The Food Maven Diary
Pizza in Naples and the Bronx
I am now in Rome, very comfortably ensconced at Caesar House. (See Italian Travel Links for the details.) But I started writing this while I was in Naples, staying at Donna Regina, the bed and breakfast operated by my friends Domenico and Gabriella Mazzella, son and mother. (see Italian Travel Links for more details on this lovely place to stay.)
All last week and until Saturday, I was busy, very busy, with my Cook at Seliano group in Paestum. My niece Rachel and her fiancé, Max Protzel, joined us last Wednesday. So, when my group left on Saturday we went to Naples for a quick tour, and some pizza. Unfortunately, we hit two pizzerias that were not good, and the weather in Naples was cold and rainy, but Rachel and Max enjoyed their stay anyway. We did the indoor must-see sights: The archaeological museum, the duomo (dedicated to San Gennaro), the Castel Nuovo, the Royal Palace, the Galleria, the new contemporary art museum called Madre, which is directly next door to the Donna Regina b and b, and we walked the streets whenever the rain stopped long enough for a stroll. We saw the poor neighborhoods and the rich. We walked down streets with one-room apartments and we visited with my friends Maurizio and Mirella Barracco and their daughter Chiara at Villa Emma, perhaps the grandest private home in the city.
About Neapolitan pizza: I hope you know that pizza was invented in Naples, and that it is the city's most famous food. The cover of my book, Naples at Table, has a picture of the pizza at Da Michele, 1/3 Via Cesare Sersale (081-553-92-04), Naples' most traditional and famous pizzeria. We went to a newish pizzeria called Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente, 120/121 Via Tribunali (081-21-09-03), which is a spin-off of Di Mateo, down the street at 94 Via dei Tribunali (081-455-262), one of the main streets of the city's oldest quarter, generally referred to as Spacanapoli. Presidente's owner is, as I get the story, the brother of the owner of Di Mateo, which is where President Bill Clinton was taken 10 or so years ago when he visited the city for an economic conference. Di Mateo is still quite good. Presidente, although there is an incredible buzz about it, and although it has excellent fried items, which we ate on the street while waiting more than a half hour for a table, serves a rather nebbish pizza, although the dough itself is good.
On Sunday night, it was raining and nearly everything in Naples was closed for Epiphany, the twelfth night of Christmas, which is called La Befana in Italy. It is the night when a witch called La Befana, a word derived from the word Epiphany, flies on a broom into houses and, out of her big black satchel, gives Italian children gifts, mainly candy and toys that we saw being sold in markets all over. Incidentally, Italians also import many toys from China, and there was the same lead-based-paint scandal here as in the U.S.
With the rain and cold and most everything closed, we thought we were lucky that a famous pizzeria, Lombardi, was open, and practically around the corner from Donna Regina on via Forio near via Duomo. There is another unrelated Lombardi in Spaccanapoli, Lombardi a Santa Chiara, 59 Via Benedetto Croce (081-552-0780), where I like the pizza, but the pizza at this Lombardi was not good at all. Even the fried foods were terrible. We ordered a mixed fry, a typical starter in a Neapolitan pizzeria. Besides that it was mostly fried potatoes - frozen French fries actually -- which is a very cheap item and unusual on these mixed fry plates, the other fried items were not even cooked all the way through. Feh!
I can send you to eat great pizza in Naples, but I warn you that Americans often do no like Neapolitan pizza. The dough is thin, but not crisp. The frame of the pizza, the puffy edge, is often somewhat undercooked, which is why you will see many Neapolitans leaving that part on their plate, eating just the central dressed portion. Maurizio Barracco, who is Neapolitan, confessed - or should I say bragged - that even he doesn't care for Neapolitan pizza. He likes Roman-style pizza, which is crisp. His wife and daughter, however, dismissed his contrarian opinion, and I much prefer a good Neapolitan pizza to Roman. Even Romans nowadays are eating more Neapolitan-style pies. Neapolitan pizzerias are opening all over.
Sorbillo, 32 Via Tribunali, is my current favorite pizzeria in Naples, although I have to say it is not yet listed on my web site. And I love Da Michele, which serves only pizza marinara, which is only tomatoes, garlic, and oregano, and pizza Margherita with tomato, basil, and mozzarella (actually cow's milk cheese, not water buffalo cheese as so many Americans mistakenly say). But there are full-blown trattorias and restaurants that also make excellent pizza. Europeo di Mattozzi, 4 Via Marchese Campodisola, which is a wonderful, traditional restaurant where I take my groups, makes great pizza, as does Ciro a Mergellina, 18/21 Via Mergellina (081-681-780), among others. I have to say, however, that Pizzeria Vicolo della Neve, on the tiny street called Vicolo della Neve in Salerno, where I also take my groups, makes outstanding pizza, and has other dishes that I love - stuffed peppers, meatballs, baked baccala (salt cod), and a dry style of pasta e fagioli, pasta and beans - pasta fazool in old-style Neapolitan dialect, which is also how most Italian Americans call it - that is particular to Salerno.
This brings me to the best Neapolitan pizza in New York City.
I was so busy before I left for Italy that I never had a chance to tell you about the very successful party (if I say so myself) that I hosted in November at the new Arthur Avenue (the Bronx) restaurant, Zero Otto Nove (089). In English, that's Zero Eight Nine, and it is the area code for Salerno. Owner-chef, Robert Paciullo, also owner-chef of Roberto's, the best restaurant in the area, is from Salerno.
So here's my Small World Story: The son, Matteo, of one of my dearest Italian friends, Enrica Barratta, the sister of Cecilia, is (more or less) engaged to Roberto's first cousin, Valentina, who also lives in Salerno. When Enrica was in New York last spring, she asked me if I'd ever heard of Roberto's in the Bronx, as it looks like her son is marrying into Roberto's family. I tell her it's the best restaurant up there. She is happy. And that I have known Roberto for many years and that he is a total gent, and a very talented chef and restaurateur. She is happier. Now, with the Valentina-Matteo connection, Roberto and I feel like we are practically cousins, and we couldn't be happier.
As almost any New Yorker will tell you, the Belmont section of the Bronx, which New Yorkers generically call "Arthur Avenue," after the main drag, is New York's real and actual Little Italy, as opposed to the two totally touristic blocks of Mulberry Street that nowadays pass for Little Italy in Manhattan. In fact, few Italian-Americans live in either community, but people from all over, especially Italian-Americans who have moved north and west of the city, still go to the Bronx to shop in Arthur Avenue's many wonderful food stores. There are butchers, bakeries, groceries, fish markets, mozzarella and pasta makers. And there are several restaurants and cafes. Roberto's has been a destination restaurant for years. Now Zero Otto Nove has become one. It is already, after only a few months in business, drawing customers from the hinterlands, and for several good reasons. Top among them, I am sure, is the Neapolitan-style pizza that may be the best you've ever had in the U.S., and better than many in Naples, as I just described. I know I am going out on a limb with that remark, but I know what I am doing. Well, I hope I am not setting anyone up for a disappointment.
Zero Otto Nove's pizzaiolo , its pizza maker, Ricardo, who indeed has enough charisma to be called by only one name, like Garbo or Cher, is originally from Naples. But he last worked in downtown Salerno. He was making such good pizza in Salerno that my Salernitani friends suggested that the place he worked at, Pizza Margherita, would be a good substitute for Pizzeria Vicolo della Neve, my usual haunt, but which, in the summer, is way too hot and airless to be enjoyable.
Roberto has designed Zero Otto Nove to look like a piazza in the medieval historic center of Salerno, with its narrow streets and arched passageways. It could be a Broadway set for a southern Italian piazza. And the Arthur Avenue restaurant embodies the spirit of Pizzeria Vicolo della Neve. On stage is Ricardo and the wood-burning pizza oven surround by a green marble counter. The double-height dining room is topped by a copper-lined skylight. Don't wait for an old Italian woman to lean out the window high on the wall overlooking the room. The windows and soaring arches are finto, fake. But you can imagine...
Roberto's idea was also to reproduce all the foods they serve at Vicolo della Neve. Besides the pizza and calzone, that would be eggplant parmigiana, baked pastas, that particular dry style of pasta e fagioli, the baccala baked in the oven with potatoes and olives - I hope you get the picture.
At my party of nearly 100 people, we ate all of those, plus some, but the menu offers much more. Pizza prices, each pie meant as a single serving, but you can certainly share, range from $10.95 to $14.95. Pastas and main courses range from $13.95 for the famous baked pasta and beans to $24.95 for zuppa di pesce, fish stew.
Check it out. Zero Otto Nove is at 2357 Arthur Ave., the Bronx; 718-220-1027. Tell them Schwartz sent you.