcending all backgrounds and tax brackets. Even if you’re wealthy enough to eat A5 Wagyu steak encrusted in 24k gold flakes with a side of White Pearl Albino Caviar for dinner and feed the table scraps to your dog, you’ll still crave pizza the next night.

It hasn’t always been that way. Pizza, in its elementary form, was viewed strictly as food for folks of lower stock – for the most part, only peasants would dare to eat tomatoes, which were relatively new to Italy and feared to be poisonous.

The first known pizzas were prepared by the wives of fishermen. To welcome their husbands home, they’d top flatbreads with tomatoes, oregano, garlic, and olive oil; no cheese, these ingredients were chosen to keep food fresh (and delicious). This cheese-free pizza was dubbed La Marinara, Italian for “the fisherman’s wife.”

In the late 1800s, Queen Margherita of Savoy changed everything. Most of Italy’s 1%ers wouldn’t be caught dead with pizza, or tomatoes, but she was positively obsessed with both and routinely sent her guards to the markets to bring back the good stuff.

To honor her arrival in Naples, Chef Raffaele Esposito prepared her a pizza adorned with tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and basil, matching the red, white, and green colors of the Italian flag. This was the birth of the Margherita pizza – which remains the world’s most beloved type of Neapolitan pizza.

Queen Margherita of Savoy reigned for over 20 years, but her hand in the creation of Margherita pizza stands as her everlasting legacy. She’s also, arguably, the inventor of pizza delivery.

The Crust

The crust of a Neapolitan pizza emerges from the oven with a blissful char, an ultra-bright yellow aura, and the sound of 10,000 harps. We might be making those last two up, but the point is this – the char and flavor of the crust is downright heavenly.

Thinking about sending your Neapolitan pizza back because it’s “burnt”? If your local pizzeria wasn’t so friendly, that would be met with a tap of a rolling pin to the back of the head. Think of those charred spots as beauty marks – they’re as critical to the Neapolitan’s aesthetic as Cindy Crawford’s signature.

The char is the product of ludicrously hot oven temperatures, which are usually kept around 900° F. To achieve that temperature – and maintain it on the oven floor – Neapolitan pizzas are fired in traditional brick ovens. That’s why most attempts at homemade Neapolitan-style pizza result in a flavorless crust and barely-above-raw toppings – traditional home ovens can’t come anywhere close to the required temperature.

The preparation of the dough is equally crucial. Using “double zero” grade wheat flour (low in protein, starch, and gluten), chefs make their dough well in advance of baking and allow it to rise overnight, or longer. The higher cost of the flour and the extra care that goes into the dough is well worth it, because it creates a complex and fermented flavor that you won’t find with most other pizza styles, or anything else in the baked realm.

This process also bestows the Neapolitan pie with its unrivaled texture. It’s pillowy and chewy, but also remarkably light. You can put down an entire Neapolitan pizza and feel as light as a cloud, which will come in handy when the craving for a gelato dessert hits you.

The Sauce

The Neapolitan pizza is designed to showcase its ingredients in the purest form possible. That includes the sauce, which is made only with tomatoes and salt.

Most of Neapolitan’s offshoots have jazzed up the tomato sauce recipe with ingredients like sugar, garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes, and other aromatics into the mix. When it comes to a true Neapolitan, those ingredients are a definite no-no from nonnas and pizza purists.

That includes the ultimate sticklers of snack at the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana – also known as the AVPN. Their serious standards for the sauce (and everything else) are laid out in a lengthy booklet that must be followed by any pizzeria that hopes to brandish their seal of approval.

Per their guidelines, Neapolitan sauce can be made only from specific varieties of fresh or canned tomatoes (such as San Marzano) that are certified to have been grown in Italy. Seriously. They’re not messing around:

“If peeled tomatoes are used they should be strained, broken up and preferably homogenized by hand. This technique gives the product a different consistency and prevents the breaking of the seeds that would give a typical bitter taste. All peeled tomatoes that are genetically modified or altered to increase desired traits, resistance to herbicides or increased crop render are not –.”

You get the idea. It goes on, and on, and on like that. And don’t even get them started on the possibility of getting zany toppings in the mix.

The Cheese

What separates New York from Naples? Oh, about 4,437 miles, and drastically different views on what belongs on pizza.

Margherita pies are topped with either fresh buffalo or cow’s milk mozzarella and those large slices are used rather sparingly. True to the American spirit, our pies are lined with cheese from edge to edge. On a Neapolitan pie, the cheese tends to take up less than half of the total surface area. Bummed? Don’t be, because this is the definition of “less is more.” With less cheese, you get to savor the rich flavor of the dough and drizzled olive oil, plus the tomato’s natural tang.

The Eating

In New York, Mayor Bill De Blasio caused a storm when he carved up a pizza with a fork and knife. The tabloids had a field day with it, and Hizzoner responded thusly:

“In my ancestral homeland, it’s more typical to eat with a fork and knife,” he said. “I’ve been to Italy a lot.”

Some New Yorkers rolled their eyes at De Blasio’s defense, but he was objectively right. Neapolitan pizzas are meant to be eaten with utensils.

The sauce and cheese of a Neapolitan pizza gives off lots of luscious liquid, so slicing the pie would leave you with a soggy crust. With that said, many NEO-politan shops in the United States slice their pies in the fashion we’re accustomed to. Shops like Williamsburg’s legendary Roberta’s give their dough a little extra crisp and extract some of the tomato’s water to ensure that your finger food meal doesn’t end with a trip to the burn ward.

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