The dish that has been called "almost certainly the most widely eaten food on the planet" originated in Naples, though Neapolitans would be aghast at the pizza toppings such as chicken tikka, ham and pineapple, and chicken pesto that have taken root in this country. Back in the home of the pizza, people keep it simple. Most go for the Marinara, topped with tomatoes, garlic, oregano and olive oil (with the option of a few anchovy fillets) or the Margherita, topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, basil and olive oil.
I discovered how these tasty toppings retain their artisanal excellence on a recent visit to Naples organised by the restaurant chain Rossopomodoro ("red tomato"), which is based in the city. Established in the late Nineties, it has opened more than 100 branches in 12 years. Most are in Italy, with nine branches in Naples alone, but the company is rapidly expanding around the world. Already operating three restaurants in London and one in Birmingham, it plans to open another five per year in the UK.
Every ingredient of the pizzas served in its UK outlets is transported from Naples – not only the tomatoes, olive oil and mozzarella but also the flour, yeast and even the water used in the base. "The cost is huge," a company executive told me. "If we were in any other business we would all be multimillion- aires. All our cooks come from Naples. With more than 2,000 pizzerias in the city, making pizza is as natural here as breathing air."
Starting as a dough ball, the pizza base is pressed into the requisite disc with a raised edge (called the cornicione) by the fingers of the pizza-maker. All that flamboyant whirling in the air that you might have seen is frowned on. The Rossopomodoro pizza is then cooked in a wood-burning stove for 60 to 90 seconds at 485C.
But what goes on top? The zingy sauce made from the San Marzano tomato, grown around Vesuvius, explains why not much else is needed on local pizzas. Ripened by the sun, which shines here for 250 days a year, its flavour benefits from the mineral-rich volcanic soil and deepens during the preserving process.
Biting into a freshly peeled San Marzano tomato revealed it to be fleshy, chewy and sweet. My sampling took place at the San Nicola dei Miri company in Gragnano. Banish all thought of production lines and elaborate machinery. The peeling and packing was done by five women equipped with nothing more than sharp knives. Topped up with a drop of clear tomato juice, the glass jars were sealed before being left to mature for four months.
Around the cavern-like workshop, the peelers were surrounded by the fruits of their labours. There were eight stacks of bottled tomatoes made up of 17 layers with 168 bottles on each layer – a lot of peeling. Most of these would be served with pasta. We were too late in the season to see the larger San Marzano tomatoes that were transformed into sauce for pizzas.
Moving up a stratum on the pizza topping, the mozzarella used on Rossopomodoro's La Verace pizza comes from a plant called Caseificio Caserta, 20 miles outside Naples, which only uses milk from local buffalo herds. Among the stainless steel and dripping tiles – particularly hazardous when you're wearing plastic overshoes – there was a single sign of artisan tradition. According to the factory manager, Salvatore Bellopede, the shallow wooden tubs in which flaky chunks of buffalo mozzarella curd are worked by hand is "the only timber authorised by the EU in any area of food manufacturing".
After a few minutes of expert manipulation, the curd was transformed into the familiar, gleaming mozzarella but on a titanic scale. Shaping it into more manageable mozzarella spheres is also done by hand. Salvatore offered me a chunk. Though a little bland – the saltiness is subsequently imparted by two hours in brine – it was creamy and full of life on the palate.
Salvatore gave a few vital tips for mozzarella addicts. "The bigger, the better," he said. When serving mozzarella as a starter or antipasto, it should be cut into wedges, not slices, so "everyone gets the same ratio of skin and inside". Salvatore also advises that the cheese should be removed from the fridge well before eating. "Mozzarella doesn't like the fridge. If you let it return to room temperature, it comes back to life."
Finally, I explored the drizzle that finishes a pizza. After a nerve-shredding drive from Naples on the frightening coastal road to Sorrento, a country lane took me to the idyllic olive grove of Frantoio Gargiulo, which provides the oil used at Rossopomodoro.
I was a little early for the harvest but nets were already spread under the tall olive trees to catch the precious fruit. "These trees may be 300 years old and have to be harvested by hand," explained Vittoria Castellano. "We beat the branches with long sticks so the fruit falls. It's far more expensive than mechanised harvesting but you don't damage the olives and you can tell that they are exactly at the right stage of ripeness."
After brining to quell the bitterness of the raw olive, the olives are washed, chopped and crushed. The resulting juice contains 50 per cent olive oil, which is extracted by centrifuge. One hundred kilos of olives gives 15 litres of oil. The finest olive oil produced from the grove has a mere 0.2 per cent acidity, which makes it eligible for the protected origin status known as DOP Sorrento. "It is seriously checked by the authorities like a grand cru," said Vittoria. Light in colour, the DOP is sweet, fresh and intensely fruity with a tiny prickle of heat at the end. The flavour is extraordinary.
Many of the imported products used by Rossopomodoro can be purchased at the restaurants for home use. A Margherita pizza costs £7.90. La Verace pizza with DOP buffalo mozzarella and DOP Sorrento extra virgin olive oil costs £11. rossopomodor.co.uk
A slice of life from Naples to world domination
As John Dickie points out in Delizia!, his excellent history of Italian food, "there are few hard facts in the history of pizza". Originally, it was a Mediterranean flat bread – the word has obvious links with Greek pitta and Turkish pide – though its evolution into the current form only occurred relatively recently.
Queen Margherita bestowed her name on the mozzarella, tomato and basil (reflecting the colours of the Italian flag) topping after bravely sampling it in 1889. Naples was racked by cholera at the time. Moreover, a classic dish of cucina povera (making a lot from a little) was far from being customary royal fare.
Emigrants from poverty-stricken Naples took the pizza north to Rome, where it was transformed into a thin, crisp, six-foot strip, and further afield to North America, where it has been adopted as a national dish.
The combination of baked dough, cheese and tomato is so irresistible that a pizza is popular everywhere, but never so good as the Neapolitan version, fresh from a white-hot stove.