Wednesday, November 10, 2010

April DJ Tour Flashback! Neapolitan Gluttony

On April 11, Darshan and I played at the Meet In Town electronic music festival staged in Rome's Auditorium Parco della Musica, the retro-futuristic, pupa-like music venue designed by architect Renzo Piano.  To be precise, the entire festival was ghettoized and shoehorned into the lobby of the complex, but I'm pretty certain that still counts (and means we're finally playing the same venues as Elton John).

Anyway, in a topical break from form, I'm not going to report on the various follies that befell us at our Roman gig (there were many) or complain about the preposterous "career" that is flying around the world to play records. Instead, I'm going to write about pizza.  After all, Naples is less than an hour away from Rome by express train.  Since our epicurean friend Matt was also playing the festival, we decided it was imperative that the three of us should go to Naples immediately after the festival and eat pizza until we couldn't move.

We arrived in Naples late in the afternoon and headed directly to L'Antica Pizzeria Da Michele.  Despite Da Michele's status as the most famous and highly-recommended pizzeria in Naples, we walked into a nearly empty restaurant and sat right down at a large table.  It might have been the jet lag or our low blood sugar, but the silent, white-marble dining area seemed as if it was enveloping us in a (buffalo) milky haze, feeling a bit like Dr. Bowman's space-room at the finale of Kubrik's 2001 - that is, were that room furnished with a wood-burning pizza oven and lacking a giant monolith (you'll note I'm studiously avoiding mention of the popular film that featured a scene in which Da Michele is invaded and sullied by a pizzaphilic beaver).

We ordered three pizzas: two margheritas (one normale and one doppia mozzarella) and a marinara.  The margherita and marinara are in fact the only two choices on the menu, albeit with options to double the cheese and or change the pie size (normale, media, and maxi, with each larger diameter increase commanding a 50-eurocent increment above the normale's astonishing four euro base price).

The pizza, in short, was perfect:
Margherita (foreground) and marinara.
I could not identify a single element that was wanting, and the interplay among the sauce, crust and cheese was as natural and effortless as a conversation among old friends.  No single ingredient drew undue attention to itself; rather, all of them sang in perfect harmony.  The fior di latte was milky and smooth, the salt content absolutely perfect.  The crust was incredible on its own, ripped straight from the cornicone: tender, with perfectly-distributed leopard spots of char that held us rapt as we knife-and-forked our way through each pie.
Da Michele "upskirt."
The sauce drew me in with its fascinating coincidence of mellowness and piquancy, emboldened on the marinara pie with a sprinkling of fresh oregano.  The marinara, in fact, was my favorite, which surprised me considering my fondness for cheese (reading Peter Reinhart's American Pie on my flight to Berlin the following day, I felt validated when I learned that Da Michele's marinara had left him similarly smitten).  We left sated and giddy, unanimously agreeing that Da Michele alone had justified our trip to Naples.

Only a few, short hours later it was dinner time, and we headed off to Da Dora, a seafood restaurant up on Via Palasciano.  Always thinking ahead, Matt had reserved us a table there as a respite from our planned pizza marathon.  Although the plates of perfectly-fried red mullet, tender calamari, shrimp, dorade and anchovies distracted me, my thoughts kept returning to Da Michele and its humble rounds of perfection.  Da Dora's homey, familial ambiance, complete with singing nonna, belied what turned out to be an expensive tab (though we drank wine, we were still surprised by our total of nearly 250 euro).  Though I was thankful for the experience, I had experienced better fish in other European cities, and was looking forward to our return to pizza-eating the next day.
Singing nonna, approaching with insalata caprese.
A detail of the mixed fried fish (octopus, fish cakes).

The following morning, we walked around the old city for a few hours in a valiant effort build up an appetite.  We only had about five hours before we were to split up and depart to our respective trains and planes, and we were still a bit full from the night before.  Nonetheless, we were soon seated at Trianon da Ciro, a pizzeria recommended to me a few days prior in Geneva by a restaurant proprietor originally from Rome.  In fact, he was quite dismissive of Da Michelle, claiming it was overrated and "for tourists only." Knowing firsthand how wrong this chef was about Da Michele, I was filled with trepidation as we waited for our pizzas (selected from a menu of perhaps twenty varieties) to arrive.  We had ordered a classic margherita and a D.O.C.  

The verdict?  I think the expressions on the faces of the pizzaioli at Da Michelle versus the one at Trianon mirrored our own feelings about their respective products perfectly:
Pizzaioli at Da Michele (left) and Trianon da Ciro.
The pizza at Trianon was unimpressive.  The crust was neither crisp nor airy, possessing a strangely tenacious chewiness and pull that left it feeling undercooked (it wasn't).  There was some charring, but it couldn't stand up to that soft chew.

The pasty Trianon "upskirt."
The sauce was unremarkable, and the cheese on the D.O.C. was oddly brackish.
Trianon's D.O.C.
The three of us marveled at how quickly Da Michele had spoiled us, complaining without irony as we ate our way through pizzas that were probably as good or better than many of the Neapolitan-style pies being served in New York at four times the price.  However, my fears about the Swiss chef's judgment had been borne out, and we left Trianon mourning the valuable belly space and eating time we had squandered there.

Our final stop was at Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente.  The pizzeria had formerly been called Cacialli, but a summer visit in 1994 from then-President Bill Clinton moved the owners to change the name.  If you find the sycophantic corniness of the name a bit off-putting, wait until you see the mural outside:

Try not to think of fraternity hazing rituals.
Rather than delve into my own personal critiques of the mural (staying on the PG-13 end of the interpretive spectrum, I thought it looked like an allegorical painting concerning improper men's room etiquette), I will simply say that it's a fine thing it didn't dissuade us from eating at Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente.  We ordered three pizzas: a margherita, a marinara, and the Tarantina, a cheeseless pie adorned with capers, black olives, anchovies, fresh oregano and basil.  All were fantastic.  
The Tarantina.
The crust, while a bit more dense than Da Michelle, was still crisp and tender, retaining its physics-defying lightness and delicate flavor even when supporting the strong, salty wallop of the Tarantina.  The margherita rivaled Da Michelle's, but lacked the subtlety, perhaps owing to the mystery "formaggio" listed as an ingredient on the menu.  We wondered if there might have been a shaving of grana padano on top. 

The margherita.

In the end, while the regal Da Michelle remained our one true love, we thoroughly enjoyed our "improper relationship" with the feisty intern mistress that was Il Pizzaiolo del PresidenteIt was the perfect way to end our Neapolitan adventure: at a restaurant filled with memory-making smells and tastes, noisy with contented locals who ate their lunches without fanfare and went on with their days.  Unlike us, they took for granted the pies we traveled thousands of miles to taste and would revisit in daydreams for months to come.