Ed­i­tor’s Let­ter

Esquire (UK) - - Editor’s Letter - Alex Bilmes

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

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