There are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of pizzerias in the world. Trying to crown one place the best in the world is an absurd task and a fool’s errand. There are an infinite number of varieties and once you start evaluating toppings and specialty pizzas it’s impossible to make a direct comparison between one pizza and the next. But if you just consider classic Neapolitan style pizza without toppings, you can probably narrow the world’s best pizzerias down to the low hundreds.
One place that almost always makes it onto world’s best short lists is Da Michele, a family run pizzeria that’s been serving up Neapolitan pies since 1870, right after Italy became a unified country. Last week I was on a cruise that stopped in Naples for just half a day. My wife wanted to take an excursion to Pompeii but I wanted pizza.
I read that Julia Roberts ate at Da Michele in “Eat, Pray, Love” and concluded that Da Michele was probably a tourist trap. I normally avoid such places but I wanted to see if the hype was justified.
My wife took our 2-year-old to Pompeii and my 4-year-old and I turned up at Da Michele just as they opened at 10.30 a.m. on a Sunday morning. At midday, the place can be a zoo, but in the morning it’s very quiet. It’s an ordinary looking place and the moment I saw an old man who later introduced himself as Luigi Condurro, (see photo above) dressed in a shirt, tie and white jacket, stoking the wood fired oven, I knew the place wasn’t a tourist trap.
Luigi is one of Michele’s four sons who preside over the place. They serve two types of pizza – margherita or Bianca, with no toppings. Normal size pizzas are 4 euros, and a large is just 5. A big bottle of water goes for 2 euros. This is a place that could be charging much more but isn’t.
We start with a large margherita and it looks amazing coming out of the oven, but it doesn’t appear to look different than other wood fired margheritas I’ve had in the U.S. and other parts of Italy. After taking a few photos of this round little work of art on our table, we sliced it up and dove in.
After my first bite, I had to stifle a laugh. Why was I so quick to assume that this place was overrated? The look on my face as I ate this remarkable pie must have been one of shear bliss. I couldn’t stop smiling. I’ve never taken ecstasy but both Leo and I were sort of overcome with happiness as we savored the perfect blend of crust, sauce and Buffalo mozzarella.
“This pizza is outrageous!” my son said, and he was right. It was ridiculously good. The sauce was sweet and a bit tangy, just right. My son normally tosses crusts, but in this case, he devoured every delicious bite. And the cheese was so good that when a clump of it oozed off of my son’s first slice and onto the floor, he wanted to scoop it up and eat it – and I almost let him. We downed our large margherita and decided to order a regular size Bianca. It was almost as good and we finished every last morsel until we were in a very happy little food coma.
How do I evaluate this pie against some of my favorite places in the U.S. like Joe & Pat’s in Staten Island and Frank Pepe’s in New Haven? It’s difficult to say without tasting them side-by-side, and even harder because I usually get clams or sausage on my pie at those places. But there’s something about having a pizza prepared by Luigi in the birthplace of pizza that makes this place special.
But what made the experience even better was the bill. The large margherita was 5 euros, the normal Bianca was 4 and our large bottle of water was 2, for a grand total of 11 euros. An individual size pizza in trendy places on the east cost can go for more than that alone. In the U.S. these days, Neapolitan style pizza is trendy and you pay accordingly, but in Naples, it’s an everyday food, no different than bread or water.
Da Michele could have very easily turn itself into a tourist trap, catering to foreigners, but instead, it’s still a neighborhood place, where people stop in to pick up pizzas for a song. I don’t know if it or anyplace else can be called the best in the world, but if you consider both price and quality, this place may take the prize.