“Buona Sera! Come in!” cries a waiter, gesturing me to an empty seat beneath an autographed photo of a giddy-looking Sophia Loren. The first thing I notice is the fire: a wood-burning hearth the size of a Fiat that is glowing bright, bright orange. It is a raging inferno, completely out of control yet the chef is stuffing more logs inside, apparently tempting his fate. A potent aroma of melting cheese and blistered dough smacks me in the face.
The menu lists a dozen different pizzas—only one size of anything. I ask the waiter, “Margherita? Or something else?”
“Margherita,” he says, snapping the menu from my hands and rushing away before I have a chance to see what the other options are exactly.
I look around. The Margherita—tomato sauce, a few basil leaves and oozy blobs of mozzarella—is what everyone around me is feverishly tearing into. It takes only a few minutes for my pie to emerge from the blazing hearth. When it arrives, the edges are still smoking. There’s an ashy tang to the crust and a brightness in the sauce that I’ve not tasted before, and it doesn’t take more than a bite to know I love it. Could Michele or Sorbillo or any of those other favorites really be any better than this?
The next morning, everywhere I glance, I see a pizzeria. Naples is a funhouse of mirrors, but instead of mirrors, it’s pizzerias. I follow a few twists and turns through the crooked cobblestone streets to arrive at Pizzeria Sorbillo (via Tribunali 32), where a fire like the one the night before rages in an igloo-shaped oven. Old ladies blow air kisses at one another, raising their wine glasses.
My pizza—one size fits all, about 14 inches and the norm everywhere I go—refuses to be contained by the plate it’s served on. Like a magnet, the charred, misshapen crust quickly droops onto the surface of the table. The dough smells vibrant, inebriating, alive. And when I take a bite, although I’m expecting goodness, the cheese takes me by surprise. It’s the creamiest mozzarella I’ve ever imagined, almost like milk. What happened next, I can’t recall. The next thirty minutes are a blur.
I’m now waddling down the street—stuffed and delirious, no more than two blocks away from Sorbillo—when I hear what sounds like a party. I look over and see Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente (via Tribunali 120). I can’t possibly eat another bite—but I’ve been spotted.
“Buon giorno! Come in!” And I’m lead by the arm downstairs toward the merriment, into a cave-like basement filled mostly with businessmen, ties loosened, jackets perfectly tailored, hand-torn pizzas littering their tables. A few moments later, feeling what amounts to a runner’s high, I muster the enthusiasm to declare the president’s Margherita also very good, but too heavily laden with cheese to be my favorite.
Two days in, I finally try the infamous Antica Pizzeria da Michele (via Cesare Sersale 1-3). After a 20-minute wait, I’m instructed to sit with six bedraggled college students from Bologna at a table built for four. Their English isn’t any better than my non-existent Italian, but we become fast friends on a shared mission. The staff—grumpy old men dressed in hospital-style white shirts and hats—barks at us (at everyone) like prison guards. They strong-arm us to order immediately, then hover (even nudge us) when they think we’re eating too slowly. We all agree the pizza is good, especially the tomato sauce. But overall, it’s not nearly as good as Sorbillo, and definitely not worth the abuse.
For days, I beat a path through dozens of friendly, welcoming pizzerias, some fancy, some merely windows in an alley. Ultimately, I taste the most sublime tomato sauce at Donna Margherita (vico II Alabardieri 5). And I impulsively clap my hands when I taste the city’s best crust at Brandi (Salita S. Anna di Palazzo 1-2), the place where the Margherita pizza was coined circa 1880 (the pizzeria originally opened a hundred years earlier under a different name).
But the best overall? I have to side with Sorbillo.