What’s the best pizza in the world? I took my friend, Michael Goldfarb, like me, an American transplant, to L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in Stoke Newington High Street. Da Michele is a foreign outpost of arguably, possibly, probably, the best pizzeria in Naples, which is less arguably the original and best place to eat pizza. It opened in February and there have been queues down the street ever since. I suggested we get there early on a Tuesday lunchtime. The restaurant opened at noon. Six or seven customers were lined up with us on the pavement. Inside were only eight or ten marble topped tables and they filled up pretty quickly.
‘When it comes down to it, what is pizza?’ said Michael, sitting down to peruse the menu, ‘Flatbread cooked with stuff on top exists in some form all around the Mediterranean.’
The menu had only two choices. Margherita; tomato sauce with fior di latte, (a buffalo milk cheese that’s better for pizza because it’s not as watery as mozzarella) and basil, and Marinara with tomato sauce, garlic and oregano. Five generations of the Condurro family has been making these two pizzas since 1870. No need to change now. We ordered one of each.
‘What is pizza really?’ continued Michael, who once lived, as I have, for many years in New York, where the pepperoni grease fug that wafts from hole-in-the-walls pizza joints where you could always get a slice at three in the morning, is my madeleine passport back to my drunken 20s. ‘Pizza is where you are, who you’re with. Its about everything that surrounds the pizza. For me it’s Sunday nights in Philadelphia growing up. Mom didn’t cook on Sundays and we always got a pizza from Mama’s Pizzeria. Was it good? I don’t know — I went back four years ago and tried it again and it was awful — but I can still smell the cardboard box it used to come in.’
Taste and memories of taste are contextual. Several years ago I went to the famous Da Michele pizzeria in Naples. It had become a celebrity because it was the place Julia Roberts ate pizza in the movie Eat Pray Love. We had to wait forty five minutes for a table at 6pm on a weekday. When we sat down we had to wait another forty five minutes for the pizza to arrive. We were hungry, ignored and annoyed. We thought it was a very good pizza, but hardly more extraordinary than the pizza we had eaten at lunchtime or yesterday or the day before. (When in Naples …)
Michael and I did not have particularly high expectations. Then the pizzas arrived. A distinctive ‘leopard’ crust, speckled with black char. Crisp on the outer rim, floppy gooey in the central lava lake of tomato. Chewy, salty. And something else, an almost creaminess that slid around in the back of my throat, like the satisfaction of a spoonful of something rich and fat — but not. Then the concentrated tang of tomato hit, sweet summery fruit sugar and sun. The fior di latte lent a gentle barnyard funk to the Margherita. On the Marinara the garlic made an alkaline dance with the green earth oregano. My taste buds bounced between essential flavours, bitter burnt, sweet and acid fruit, milky cheese, salty yeast.
‘This is very very good.’ said Michael.
‘This is really amazing,’ I agreed.
Recently Da Michele has opened branches in Japan and Rome; over the next few years more are planned in other big cities around the world. Quality and authenticity will remain paramount, Marco Condurro, fifth generation pizzaiolo, and grandson of the Michele who opened the restaurant in Naples, told me. ‘Maybe about 15 restaurants around the world; not too many, we don’t want to be MacDonald’s.’ He had spent weeks setting up the operation in Stoke Newington. They use only Neapolitan ingredients. Caputo flour, recognised as the best pizza flour in the business, from a local miller, canned San Marzano tomatoes that grow on the fertile slopes of Vesuvius, fior di latte from a producer on the Amalfi coast. The oven is a custom built, wood-burning dome with a volcanic stone floor.
I asked Marco what the differences between a Da Michele pizza in Naples and one in Stokey. He said it had taken him time to figure out how to recalibrate the proving process for the dough to accommodate London winter temperatures and humidity and different calcium levels in the water. It was a matter of adjusting the amount of salt, yeast and time.
‘At the end its about 5% difference.’ This is the human difference — variations in thickness, in stretch and a fraction of a second longer in the oven. ‘It important to keep the artisinal character,’ he said, pushing a ball of soft dough into a circle with his finger tips and then flipping three or four times in a practised parabola.
Michael’s wife arrived and we ordered another Margherita. We marvelled anew at the specific and contrasting perfections of the grilled black and soft chew of the crust, the way the dough was salted but not the tomato sauce (which is made from crushed canned tomatoes and nothing else), the way the textures of crunch and soft went back and forth.
‘Yeah,’ I conceded. ‘This is the best pizza in the world.’ It’s even better than the one I had at Da Michele in Naples.