Kingdom of pizza
“Twelve pizzas, a pork shoulder and a pork kidney on Christmas Day…”: This pizza order, the oldest documented food order in history, was found in a notarial document located in Gaeta, a town in Italy, at the end of the first century AD. Pizza look-alike meals -a baked flatbread topped with oils, herbs, and cheese- had been made since the Stone Age; but, it was Italy and most particularly, Naples, the place that “patented” the evolution of pizza as we know it.
Pizza aficionados may be familiar with the story: on the occasion of the visit of Queen Margherita in Naples, capital of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies in 1889, court chef Raffaele Esposito was commissioned to think of a pizza-tribute to the Queen of Italy. Esposito’s choice of toppings was allegedly inspired by the colors of the Italian flag: tomato (red), mozzarella (white) and basil (green). Pizza Margherita, the world’s first modern pizza, caused a sensation. The Queen was delighted and had her Head of Service send a letter of recognition to the chef. A few years later, Italian immigrants took the recipe to New York and the rest is history: wherever this Neapolitan invention was taken to, it was a smashing hit. More than a century later, very few foods -if any- can top the popularity of this unbeatable recipe.
And it’s not just pizza: Naples is also known as the birthplace of spaghetti, and land of the most tasteful gelati (ice-creams) and coffee. In fact, the relationship of Naples with food is rooted deep inside the local culture: it is a timeless source of pride and a strong element of social bonding. “Trattoria Da Nennella”, “Osteria Don Vittorio”…restaurants are named after their cooks -most of them ordinary family men and women- as an indication of the food’s quality. Travel writers took extensive notes of the food’s cardinal role in carving the city’s identity; they draw parallels between pizza and Mount Vesuvius; spaghetti and the sinuous city streets; porcelain cherubs and rum babas. On each and every meal, they can see a reflection of the city’s landscape, history, and lifestyle.
Domenico Rea, an Italian writer and journalist of the 20th century, spent a lifetime observing his homeland Naples and writing about it. A representative of the realist movement, Rea strived to convey, with great honesty and perceptiveness, the struggle of post-war Naples to stand on its feet. In the first selected extract, Rea connects the dots between the world-famous Neapolitan pizza, the city’s history and the particularities of its natural landscape.
Rea further argues that Neapolitan food is the most accurate mirror of the city: the spaghetti’s elusive form reflects the careless mobility of street kids; the scorched pizza rim feels like it just came out of Vesuvius’ crater; and the twisted curves of sfogliatella, a popular Italian pastry, evoke the decorative scrolls of Neapolitan baroque. Together with Jean-Noël Schifano they consider that Neapolitan food is the key to understand local culture. Half-French, half-Italian, Schifano has played an active role in bringing the two cultures closer. In the selected extract below, the reader creeps into the secrets of sfogliatella, with as many crunchy layers as the colors, forms and temperaments of this city.
The parallels these two great observers of Naples draw between the city’s food and its landscapes are fascinating. So are the travel notes of French author Dominique Fernadez. A specialist in Italian Baroque, Fernandez throws light on the evocative power of the city’s religious architecture. With domes as puffy as wedding cakes and porcelain cherubs of a sugary sweetness, Neapolitan churches -he argues- are delightful as much for the eye as for the taste buds, able to awaken the most tender memories of one’s first youth.
“Food unites us: Every Sunday is a chance for our families to get together and enjoy nonna’s (grandma’s) specialties, one dish after another: antipasto, primo and secondo piatto.” explains Dominique, a friend from Naples who drew her own city portrait in an interview she kindly gave to Citimarks. In this beloved meet-up, the 3-course culinary ritual is practiced with pious respect, “every single time”, she adds. Chronic poverty is a timeless Neapolitan plague, so those who are able to enjoy a healthy meal do not take it for granted. The critical role that food -and its absence- has played in forging local culture is immortalized in literature: in the last selected extract, Domenico Rea brings to life Pulcinella, one of the most famous characters of the Commedia dell’Arte theater genre. Poor, vulgar, and always hungry, Pulcinella represents the ultimate Neapolitan archetype; his eagerness to do anything for a plate of spaghetti is a steady reminder of the city’s bond with food and its people’s timeless struggle to make ends meet.
All three of the aforementioned authors have an unparalleled talent in digging deep into the Neapolitan heart to bring its most essential, timeless elements to the surface; check out their fascinating travel notes and find out our favorite food markets and restaurants at the end of this article.
A Vesuvian pizza
Any pizza that is not from Naples is something else. This fluffy, transparent food, as soft as a hem, with rims as puffy and scorched as cooled lava from the Vesuvius […] is a form of Neapolitan life, just like the Neapolitan spaghetti, and certain cakes that have by now become famous.
Nothing was originally invented by the Neapolitans, but, later on, it was them who created this pizza form known as “Neapolitan”. […] Pizza, or schiacciata or stiacciata, was always there: there would always be someone to come up with the idea of laying wheat, rice, or another edible ingredient on a burnt stone in order to be fed with […] without deriving any pleasure from it, apart from that of satisfying his hunger. Had the pizza been reduced to the concept of schiacciata, it would only have been a gray, odious thing, a sort of bitter medicine for the Neapolitan. […]
But the second, prodigious invention consisted in giving shape: making the pizza round, square or rectangular. Why round? Because from ancient times, everything surrounding the Neapolitan man was round: the sun, the moon, and a gulf as round as a circle, between Vesuvius, Sorrento, Capri and Ischia. […] But the Neapolitan would never settle for merely giving a form to pizza, without adding color, without a sign of life as dazzling as the absurd drawing of a child.
This is why the pizza’s tomato red would symbolize the Turkish pirate ships which engaged in continual raids; the mozzarella […] would represent the color of caravels scattered by hundreds in the port by the king, by any king to whom basil is devoted knowing that, no pizza is worthy of its name without basil and its flavor – and would perhaps symbolize the sunset, extravagance, or that indefinable “additional element”, that “something more” without which the Neapolitan spirit cannot live.
Pizza is an anthropological extension of the Neapolitan: a way of being that is unique to him, a way -that only he possesses- of staying warm under the sun or the moon, in a colorful world. If, later on, these colors happened to come together in the Italian flag, that was a pure coincidence.
Domenico Rea, Visite privée : Naples, Editions du Chêne, 1991.
The pizza is the gastronomic thermometer of the market: its price goes up or down, depending on the price of its ingredients and their abundance or scarcity of the year. When the fish pizza is made with half a grain, that means the fishing was good; when made with whole grain, the catch was surely bad.
Alexandre Dumas, Le Corricolo, Editions d’aujourd’hui, 1843.
Sfogliatella, a hundred layers old
No people have managed to adapt the food to their personality better than the Neapolitans. The spaghetti, elusive and mobile, reproduce the frenzied adventure of the scugnizzi (note: street kids of Naples) […] The pizza, with rims as puffy and scorched as cooled lava from the Vesuvius, is a culinary delicacy, 100% Neapolitan […] The sfogliatella (note: a cream-filled pastry made by stacked, curvy leaves of dough) was not born in Naples by chance, either: its curvy layers recall the neurotic staircases of numerous princely palaces […], its twisted threads reproduce Neapolitan baroque.
Domenico Rea, Visite privée: Naples, Editions du Chêne, 1991.
The sfogliatella is born in an 18th-century oven burning at 300°C; it was conceived in the crusty and pulpy dream of a nun secluded in her baroque monastery, in constant sight of its decorative golden scrolls. […]
The sfogliatella is Naples. It has the shape of Naples: an amphitheater where the houses are stacked, one on top of the other, like in a thin ribbon of puff pastry. It has the color of Naples, a color of tufa crumbling and flowing towards the sea like a honeycomb in the sun. It also has the sweetness of Naples, an oriental sweetness: a rounded, velvety, enveloping sweetness that seduces us, absorbs us and […] makes us forget the thin crumbly ribbons of our western self.
The sfogliatella has a wavy movement and the shape of a seashell: it’s a playful joy for kids to stick their fingers in and make rings with the golden ribbon that they unroll and then finally bite into when their greedy lips will have finished caressing that blond caviar, perfumed like a Turkish delight. Every lover of Naples receives communion with this soft shell of vertiginous coils: thus Naples becomes like a city in a fictional palate of flesh. […] The Neapolitan food must be praised. Because in no other place can one find such a harmony between life and what nourishes life; in the same way, one cannot find in any other place a greater harmony between men and myths, between life and its collective representation.
Jean-Noël Schifano, Naples, Seuil, 1981.
Cherubs of sugar
The churches of Naples are not the most beautiful in the world. What would the Neapolitans do with a kind of beauty which intimidates and keeps at a distance?
The Neapolitan churches are shelters, nests, alcoves, caves shielded from noise, dust, light and heat wave. They are merciful havens where you instantly recover your soul of a child, surrounded as you will be by playful cherubs, full of politeness. They extend their arms to you and invite you to touch them. They look sugary, asking you almost to eat them…
…with their energetic contortions and incessant movement, they absolutely refuse to be fixed into mere objects of contemplation. […] The church itself looks like a padded dressing-gown and a blissful wedding cake. A series of exquisite sensations are transmitted -more through the mouth than through the eye- plunging you into the same physical pleasure that one would feel when biting a cake. […]
The Church of San Gregorio Armeno, in the heart of Spaccanapoli, is the ideal church for me. At first sight, it looks like a rocky building; but on a closer look, it seems as if it was a caramel-like material that built this church, upholstered with pulpy rough patches, carved by the hand of some childish cherub. It has nothing in common with the whipped-cream style of the Bavarian or Austrian churches. The atmosphere here is dark, golden, dense and archaic; it’s a pre-erotic style, a cave style of a hideout despite the extreme sophistication of every detail.
Dominique Fernandez, Le volcan sous la ville, Plon, 1983.
Pulcinella, the instinct of life
I am white-dressed mask, and I’m always hungry
I come from Naples, homeland of perfect spaghetti,
land of songs, land of macaroni,
I am a specialist in beatings
How many have I taken, so many have I given!
Poetry of the Carnival — Domenico Volpi, writer of youth literature.
Naples is homeland to Pulcinella who, although disappeared, has sealed his jokey face and tragic message within the depths of the Parthenopean soul, for more than four centuries. Coming from the countryside (from Acerra, it is said) in the 17th century, he immediately became a literary “spokesperson” of Naples. For a long time, he personified the city’s major vices and worst flaws.
Pulcinella is always hungry. He is stuffed with spaghetti everywhere: under his hood, in his hair, even in his boxers. His hunger pushes him to sell everything he owns: his household furniture, his wife, his daughter, and himself.
Because of this obsessive hunger, which will never be satisfied over the centuries, Pulcinella is ready to serve anyone, even to adulation. What he will never do is work; in the midst of his worst troubles, he will dance, sing, jump around. He has a particular nose which helps him to better identify smells and to move towards their source.
When he speaks, he stammers, says nonsense, repeats suffixes, prefixes, flexional endings to the point of paranoia; one might suspect him of not thinking, of being empty-headed, of transferring words from his stomach directly to the lips. He has no conscience. It doesn’t matter if the henchmen of Naples’ foreign powers threaten him. Pulcinella falls at their feet, not only out of a morbid love of servility, but because he admires the uniform, the shining sword, the mighty horse that the henchman sits on.
Pulcinella acts like a brainless body. Whoever knocks on his door he responds by farting, saying “I am taking a dump”. His greatest pleasure is to indulge in his visceral, instinctive self. The Neapolitans loved Pulcinella to the point of making him a Patron saint, hanging his sacred image on their home walls next to the icons of their holy saints […].
Pulcinella may be dead, but his legend is alive. The Neapolitans remember him, through many gestures and sayings. […] At the end of the day, bad luck is always the destiny that awaits Pulcinella; bad luck, the only thing that Neapolitans believe in…
Domenico Rea, Visite privée : Naples, Chêne, 1991.
Pulcinella is the real national character […]: he is a truly phlegmatic valet, calm, quite indifferent up to a certain point, almost lazy, and yet funny; young hotel servants and valets looking like Pulcinella can be found everywhere. Ours entertained me today, just by bringing us some paper and pens: a little misunderstanding, combined with a tad of slowness, some good will and a bit of mischief caused the funniest of scenes that could be reproduced by every successful theater out there.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1786, in Voyage en Italie, Bartillat, 2003.
Naples for foodies
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