For an Italian tour that messes nicely with tradition, head to Naples, the birthplace of pizza, where some masterful pizzaioli have elevated this humble treasure to tasting-menu status.
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It began with truffles. White ones, from Alba, shaved over a butter-daubed wedge of dough, then ditto with a heady black variety from Irpinia. Seated in the courtyard of the famed Naples pizzeria Concettina ai Tre Santi, I watched my waiter with wide eyes as my evening pizza marathon commenced with an intoxicating bang.
Later he returned and layered a plate with tomato sauce as dark as sumac and redolent of Sunday family lunches in this southern Italian city, a handful of basil leaves, and a hand-grated snowstorm of Parmesan cheese. After tying a gingham napkin around my neck, he topped the composition with a deep-fried puff of dough: a classic montanara pizza turned upside-down, the sauce on the bottom, to sustain its quintessential crisp-outside, pillowy-inside texture.
I was on the first stop of a pizza pilgrimage through Campania, the Italian region where pizza was born — and where some of today’s pizzaioli are elevating it to sterling new heights. One of those innovators is Concettina’s Ciro Oliva, 29, who commandeered his family’s delivery joint with dreams of grandeur when he was just 19. In recent years, Mr. Oliva and other high-flying restaurant owners in Naples and nearby have adopted the tasting menu, that haute-cuisine marker of five-star dining, and applied it to the most common and commonly adored food: pizza. Over three life-affirming days of gluttony and bliss, I toured Campania’s most hallowed outposts offering pizza tasting menus to see how the area is ennobling its signature fare.
My journey began at Mr. Oliva’s restaurant in the Sanità neighborhood of Naples, a rough-and-tumble district centered around a cacophonous market street, that was named one of Time Out’s 51 coolest neighborhoods in the world this year, an upgrade in fortune due in decent part to the local pizzaiolo. A bombastic and high-energy Vesuvius of a man, Mr. Oliva is usually found distributing high-fives and talking up his pizza and his neighborhood to the stars, dignitaries and food fans who flock to his outpost in this gritty yet evermore vibrant part of Naples.
“A margherita deserves the same respect as any other ‘Made in Italy’ artisan product,” Mr. Oliva told me by the kitchen’s glowing wood-fired oven. “It’s like a Loro Piana jacket. But it’s pizza.”
For a Loro Piana-level experience, Mr. Oliva has introduced long-leavened doughs and ingredients “all at level 10” he said, snapping his fingers for emphasis.
“You have people who order a tasting menu and Champagne,” he said, pointing to a table with a rarefied bottle of Jacques Selosse Extra-Brut, “and people who order a margherita and a Coca-Cola,” which was the case with nearly all of the present guests.
Universally, the pizzerias I visited offered this high-low balance: excess and accessibility.
As Marino Niola, a cultural anthropologist in Naples, told me, “Pizza today has become a culinary excellence but, born as sustenance for the poor, it will always be tied to the concept of food for all.” The tasting menu, though, is a nod to the Michelin guide, which has become the oracle of destination restaurants for food-obsessed travelers, despite its Francophile standards prizing technical perfection and service etiquette rather than simple deliciousness. Italy’s superpower has always been, thankfully, deliciousness — with pizza as the ultimate proof. (A smattering of Italy’s pizzerias are recommended by Michelin, including Concettina, yet none have the distinction of a Michelin star.)
The next day, I peeked in at Concettina’s morning preparations. A group of pizzaioli with Popeye forearms vigorously kneaded bubbles of dough, plopping them on wooden trays. A cook hand-squashed San Marzano tomatoes into sauce in a steel pail. On the stove, clams, escarole with black olives, and friarielli greens spiced with pepperoncino sizzled in their pans. The day’s cheeses arrived: fior di latte, smoked provolone, buffalo ricotta and buffalo mozzarella made that morning that was still warm, and exploded with juice when I bit into a slice. Pizza as an art form begins here.
After a visit to the nearby Ipogeo dei Cristallini, an ancient Greek necropolis discovered in a Sanità basement and newly opened to the public, I headed to Caiazzo, a tiny hilltop town of 5,000 to Naples’s north, accessible by riding the autonomous EAV railway company, which operates a single-car train that looks like a tin toy.
“I’ve brought the whole world to Caiazzo with pizza,” Franco Pepe proudly announced on my arrival at his celebrated Pepe in Grani pizzeria, the subject of a recent episode of Netflix’s “Chef’s Table: Pizza.” He took an informal survey of the diners around him. Holland. Norway. Malaysia. India. Abu Dhabi. Italy, all parts. Guests were decked out for the occasion, and addressed him with the Italian honorific “Maestro” as they snapped photos, smiling with the pizza star in chef’s whites.
“Pizza has always been considered fast food,” said Maestro Pepe. “But this is slow-food pizza.” Superb raw materials, high-craft cuisine, reconsidered recipes. The once-teenage assistant to his pizzaiolo father, Mr. Pepe took over the pizzeria with his brothers upon his father’s death, but he split from his siblings in 2012, rebuilding an 18th-century Caiazzo ruin as his own restaurant, with his apartment installed directly above it, where he could cultivate his exacting ideology of pizza. “We knew all about dough,” he said. “But we had a lot to learn about ingredients and recipes.”
An official ambassador of the Mediterranean diet, Mr. Pepe stressed the nutrition of his menu, but health food in an Italian context is a generous category. The first pizza I was served was deep-fried and a blaze of flavors: a gently cured anchovy of nearly raw intensity, a sunshine-sweet tomato slice, a shimmering note of citrus zest underlined by peperoncino’s slight fire.
It was the triumphal embodiment of Mr. Pepe’s doctrine: “Pizza enhanced by the culinary arts,” as he described it, while the young staff stretched fresh pies on the marble countertop in the kitchen. “Where tradition meets creativity and innovation.”
In theory, dessert pizza is a terrible idea after so many courses of dough. But the Crisommola del Vesuvio is the finger-licking embodiment of the Pepe in Grani kitchen: a delicately crisped slice topped with Vesuvian apricot jam, toasted hazelnuts, mint, a lattice of buffalo mozzarella cream and dried Caiazzo olives. It was electric — an artfully calibrated soliloquy of regional ingredients that I devoured. Who can possibly eat more? Reader, I’ll tell you who: I can. The straccetti fritti, twists of dough coated in cinnamon and sugar, were irresistible Italian-style churros sprinkled with rosemary and orange rind, then dipped in a vanilla-scented buffalo-ricotta sauce.
The next morning being Sunday, none of EAV’s toy trains were running, but a substitute shuttle ran from Caiazzo’s piazza to nearby Caserta, the heart of buffalo mozzarella production. Buffalo mozzarella is the fattier, more lyrical sibling of cows’-milk fior di latte, which is incorrectly labeled “mozzarella” in America, since domesticating and milking buffaloes has proved so difficult stateside.
Caserta is a World War II casualty, the site of the German surrender after it was trampled by the Nazis and bombed by the Allies, and its blighted principal boulevard has become a charmless low-end commercial strip — yet along this road lies a jaw-droppingly majestic anomaly. One of the great historical marvels among Italy’s many glories, the 18th-century Reggia di Caserta — the Neapolitan baroque response of the Bourbon King Charles to Versailles — is among the largest royal residences ever constructed: 1,200 rooms of more gilded deities and heraldic frescoes than the senses can comprehend, flanked by 300 acres of manicured grounds, including an English-style garden with plants from the entire known world. It’s a stunning place to walk off some pizza.
Also along the main drag, occupying a former car dealership and flanked by a gas station and a discount children’s wear shop, the I Masanielli pizzeria doesn’t look like much from the outside. But the pizza Francesco Martucci prepares here is another majestic anomaly of Caserta — the most gastronomically radical concoctions of my pizza pilgrimage.
“At first, I was viewed as a heretic for my techniques, for my toppings and for my approach to pizza,” Mr. Martucci told me. “But I knew that using extreme quality and creativity, I could establish something all my own.”
I Masanielli is a name-check of a 17th-century Neapolitan revolutionary. “I’m a bit rock ‘n’ roll,” Mr. Martucci said, setting his tattooed fists on the restaurant table. “Can’t you tell?”
Translation: He revels in the iconoclasm of his pizzas, which reference trailblazing Michelin restaurants rather than classic pizzaiolo preparations. Among his influences are the acclaimed Danish chef René Redzepi — “Noma is the watershed between the old and the new” — and Massimo Bottura, Italy’s three-Michelin-star headliner.
“This is haute cuisine applied to pizza,” declared Mr. Martucci, and I Masanielli’s kitchen, larger than a full-size tennis court, is his half-million-euro laboratory — stocked with sous-vide machines, flash freezers, dehydrators, fermenters, freeze dryers, 19 refrigerators to maintain separate temperatures and ovens of all kinds, alongside the customary wood-burning pizza variety. The frying station, captained by a young Michelin-kitchen-trained chef, is a long bank of digitally operated stainless-steel technology that looks ready for a moon mission. Deep frying is a big deal around here.
By 8 p.m. that evening, I’d consumed only a plate of cooked vegetables at the Reggia di Caserta’s cafe, and walked 10 miles according to my phone, yet hunger eluded me after two nights of overdoing pizza as if it were a hazing rite for a fraternity. Still, my appetite revived after Mr. Martucci presented the first slice of the tasting menu — with three kinds of bitter, he explained: fermented sea urchin, fermented chicory and beer-infused ricotta.
The sensations were otherworldly, adventurous, a full ride of earthy and marine flavors unlike anything I’d ever experienced on a pizza. That was followed by a slice with a vegetable-reduction paste, fior di latte and jammy prunes on a diaphanous dough cloud with wood-fired singes on its cumulus curves. There was a pizza with zucchini, zucchini flowers and Kombu seaweed blanketed by the whispery smoke of provolone, and a slice with silky Jerusalem artichokes cooked three ways atop honey-dried pecorino.
Like the Reggia di Caserta, it was all more than the senses could comprehend. Luckily, the trains back to Naples ran until late, and I would skip dessert that night as I Masanielli’s award-winning pastry chef (and Mr. Martucci’s partner), Lilia Colonna, was on maternity leave with the couple’s baby.
“We want to take pizza to another planet,” Mr. Martucci said, his blue eyes dancing as he set down my last slice: a marinara with anchovies over oven-roasted puréed tomatoes and wild-garlic pesto, etherealized with his signature triple-cooked crust — a featherlight gauze of dough that was steam-baked, deep-fried and then oven-crisped.
“Michelin doesn’t even see what we’re doing,” he said. The renegade pizzaiolo wore a flour-dusted black T-shirt and a roguish smile. “But there’s a new path that’s opened up here, and it’s the future of pizza.”
The pizzerias I visited are in Naples; less than 30 miles to the city’s north in Caserta, home of buffalo mozzarella; and in Caiazzo, home of a renowned olive variety. Travelers can easily use Naples as a base and visit the other towns by car or train. To reach Caiazzo, check the EAV’s schedule for the Piedimonte Matese line, and buy “Unico Campania” tickets (one hour and 20 minutes; about 5.30 euros, or about $5) from a newsstand or tobacco shop, or contact Pepe in Grani to arrange a car transfer. Caserta offers frequent train service to and from Naples on Trenitalia, with tickets available online or at Napoli Centrale (30 to 55 minutes; about 4 euros).
Concettina Ai Tre Santi, Via Arena della Sanità 7 Bis, Naples (Margherita: 12 euros; seven-course tasting menu: 50 euros)
Pepe in Grani, Vicolo S. Giovanni Battista 3, Caiazzo (Margherita: 6.50 euros; six-course tasting menu: 35 euros/12-course tasting menu: 65 euros)
I Masanielli, Viale Giulio Douhet 11, Caserta (Margherita: 6 euros; eight-course tasting menu: 70 euros)