Brusque service and a two-hour wait for a seat at a shared table? Hardly the ingredients for the best meal I’ve ever had. But that’s exactly what my visit to L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele in Naples was.
I’d heard pizza originated in the poor areas of Naples, before Neapolitan migrant workers helped spread the word in America and worldwide. I’d also heard you’d not eaten a pizza until you’d eaten one in Naples, so as soon as I’d checked in to my hotel, I asked the receptionist which pizzeria she’d recommend.
Her recommendation, L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele (damichele.net), was down a side street in the Spaccanapoli district, and after eventually finding it I was surprised to see dozens of people standing in the road outside. Had there been a fire alarm, I wondered?
No – these people were waiting to get in. Baffled, I watched a couple approach the front door and return with a piece of paper. I did the same, and was handed a cloakroom ticket by a waiter-cum-bouncer with the number 87 printed on it. I realised that waiting for a table would be a great way to learn numbers in Italian – as I could barely get from one to five, I was under pressure to learn quickly. But after an hour, when number 60 was called out, I knew we were in for a long night. The other people waiting were a mixed bag – businessmen, families, couples, and wannabe gangsters, but no non-Italians apart from us.
“Ottanta sette”. At last, it was us! After two-hours, our number was up and we were ushered inside and another couple moved along so we could squeeze in beside them. Inside, white-tiled walls were covered with framed black and white photos of generations of owners, dating back to Michele himself in 1870, along with the obligatory photo of every Neapolitan’s hero, Diego Maradona. I bet he wasn’t made to wait for a table.
There were no menus, which we thought odd, but this was for a good reason. Michele’s sells just two types of pizza – margherita (tomato, mozzarella and basil) and marinara (tomato, garlic and oregano). The locals believe any more toppings are not necessary as it is the quality, not the quantity that counts. It was also these two varieties of pizza that were eaten by the paupers of Naples in the 18th century.
We both went for the margherita, with bottled beer drunk from plastic cups. Thankfully, our food didn’t take long to come – from my seat I could see the pizzaiolo place each pizza in the wood-fired oven and then take them out in less than a minute. After a hectic day of sight-seeing in this crazy city and a two-hour wait for a table, our bellies were rumbling and we wasted no time cutting our first slice. As it went down, my face broke into a smile of ecstasy and I thought – that was well worth the wait.
Something so basic really shouldn’t taste this good. Michele’s uses sweet tomatoes grown on the fertile soils surrounding Mount Vesuvius, with cow’s milk mozzarella – connoisseurs believe buffalo mozzarella is too milky and makes the pizza soggy. The dough is prepared the day before to give a soft base which is no more than 1cm in height and singed at the edges after its 40 seconds in the oven.
The result? A pizza like none I’d had before – everything about it was perfect, from the appearance and smell to the flavours exploding on my palate. Yet this was cheap peasant food – basically bread with cheese and tomatoes on top.
We were only seated for 20-minutes before we were both well and truly stuffed. We were tempted to try the marinara to see how that compared to the margherita, but vowed to come back another day.
Before I went to Naples, I used to eat two frozen pizzas a week. Since I’ve returned, I’ve not been able to face their sloppy mediocrity. And I doubt I’d be able to tolerate a two-hour wait at my local Pizza Express.