What is the main difference between these ingredients?” Roberto Caporuscio asks his class as he lays out a fish, a filet of beef, a tomato, an eggplant and a ball of pizza dough on a countertop. The group of students, culinary professionals who pay close to $4,500 for an intensive few weeks training in the art of making Neapolitan pizza, offers thoughtful and careful answers, yet nobody has the right one. “The main difference,” he finally says, “is that the dough is alive, right now.”
The cornerstone of Neapolitan pizza, and all pizza, for that matter, dough is a living, breathing organism—fermenting and growing in its environment until the moment it’s cooked in the oven. “If you understand that it is alive, then you’ll begin to understand how to make good pizza. You’ll know how to treat the dough the right way,” Caporuscio says. He is talking about a recipe that comes from Naples, a dough that is made from soft “00” flour that rises slowly during a drawn-out fermentation of its yeast. The length of this fermentation is determined by each pizzaiolo (pizza maker), and is often a guarded secret. One thing we know is that it’s not a couple of hours—the rise for authentic Neapolitan dough is closer to a matter of days, and it happens in temperature- and humidity-controlled rooms. As one of the most revered instructors and restaurateurs bringing traditional Neapolitan pizza to the U.S., it’s this sort of secret that Caporuscio knows best.
The Romans (and ancient Greeks and Etruscans) cooked flat bread with oil, lard, honey and other simple toppings, and pizza’s origins start here. But if you’re talking about a crispy and puffy crust, topped with melted mozzarella, basil and tomato, then you go back more than 120 years to Queen Margherita’s 1889 visit to Naples, which inspired the creation of the iconic Margherita pizza. The three toppings represent the colors of the Italian flag. They also represent three heavy hitters in the canon of wonderful local ingredients from Campania, of which Naples is the capital. The tomatoes from nearby San Marzano are arguably some of the best in Italy, the area’s water buffalo and cattle make for legendary mozzarella produced by local artisans, and the sea air in the Bay of Naples provides the right climate for wonderfully fragrant basil plants.
A pizza in Naples is made quickly, often right in front of you at the restaurant. A ball of dough is pushed with fingertips and minimal stretching into discs 12” to 14” in diameter. It is liberally topped with a few simple ingredients, drizzled with olive oil and cooked for less than two minutes in domed, wood-fired ovens at temperatures ranging from 800° to 1000°. A Margherita in Naples is simple, fresh and sublime, with a slightly soupy center where the juices from the mozzarella and tomato meet. It is fragrant of basil, and when you take the first bite you understand why in Naples they say that there is no other pizza than their own.
In America, pizza has experienced a multifaceted, ever-changing parade of styles and flavors. The country’s love affair with pizza started with the first Italian immigrants and developed from there. Over the decades many types of pizza have sprouted with regional and cultural ties to different parts of the country. Today, much of what makes for pizza has little to do with Italian cooking. This is the American way, to make something new, different and exciting. It is also the American way to make things more efficient, so somewhere along the line, much of the country’s pizza fell prey to fast food and processed ingredients, ultimately lowering the perception of what this food can truly be. Yet the pizza revolution of the last decade has changed things. From the hippest neighborhoods in Brooklyn, New York, and Portland, Oregon, to Phoenix, Arizona, the pizza restaurant is becoming a big part of America’s new obsession for casual cuisine driven by high-quality ingredients.
At the center of the pizza revival is a recent influx of “Neapolitan-style” restaurants. These places may not label themselves as such, but they have been influenced by traditional Neapolitan techniques. Behind the scenes are master pizza makers like Caporuscio, who are teaching Americans how to make pizza the way they do in Naples, and their influence is wide-reaching. Pizza making in the capital of Campania has a rigorous structure to it. Courses are offered for restaurants and pizza makers to receive VPN (Verace Pizza Napoletana) and APN (Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani) certification, indicators that they follow authentic Neapolitan tradition and technique in producing their pies.
“The certifications are important, but at the end of the day, they are also pieces of paper,” Caporuscio says. "The real issue is what you do with these techniques.” It’s true—quality, authentic pizzerias, both certified and non-certified, abound in the U.S. What distinguishes them is their commitment, and the skill of the pizza makers in the kitchen. When it comes to those seeking out authenticity, however, Caporuscio’s two New York restaurants, Kestè and the newly opened Don Antonio by Starita, make a compelling case.
After the success of Kestè, which opened in Manhattan’s West Village neighborhood three years ago, Caporuscio teamed up with friend and mentor Antonio Starita to bring another paragon of Neapolitan pizza to the city. Don Antonio by Starita is, as the name implies, an homage to Antonio Starita and his restaurant in Naples, which dates to 1901. Starita is a legend: The vice-president of the APN, he was selected to make and deliver pizza to the Pope during the 2000 Jubileo in Rome. In some ways, Don Antonio is an extension of Caporuscio’s and Starita’s legacy in their home city. They've even brought over the Montanara, a fried-dough pie popular back home. But there’s more to it: In the midst of America’s pizza craze, which brings an ever-crowding marketplace to an audience hungry for authenticity, Caporuscio isn’t shy about why his restaurants are so special. “We don’t make Neapolitan-style pizza,” he explains. “We simply make Neapolitan pizza here.”
Photography by Paulette Tavormina