Saturday, November 13, 2010

The balance of a great Neapolitan pizza

Neapolitan pizza is best summarized by the short description, "Fresh ingredients on good bread." Its really a simple concept. Yet, because of the focus on the basics, the room for perceived error is small. Other pizza styles that may be heavily topped or have many components can hide inconsistencies in the dough or the sauce or the cheese. I've eaten a lot of Neapolitan pizza and prepared and baked a countless number of pies. Now in Italy, I feel completely in my element concerning my ability to discuss and compare pizza. Its a lot of fun... and oh so tasty.
So, when it comes to casting judgement on pizza I've been eating I do take it seriously. The last two pies I ate are a good case-and-point of how I identify a good pie.
This past Sunday I was back at Oi Mari in Matera (exactly one week from my first visit). The place was much less crowded but the cavernous atmosphere and low lighting ambiance was all there. I was excited and very hungry after a long ride from Alberobello. I ordered the Capriocciosa (tomato, mozz, prosciutto, and artichokes) and their house wine, which was made with local Negroamaro grapes.
The pizza arrived in about 10 minutes. The crust looked fantastic, and it was. I do think it could have used another 15 seconds in the oven, but it was still tender and the cornicione was quite lofty. The flavor was spot on. However, the toppings were underwhelming. The tomato was all right, kind of plain, the mozz was good, but the prosciutto cotto and the single piece of artichoke was well, not that good. After eating prosciutto crudo, cotto is like having that slimey ham you find in plastic ziploc bags in US groceries. I really don't think it belongs on pizza. I almost picked it all off. As far as greens go, I don't think they should be there for show. A single piece of artichoke  on the center of a pie is just teasing and probably has been the source of the eventual break-up of a few relationships. So, my second visit to Oi Mari was not all I had hoped for but the crust did cause me to think it was in the top 40 pies I've ever eaten.
the oven at Il Portatico
The next pie I'll discuss was from Il Portatico in Venosa, Basilicata. I was in Venosa on Monday night... yes, pizza two nights in a row. I actually did not plan pizza that night but when I found Il Portatico I had to give it a try. I was on my daily post-ride/exploration walk and peeked into a small door that had a Vera Pizza Napoletena sign (how could I not?). The door was unlocked, so I went in. I was met by Marcito, who was eating an ice cream and firing the forno. I had a strong suspicion that he was the pizzaiolo and the owner. I looked at the menu and he was very polite and stated he'd be open at 7:30. "Va bene." The menu looked good and the price right for my budget. Pizza, by the way, is one of the cheapest meals you can get in Italy. Is this heaven or what? I returned at 7:30 sharp and had a seat. The place was tiny... four tables total. Half of the pizzeria was taken up by the pizzaiolo station and the oven. Simple, just like Neapolitan pizza.... the anticipation was building. I ordered the "Mister." I was hungry and it sounded awesome... tomato (pureed). Mozzarella di Bufalo, Pomodori (sliced tomato), arugula, prosciutto crudo, and gran padano. Wow!
While waiting, I went and chatted with Marcito. Indeed, it was his place and he was the sole pizzaiolo. I got some photos of the oven and we chatted pizza and my own time with the peel. Finally, before going back to my seat I noticed he was using the red bag Molino Caputo flour.
the Mister at Il Portatico
The pie came out and the toppings looked phenomenal. All I could hope for. However, before the pie even arrived at the table I knew the crust would not live up to my hopes. Very little loft in the crust. It was stiff and not at all tender. The underskirt had no char. The toppings were some of the best I have had in Italy. For a moment I thought maybe it was too many toppings preventing a good crust, but a quick glance around at the other pies being enjoyed confirmed that it was the dough... not the heavy toppings. So, I was sitting there thinking that I want Oi Mari crust and Il Portatico toppings. But I did eat the whole pizza and was wanting more, so please don't think I am complaining.
So there you have it. Two examples of great pizza and how the subtilties of the individual elements of a simple thing can really stand out.

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