Mys­tic Pizza

The top pie-mak­ing school in the world is in Naples, where you can learn 300 years of Ital­ian tech­nique in 30 days. One writer at­tempts to be­come a master piz­zaiolo in one sweat-filled week

Bloomberg Pursuits - - Pursue - By Adam Platt Pho­to­graphs by Luca Lo­catelli

His chief lieu­tenant, Da­vide Bruno, has the stocky build of a drill sergeant and, dur­ing the course of the morn­ing’s in­struc­tion, makes a sen­si­tive pizza novice from Honolulu leak quiet tears in front of the wood-burn­ing oven.

There’s also Michele Tri­unfo, the diminu­tive 81-year- old master baker who’s worked in pizza joints across this an­cient Ital­ian city since he was 12. He re­mem­bers when the Yan­kee GIs lib­er­ated the city dur­ing the war—“they brought with them the finest flour”— and the last time the fa­mous vol­cano Ve­su­vius erupted, in the win­ter of 1944. He ap­pears, Yoda- like, when Coc­cia sum­mons him, dressed in natty chef’s whites, to of­fer runic bits of wis­dom to the fret­ful stu­dents. “The finest dough, it should be soft, like a baby’s bot­tom,” Tri­unfo says. When events over­whelm, as they in­vari­ably do, he throws his hands in the air and laughs.

Don Tri­unfo is laugh­ing now. I’m at­tempt­ing, af­ter slam­ming at the dough like a wheez­ing prize­fighter, to master what Coc­cia likes to call “the del­i­cate dance” of proper Neapoli­tan pizza mak­ing, which in­cludes shap­ing fresh dough into lit­tle panetti balls, as smooth and round as plums. They’re then molded into pie shapes, which is ac­com­plished with a prac­ticed side­ways flip.

To Tri­unfo’s amuse­ment, the balls I pro­duce are lumpy, like sticky chunks of vol­canic rock. “Don’t worry. It’s your first time,” he re­as­sures me. When my pies are shaped like teardrops and elon­gated wa­ter bal­loons, his voice is more ur­gent: “Don’t rush. It will turn into chew­ing gum!” As we move one of the pies to­ward a roar­ing oven, he throws up his hands again, and he’s laugh­ing so hard, I think he’s about to cry.

“This is a dis­as­ter,” the old baker says. “Now you are sweat­ing too much! A good piz­zaiolo does not sweat into his dough!”

A good piz­zaiolo does all sorts of things I can’t do, as I’m quickly dis­cov­er­ing on my first day at what’s con­sid­ered, among those who con­sider such things, to be the Sor­bonne of pizza schools. The nor­mal course of study at Coc­cia’s Pizza Con­sult­ing school in Naples lasts for a month, but the master, whose for­mer stu­dents op­er­ate suc­cess­ful, crit­i­cally ac­claimed pizza op­er­a­tions in places such as Shang­hai, Tokyo, and New York, has grudg­ingly agreed to take me on for a week of in­ten­sive train­ing.

Un­like other pizza ac­cred­i­ta­tion op­er­a­tions across town, Coc­cia takes no more than four stu­dents a month. “Fif­teen peo­ple to a class, you learn noth­ing,” he says. “It’s like steal­ing money!” There will even be a fi­nal exam at the end of the week, com­plete with a bat­tery of dis­cern­ing Neapoli­tan pizza tasters, like at the con­clu­sion of some mad­cap TV cook­ing show.

“Hon­estly, it’s all hard, and if you make one mis­take, you will pay for it all day,” says Matt Resich, a fel­low stu­dent who’s come to learn how to make pizza the proper Neapoli­tan way. Like me, Resich is a wide, burly gen­tle­man, prone to sweat­ing in front of a hot oven, and like me, he’s a New Yorker who grew up im­mersed in that city’s great ro­mance with the pizza pie. Also like me, he’s quickly learn­ing that every­thing he cher­ished about the clas­sic New York pie—the sweet sauce; the ad­dic­tive, oily taste of pro­cessed cheese and pep­per­oni; the del­i­cate crackle of re­cently warmed, pre­frozen crust— doesn’t cut it among the stern pizza man­darins of old Napoli.

“Your pizza in New York is more like bread,” Coc­cia de­clares on that first day. “They use heavy, un­leav­ened dough. The tech­nique for flat­ten­ing and shap­ing the pizza is not tra­di­tional. The qual­ity of top­pings—aw­ful! The ovens are all wrong! Ev­ery step of the process is wrong.” The mae­stro takes out a bot­tle of golden, fruity La Tor­retta olive oil from Si­cily and un­corks it. “Smell this— it’s lovely. They use this in some good places in New York, but mostly they use sun­flower oil, palm oil, ter­ri­ble cheap stuff,” he says. And don’t get Coc­cia started on the grim, soul- crush­ing pizza chains of Amer­ica. “Ah­hhh, Papa John’s, don’t talk of it,” he shouts, his face turn­ing a deep shade of tomato red. “My stu­dents af­ter two weeks are mak­ing bet­ter pizza than those places!”

Coc­cia has earned his strong opin­ions in a city where peo­ple ar­gue over pizza crust the way North Carolini­ans ar­gue over pork bar­be­cue. His fa­ther was a Neapoli­tan piz­zaiolo, and his brother still runs the fam­ily trat­to­ria near the train sta­tion. Coc­cia be­gan sell­ing pizza on the streets at age 12 and opened his first restau­rant, La No­tizia, al­most two decades ago on a lit­tle street in the north­ern part of town called Via Car­avag­gio, which winds down to the bay. There are now two La No­tizias on Via Car­avag­gio, and both are renowned for the pu­rity of the mari­nara sauce, the qual­ity of the sea­sonal in­gre­di­ents, and im­pec­ca­ble tech­nique. “Maybe 50 per­cent of the pizze­rias we have in Naples are not so good but still bet­ter than any­thing in Rome,” says Mau­r­izio Cortese, an in­flu­en­tial lo­cal critic. “An­other 40 per­cent of the pizza restau­rants are quite good even by our stan­dards, and then 10 per­cent are the very best. Enzo is the best of the very best.”

Stu­dents at Pizza Con­sult­ing are is­sued red piz­zaiolo aprons and jaunty red base­ball caps, and for the first week of the month­long course, they’re drilled on how to make their dough by hand. “Push, Push!” Coc­cia im­plores. “The yeast is like a liv­ing hu­man be­ing—it needs oxy­gen to breathe.” The next day, af­ter an­other hec­tic morn­ing ses­sion of dough beat­ing and pizza ball-mak­ing, I at­tend an im­promptu his­tor­i­cal lec­ture from An­to­nio Mat­tozzi, whose book, In­vent­ing the Pizze­ria: A His­tory of Pizza Mak­ing in Naples, is the au­thor­i­ta­tive text on thishis dense sub­ject.

No one quite knows where the word “pizza” comes from, but Mat­tozzi’s best guess is the an­cient Greco-Byzan­tine word “pita,” which means a kind of flat­bread or cake. The ear­li­est record in Naples dates to the late 1700s, when street ven­dors be­gan sell­ing wheels of baked dough cov­ered in a sim­ple tomato-based sauce to sailors around the har­bor—the orig­i­nal word for “mari­nara” sauce means “from the sea.” Dur­ing the 1800s, richer, more ex­pen­sive top­pings were added, in­clud­ing smoked moz­zarella and fresh basil leaves. Since then, the ba­sic el­e­ments of the clas­sic Neapoli­tan pie—the moz­zarella, the bright mari­nara sauce flecked with olive oil and fresh oregano, the trade­mark soft, puffy-edged crust— have stayed the same.

“Why should our pizza change?” Mat­tozzi asks. “The dish has a sim­ple round base. You can put any­thing on it. It is good for a snack but can also feed an en­tire fam­ily for pen­nies. Pizza is like the blue jeans of com­fort food.”

At Coc­cia’s pizza boot camp, they pride them­selves on mak­ing it the old­fash­ioned way. “One hun­dred hours is too short a time to ex­plain 300 years of tech­nique to you stu­dents,” Bruno says. “It can cre­ate a lot of stress.” I prac­tice a side­ways flip­ping mo­tion to get the round, now-leav­ened panetti balls into the shape of an ac­tual pie.

Un­like in Rome or Chicago, the clas­sic Neapoli­tan pie has a soft crust and a small moon shape, and it’s de­signed to be eaten as a snack folded on the street or with a knife and fork at a ta­ble. Flip

“Ah­hhh, Papa John’s, don’t talk of it,” Coc­cia shouts, his face turn­ing a deep tomato red. “My stu­dents af­ter two weeks are mak­ing bet­ter pizza!”

the dough too lit­tle, and the pie will be too thick; flip it too much, and the crust will be too thin and burn off in the oven.

The process isn’t that dif­fi­cult at first, but I be­gin to wither un­der the speed and end­less restau­rant-style rep­e­ti­tion. My fin­gers go through the dough, and the pies start to look in­creas­ingly like gi­ant, mis­shapen al­monds. “Slide and tw twist your hands,” Bruno urges. “Re­act, do don’t think! The wa­ter is cold, you’re jump­ing into nto t the wa­ter, you are like a fish swim­ming in the sea.”

On the day be­fore the fi­nal exam, I at­tend a prep ses­sion at the smaller of the two La No­tizia restau­rants with two of Coc­cia’s em­ploy­ees—Pa­tience Kennedy, from Nige­ria, and a tall, ge­nial baker named Luigi Aprea, re­cently re­turned from Rome. Kennedy shows me how to pre­pare the mari­nara sauce by slowly mix­ing in 25 grams of salt for ev­ery 25,000g of San Marzano to­ma­toes with the cen­ter cores re­moved by hand. Aprea briefs me on how to iden­tify fresh moz­zarella by run­ning a finger over its top to check for mois­ture (“Old moz­zarella looks like yo­gurt; not a good look”) and on the rudi­men­tary way to prep a wood-burn­ing oven—you need one pile of coals to cook the pizza and a lit log to char the crust. As we work, the lit­tle room be­gins to fill with pleas­ant smells of siz­zling sausages, baked bread, and wood smoke.

Rain clouds hang low on the day of the big test. Resich and his part­ner, In­thira Marks, ar­rive dressed in red aprons and pizza hats and be­gin mak­ing the day’s dough in one of the mix­ers. “To­day is more hu­mid. What does that mean?” Bruno asks darkly. “More flour,” replies Resich, though how much more flour is the tricky part, be­cause the last dash of flour es­tab­lishes the con­sis­tency of a batch and, once added, can’t be un­done.

We set about chop­ping the egg-col­ored dough into lumps and mak­ing the panetti balls. I make mine too fast at first, and Bruno yells, “Mr. Adam, slow down. Your balls are too big!” in a loud, happy voice. Soon Coc­cia ar­rives, and one by one, the tasters from the neigh­bor­hood be­gin to show up. Resich preps the oven, which is at its max­i­mum heat of roughly 900F. He read­ies the three pad­dles, or “peels,” for bak­ing—one heav­ier pad­dle made of wood, which lifts the pie from the prep sta­tion to the oven, and two made of metal, one to man­age the pizza while it’s in the oven and the other for the fire.

The bricks at the top of the oven be­gin to glow white hot. “OK, now you make pizza for us, tran­quilo, no prob­lem,”

Coc­cia says. My first few pies are pass­able, but soon things go hay­wire. “This one has a lit­tle hole in the mid­dle, you’ve ru­ined it,” Bruno says, throw­ing the dough aside. Resich passes me the wooden pad­dle for the first time. I dress one of the mis­shapen wheels of dough Bruno has dis­carded and dab it with mari­nara, olive oil, bits of moz­zarella, and a few tears of fresh basil. We hoist the pie onto the wooden peel, slide it onto the siz­zling oven sur­face, and grab the metal pad­dle. “Quick spin!” Bruno com­mands, but I don’t spin it fast enough: When we take it out, the pizza is burned on one side and not cooked enough on the other. “Here, try one more,” Coc­cia says, giv­ing me an­other of my dis­carded saucers of dough, which he’s shaped into piz­za­like form. We dress it and shove it into the oven.

The sweat is pour­ing down my cheeks now, but the top of the pizza bubbles and siz­zles pleas­ingly as I spin it around. On Bruno’s com­mand, I bring my al­mond­shaped pie out of the oven, then set it onto the counter just like I imag­ine a real piz­zaiolo should, with a slightly awk­ward flip. Coc­cia comes over, and for a mo­ment, we re­gard my cool­ing pizza in si­lence. The crust is puffy around the edge, and for the most part, the melted moz­zarella is evenly dap­pled over the tomato sauce. I take out my phone, snap a pic­ture. Coc­cia takes one lit­tle bite, then an­other. He sighs, shrugs his shoul­ders, and sighs again. “I’ll give it a six for cook­ing and a seven for top­ping man­age­ment,” he fi­nally says. And what about the crust? “It’s too crunchy,” Enzo says. “We couldn’t serve your pizza here in Naples, but I’m sure we could sell it to your friends back in New York.” A month-long course at Enzo Coc­cia’s Pizza Con­sult­ing in Naples starts at $3,135, not in­clud­ing travel or lodg­ing.

Coc­cia out­side one of his Piz­zaria La No­tizia lo­ca­tions in Naples

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