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Pizza the way they make it in Naples — more or less

by Alex Dutson

With pizza, as with many things in life, simple is often the best. And it doesn’t get any more minimal than a true pizza Napoletana.

A handful of blitzed San Marzano tomatoes, a well-tossed sourdough base, slices of mozzarella, three or four basil leaves; a few seconds in a blisteringly hot wood-fired oven is all it takes to transform those humble ingredients into the Naples pizza’s distinctive panoply of textural contrasts — a chewy cornicione (crust), a charred bottom and that soupy center of loosely pulped tomato dappled with firm mozzarella. A little drizzle of olive oil links the flavors and seals the deal.

The Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana, which doles out authenticity certificates to pizzerias worldwide, publishes an extraordinarily stringent 11-page booklet on what constitutes an authentic pie, from acceptable toppings (sorry, no mayonnaise) to cooking time (60-90 seconds) and dough thickness (0.4 cm).

In Japan, 54 pizzerias are authenticated by the body. The first to get its certificate in the Tokyo area (in 1997) was La Piccola Tavola (4-2-4 Eifuku, Suginami-ku, Tokyo; 03-5930-0008; www.piccolatavola.com), a wood-clad, open-kitchened pizzeria with a pleasing amount of background noise and a great big oven on full blast next to the door. The Italian pizzaiolo here serves up a faultless Margherita, with bright tomato sauce and indulgently creamy mozzarella. But, at least on our visit, he let the standards slip on the other classic, the marinara, which arrived brown rather than golden and had a cornicione that was all air and crunch, with none of the chew.

Another certified option is Hiroo-based Partenope (5-15-25 Minami-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-5798-3355; www.partenope.jp). If this long-running restaurant is arguably a bit staid, it’s consistent with quality and service. The namesake pizza partenope (with buffalo mozzarella) had to my mind the perfect level of soupiness to crispiness. The juices pool in the middle as you eat, but the bottom retains just a fine layer of crispiness, providing a textural contrast to the whole deal.

Pizzeria GG Kamakura (2-9-62 Yuigahama, Kamakura-shi, Kanagawa; 04-6733-5286), sister to the much-loved Kichijoji restaurant, is bright and roomy with an extensive menu. For a certified Naples (or Napoli) pizzeria, it does veer alarmingly into novelty territory (sausage and French fries, anyone?). Fortunately, the simpler options are enough. The Bismarck, for example, was paper-thin, wood-fired and crisply edged, and covered with salty chunks of pancetta and earthy mushroom, with a half-boiled egg nestling cheekily between the toppings.

While you won’t go far wrong with any of the above, many of the best pizzerias in Japan are the noncertified ones where the pizzaiolo is willing to play a little loose with veracity for the sake of inventiveness. I’m talking Napolitan-style pizza, where “Napoli” is seen less as an exact method and more as an index of quality.

Take Massimottavio (4-4-4 Eifuku, Suginami-ku, Tokyo; 03-6802-7648; www.massimottavio.com), a Piccola breakaway operation opened by its former pie-man Massimo Minnacucci, who built the oven in the new restaurant himself and is quick to brush off the idea of certificates.

“The association is just about money,” he says. “I have many years of experience, and confidence in my pizza. If the people are happy, what else do I need?”

His confidence was well placed, his pizzas a palpable cut above. There were leopard-spotted bottoms, an almost vulgar amount of charring, and huge polypy puffed-up crusts. Try the namesake Massimotavio, topped with a mountain of fresh rocket and overlaid with ripples of soft prosciutto finished with a fine sprinkling of salty Parmesan.

Pizzeria Ichirotei (3-17-9 Nekozane, Urayasu-shi, Chiba; 047-350-5200; www.pizzeria-ichirotei.com) came recommended by a friend who spent several months in Italy. It’s another non-certified restaurant that plays the Napoli formula to its advantage — nowhere more so than the pizza ripiena, which is served like a calzone with pungent, woodsy porcini mushrooms folded into its soft base and a combination of smoked cheese and aromatic dry-cured speck ham on top. There are also succulent homemade salsicca and chorizo sausages to be had for a starter, which in my book warrant the trip all by themselves.

But it’s little-known Due Lampioni (1-7-21 Suehiro, Ichikawa-shi, Chiba; 047-711-1127; ja-jp.facebook.com/duelampioni), run by Kenta Takahashi, that makes the best pizza in the Tokyo area. Everything here is superior, from the 300-year-old floor tiles that Takahashi sourced from the Amalfi coast to the custom oven designed and built by the di Agliarulo family, flown in from the town of Potsovi, just outside Naples.

This attention to detail is reflected in the pizzas, with A1 ingredients and puffed-up cornicione that are perfectly charred and so soft you’ll definitely need your knife and fork. I particularly enjoyed the voluptuous quattro formaggi, with its interplay of smoky bitter notes from the crust and the robust umami moreishness of the Gorgonzola, Taleggio, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. But the salsicca, packed with bright red and green peppers and crumbly Calabrian sausage, also left a big impression. Take my advice and order a bottle of 2011 Briaco Primitivo to go with. You won’t soon forget it.

Alex Dutson is a buttery young gentleman from Yorkshire, England, whose critiques of onion gravy are revered the world over.