Please don’t eat pizza when you're in Italy. Honestly. Because unless you stay, it will only break your heart.
If you love to travel, at some time in your life you’ll likely visit Italy - land of romance, sexy Italian accents, comforting food smells on the breeze like Sunday dinners at home. There’s something intoxicating about Italy - the juxtaposition of an everyday scene played out against ancient backdrops from centuries ago.
And the food. Oh, the food. More than anything, I remember the lovely dinners and delicacies I gobbled up when I was there (tried to savor because I knew it wouldn’t last). Emilia Romagna and Bologna in northern Italy has some of Italy's favored cuisine. But my constitution is decidedly southern Italian. Which is a good thing seeing how a Mediterranean diet is so good for you - rich in fresh fish, fruits and nuts, olive oil and Omega 3. OK, there's also pasta which I can never resist!
Pasta, some homemade and some not, though their homemade isn’t the same as our homemade. A common dish I fell in love with in Naples was spaghetti with cherry tomatoes - Spaghetti con pomodori ciliegini - a simple dish of meaty sautéed cherry tomatoes bursting with flavor, with fresh garlic and basil over very al dente spaghetti pasta. I still make this at home way too often. Braciole, lovingly pounded thin, stuffed, then rolled, sautéed and devoured. Eggplant so many ways, but my favorites were the pickled eggplant salad in vinaigrette for breakfast, and the sandwich we bought from a little two-table sandwich shop in Amalfi, with eggplant in marinara sauce stuffed in a bread pocket and baked. The coffee drinks and pastries rightfully claim their own meal time - as in 'Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner, and Coffee and Pastry' - and not necessarily just once a day or in that particular order. And at the end of every meal, there's limoncello, the ubiquitous liqueur made from the grapefruit size lemons found in the Amalfi region. The Italian call it a "digestivo" - the perfect aid to digest any Italian meal!
And then there’s Pizza. Just the thought of it now literally renders me speechless… thoughtless… writers block… I don’t even know where to go from here. Because I know what’s coming. I know it’s true. I am ruined forever for pizza.
I had an idea it would happen, and there were plenty of warning signs. But I thought it was just hype, and didn’t give it a second thought. Probably because I was never a huge fan of pizza before, I believe this may be why it happened to me.
My husband has always expressed his love for the pie by saying “pizza should be its own food group” and many others I know feel the same. Yet, I’ve never had a huge affinity for it. Don’t get me wrong, I like pizza well enough, but I’m more inclined to order an Italian sub or good salad than I would a slice of pizza. I also live in the United States and am a second generation Italian. I’ve always known that the better Italian food came from the original founding generation, and sadly has been ever-so-slowly diluted by each generation since. “Gram used to make it like this” we’d say. “Well, I put my own twist on it” my Mom would reply. So in the back of my mind, maybe I always knew there was something better, over there, waiting for me across the ocean in the old country.
And I found it. Oh yes, I found it. Sweet… sweet pizza.
Now, to be fair to you and make every effort for full disclosure, I must tell you that my first exposure to this involved Julia Roberts, and I hope that doesn’t bias you one way or the other. And you may have already guessed it also involved that chick-flick-to-end-all-chick-flicks, Eat. Pray. Love. Arguably the biggest hit movie of the last few decades among middle-aged women inspired to find themselves through travel, meditation and affairs with hunky Latin men, it also was probably the biggest tourism boon to Italy, India, and Bali in recent history. We were planning on traveling to Italy for our anniversary anyway, but the movie without a doubt inspired me to find that little pizzeria on a side street in Naples, where I fell in love again.
There was a small crowd gathered in front when we arrived as if Julia herself was still there. You approach the door like a velvet-rope nightclub hoping to be seen and allowed to enter. The little man who occasionally opened the door in between delivering pies inside hands you a numbered slip of paper, throwing the matching stub on the ground when he eventually calls your number. So there we stood on the shreds of paper until he opened the door again.
“Numero dieci, undici, dedici”. The door closes.
“We’re next” my husband said, “we're number 13”.
Just one more, and we wait. Here he comes again - “Tredici”. Yes! We’re in!
Everyone sits shoulder to shoulder at small tables of eight or ten, and you have an easy but quick decision to make - Marinara or Margarita, and Coke, Fanta, or beer. Pizzas are being delivered all around us by the little man, each patron getting their own entire pie. No slices here, you get the entire thing to yourself. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such happiness on people’s faces before, and my excitement grows. I think I may have even cinched my shoulders a little bit to go with the huge smile pIastered across my face, I was that excited.
And then, there it was. I could see it coming toward me, my own beautiful pie, just like I ordered it. As he set it down in front of me, unsliced, I could smell the tomato and basil inviting me to dig in. I never imagined I could eat 6 or 8 slices of pizza at home in one sitting, yet I had no trouble whatsoever eating the whole pie in front of me. Maybe it was the excitement, the normalcy of it all, or the knife-and-fork approach. I don’t know. I don’t care. What I do know is from the very first bite I knew. This is what pizza was supposed to be.
Neapolitan pizza is unique. The Dough as the headliner takes center stage, the crust soft and chewy, not hard and crusty. Generally wood fired, its tomato bed is soft and pillowy, just the slightest bit gooey in the center, so it's best eaten with a fork and knife. It’s not smothered with shredded cheese, but has just a few blobs of bufala mozzarella and several whole basil leaves adorning the middle.
Together the ingredients become something magical, a stark contrast to what we consider pizza in America. A Naples pizza is a purist's dream. Its reputation as the best pizza in Italy, and hence the world, is well deserved. And once consumed, necessarily ruins the diner on pizza forever.
It’s a sad fact of life - with pizza, a lost love, or anything for that matter - but there’s nothing better once you’ve had the best. Ironically, as I’m writing this, a friend of mine is visiting Italy now and she posted a pic on Instagram today of her latest Italian discovery - pizza. Sad for her, I left this comment on her post: “You’re ruined forever for pizza, you know that don’t you?!”
I just wish I could have gotten to her in time.