Every couple has things that they love. For some couples it may be the beach. Others may stop at nothing to enjoy the theater or go to the symphony. For my fiancée Hanna and I, that love is food. Wherever we go we try to get the best, most unique food possible. We always say that we will stop at nothing to get the best food. In Naples, that theory was truly put to the test.
The plan was easy enough: take a day trip from Rome to Napoli, eat lunch and dinner there in order to sample the best pizza in the world. Our first red flag came when we mentioned to Hanna’s cousin Pauline that we wanted to go to Napoli. “No! Don’t go to Napoli!” she screamed. She and her husband Olivier continued to attempt to dissuade us over dinner, saying that Napoli was dirty, dangerous, and ugly. However, when we pressed them, they had to admit that the food was tremendous.
That was enough for us, and we decided to go through with our plan.
The trip started off on the wrong foot. We got a train from Rome to Napoli and we arrived just outside Napoli Centrale station on schedule. Suddenly, we came to a screeching halt. There we waited for several minutes…and then several minutes more…and then several minutes more. There were a couple of announcements, but they were in Italian and my Italian from freshman and sophomore year of college wasn’t helping much. We heard a couple of old men talking back and forth and I managed to pick out “Napoli…sempre Napoli…” which made me think that this wasn’t the first time trains were delayed going into Naples. Finally they came on and said that “no trains are leaving Napoli Centrale due to a manifestation.” Again, they need to work on their translations.
Not quite sure what a “manifestation” was, we assumed it was a strike and prepared to wait for a while. After about an hour wait, they finally said we would proceed to Aversa. So we figured it was a sign that we weren’t supposed to go to Naples (frankly it was a relief). So we prepared to get out there, spend the day in a new and interesting city, and come home.
Much to our surprise, the train rolled right past the Aversa station and 10 minutes later we were pulling into Napoli Centrale. At this point we had seen the dirty buildings covered in graffiti that led into the Napoli station. We saw this kind welcome and we were almost convinced to simply get off the train and onto the next one back to Rome. But no, we came here for pizza and we weren’t going to be intimidated out of it.
We stepped off the train at about noon to two men in a shouting match. We have no idea why they were upset, but they sounded like they were going to kill each other. We avoided them as much as possible and continued walking (quickly) to the end of the platform. There we got our next surprise, a team of 6 or 7 policemen, complete with riot gear! Full plastic shields, batons, facemasks…everything intended to welcome tourists to their great city. It was then that we imagined that “manifestation” might mean “protest” and that the squad was there to break up a rally.
According to our book, there was supposed to be a tourism center in the train station, but when we walked to where we figured it should be, we saw nothing but an empty room with cinder blocks and dust everywhere. We were on our own.
We walked out of the side of the train station and looked in our book for which pizza place we wanted to try to get to. We picked one and looked at the map. Nope…too far. We decided to just go with the closest one, L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, so we could just get in, get pizza, and get home.
We figured out where to go, and we walked away from the station through mobs of seedy-looking characters who had goods but looked like they had no interest in selling us anything. We walked across the intersection (an interesting experience in itself) to find a police car with several cops around it ushering 20-30 members of a shanty town out of the area. The area outside the train station reminded me of Skid Row in Downtown Los Angeles, where we had accidentally driven through one night. It was scary, and we walked as fast as we could, hoping to find the pizza place without getting robbed…or worse.
We got to where we thought the place should be and turned right to pull off the main street and check the map. Fortune was truly on our side, since that happened to be the exact street the pizza place was on. We saw the long line outside and knew we were in the right place. We walked up to the door and looked in the window only to see a photo of, of all people, Julia Roberts. Apparently this is the pizza restaurant she goes to in the “Eat” portion of Eat, Pray, Love.
The next task was figuring out how to order. Once we got inside there was an old man in the front at a cash register. He was wearing a full suit, so we figured he was the guy to see. We were ready to make our order (some places in Italy you order first, then take your receipt to the counter where they give you your food), when we saw the person in front of us signal a “three” on his hand. The guy wrote down a “3” on a piece of paper and gave the guy a green piece of paper with a number on it. When it was our turn I signaled “2” and received my green piece of paper with the magical number 51 on it. We went and stood outside with everyone else, assuming that the guy would come out and yell when our number was up. Sure enough, he came out and yelled “36”…it was going to be a while.
The line moved surprisingly fast and we were sitting down in less than an hour. The tables, like many in Italy, are basically long family-style tables. We were seated next to two young Italian men who looked like they had been there before. The waiter came by and asked for their order first, then ours.
The menu at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele is not complicated. They have two types of pizza, Margherita and Marinara, the difference being that Margherita has mozzarella cheese on it while the Marinara does not. You can get either pizza in a small or medium, and you have the choice of getting the Margherita “normale” or “doppia”.
The two young men next to us each ordered a “doppia,” which meant a Margherita pizza with double mozzarella cheese. He then came to us and Hanna said we wanted Margheritas. He asked “normale o doppia?” and, thinking of how much cheese we had eaten in the past few weeks, I answered “normale.”
As he walked away, the two guys next to us shook their heads. We looked at them and they said “doppia!” as if we had just made a mistake. Luckily the waiter double-checked our order before he gave it to the kitchen, and we were able to change the order to two doppias.
Their pizza arrived before ours and they dug in as if it was the first food they had seen in weeks. They tore the pizza apart, literally (Italian pizza does not come sliced; you have to cut it yourself with a knife and fork), and they were each done with half by the time ours came about five minutes later.
Wanting to prove that I had learned my lesson, I followed their example and started eating right away. I was somewhat apprehensive because I had watched the pizza come out of the oven (about five feet from where we were sitting) a few minutes ago, and I hate burning my mouth on food, especially hot cheese that sticks to the roof of your mouth. The pizza wasn’t too hot; in fact it was absolutely perfect…which gave me a chance to appreciate the taste.
After our first bite, Hanna and I each looked at each other with “that look.” It was the same look we gave each other when we tasted the foie gras ravioli at L’Atelier in Las Vegas, the same look we gave each other when we tasted the tacos from Loteria at the Farmer’s Market in Los Angeles, the same look we gave each other when we tasted the fried rice at House of Nanking in San Francisco. Suddenly we didn’t care that we had been delayed two hours on the train or that we had walked through dirty, smelly, trash-ridden streets hoping not to get mugged. There, in one glorious instant, we knew that this was the best pizza we had ever eaten. And that made it all worth it.
It all started with the crust, a perfect char on the outside with a moist, salty sweet dough on the inside. Next came the sauce…easily the best pizza sauce I have ever tasted. It wasn’t thick like the sauce we have Stateside, but rather a liquidy, almost watery texture that made a delicious “pizza soup” in the center of the plate. On top of that were tiny balls of mozzarella and a few leaves of basil in the middle of the pizza. This came as a surprise because in American Margherita pizzas, the basil is much more prominent.
We looked over and saw the guys next to us finishing up their pizzas, folding it New York style and eating it like slices. I found it easier to just cut out little pieces and eat them with the fork. I didn’t seem to draw any critical looks for my method, so I continued.
I don’t know if I’ve ever eaten so fast in my life. I was halfway through the pizza before I came up for air. At that point, the two guys next to us were trying to get the waiter’s attention to order one more “doppia.” Oh to be young.
Towards the end of our pizzas, I looked over at Hanna and saw the combination of too much mozzarella cheese and eating much too quickly start to get to her. She took a little breather as I finished mine up, but of course she powered through it and finished hers as well. She never would have forgiven herself had she left something on the plate. Of course, with me sitting across from her, nothing would have gone to waste.
We looked at pictures later that night and it brought on the typical Pavlovian response of salivation and hunger. Two things stand out from the pizza at L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele: the sauce and the crust. I asked Hanna, “How can such a simple concoction be so much better in one place than in another?” She explained that there are thousands of different types of flour, so that plays an important part. The water (as New Yorkers claim) also plays a huge part in the dough. As for the sauce, well, just chalk that up to Michele who either created or inspired one of the best tomato sauces of all time.
It was definitely worth going into the warzone that is Napoli in order to get this pizza. It is something I will never forget and hopefully, when we’re old enough to afford bodyguards, we will return to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele and experience that pleasure once again.