Thursday, January 10, 2008

Travel Tales: Stumbling Onto the Ultimate Pizza

I want to tell you a story. Do you have a minute? It's a pretty good one, I promise.

Once upon a time--actually, late May of 2006--me and The Boy saved up our pennies and had ourselves a totally excellent adventure. The itinerary was Rome for three days followed by a ferry ride to Croatia, where we would be staying on an island called Korcula in an apartment we'd rented with three other friends. It was an amazing trip: we were able to squeeze in a side trip to Pompeii (where my inner history dork positively wallowed in the scenery), we explored the Eternal City, discovered how beautiful the Dalmatian Coast is, walked the entire length of the walls around the city of Dubrovnik, and ate seafood caught fresh from the Adriatic (a novelty for us landlocked Midwesterners).

Still, one particular adventure stands out the most: our quest to eat pizza in Naples, the Holy Land of pies. This is the story I want to tell, in the hopes that it will lead one of you to find this same pizzeria some day so that you, too, might know true bliss.

On our second day in Rome, The Boy and I met up with Cory, a friend of ours from back home who had been traveling abroad solo but was coming with us to Croatia. We decided to take a day trip to see ancient Pompeii, and to get there by train, it's necessary to go through Naples. I had recently read the book "Eat, Pray, Love" by Elizabeth Gilbert, in which she extols the heavenly virtues of Neapolitan pizza, and so I suggested that we stop in the city for lunch. Everyone enthusiastically agreed.

The book had given the name of one pizzeria in particular, but once we actually arrived in Naples, I realized that I had forgotten to get directions to or even write down the name of that place. Undaunted and ever the plucky traveler, Cory approached a young man on a taxi scooter just outside the train station and proceeded to ask for recommendations. He broke the ice by offering a cigarette--the international friendship currency. Thing is, Cory didn't speak a lick of Italian and the young man spoke very broken English. Still, they gamely engaged each other in a round of charades and two word sentences, eventually leading Cory to believe he'd understood something resembling directions to a good pizzeria.

We set off on foot, something that many guide books and seasoned travelers had warned against in this, the city of purse-snatching "centaurs" (guys on scooters who drive by and take what they can from you) and other hooligans. Still, we took some comfort in being in a group and in the fact that none of us were wearing Rolexes.

Our path took us straight down a major thoroughfare, past gangs of uber fashion conscious Italian youths, gobs of street vendors and the noise of construction. Finally, we reached the turn-off we were pretty sure our guide had indicated to us. It took us back into a working-class neighborhood full of narrow, cobblestone streets, colorful flags hanging between buildings, limoncello vendors, and people going about their day-to-day business. Caught up as we were in the sights and sounds of the back streets, we soon realized that we had no idea where we were going anymore.

As The Boy and I discussed our options, Cory disappeared. We found him down and across the street, surrounded by a throng of emphatically gesticulating men. Our first thought was that he was being mugged, and so we circled around from two directions, The Boy looking for some large blunt object he might be able to use as a weapon, and me just trying to figure out what was really going on.

As I closed in, it became clear that Cory and the men were engaged in some kind of discussion, and by the time I finally walked up beside him, I could hear him repeating "pizzeria! pizzeria!" while the confused Italians repeated back, "piazza? piazza?"

Before taking the trip, The Boy and I had divvied up language duties one to the other: he would learn basic Croatian, and I would attempt basic Italian. Now was the time for my extremely shaky skills to shine! I actually understood where the gap in communication lay, and so I put my hand on Cory's shoulder to stop him, turned to the men, and managed to say "Pizzeria molto bene?" (roughly: "very good pizzeria?").

The men burst into a chorus of understanding, waving their arms and hands in the air as if to say "Why didn't you just say so?" I was hard-pressed not to start laughing at how stereotypical it all seemed. But they were more than happy to recommend a good place to go. They kept repeating the words "Cleen-tone, Cleen-tone, il presidente!" which was at first baffling, but I just figured the name of the place was "The President" and they were referring to our last decent example of such a thing as a way to make themselves clear. We thanked them, and the merry band of Italian men saw us on our way.

And just where they said it would be, we found Pizzaiolo del Presidente, a place that would soon become my food Mecca. It would also turn out to be one of Naples' most famous pizza destinations, its profile significantly raised when, in fact, President Bill Clinton had paid it a visit back in '94. Because of it's somewhat remote location, however, the restaurant stays relatively tourist-free (except for the three of us, of course), and is a favorite amongst the locals.

We took our seats, and each one of us ordered an individual pie. Normally, I can't even come close to finishing a whole pizza, but I took this to be one well deserved exception. If you ever find yourself lucky enough to be eating at a pizzeria in Naples, do yourself a favor and don't share. I had the traditional margherita (fresh tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil and oil), The Boy had his with "buffalo" mozzarella, and Cory had some similar incarnation. None of the pies vary by more than two ingredients. Why mess with a good thing?

I can't begin to describe how amazing they tasted. The crust was phenomenal--they prepare it in secret, and it cooks in pretty much 30 seconds flat--all light and flaky and bubbly and ohmygodI'mgoingtocrythisissogood! We ate in stunned silence, occasionally exchanging awestruck glances and uttering simple things like "wow" and "oh my God" until we finished. Our only regret was that we couldn't take more with us for the road.

Since then, every pie I've ever eaten has been, at best, a sorry approximation of that glorious of that Neapolitan masterpiece. That's really the only downside.

The moral of our story is that it's always worth wandering off the beaten path, and that asking the locals for their recommendations is the way to go. Hold on to your purses, but don't be afraid to put yourself out there, too. And for the love of God and all that is holy, if you're ever remotely close to Naples, eat the pizza!


The CDP. said...


Liked the story; sounds like you had a great time. Those photos were amazing.

I like that you're not the type of person who looks at those who haven't done a lot of traveling as uncultured. I had a friend like that, and it was pretty much the most annoying trait one can possess.

Emily said...

Hah, yeah, sadly I've met a few of those types as well, and they tend to fill me with rage.

Traveling is one of my favorite things to do, and I would never do anything to discourage someone from trying it themselves. But I also recognize how lucky I've been, and also that just because you've traveled does not mean you were paying attention.

The CDP. said...

You know those friends that talk things up so much that they ruin the experience for you?

For example, they tell you that Nepoleon Dynamite is the greatest thing in the world, and quote it until it gets to the point where you actually don't see it out of spite?

A friend did that to me, only she didn't ruin a movie or band...she ruined Italy.

You know you've reached a new level of annoying when you actually ruin an entire country for someone.

Emily said...

Wow. She should win an award or something. Only the prize should be a punch in the face or something. Yikes.

Well, in that case...uh, Italy totally sucks. You should never go there. Seriously, only weirdos and comedy bloggers go to Italy....

The CDP. said...

Thank you. I bet the food sucks, too.

Display Name said...

Until you get return, you can always try reproducing it at home. A very hot oven is key. There's a tale out there on the web of a guy who wanted to reproduce the 800+ ovens of his fave NYC pizza joint, so he disabled the interlock on his oven and cooked on the "clean" cycle.

It'll be much more difficult to reproduce the place, the smells, the people. And of course, as you noticed in your snowshoe post, hunger is the best sauce.

The Lost Albatross