Brusque service and a two-hour wait for a table hardly sound promising ingredients for the best meal ever - yet the dinner I had in a little backstreet pizzeria in Naples was exactly that
I’d heard pizza originated in the poor areas of Naples, before Neapolitan migrant workers helped spread the word in America and worldwide. I’d also heard you’d not eaten a pizza until you’d eaten one in Naples, so as soon as I’d checked in to my hotel, I asked the receptionist which pizzeria she’d recommend.
Her recommendation, L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, was down a side street in the Spaccanapoli district, and after eventually finding it, I was surprised to see dozens of people standing in the road outside. Had there been a fire alarm, I wondered? No – these people were waiting to get in.
Baffled, I watched a couple approach the front door and return with a piece of paper. I did the same, and was handed a cloakroom ticket by a waiter-cum-bouncer, with the number 87 printed on it. I realised that waiting for a table would be a great way to learn numbers in Italian – as I could barely get from one to five, I was under pressure to learn quickly. But after an hour, when number 60 was called out, I knew we were in for a long night. The other people waiting were a mixed bag – businessmen, families, couples, and wannabe gangsters, but no non-Italians apart from us.
“Ottanta sette”. At last, it was us! After two hours, our number was up, we were ushered inside and another couple moved along so we could squeeze in beside them. Inside, white-tiled walls were covered with framed black-and-white photos of generations of owners, dating back to Michele himself in 1870, along with the obligatory photo of every Neapolitan’s hero, Diego Maradona. I bet he wasn’t made to wait for a table.
There were no menus, which we thought odd, but this was for a good reason. Da Michele sells just two types of pizza: margherita (tomato, mozzarella and basil) and marinara (tomato, garlic and oregano). The locals believe any more toppings are not necessary, as it is the quality, not the quantity, that counts. It was also these two varieties of pizza that were eaten by the paupers of Naples in the 18th century.
We both went for the margherita at €5, with bottled beer drunk from plastic cups (€1.50). Thankfully, our food didn’t take long to come – from my seat I could see the pizzaiolo place each pizza in the wood-fired oven and then take them out in less than a minute. After a hectic day of sightseeing in this crazy city and a two-hour wait for a table, our bellies were rumbling, and we wasted no time cutting our first slice. As it went down, my face broke into a smile of ecstasy and I thought: that was well worth the wait.
Something so basic really shouldn’t taste this good. Da Michele uses sweet tomatoes grown on the fertile soils surrounding Mount Vesuvius, with cow’s milk mozzarella – connoisseurs believe buffalo mozzarella is too milky and makes the pizza soggy. The dough is prepared the day before to give a soft base, which is no more than 1cm in height and singed at the edges after its 40 seconds in the oven.
The result? A pizza like none I’d had before – everything about it was perfect, from the appearance and smell to the flavours exploding on my palate. Yet this was cheap peasant food – basically bread with cheese and tomatoes on top. We were only seated for 20-minutes before we were both well and truly stuffed. We were tempted to try the marinara to see how that compared to the margherita, but vowed to come back another day.
Before I went to Naples, I used to eat two frozen pizzas a week. Since I’ve returned, I’ve not been able to face their sloppy mediocrity. And I doubt I’d be able to tolerate a two-hour wait at my local Pizza Hut.
Da Michele is not hard to find – although it's on a narrow side street in Naples' old town, you'll be able to see and hear dozens of hungry punters gathered outside, waiting for their magic number. Via Cesare Sersale, 1/3; +39 (0)8155 39204; www.damichele.net.
Where to stay
I stayed at Albergo Napolit'amo, where doubles cost from €90. Breakfast is included, there is free internet access and the receptionists are very friendly and knowledgeable. It has a great central location, just five minutes' walk from the port for ferries to Capri and Ischia, close to Naples' most interesting sights such as Piazza del Plebiscito, Castel Nuovo and the atmospheric, chaotic old town, and is about half an hour's walk from Da Michele – far enough for your dinner to go down on the way home!