Eating pizza is a large part of life in Italy. Let me rephrase that as I don’t want to speak for the 60 million people who live in this country. Eating pizza is a large part of my life. I think I have consumed about 1,000 individual pizzas since moving to Italy in 1998. That’s not hyperbole, I really mean 1,000 pizzas. That’s based on some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic so it might be a dozen more or a dozen less, but the point is that I know a thing or two about pizza.
One thing I know is that a good pizza is very easy to find in Italy, but a phenomenal pizza can be as elusive as that perfect New York bagel and so it was with a great deal of anticipation that I awaited my Pizza Maradona at an outside table on a warm afternoon in Naples a few weeks back. Naples is, of course, the birthplace of pizza so the good stuff can be had all over the city, but my Pizza Maradona had all the makings of a transcendental experience.
For several days I had been cruising Naples chasing the memory of Argentine soccer superstar Diego Armando Maradona, who played for local team Napoli from 1984-1991, as I did the reporting for a story about how the city is still obsessed with its less-than-perfect saint. In addition to tracking down a 22-year-old who had been named after Maradona (and his father who did the naming), a fading 30-foot mural of Maradona in a dilapidated neighborhood, a traffic circle named after the soccer player, a middle-aged journalist who got teary eyed speaking about his memories of Maradona, several small altars dedicated to “San Diego”, and of course the Pizza Maradona, I discovered some nuances about Naples that had escaped me on several previous visits.
Italy is full of culinary faux pas – no parmesan allowed on fish-based pasta sauces, no using a spoon to help you twirl the spaghetti around your fork, no tucking the napkin in your shirt – add to that that in Naples when they give you a small glass of water with your coffee or cappuccino, you drink the water first. It purifies the body in preparation for the coffee, or so I was told. In a few other Italian cities, Bologna and Lecce come to mind, you will be given water with your coffee, but the locals drink the coffee first then clean the palate with the water. Sacrilegious for the Neapolitans who want to savor the coffee flavor as long as possible.
Italians all up and down the peninsula love their coffee, but in Naples they take that love to another level. Coffee is a social prop, something that is much a part of a greeting as the cheek-to-cheek kiss. Every time you stop to speak to somebody they offer you a coffee. One day I had five, all offered, and turned down four more. In a Milan bar the barista pushes a button to tell the machine it’s time to force the water through the ground coffee. In Naples that forcing of the water is done with a manually through a large lever that gets pulled down for every coffee.
After several excellent pizzas – including one with sausage, provolone and friarielli, sort of like cima di rape though with a distinct bitterness – and much asking around I tracked down the Pizza Maradona at Pizzeria Vincenzo Costa near the courthouse. Enzo Costa, 35, and before him his father, have been serving the flat, round calzone filled with mozzarella, tomato sauce, ricotta, ham and mushrooms since 1987, the year Maradona brought the city its first soccer championship. A number 10, the number Mr. Maradona wore and since retired by Napoli, made of pizza dough sits atop the pizza.
I spoke at length to Enzo and then to the pizza maker before taking my seat outside. The pizza was good, excellent really, but it reached that rarified phenomenal level because this was the crowning moment of my Maradona search. The experience was perfect. As I took the first bite, then the second and the third I imagined for a second that this was my hometown and that I loved Maradona just as they still do.
Speaking of Naples, Maradona and soccer…tonight Napoli plays a crucial game in the Champions League against Spain’s Villarreal with the chance to make an historic jump into the next round. I think you know who I’ll be rooting for.