Just how mamma used to make it

Pizza and ice cream - it's Italy's gastronomic dream ticket. Andy McSmith tucks into Naples' favourite foods

In Italy, devotees do not only search for pieces of the True Cross. The gastronomically devout will also put themselves to a lot of trouble to taste the true pizza. There is even an international movement, Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana - big in the USA as well as Italy - which awards certificates to establishments that follow the strict rules for baking true pizzas, pizzas as they used to be baked back when dominoes was a game played with numbered bricks.

In Italy, devotees do not only search for pieces of the True Cross. The gastronomically devout will also put themselves to a lot of trouble to taste the true pizza. There is even an international movement, Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana - big in the USA as well as Italy - which awards certificates to establishments that follow the strict rules for baking true pizzas, pizzas as they used to be baked back when dominoes was a game played with numbered bricks.

The true pizza was a delicacy enjoyed by the rural poor in a fertile part of southern Italy, where people still live off the land in a manner that has barely changed in 100 years. Therefore, it has to be handmade, and baked in a wood-fired, bell-shaped oven made of volcanic stone. Using anything powered by electricity is out. And forget fancy toppings like ham and pineapple: all ingredients have to be freely and cheaply available in the countryside around the Gulf of Naples.

To the catalogue of my life's achievements, I can now add that I have baked a real pizza, in the right part of the world, under the supervising eyes of professionals. I was in a small group of British visitors taken to the Canta Napoli restaurant, near the quayside in Naples, to witness the process from beginning to end, and to eat what we ourselves had created.

It begins with a bowl of water, a small quantity of yeast, and a lot of flour. It is permissible to use a mixing machine at this stage, provided that it is of an approved type, but the true purist mixes his dough by hand. This accomplished, our party was treated to a Blue Peter moment, when the professionals produced a tray full of oval-shaped cakes of dough that they had prepared earlier, and we were allowed to take it on from there.

The dough has to be flattened and shaped by hand. Even a simple wooden roller is forbidden. The maestro laid the dough cake on a flat surface, pressed it down, picked it up, slapped it, and there emerged a perfectly formed, round pizza base. I, meanwhile, spent some 20 minutes wheedling and cajoling to produce something almost round, with a small hole that refused to be filled.

The next task was the topping - tomatoes, mozzarella, basil leaves, and olive oil. All it requires is manageable quantities. The mistake made by several of our party was to add too much, creating a finished article dripping with oil or cheese.

Then the pizza has to be conveyed on a large, spade-like implement to the stone oven, pre-heated to several hundred degrees Celsius. It also needs to be turned around to ensure that it is cooked evenly. Using a container of any kind is not allowed. In my case, the tiny hole in the dough expanded to create a large spy hole. That imperfection aside, it was delicious.

Eating your own pizza is a highlight of a gourmets' weekend organised by Crystal Cities, an offshoot of Thomson Holidays. We also went to a "factory" up in the hills where they make a local liquor called Limoncello, and to La Gelateria della Scimmia, an ice cream factory in central Naples.

On both visits, "factory" turned out to be a generous word for a one-room workshop. Ice cream is made in a subterranean kitchen full of machines that look about half-a-century out of date. If you have seen an old black and white film called I'm All Right Jack, you will get the idea. A small, family firm has been operating from this site since 1933. A fading photograph suggests that the kitchen has not much changed in those years.

The shop upstairs sells ice cream in every imaginable flavour - ice cream with bits of chocolate or fruit, ice cream in weird colours like metallic blue or pistachio green. You suspect that if a Harry Potter fan were to come in asking for snot-flavoured ice cream, it would be there.

Down below, the ice cream-making process takes place almost entirely out of view, at controlled temperatures. All we got were snapshots. It was fun watching banana-shaped ice creams on sticks being dipped by hand in molten chocolate. The dipper had worked out a method of holding 15 ice creams in one hand, but I think the onlookers made him nervous, because he dropped one on the floor, and two into the chocolate.

If the ice cream factory was smaller than the average workshop, the one where Limoncello is made turned out to be no more than the backroom of a small village shop. The makers buy the famous Naples lemons by the ton, and remove the peel, which they soak in pure alcohol. The edible parts of the lemon are thrown away - a piece of wastefulness which they blame on restrictive health legislation. The resulting drink should be served after dinner, straight from the freezer.

Generations of industrious Neapolitan farmers have made every available piece of turf fruitful, covering the mountainsides overlooking the bay with a latticework of terraces covered in vines, orchards, and olive groves. At a roadside stall overlooking the port of Amalfi, we bought peaches the size of grapefruits, and figs so tender that they seemed to dissolve on your tongue. They cost the equivalent of about 10p a fig.

In Ravello, where we were staying, there was a wine shop with its own distillery in the basement, which opened out directly on to the vineyard. Ravello, by the way, is a very old and very beautiful town, whose streets are too narrow to permit through traffic.

The Italian guides proudly tell you that it is where Wagner composed half of Parsifal, but keep quiet about the fact that it is also where DH Lawrence wrote Lady Chatterley's Lover. It was rather appealing, sitting in the town square looking up at the wall of the 11th-century cathedral, and 13th-century campanile, knowing that the gifted son of a Nottinghamshire miner once sat at this very place, having raunchy thoughts about upper-class women.

Further down the hill, halfway to the smaller of the two beaches in the Gulf of Salerno, there is a village called Torello, which is so small that you can walk through it and hardly notice. Our visit coincided with Festa di Torello, when almost every building was lit with red and white lights, making it look like a nativity crypt. At one point in the evening, all the red lights in Torello were switched off simultaneously, and an equal number of green lights came on.

Across the pitch-black hillside, we could even deduce the presence of a cat from the way it moved across a roof, blacking out first one light then another. In the morning, the villagers let off loud fireworks which sent a rolling, rumbling echo through the mountains and left little grey and white clouds suspended in the air. We were also taken to Il San Pietro hotel in the village of Positano, which used to be famous as a bolt-hole for artists and hippies. The hotel dangles on the cliff edge, invisible from the road above. On a terrace, down a steep path, we were invited to sample the local wines - Avalon 2003, Greco di Tufo 2003, and Fianco de Avellino 2002. To wash down the four courses that followed there was a chardonnay - Monteriolo 1998, from the Coppo winery - or a chianti - Riserva Ducale 1998, from the Ruffino Riserva winery.

These visits are part of a crowded three-day package on offer next summer. The full itinerary also includes visits to an anchovy fishing village and a buffalo mozzarella farm. We were also shown some organic gardens in Ravello, and a private estate put together more than a century ago by a rich, English eccentric who plundered the locality for statues, friezes and other booty.

The tour is not cheap, nor particularly restful. The hotel is three star - basic comforts and fabulous views, but those with a mind to complain have posted some ungracious comments on its website.

And be prepared to spend about two hours a day being driven by coach over narrow, winding mountain roads. Naples's best-known landmarks - Capri island, Mount Vesuvius, and the ruins of Pompeii - are but sights spotted fleetingly through the window of a moving coach. It is a tour for those who wish to trace good food and drink to its beginnings.


How to get there

Andy McSmith travelled as a guest of Crystal Cities (0870-888 0230; www.crystalcities.co.uk). It is introducing new food and wine tours to Naples (and Barcelona) next year. Food tours of Naples are on 5-8 May, 21-23 July and 29 September-2 October. The price is £705 each, based on two sharing, including flights from Gatwick to Naples, two nights' b&b and three days touring Naples and the Amalfi coast. Entrance fees are not included and a four-course set meal at the Michelin-starred Il San Pietro Restaurant costs an extra £100 each, including wine.

Further information

Italian State Tourist Board (00800 0048 2542; www.enit.it).

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