“You must try pizza while in Napoli,” explained Karla, the straight-talking woman working the morning shift at the hostel. My mother and I had just arrived to Naples by train as part of our Grand Tour of Europe. Karla knows that I'm American. She can tell from my accent and because she's holding our passports. Karla makes it clear that Americans don’t know anything about real pizza.
“Italians don’t eat pizza like Americans – with chicken and shit like that,” she said. I told you she was a straight talker.
“I want to learn how to make pizza,” I said to her, explaining how I like to walk a day in the life of a local, what I call an "internship." In Panama, I interned at the Chinito store and volunteered as a Machetero, a farm hand who uses a machete. Now in Naples, it makes sense that I'd learn the art of pizza making in the place that invented the food during the 16th century.
Besides, my résumé looks pretty solid for a single day internship. During high school, I was a punctual delivery driver and an unenthusiastic pan scrubber at Papa John's.
But Karla disagrees.
“Pizzerias are too busy for a tourist to make-a la pizza,” Karla says. “They tell you to fuck-off or something like this.”
While Karla continues explaining to me that I have zero chance of success, her co-worker chimes in.
“Do you speak Italiano?” Marco asks.
“Buonasera…” I reply. “Good evening…”
Marco leans towards me. He is waiting for me to roll off a few more words in Italian. When there are none, he shakes his head with disappointment.
“Internship is what you call it?” he asks rhetorically. “Yeah, impossible. No way. They will tell you to fuck-off or something like this.”
Internally, I disagree. My internship idea can be done! I give them a thumbs up and flash a smile as I walk away. There is nothing more motivating than listening to naysayers.
My self confidence is short-lived. All the pizzerias that I’ve targeted have customers waiting around the corner. These pizzerias operate more like factories than restaurants. My mother and I take a number and wait to be seated. Customers mill around outside the store waiting in anticipation for their number to be called. It’s like holding a Golden Ticket awaiting entrance to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory.
After a long wait, our number is called. We squeeze in shoulder-to-shoulder at a communal table. Our order is taken quickly and without any small talk. Minutes later, two unsliced pizzas with a diameter slightly less than a hula-hoop are plopped on the table.
Customers at these high-speed pizzerias are encouraged to eat quickly and leave. The table space is needed to rotate in the next round of never-ending customers. Everyone wants to eat the good stuff. There is little time to ask questions. Going to the bathroom is frowned upon. Discussing the possibility of my internship in this hectic environment is impossible.
My mother and I wander around Naples’ city center. Fortunately, I’m able to catch Pizzeria de Mateo during a down time. Standing at the front ordering station is an Italian man with an amazing beer belly. The red tomato stains on his white tee-shirt match the color of the bandana hanging off the back of his neck. A few steps behind him, I see 10 other Italian men furiously preparing for the next wave of customers.
“I.Want. To. Work. At. A. Pizzeria. In. Napoli,” I say slowly and clearly. Hopefully, this will help me be better understood.
“You want-a pizza?” the man with the amazing beer belly asks.
“Yes, I want the pizza. But I want to work for it.”
“Me gustaria trabajar aquí por un día. No me pagas.” I say to him in Spanish. “I want to work here for one day. You don’t have to pay me.”
I find speaking Spanish in Italy often communicates better than speaking English. Spanish and Italian are very similar. Unfortunately, this time it’s not the case. The man with tomato stains looks utterly confused. My efforts are pointless. I need a new plan.
Twenty-four-hours after flashing Karla an over-confident smile, I return with another look on my face. The smile has been replaced with an expression of helplessness. It’s the same expression that a toddler flashes to its mother when it needs or wants something.
“You were right,” I say to her. “I need your help. Could you call and help explain my internship idea?”
Karla agrees to go the extra mile for me. First, I’m her guest. Secondly, she admires the fact that I’m taking my mother on a tour of Europe. She picks up the phone and dials the pizzeria on my behalf.
“They said ok,” she tells me. “Come at 10 a.m. They start to make-a the pizza then. When it gets busy, they tell you to fuck-off.”
Like Karla instructed me, I’m waiting outside the pizzeria when they open their doors at 10 a.m. The front room has the bustle of a busy restaurant. Workers are preparing their stations. Nobody notices me for a few moments. Eventually, someone approaches me.
“Prego,” a man mopping the floors says to me. “How can I help you?”
“I’m here to learn about the pizza of Naples.” I say.
“I-no-a understand English. You-a speak Italino?”
“Estoy aquí para escribir un articulo sobre la pizza de Napoli.” I say in Spanish. “I’m here to write an article about pizza of Naples.”
“No, no-a understand.”
“I come from a land that you call America.”
“America! Sí, sí, sí!”
All of a sudden, the man accepts me like I’m part of his family. He throws his arm over my shoulder like I’m his long-lost cousin Vinny visiting from New York City. Then he takes my coat and leads me into the back room.
In the back room, there are two men preparing pizza dough and ingredients. In one corner of the cramped room is a young guy named Luiggi. Luiggi is handpicking fresh basil leaves bought from the market earlier that morning.
In the left corner is a stumpy man named Salvador. Salvador is preparing the Neapolitan dough from scratch – no sugar or oil. This involves opening a 30-pound bag of flour and dumping it into a mixer with water, a pinch of salt, and another ingredient that Salvador repeats slowly and clearly to me three times. Despite his efforts, I cannot recognize the name in Italian.
While that dough is mixing, Salvador removes a batch from another mixer. It’s ready to be cut. He spreads the massive blob of dough over a stainless steel countertop. The counter has been sprinkled with some extra flour to prevent sticking. Salvador uses his hands to create dough balls the size of grapefruits.
The grapefruit-sized dough balls are placed into a wood box. Through hand motions and Italian spoken one word at a time, Salvador explains to me that the wood crates are important. Wood crates are better than plastic crates because the wood absorbs water. The dough breathes better. Most pizzerias don’t do this. They use pre-made dough and place it in plastic crates. This makes for inferior pizza dough.
Salvador and I attempt to talk about other topics. I find out the he is 44-years-old. He has worked in this pizza shop for 30 years, since he was 14. In those three decades, he has not grown tired of the taste of pizza. He still eats it three times a week. If you do the math, that means he has eaten at least 4,680 pizzas during his tenure at the shop.
In the front room, there are two guys at a pizza preparation station: Flour-man and Toppings-man. Both of them have their sleeves rolled up. Flour-man is hand stretching the Neapolitan dough (not tossing it). When it gets to about 12 inches across, he passes it down the line to Toppings-man.
Toppings-man spreads a San Marzano tomato paste counter-clock wise around the dough. Many chefs believe that San Marzano tomatoes make the best paste in the world.
After the tomato paste is spread, cheese is added. Toppings-man is not sprinkling tiny pre-made cheese cubes like Papa John's. Instead, traditional Neapolitan pizzerias use a fresh balls of mozzarella cheese, each about the size of an egg. The cheese is pinched off and distributed over the pizza. Next comes a few dashes of sea salt and basil leaves. Lastly, olive oil is lightly poured over the pizza.
But, there seems to be a problem. Flour-man says to Toppings-man something like, “Yeah, man, you’ve added too much olive oil to the pizza.”
Toppings-man is irate. He takes both hands and pinches the tips of all five finger together. His palms are facing towards him. His elbows are slightly bent. Then he begins rattling his hands and elbows vigorously. Like a true Italian, he is saying, “Ohhhhh! What-da-ya gotta bust my balls for Flour-man? Always bustn’ my balls!”
Flour-man doesn’t back down. He responds with his own passionate hand gesture. Flour-man emphatically taps his index finger against his head. He is saying, “Are you crazy? That is way too much olive oil!” Expressive hand gestures in Italian society are everywhere.
Meanwhile, the ready-to-fire pizza is placed onto a long handled metal pan and placed inside an extremely hot oven. The floor of the oven is 850 degrees. Closest to the fire is 900 degrees. The dome of the oven is 1000 degrees. During the 90 seconds it takes to cook the pizza, the pizza is rotated several times. It’s a bit of an art form.
The finished pizza is transferred from the pan onto a plate. A waiter scoops up the Pizza Margherita. He hands it to me to eat. The pizza is outstanding. The subtle taste of tomato, oregano, olive oil, and mozzarella cheese blend together deliciously.
The Italians are right. Pizza does not need 20 toppings. If I had an overwhelming takeaway from my Italian pizzeria internship, it’s an appreciation for simplicity and freshness in food.
Neapolitan pizza is the antithesis of mainstream American pizza. When I worked at Papa John's, ingredients were shipped in from headquarters. They were prepackaged and filled with preservatives. Since the ingredients were shit, adding tons of them was necessary – corn, pineapple, meat lovers, etc. This helps disguise the taste of crappy ingredients.
Pizza purists see multiple toppings as a travesty. All the flavors overwhelm the originally designed taste. Too many toppings ruin a true pizza.
In the end, any kind of pizza is still fantastic. Like a guy in Naples said, “Pizza is like sex: When it is great, it is great. When it is not so good – well, it is still pretty good.”