Naples — beautiful, sorrowful, furcoat-and-no-knickers Naples — on a balmy Saturday lunchtime last December. Stay for a lifetime and I don’t doubt this place could find a thousand ways to wipe that besotted grin off your face, stub out your spirit and pour cold coffee on your dreams. But Naples is not a city to disappoint the casual visitor, and the scene before us now offers the ideal combination of glossy guidebook spread and pulse-quickening true crime scenario. Mopeds knife through narrow cobbled streets clotted with Christmas shoppers. Brooding teenage toughs in staticky tracksuits gather to gawp and leer. Gum-chewing girls saunter past, sullen and contemptuous. Raucous Europop umpsk-umpsk-umpsks from over-lit bars. Overhead, old ladies lean from balconies to hang their washing. The whole town smells of pastry and cigarettes. It is tacky and tawdry, soulful and sublime.
Today, I’m making a gastronomic pilgrimage, puffing up ancient stone staircases, trudging through rubbish-strewn alleys. My destination: L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, the most famous pizza joint in the most famous pizza town in the world. It’s a bit of a hike, and as I say it’s quite warm, and I’m starting to wonder if all this wandering is really worth it, when I round a corner and there, underneath da Michele’s supremely unprepossessing sign, is a scrum, maybe 200 strong, of people waiting, with varying degrees of patience, for pizza.
Playing the English ignoramus (not a stretch, admittedly), I shoulder my way inside, where I’m met with uproar at my presumption and pushed towards a whiskery man behind a till — he looks old enough to be the last survivor of Pompeii — who bravely confronts the inconvenience of taking my order (Margherita, large) and hands me a ticket. The wait is long and hot and stressful, involving a barrage of elbows in my flank, but at length a box is shoved at me and I escape, triumphant.
You could die happy, I think, standing on that scruffy street corner in the pale winter sunshine, eating da Michele pizza off the bonnet of a clapped-out Fiat Uno, washing it down with cold Birra Morettis, smiling conspiratorially at the locals. No need for conversation, just muffled grunts of contentment.
Crashing bore that I am, I tell plenty of people about this back at home, until a friend says he had the same da Michele pizza the other day, in north London. I tell him this is impossible. There is only one da Michele and it’s on Via Cesare Sersale in Naples, and has been since 1870, and I’ve just been there, and you can’t get pizza that good in London.
My chum taps his phone and there it is, the website of the new L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, in London N16. He says they use the same Italian dough, the same tomatoes and mozzarella, and their chefs, trained at the old place, use the same oven, too, or as good as. They opened in February, and have been doing a scalding trade ever since.
It’s no news that Londoners have become blasé about the cornucopia of international flavours on offer within stumbling distance of our front doors. We have Norwegian breakfasts, Laotian lunches and Eritrean suppers and think little of it. But still, this seemed madness. The pizzaioli maestri of da Michele have waited 147 years to expand outside of Naples, and when at last they do, they choose Stoke Newington to do it in? Can it really be true?
And so, on a recent weekday lunchtime, I allow myself a few hours off, to find out. (Yes, that’s right: fearless investigative journalism of the old school.) I take the Victoria Line northbound, catch a bus at Highbury Corner and hop off on Church Street. I lived round here at the fag end of the Nineties, when it was still a vaguely edgy, alternative lifestyle zone. The bloke I rented my flat off was a full-moon dreadlocked crusty with a lion tattoo on his face; he made a living at illegal raves across Europe, charging pill-heads for rides in his gyroscope. He was not atypical for the area. Since then, bohemia has been gentrified. If Naples is the faded floozy at Italy’s ankle, swinging her clutch bag underneath a flickering streetlamp, Stokey is a late-millennial media wanker trailed down a leafy street by a brindle whippet called Ned and two tykes on bikes, heading to the farmer’s market for biodynamic tacos. Sure enough, outside da Michele on the day I visit, rather than a crowd of blue collar Italians is a hipster mum in a leopard-print athleisure combo, negotiating a techno buggy from the boot of her Audi Q5.
Commendably, no effort has been made at the new da Michele to bring the bristling energy of Naples to orderly north London. The interior is clean and well cushioned. The servers are young and attentive. No one elbows me in the flank. But the pizza? Like in Naples, the pizza is fucking epic.
This issue is a food special. As well as nourishing writing on all matters culinary, we bring you the finest new restaurants in the most edible city on earth. (Sorry, Runcorn, not you.) We have tasted the food of Mumbai and Mexico City, Tokyo and Taipei, Rome and Istanbul, all within a few miles of our desks. Which is to say, we have eaten the food of London 2017. Now you can do the same. Bon app’.
You could die happy, I think, standing on that scruffy street corner in the pale winter sunshine, eating da Michele pizza off the bonnet of a clappedout Fiat Uno,
washing it down with cold Birra Morettis