I love the concept of terroir. I’m not entirely sure that I grasp it in full, but I love it as far as I understand it – essentially, that it is not just a food or drink, and the chemical makeup of that food or drink that create taste and experience, but the geography, the culture, and the people that cultivated it. It is a concept most frequently applied to wine, and presents a very strong case for the standard method of naming wines according to geography. Essentially, terroir is what allows a wine made of the same grapes in the same proportions to taste entirely different from one another. It is, more or less, why Willamette Valley Pinot Noir will not be mistaken for a Grand Cru Burgundy – they could be made of the same grapes in the same amounts, but the terroir of each area has resulted in a cultivation of each grape that displays different characteristics, or, perhaps more accurately, that displays the same characteristics differently. At least, this is how I understand it. Please feel free to add or correct.
Yet, though the concept stems from the world of wine, it can be applied elsewhere, and I believe nothing represents this better than pizza. Well, neapolitan pizza, specifically. This style of pizza – a thin, pleasantly chewy crust that puffs up at the edges just enough to give you a good grip, and leaving you enough at the end of the slice to sop up any remaining goodies in the pan, and is best adorned with nothing more than tomatoes, mozzarella, a basil leaf, a drizzle of olive oil, and, if you’re feeling fancy, some salame piccante – is named for its hometown of Naples, but can be found all over the world. Even within Italy, it represents one of the few regional dishes that has broken free of its geographic constraints – signs advertising “La Vera Pizza Napoletana” (the real neapolitan pizza) can be found nearly everywhere on the peninsula. There are purveyors across North America, and, indeed, around the world – each showing off their glittery, wood-fired ovens, that, just like in Naples, will fire off these sweet and savory disks in less than two minutes. Of course, there are many other styles of pizza as well, within Italy – the cracker thin Roman, the thicker and topping-laden pizza al taglio – and around the world. Let it be known that I will not take sides in the New York Slice vs. Chicago deep-dish wars not because I think one is better or more worthy of the pizza name, but because pizza, nearly since its origins, has been adapted and reinvented and is a term that is applied to many dishes made in many styles. Just as pasta can mean anything from a short, dried trofie served with a basil pesto sauce to a thick, eggy pappardelle twirling itself around a ragu made from wild boar, pizza is a category of food, not a dish. I would categorize it as a yeasted dough baked with toppings which tend to have Mediterranean origins, but even that seems limiting.
But back to the style at hand – neapolitan. I have visited many of these neapolitan joints that made their homes outside of Naples. From New York to San Francisco, and from Rome to Bra – I had a pretty established pizza palate before finally making my way to Naples last spring. Being the original home of pizza, before identifying styles was even necessary, I was eager to try the most replicated version of pizza at its source.
This is not a story of wandering the labyrinthine streets of Naples, only to come across a hole in the wall joint where nonno and nonna were slinging endearingly misshapen but ethereal pizzas out of their oven. A version of that would come the next day. No, Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo came highly recommended from a trusted source, and even if it had not, the hordes outside might have tipped us off that this was a place worth our wait. Yet, despite being all Americans (of both the North and South variety), we somehow outsmarted the lines and ordered to go. The indoor atmosphere was nothing to write home about, so ten minutes later we had our pizzas, a couple of beers, and a bench on which to dine al fresco on the balmy May evening. And this is where it comes full circle. This is where you begin to understand terroir. This is where you see how you can combine the same ingredients in the same ways and have entirely different, yet familiar, results.
The neapolitan style of pizza comes from Naples for a reason. San Marzano tomatoes thrive in the Campanian climate, the water buffaloes of the area produce a mozzarella whose complexity of flavor and pure delicious has yet to be replicated anywhere in the world, and there is a substantial argument to be made that the particular composition of water and the types of yeast-food microbes present in the air (sounds gross, but that’s basically how dough rises) of Naples is what gives the dough its subtly unique flavor and delightfully chewy texture. And when you’re there, you can taste it. Of course, even in Naples the tomatoes they’re using are likely to be canned, preserved from last summer, and Mozzarella di Bufala di Campana can be transported the day its made to anywhere in Italy, and, theoretically, the dough, made with the magical neapolitan water, could be as well. But the point is, Naples is where they are from, and where they best express themselves. I could try to describe the pizza itself, try and capture with words the way that the mozzarella wept into the tomatoes creating a sweet and sour, rich, milky sauce that held itself together just enough to remain on top of the lightly tangy crust, but those words are not unique to Naples and its pizza. They are just more accurate when describing it.
By the very nature of this argument, it can never be objectively proven. It must rely on taste memory, and momentary impressions. But eating the pizza of Naples in Naples is, for me, a reminder of the tie between food and origin. Food can be exported and adapted and brought around the world, but, at least when it comes to pizza, it always has a home.