I Traveled to Naples to Trace the Roots of the Dollar Slice
Listless youths and hopeless drunks worldwide have the pizzaiolos of 19th-century Naples to thank for giving the world the dollar slice.
The Margherita di buffala at Lombardi a Santa Chiara. This is the best pizza I've ever eaten.
If you're fortunate enough to live in New York City, you're able to enjoy something most of the nation's citizens are not: unprecedented access to a profusion of pizza parlors slinging decent to very decent (and sometimes even great) dollar slices.
If, like me, you're fortunate enough to live in the pizza wasteland that is Boston, the closest thing you'll find to a dollar slice—good, bad, or otherwise—is one of those cardboard discs in your grocer's freezer section that Mama Celeste is trying to pass off as pizza.
As a Boston boy who doesn't live in "Eastie"—where you'll find, tucked neatly under the rusty-green Tobin bridge, one of the nation's best pizzerias, Santarpio's—good pizza in any form is effectively inaccessible. As far as slices go, Bostonians are lucky to find one for less than $2.50, and even then the pie is either excessively doughy (from those parlors trying, in error, to mimic so-called "New York-style pizza") or excessively greasy and brittle (from those parlors dealing in "Greek-style" pizza that is nostalgic to me but still very, very shitty).
Because I'm stuck between the shitty pizza of a city I'm from but that I kind of hate (but definitely sort of love) and the amazing pizza of a city that I've been trained to hate (and kind of actually hate but at the end of the day actually love), I decided to say "Fuck you!" to both of them and fly to Naples, Italy, and eat pizza in the city where it was perfected.
A few weeks before I left, a colleague of mine passed me a pamphlet about pizza in Naples from a series I'm embarrassed to admit I'd never read—Edward Behr's The Art of Eating. The issue was from the spring of 1992, and while at first I wondered if the advice offered within would stand up nearly 25 years later, a wave of calm washed over me as I read and re-read Mr. Behr's essay: Naples is a city steeped in tradition, one that, aside from the national allegiances of its rulers (once Greek, then Spanish, and finally Italian), doesn't change much. If a pizzeria existed from 1830 to 1992, there was little chance it would have disappeared by 2016.
A marble plaque on the side of Pizzeria Brandi marking their 100th anniversary.
My friends and I approached Naples from the north, with a landscape of greenish-brown fields and craggy foothills giving way to a bewildering urban sprawl. I felt the same sense of wonder I had the first time I saw Manhattan from the window of the Fung Wah bus. The city appeared to stretch on infinitely, the terracotta and muted pastel facades mingling somehow effortlessly with the harsh steel of the city's modern industrial buildings and hulking Vesuvius to the south. The A1 motorway eventually disappeared and turned into something else; the highways in Naples twist and turn and go up and down at a dizzying pace, and there is an endless circulatory system of ancillary routes sprouting from the main one. I do not understand how a tourist could have navigated the city before the invention of GPS.
Though humans have been making flat breads since the dawn of civilization, pizza as we know it originates in 19th-century Naples. Antica Pizzeria Port'Alba, which is generally accepted to be the world's first pizzeria, opened its doors in 1830—and nearly 200 years later, it's still slinging pies.
The first detailed description of pizza comes from Emmanuele Rocca, who, sometime between 1857 and 1866, wrote:
The frequenter of the pizzajuolo is a careless youth who has no other occupation or who is occupied simply by sitting from eleven to three, provided with a strong stomach and a little money. In the evening he goes to find his bella and either takes her for a walk or accompanies her to some theater where he has been given a box ticket, or he takes his female companion home and make il diavolo a quattro or in some other fashion passes the evening (which ends at midnight or later), always concluded by eating pizza, either where it is made or sometimes at home…
That's to say, teenaged boys have pretty much always been about the same two things: trying to get laid, and eating a bunch of pizza. Rocca's revelation makes me feel better about my wasted youth.
A pizzaiolo at Lombardi a Santa Chiara placing a pizza from peel to plate.
In Behr's fastidious and exhaustive essay, he supplements Rocca's depiction of loafing youth with tales of pizza vendors who'd set up tables on Neapolitan streets to hawk small pizzas or individual slices of larger pies. "The cost was tiny," he writes. Sounds an awful lot like the modern dollar slice.
Behr also makes note of the types of people who would have frequented early pizzerias, such as "street boys, who for lunch ate pizza from the sour dough leftover from the day before," or "merry late-night groups of young people—gamblers and do-nothings, according to Rocca—and lonely people spending the last of their money on pizza." He could easily have been describing the clientele of any dollar slice slinger in modern-day Manhattan.
Using Behr's essay as an atlas, I made a list of pizzerias I figured I should hit while in Naples, including Bellini, Brandi, Lombardi a Santa Chiara, Port'Alba, and Trianon.
Lombardi a Santa Chiara stood out above the rest—so exceptional that I found myself skipping one of the pizzerias on my list for a second chance to eat there.
I spoke with Pasquale Troisi, one of three pizzaiolos working there, about the shop's dough and oven temperatures, the kind of oil they use (high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, of course), and their cook times. Through a translator, Troisi told me that "the dough proofs overnight, for anywhere from 12 to 18 hours, depending on the season." (The humidity dictates a lot, he said, though he did not explain exactly what it dictates.) The oven burns at anywhere from 750 and 950 degrees Fahrenheit, and the longest you'll see a pizza cook is about 90 seconds. The pizza spends most of its time in the oven on the peel, not on the stones. The pizzaiolo holds the pie over a pile of red-hot wood as flames curl up the side of the oven and kiss the top of the dough, forming crispy brown bubbles on the crust. Not much more than five minutes pass from the time you order your pizza till the time it arrives at your table.
The pizza itself shares a textural similarity with a crêpe (though there's nothing analogous about the flavor profile). I've seen writers and Yelpers and various internet trolls complain about Neapolitan pizzas being wet, but they're to be wet. They're super-thin, loaded with sauce and oil, and cooked very swiftly. There's a reason why people often fold a whole pie in quarters and eat it like, well, a crêpe. (There's even a thing called a "pocket pizza," which is a slightly smaller pizza that's been folded and wrapped in parchment paper for patrons to enjoy as they walk through Naples' hectic streets.) If you're looking for a crispy slice that you can fold in half and hold out straight, Naples ain't your city and its pizza ain't your pie. Go back to New Haven, Jack.
I'd had good pizza in Italy before—in Rome, in Milan, in Ferrara, and in Rimini—but until recently I was still of the opinion that the best pizza on earth could be found in New York City. (And maybe that's because, according to Troisi, the father of American pizza, Gennaro Lombardi, was related to the original owners of Lombardi a Santa Chiara.) However, after visiting Naples and eating in several of its oldest and most celebrated pizzerias, my allegiances have changed.
Though Naples may be the home of the dollar slice—or some approximation thereof—you'd be hard-pressed to find a pizzeria in the city that actually sells individual slices of pizza today. (There is a version of pizza called pizza fritte—which dates back to 9th-century Naples and is a close cousin to fried dough—that is portable and that one can get for about a dollar, but this author does not recommend consuming it.)
The modern Neapolitan pie costs more than a single dollar (though not more—I paid an average of $6 per whole pie in Naples), and despite what the signage might say, your average New York dollar slice counter isn't hawking "Neapolitian-style" pizza. While New York's pizza parentage tracks to Naples, authentic Neapolitan pie and the stuff masquerading as such are a decidedly different species.
Differences in those species notwithstanding, listless youths and hopeless drunks worldwide still have the pizzaiolos of 19th-century Naples to thank for giving the world the dollar slice.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2016.