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Tastes of Italy

Good food is good food, but savoring iconic dishes at their source—that's an Existential Eating Experience. Which is why I recently set out for five regions of Italy to rediscover the true tastes of pizza, risotto, egg pasta, and pesto. I had been worried. With cibo veloce the latest flavor in Italian dining, and cynical restaurateurs plying tourists with counter-feits, could the classic traditions be vanishing along with the nonne in black?

Well, your nonna might be sporting Max Mara beige these days, but pesto is still greener in Liguria, pasta all'uovo yellower in Lombardy and Emilia-Romagna, risotto more stirringly memorable in the Po flatlands. And you don't know pizza unless you've fought for a table at a weathered Neapolitan pizzeria. Disputes over perfection, I was thrilled to discover, remain fierce enough to spark sectarian wars; an extra garlic clove in the pan might bring in the carabinieri.

Will this regional rigor survive the next enoteca trend?It's anyone's guess. But for now, get ready for some existential chowing, Italian-style.

PIZZA Naples
Antonio Pace couldn't stop playing with his doily. He folded it in four. "In the old days," he said, "this is how Neapolitans ate their pizza, starting at the point. Because pizza was street food scarfed down on a bench." Then he blew on the doily, to illustrate the convection heat of the pizza oven, an inferno fueled with beechwood or oak and cranked up to 800 degrees Fahrenheit.

Pace and I were having dinner at his Naples restaurant, Ciro a Santa Brigida, a bastion of Neapolitan cooking lost in a time warp off the frenetic Via Toledo. He is president of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, founded in 1984 to defend pizza as a Neapolitan icon and to preach respect for the tradition. "Anybody can slop dough in the oven and call it pizza," Pace said gravely. The yeasty focaccia that Italian immigrants in America weigh down with shameful amounts of tomato and cheese?The pies of trendy Roman pizzerias, with their sottile (thin), croccante (crispy) crusts?Not pizza! Not even close!

Pace's Margherita, on the other hand, offered a textbook example of the Neapolitan pizza. Before me was a jagged disk the size of a dinner plate. The light-gold crust, dotted with a few blisters, had just a suggestion of chewiness and crispness. In compliance with the Associazione's scriptures, topping the crust were a discreet smear of hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes, three pieces of buffalo mozzarella, rivulets of extra-virgin olive oil, and two basil leaves. Basta. In this most histrionic of cities, Pace's pie seemed the ultimate minimalist statement. Yes, this was the vera pizza napoletana.

Or was it?

"Did Pace give you his spiel about extra-virgin olive oil, San Marzano tomatoes, and buffalo mozzarella?" Francesco Colonnesi inquired with a faint chuckle. Wearing a cream linen suit crinkled just so, Colonnesi introduced himself as a city judge, amateur pizza scholar, and member of the Naples division of Slow Food. "Don't listen to Pace," he implored. Buffalo mozzarella oozes too much fat, and the whole San Marzano thing is, to Colonnesi, a ploy to promote a boutique regional product.

To prove his point, Colonnesi took me to three militantly traditional pizzerias. Our first stop, Da Michele, was a neorealist den presided over by a beefy padrone wearing a chunky gold chain. Here I learned that uniting all Neapolitan pizza camps is a belief that topping should never—never—take precedence over crust. While most establishments indulge the masses with frills, Da Michele offers only the classics: marinara and Margherita. For fancy toppings, the pizza police have one word: contaminazione!

In a scrupulously inelegant upstairs parlor of the city's other venerable pizzeria, Di Matteo, I was ogling a neighbor's pie "contaminated" with arugula and prosciutto. Colonnesi frowned. Over yet another marinara, he explained that before the New World tomato was adopted by Neapolitans in the 18th century, local pizza was white (pizza bianca), garnished with pork cracklings and, later, anchovies. No one is certain exactly when the marriage of tomato and bread was consummated, but sometime in the 1760's, pizza marinara—tomatoes, garlic, oregano, oil—was conceived around the port as a breakfast for mariners returning from the sea. More than a century later, a crafty pizzaiolo named Rafaele Esposito devised a pizza with tomatoes, basil, and mozzarella and named it in honor of Queen Margherita. This piece of history is proudly relayed by waiters at Pizzeria Brandi, where Esposito's alleged descendants serve forgettable pies to camera-toting crowds.

Our tour wound down at Sorbillo, in the sinister Spaccanapoli quarter. Like those at Matteo and Michele, my pie at Sorbillo wasn't topped according to Pace's rules: the cheese was fior di latte (made from cow's milk), the tomatoes obviously from a can—and delicious. Like the others, it possessed a perfect equilibrium of smokiness and acidity. Pizza devoured, I chatted with the young owner, Gino Sorbillo, who was wearing a T-shirt that announced OURS IS THE ONLY FAMILY WITH 21 PIZZAIOLI. (Apparently true.) I asked him about the mod pizzerias in ritzy seaside suburbs like Posillipo. He sucked his cheeks in with great force and let out a blistering spit.

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