NAPLES - When the hot pies come out of the wood-fired hearth ovens, they look big enough to feed a family. Crispy bubbles of crust hang over the edges of the plates. The mozzarella in the middle swells and pops, venting steam. But nobody shares a pizza in Naples.
"The crust is very thin," one slender young woman told us, explaining why she can eat an entire pie. It's true that pizza in Naples, its presumptive birthplace, is known for its thin crust - crisp on the bottom, slightly chewy on top. But we believe there is something else going on: Neapolitans commune with their pizzas, devouring them in singular, idiosyncratic ways.
Popular culture being what it is, we couldn't miss visiting L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele, described in impossibly glowing terms in Elizabeth Gilbert's bestseller, "Eat, Pray, Love." The white-tiled pizzeria dates from 1930, but according to octogenarian Luigi Condurro, his family started the pizza-making dynasty in 1870. Da Michele is a purist's pizzeria. It makes two varieties: marinara with tomato sauce and mozzarella, and margherita, which adds fresh basil on top.
Pizza at da Michele was good (though no pizza could live up to Gilbert's rhapsodic praise), but the camera-toting hordes, us included, detracted from the experience of watching Neapolitans interact with their pies. Unlike Gilbert, who devoured two pies here, we decided to branch out.
Across the square at Trianon da Ciro, they've been making pizza since only 1923 and have a long list of toppings (mushrooms, eggs, sausage, prosciutto . . . ). For the indecisive, the Gran Trianon piles on eight ingredients, although the simpler Four Seasons is the choice of many diners, including a businessman in an impeccably tailored suit. When his pie arrived at the table, he unbuttoned the lower buttons of his crisp white shirt, tucked in his tie, lifted his knife and fork, and dispatched his pizza without mishap.
At Europeo, another spot with a pizza-making lineage going back to 1870, the eponymous house specialty includes pickled cherry peppers and fried zucchini, but most people stick to the simpler margherita. The crust is just right for eating "libretto" style, where the diner cuts a big slice from the pie, folds it up like a book with the gooey parts tucked inside, and lifts it to the mouth.
Donatella Mattozzi, cousin of the owner, had the procedure down pat. She was dining with her father, Antonio Mattozzi, a history professor, who recalled working in his family's restaurant when he was a young boy during World War II. Under the German occupation, they were reduced to eating potatoes and chestnut flour. "The Americans brought wheat," he said of the Allied occupation. "We could make pizza again."
While visitors seem to obsess about finding the best pizzeria, Neapolitans are pretty casual about popping into the most convenient establishment when they're hungry. After joining them for the evening promenade on Via Toledo, we did the same thing - following signs up a side street to the unsung Il Soldino. It was our first encounter with what Americans might call a "gourmet" pizza. The house specialty pie was topped with chunks of fresh tomato, arugula, and fresh buffalo mozzarella from nearby Caserta. The crust was perfectly crisp on the bottom and chewy on the top, the greens crunchy and peppery, the tomatoes sweet, and the cheese milky and rich. Three men at the table next to us seemed to be competing to see who could devour his pie first. They looked up from their plates only to grab a french fry from the heaping plate in the middle of the table. Sharing fries, it seems, is OK.
Over the course of our (ahem) research, we decided that women give pizza the respect it deserves. This seemed especially true at Antica Pizzeria del Borgo Orefici, which turned out to be perhaps our favorite spot. Much is made of the famed Neapolitan pizza crust, but we decided that, for us, the sauce was the critical factor. Borgo Orefici's took the prize for tasting like freshly grated tomato.
A young woman sitting near us seemed to agree. She romanced her pizza: carefully cutting a slice, raising it on her fork, admiring it before she wrapped her lips around it. Chewing slowly, she savored the pizza in her mouth, then closed her eyes to swallow before she smiled. It was a performance worthy of the great Italian actresses of the last century.
But not all Neapolitan pizza is so serious or so sensuous. Scooter-riding young boys seem particularly fond of pizza fritta - literally, fried pizza - sold on street corners. The pizza-maker puts the sauce and cheese on top, then folds over the dough as if making a giant ravioli, and slips it into a vat of boiling oil. The final product, perhaps the ultimate artery clogger, is served inside a fold of brown paper. The trick is to dispatch the pie before the oil soaks through the paper.
We didn't love pizza fritta. The oil masks the resilience of the dough and the flavors of the fresh ingredients. The best of this ancient city's pizza, we realized, is a simple alchemy of dough, tomato, cheese, and a sprinkle of intense fresh basil, properly assembled and kissed by fire.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.