Something in the dough? Pizza, Power and Politics in Spaccanapoli.

If there is one word that sums up Naples, then this is it: Pizza.  It slips off the tongue like yoghurt dangling from a warm spoon.  Its simplicity, in that very few key ingredients are required, mark it out as a real treasure, up there on a list with all of the great inventions, such as the radio, the telephone and the ‘Quick release skewer’, which as any intelligent person knows were invented by Marconi, Meiucci and Campagnolo, and not by Popov, Bell and some other unknown Englishman.  No the, Pizza, like many other inventions is completely Italian.  In fact this word could be extended to act as a cultural emblem for the whole of Italy, especially seeing as the first ever pizza mirrors the colours of the Italian flag, the red tomato sauce, the white mozzarella and the green of the basil.  So thats settled then, the pizza is Italian?  Well not quite…there must be something in the dough…..

Political Pies

No, we’re not talking Ginsters here.  Neither the Cornish pasty.  Nor are we talking about the meat variety found at football grounds throughout Britain on a grey Saturday afternoon with the rain bombarding the nuclear pastry casing your ‘meat’ finds itself within…“oh look Rochdale have scored”.  No, the pies we are discussing are political mammoths.   These pies really are heavyweights.  Mohammed Ali would have run straight from Louisville to Naples to get his hands on one of these, for we are talking about that same one word with two syllables that rolled off our tongue earlier, and this word pizza actually derives from the word pie.  In fact many other cultures and states actually have some form of a claim that it was they who invented the pizza much earlier than the Napoletans.  Much in the same way that many Italians adamantly assert the creative juices that lay behind the birth of the telephone came from their own shores.

The Byzantines had the word πιτα where we get the word pitta, meaning pie.  Pitta bread is in fact what I regularly use to eat my humus, which is actually Levantine, but the flatbread bread pitta is a staple food in Greek cuisine.  In Turkish cuisine the word pide also refers to pie.  With the spread of the Ottoman Empire this pie finds its way into Serbo-Croatian and what was Yugoslavian appearing as pita.  The Ottomans in Albania thus similarly brought them the pite, and closer to Turkey itself we have the Bulgarian pita.  We also have a similar pie dish in many of these areas which shares the same name of burek or börek (in Greece this is called μπουρέκι or boureki), again invented in Turkey and spread to the Mediterranean and Balkans.  Ah, so this ‘pie’ is actually Arabic or Turkish then?!

This is not a question to be asked in Napoli, especially not on the Tribunale of the centro storico where one of the most popular pizzeria’s in the world is located (see below).  No, here, as in many other parts of Italy the pizza is considered wholly, solely, “the one and ownley” Italian pie.  Except, to a Napoletan, its not Italian, it is from Naples; but then Naples isnt even a part of Italy for some Italians. 

The Napoletan roots of this dish are well documented, but exactly when it emerged is unclear.  We get our first historical references to it in Naples connected to the Bourbon King Ferdinand I who lived between 1751 and 1825.  In true “Gudeman of Ballangeich” style, Ferdinand (or even “Ferdy” a potential moniker or soprannome for our hero) apparently often disguised himself as a common Napoletan and investigated the poor neighbourhoods of his city.  We are told that one of the reasons for this was a desire to taste the food the queen had banned from the royal court.  A food summed up in one word: yep, thats right-pizza!

Then notoriously, and much to the continued delight of the Pizzeria Brandi (http://www.brandi.it/inglese/index.html) in Naples, the Queen of the embryonic Italian state,  Margherita of Savoy visited Naples in 1889.  To mark this prestigious occasion a local pizza vendor decided to invent a signature dish for her.  Thus by serving a pizza resembling the colours of the Italian flag, red (tomato), white (mozzarella) and green (basil) and named after the Queen, he inadvertently invented a cultural classic: the Pizza Margherita was born!  This dish then spread around the world.  There must have been something in the dough…..

A Queen and a Pizza.

Or was there?  As John Dickie described in his book delizia the Italians themselves were slow in taking to this Napoletan signature dish.  The main reason for this was due to the terrible conditions in the city at this time.  Dickie tells us that Carlo Collodi the author of Pinocchio, who was himself a Tuscan provided this description of the Napoletan pizza and pizzaiolo  “they make pizza look like a patchwork of greasy filth that harmonises perfectly with the appearance of the person selling it”.  Essentially this description has as much to do with Northern stereotypes of the South as it has to do with actual pizza and the conditions of Napoli.  The city at this time though was, in many ways, a serious sanitary problem.  Cholera was rife and for no other reason was the city advertised by most of those on The Grand Tour as “see Naples and Die”.  It was for this reason that this dish took a long while to travel, despite even naming the dish after the Queen of Savoy.  But spread eventually it did, and in London, you can even find the pizza topped with kebab meat.  There must have been something in the dough…..

Political Produce

Origins are particularly important to Neapolitans, and this is seen in the fact that they can trace the pizza back to such historic beginnings.  No less important, however, is the actual method of making the pizza itself.   Pizza has become quite literally an international dish.  There is the Pizza Romana, a pizza produced in Naples consisting of tomato, mozzarella, anchovies, oregano and olive oil, which in Rome is actually called Pizza Napoletana.  In the North of Italy the fast-food pizza chain Spizzico, meaning to snack (lit. to pinch.), is extremely popular and pizza can be bought as a small slice for lunch and consumed on a Vespa on the way back to the office or home.  In the UK we have many Pizza chains providing more of an American style Pizza with a Deep, or even stuffed crust.  In America itself you will find the Hawaiian: a concoction fully reflecting the diversity of America’s social fabric by blending the Italian pizza with an apparently Hawaiian twist…a pineapple.  This object is an anathema to most Italians.  The Hawaiian is akin to a joke in any Napoletan pizzeria. 

In all of these regions and countries you used to find a Neapolitan pizza, which could be topped with literally anything, but were called Neapolitan by pizza chains to add authenticity to their own political pies.  These were once a staple choice in many pizzeria’s but now the pizza culture abroad has changed.  Just a brief search through the pizzeria’s I remember to be popular in the UK reveals an interesting picture.  Pizza Express, a more upmarket pizzeria has a pizza Romana but no Neapolitan; pizza hut has every strange combination under the sun, a “Tuscani” and an “Italian” but no reference to a Neapolitan; Domino’s pizza, at the lower end of the market, even has a “Spanish Sizzler”, a “Tandoori Hot”, the eternal “Hawaiian” and a “Reggae, Reggae Pizza” whatever the hell that is…..does a free Bob Marley CD come with the pizza?  I mean really, come off it!  As my nan used to say.  Finally, we do in fact find a Neapolitan pizza in the UK, but not in a pizzeria, in a supermarket aisle in the frozen section.  The dish once gracing the palate of a queen is now open to all and sunder from Loughton to Legoland.

By this evidence it seems as though the pizza has been well and truely stolen, right from under the Napoletan nose: “È statt’ rubatt’!”  It was Stolen!  Any good Napoletan would shout.  It is no wonder then that moves were made to re-claim this typically Napoletan dish.   Thus in 1984 the AVPN or Association Verace Pizza Napoletana was founded by a group of “keen friends representing the old tradition of pizza-makers and the owners of the most famous pizza restaurants in town” http://www.pizzanapoletana.org/index_eng.php.  Their aim?  To gain international recognition that this dish had begun in Napoli and was, and is by all intents and purposes, Napoletan!  These once humble pies, the ancestor of the Ginsters, needed protection.

After much campaigning the protection it deserved was finally awarded in February 2010. The pizza Napoletana is now an STG.   No, not a nasty disease passed between naive adolescents, but a Specialità Tradizionale Garantita (lit. Traditional Speciality Guaranteed), a registered European product with distinct rights and restrictions (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/8499611.stm).  This stipulates that the Napoletan pizza must ONLY contain durum wheat flour, water, sea salt, fresh yeast, mozzarella di bufala extra virgin olive oil, and San Marzano tomatoes “cut no thicker than 8 millimetres”.  Its appearance requires a base no more than 20 millimetres thick and must have a raised crust.  This crust cannot be stuffed at all!  The only stuffing that goes on requires the pizza to be inserted quickly into the mouth è basta. Finally the dough must be stretched by hand and then the pizza can only be cooked on a stone slab in a wood-fired oven.  Recently this protection has been sought by Italians themselves who seek to gain UNESCO status for the Napoletan pizza as a “symbol of Italy” http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/27/italy-unesco-neapolitan-pizza.  We wait with baited breath….

Forno Bravo an American importer and producer of pizza ovens has translated the original EU declaration of the STG status for the Napoletan pizza into English (http://www.fornobravo.com/vera_pizza_napoletana/VPN_spec.html) so that now the Pizza can be reproduced in the US according to the authentic Neapolitan recipe.  But does that really make it an authentic Napoletan pizza?  It may well adhere completely to the recipe, the ingredients may be as fresh as can be, but there is no getting away from the fact that this pizza is instead a reproduction.  The pizza produced by this recipe in American is therefore an American pizza.  Ask any Napoletan what they think of an American pizza and they will turn up their nose, aghast:  “Ma che schiffezz!  Sta tutt’ anannas n’copp e pizza, ma che cazz e’ stu pizz?”.  Or “what a load of shite!  With all that pineapple on top of the pizza, what kind of a fucking pizza is that?”  Is the conventional reply.  Yet for most of the Americans closely following the Napoletan EU recipe and adding their delicate slices of pineapple they will undoubtedly feel that they have a little slice of Napoli in their dining room.  There must be something in the dough……

Political People

The most famous pizzeria in Naples has often been cited as the Pizzeria Brandi (see above).  This is the establishment connected with the Queen of Savoy and the internationally consumed Margarita.  But does such prestige still continue to play a factor for the more humble Napoletan out to grab a’ Pizz on his lunchtime caminatt’ (or passegiata)?  Well, the answer is No, not really.  For a start Brandi’s is expensive and overrated, and their Regal connections aside, it is now more a tourist destination than the place for a real pizza lover.  No, to follow your common Napoletan, you need to head to Sorbillo’s.

The Menu. The Famiglia.

Located on the Via Tribunali, a long back street that intersects the Via Duomo, here is where Gino Sorbillo plies his trade.  This pizzeria has been established since 1935 and three generations of the Sorbillo family have worked as pizzaoli on this street.  This pizzeria has become so popular that crowds of customers or clienti wait outside for hours for a table.  Its so popular that my sister “back ‘ome in blighty” has informed me that it is where the TV chefs Gennaro Contaldo and Antonio Carluccio visited on their trip to Naples as part of their “Two greedy Italians” program currently on the BBC (http://gennarocontaldo.com/; http://www.antonio-carluccio.com/).  It is also my personal favourite out of all the pizzeria’s in Napoli.  The service is quick and sometimes lacking in the actual concept of “waiting on” somebody, but that for me is all part of the attraction.  I don’t come here to look at the Waitresses. No, I come here to savour Sorbillo’s mouth-wateringly gorgeous ‘pies’. 

Your pizza is cooked with precision and arrives on your plate within minutes.  It is for this very reason that during the lunch hour and any evening of the week a large crowd forms outside the pizzeria.  In a typically Napoletan way this crowd wait with much anticipation the possibility that they will get a table within the small pizzeria.  To do this they need to go first to the cassa and give the cameriera your name (nome) and how many people you need a table for. 

"Michele, due". The crowd builds in anticipation.

This accounts for what happens next which is the loud shrill voice over the tannoy: “Michele, due”.  Or “Michael, two”.  No, not the amount of pizza’s that good-ol Mike is planning on scoffing down, but that the table for Mike and his beloved fidanzata is now ready.  You wait your turn.  Hopefully there is a table and in the meantime another pastime develops: la chiacchierata, or basically “the chatting”.

Outside the large groups are smoking, shouting, discussing politics, calcio, their various boyfriends and girlfriends while over the noise the tannoy with due regulation announces the next available table.  “Francesca, quattro”.  You have to amuse yourself here with other attractions, so the easiest thing to do, aside from smoking and gossiping is to people watch.  There are all kinds of Napoletans here.  There are fat ones and thin ones, small ones, tall ones, the old and the young, rich and poor.  The crowd is a real mish-mash of people from different backgrounds.  A real polity, or a constituency, word we will return to in a second.

This quaint little picture indicates a harmonious group-so where is the politics I hear you ask?  Well, located around 15m from Gino Sorbillo’s pizzeria is another establishment with the name Sorbillo above the door.  Ah, then they must have branched out due to all that success?  Nope.  So, there must be another Sorbillo then?  Yep.  In fact it turns out that at some point in the past, amongst the previous generations of the Sorbillo Pizzaioli some form of a feud occurred which caused two branches of the family to stop talking: stann’ appiccicati.  (Lit. they quarrelled).

.”]Gennaro, tre”.  Thus above il vero or the true Sorbillo’s there is a sign which reads: Avviso.  La Pizzeria Sorbillo non ha succursali.  Ma solo casi di omonimia.  Questa ditta è l’unica vincitrice del titolo “Miglior pizza d’Italia”.  Followed by and abridged translation in English which does not do full justice to the nuances of Italian familial politics.  Essentially it says that the Pizzeria has “no other branches, but only coincidental appearances elsewhere of the name Sorbillo.  This business is the only winner of the title “Best Pizza in Italy”.  This is a direct reference to their neighbouring pizzeria with the name Sorbillo.  There is little need to put up such a sign though, as only Gino’s establishment has to use the tannoy to call its customers to the table.  The sign flaps in the breeze overhead, the crowd chat on regardless. There must be something in the dough……

THIS IS SORBILLOS!!

 “Alessandro, due”.  It cant be much longer we say to each other at exactly the same time.  The attractions of the Sorbillo sign wane and my thoughts turn to the streets.  “Maria, cinque”.  But does that mean an end to the politics?  No, of course not!  Our dough has been far too hardily kneaded for that.  No there is definitely something in the dough this time.  My feet begin to find ways to amuse themselves, and while my friends wait, I find I have moved a few steps away to a small street leading off of the Via Tribunali to where my attention has now focused.  On a wall on this side street in bright yellow background is a sign that reads: Scrivi Gino Sorbillo.  L’uomo giusto per Napoli.  Vote Gino Sorbillo.  The right man for Napoli.  Raising my eyes to the lines above the green print also reads “15 e 16 Maggio elezioni Comunali con MORCONE Sindaco”.  Gennaro Sorbillo is standing for the mayor (sindaco) of Napoli!   (http://www.napolitoday.it/politica/elezioni-comunali-2011/gino-sorbillo-primarie-centro-sinistra-napoli-2011.html).

Turn again Gino, twice Mayor of Naples?

The most successful Pizzaiolo in Naples is standing for Mayor.  Now this I Literally cant believe.  Non Credo Io!  In London terms this would be akin to Brian the road sweeper from Camberwell seeking to topple Boris Johnson and his strange wig as Mayor.  But here in Napoli we have “Pizza-power” personified.  Our dough is now ready to explode.  But is his candidacy merely a “stuffed crust”?  The crowd of people outside the Pizzeria represent a real mix of society and if anyone is to stand a chance in defeating the many problems of corruption, waste management, crime and money laundering etc that goes on in the local and regional government then Gino surely is our man.  I mean, if the guy can make pizza, then he must make a great mayor right?  There must be something in the dough………

After the crowd: the Tribunale sleeps

Giacomo, tre”.  We’re in.  I leave the politics for another time, now its time to put Gino’s “Pizza-power” to the test.

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About giacomomuratore

Giacomo Muratore, or "Jimmy the Brickie" blogs on his Pensieri da Campania. These include his reflections, observations, comments and general remarks on being an Englishman in Campania, Southern Italy. With a background in Archaeology and Classics these 'pensieri' range from social and political comment to reflections on the history, values and cultural mores of a city that forever delights, infuriates and never ceases to amaze.
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