Pizza perfection in Naples
Mention deep-pan, stuffed-crust pizza to a Neapolitan and he'll shudder in horror.
Even the ingredient-laden, thin-crust gourmet varieties we chow down here are mostly met with derision.
The city's pizza purists tend to judge a pizzeria based on its simple margherita, topped only with tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil.
While the Greeks were making flatbreads with toppings way back, for centuries pizza has been associated with the southern Italian city of Naples.
Cheap and filling, pizza was a street food staple of the city's working poor in the 16th century.
Queen Margherita's visit in 1889 prompted the pizza makers to up their game, and Raffaele Esposito created the famous tricolour pizza in her honour.
But what makes the city's humble pizza taste so great?
"Some people say the secret of Neapolitan pizza is the water, because it's full of calcium," says tour guide Alberto Serino.
As we wander the narrow streets of the historic city centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995, I soon realise pizza is serious business.
Since 2008, Pizza Napoletana has been protected under European Union law as a "regional speciality", with the same rank as French Champagne.
According to Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (Real Neapolitan Pizza Association), which established the EU rules, the dough must be made using highly refined wheat flour, compressed or natural yeast, sea salt, and water with a pH level between 6 and 7.
Only top-quality ingredients can be used, including San Marzano tomatoes grown on the volcanic slopes of Mt Vesuvius, and creamy mozzarella di bufala campana (buffalo mozzarella) or fior di latte (mozzarella made with cow's milk).
The disco di pasta (pizza base) must be no thicker than 4mm and cooked in a wood-fired oven at 485C for 60-90 seconds.
"Real Neapolitan pizza must be soft on the inside and crunchy on the outside," says Alberto, as I attempt to make my own at one of the city's hundreds of pizzerias.
I'm in good hands with Paolo, a 32-year-old pizzaiolo who's been making the local speciality for more than 15 years.
"The pizzaiolo must be very fast, as he will make around 300 pizzas a night," explains Alberto.
Paolo plops a fat ball of dough that has risen overnight in my floured hands and shows me how to press it out flat using my fingertips.
I flip it over and work the other side, pressing with the palm of my hand and simultaneously turning the dough under Paolo's watchful eye.
Once he's satisfied my base hasn't broken the 4mm rule, I spread it with two large spoonfuls of tomato sauce, leaving the edge sauce-free.
With an imperceptible nod, Paolo tells me I'm ready for the toppings. I decide to stick to old school margherita, although - shock, horror! - Paolo hands me some Parmesan.
I sprinkle three pinches of pungent Parmesan, a few basil leaves, and two handfuls of silky cows' milk mozzarella. Then I pour the olive oil in a fast circular motion, starting in the centre and working out.
Now for the hard part - getting the pizza onto "la pala", the long-handled pizza paddle, in one piece.
The dough sticks stubbornly to the bench, as I gingerly pull it towards the paddle with my fingertips.
Paolo grabs my hands and pulls the pizza onto the paddle in one quick movement. My hesitation has resulted in a little tear in the base, but thankfully it's intact.
I plunge my pizza into the furnace and rotate the paddle carefully until the dough slides off. It rises and blisters immediately, while the mozzarella melts and the basil crackles and releases its aroma.
After a minute or so, it's time to retrieve my masterpiece. I scoop my pizza out of the oven, wiggle it off the paddle and it slides ingloriously onto the plate.
Paolo looks at it critically. "Otto," he declares, deciding that tiny hole in the base really cannot be overlooked.
I accept my score of eight out of ten with pride, but the real test is yet to come.
As I bite into my pizza, it makes all others I've eaten before seem bland and flavourless.
The edge is satisfyingly crunchy and the centre soft and almost soupy, but it's the melt-in-your-mouth mozzarella that impresses the most.
My only problem? A pizza back home will never quite cut it again.
SIX OF THE BEST PIZZERIAS
1. La Notizia (Via Caravaggio 53/55). It's well worth the taxi ride to this non-touristy part of town to devour Enzo Coccia's delicious traditional and modern pizzas. Dinner only.
2. Di Matteo (Via dei Tribunali 94). This hole-in-the-wall joint does good wallet pizza - folded in half, then in half again and served in a sheet of paper - and snacks like zeppole (pizza dough fried in oil).
3. Da Michele (Via Cesare Sersale 1-3). Sure it's touristy (thanks to Julia Roberts' visit in Eat, Pray, Love), but this no-frills pizza joint does a mean marinara (tomatoes, oregano, garlic and extra-virgin olive oil).
4. L'Antica Pizzeria Brandi (Salita Sant'Anna di Palazzo, 1-2). Raffaele Esposito created the pizza margherita in this elegant pizzeria, making it a must-visit spot.
5. Pizzeria Trianon da Ciro (Via P. Colletta, 46). If you're after something a bit meatier, try the pizza with salsiccia (Italian sausage) and friarielli (sprouting broccoli unique to the region).
6. Antica Pizzeria I Decumani (Via Tribunali 58). With more than 40 kinds of pizza to choose from, this small pizzeria serves up an excellent and inexpensive meal.
IF YOU GO:
STAYING THERE: Hotel Piazza Bellini has rooms from 90 per night, including breakfast.
PLAYING THERE: Context Travel has a 4hr walking tour of Naples with hands-on pizza making workshop for 100 per person.
The writer travelled with assistance from Context Travel.