You might call Milan the Manhattan of Italy, where eating out is a way of life for this fast pace hub. Of course the Milanese cook, but more than any other city in Italy, Milanese enjoy a social dine. Happy hours (aka, the famous aperitivo), and weekend pizzas are trademarks for these foodie folks (yes, even Italians have their foodies).
Before moving to Milan I was warned by natives that Milan among Italians is not known for its cuisine. Pizza is absolutely not a regional speciality. Having experienced a taste of different Italian regions and their individual characteristics – ingredients to dialect, accents, trends, lifestyle, even organized crime – I was about to embark upon an uphill stretch to find the best pizza in Milan.
I knew that Milanese risotto couldn’t compare with that in Veneto; Milanese cannoli couldn’t hold a light to those from Sicily; And Milanese pizza is sheer comedy to Napoletani. Bingo. That was just what I needed to narrow my search. Of the estimated 850 places in Milan to eat a pizza my list of Napoletani pizzerias went from 15 to 4 in one month. I scouted locations and eliminated any pizzeria that included the following: Egyptian cooks, a menu without mozzarella di bufala, pizza priced over 11 euro, pizza with crust beyond 1.5-2 cm high, pizza offered for delivery service, pizza with more than 3-4 ingredients, pizza cooked in an electric oven, and pizza served with chicken. This distinct knowledge of a real pizza Napoletana actually stemmed from a pizza experience while living in San Francisco with a native Italian. Yes, in America. It’s a pizza with regal origins and a history that often vanishes between a melting pot of cultures and varying ingredients. The first and most renowned pizza, Pizza Margherita was served as a request by the Queen of Italy (Margherita of Savoy circa 1889).
The Italian flag of flavors has taken some adventures over the years, contributing to a more extensive menu. But simple remains at the forefront for connoisseurs, and to consider a pizza Napoletana the rules are forever in tact. With a daily line out the door, the long- est running pizzeria remains standing in a corner of Naples. Unparalleled, to this day it serves the very original and only the original pizza margherita (tomatoe, basil and mozzerella di bufala). The dawning of the global pizza era began in these wooden Napoletano ovens where marking the history of a never ending food following. So if you’re not in Naples, what’s a good pizza?
On a winter night calling for warmth, I set out to test the first place on my list: I Capatosta. Translation: very stubborn people from Naples. It was a 10 minute walk from my front door. Seating: 50 stomachs. I scrunched up against the front wall and ordered the Margherita, Peroni alla spina (on tap) and melted into the fresh aroma of flour and basil. After a 45 minute session of indulgence, the last crumb of my Margherita was consumed. Regardless of the crowd (the red necks of Italians) and the service (think Black Friday), the cooks were passionate. It was all about the pizza and only the piz- za; one that stopped me in my tracks. How much better can a pizza get?
Going out for pizza on a Sunday evening after a loungeful day of jour- nals and leisure activities is very traditional for Italians. I decided to take my next pizza on Sunday, a slightly warmer evening and in the company of my Padovano, Stefano. This sec- ond encounter was by far the most ro- mantic with pizza. Normally I would discard a place with multiple locations and certainly one remotely close to commercial. However, Fratelli la Bufala was an exception for being a local fave. A seductive backdrop of dark history and with a refined col- lection of art decor, this band of Napoletani natives held a spot among pizza fans.
The place was packed and we managed to snag a square within minutes (unheard of) against the mozzarella bar. The reds of tomatoes plump and saturated; greens of basil, artichokes and garnishes; shades of white gold purity and freshness of layered cheese and cushions of dough. As I slivered into the thick mozzarella and sliced through the golden pie, I welcomed the next level of pizza. Though the pizza was a real pleaser, apart from the frills of the atmosphere I had a hunch that the best was still to come. As orgasmic as this Diavola was (salame piccante, toma- toes, olive oil, mozzarella), I was already gearing up for the third.
Of course my list of places to try in effort to determine Milan’s best pizza was subject to disagreement regard- less of my dedication to research. When the following Sunday arrived I was putting all research aside and going off sheer instinct, a hidden discovery – a lead from a lo- cal who dodged the radars said “GO THERE! (Vai vai,mangia!)” We booked for Frijenno Magnanno. The setting was like my Nana’s home during the holidays. The oven wooden and roaring was like a winter fireplace. The walls were stone and tables old and heavy, full of happy families and young couples. The lighting emitted tinges of orange and yellow, warm and saturated. Plates were enormous but simple with meats and herbs layering pasta. The pizza arena awaited us in the tavern downstairs. We, myself and Padovano, descended to the lower level against a brick wall covered in black and white photos of Aldo Giuffrè perhaps, the Italian Charlie Chaplin, along with 1950s advertising in Napoletano dialect for flour and olive oil. The scent of olive oil was thick and rich and so pure you could taste it in the air. Twenty-three bites of sweet sausage doused in fresh ground pepper and smothered in ricotta and mozzarella di bufala, buried under a soft hill of oven hot crust, put Ca- patosta to shame. Pizza no. 3 was my no. 1 choice. Three down, one to go. The unearthing pizza outing at Frijenno Magnanno required recovering. And so I decided to take a couple of Sundays off before attacking my final selection.
There we were on a Spring evening surrounded by the stones of a sidestreet neighborhood; dinning outside among the thick aroma and heat of bombastic pizzas at La Taverna, my last shot at Milan’s best pizza. I knew from the moment we arrived, our eyes and necks like owls fixed on pizzas in every direction, that would be a palette experience like none other. This place was all about the pizza. Crust exploding, a perfect rise; marks of passionate ancestral hands imprinted in the folds; steam like a mirage drifting up and into a low cloud of flavors. Olive oil like silk draped over the porcelain platter beneath this goddess of a pie. Visual flavor to this magnitude is a sin. This is no common occurrence. It was though one could consume the pizza visually and be completely fulfilled.
Before raising a fork to make the first scalded bite, I had marked a set of expectations, high. All vanished with a swallow. The winner. When we stepped into La Taverna, it was the closest I’d come to Napoles. This pizza should have been illegal. It was sinfully scrumptious. The name La Taverna (The Tavernh) evokes downstairs; it also connotes to an Italian liberalist Lista Taverna, and an Italian city in Calabria, as well as a small restaurant serv- ing Greek food. It was certainly the best pizza in Milan, thus far.
I am almost discouraged to try others, and confident that La Taverna well represents their regions and serves Mi- lan’s best Napoletana pizza. So what is it exactly that makes this pizza so packed with positives? How can a pizza be so unparalleled in the land of pizza?
I decided to go behind the scenes of La Taverna to get the scoop. Nestled behind a bustling tram and Smart-packed cobbles, a stylish target of men and women socialized under white canopies against a black and white backdrop of Pucinella characters while digesting one of Milan’s top pizzas to aromas of a 15 year old kitchen and the sounds of the mandolin paired with the cello. Adjacent to the outside tables stood a man of medium size, freshly shaved with sharp black hair and an iPhone while seductively passing puffs against a 1600s wooden door. Signor Davide Lannaco of La Taverna was not expecting my arrival. He had recently opened L’altra Taverna directly behind his La Taverna where I had finished dining. I strolled over to catch him for some insight on his locally famous low-profile kitchen. Offered a glass of Limoncello, I parked my Graziella and sipped the yellow liq- uor while the server called Davide to my attention. Here began a casual dual-guessing language exchange on the ins and outs of pizza Napoletana.
“The key to a true pizza Napoletana is simple: fresh and sparse. Mozzarella is the treasure, and if you’re willing to pay an extra piece of pocket for the buf- falo’s milk, you’ll score” – Davide eased into my question about the ingredients. Mozzarella di Bufala which is driven to David’s kitchen each day from a small farm in the Campania region (country- side of Lazio) is moist and slightly bitter with a curding center of textured milk cream, which serves to accent the rich- ness of a thinly sliced prosciutto and dark basil. The milk from marshland buffalo lend this exquiste cheese its top-notch standing. “The Prosciutto, of top quality and delivered daily from Parma is slightly sweet compared to San Danielle, our other preferred meats from a butcher house in Friuli. A world-famous meat producer, San Daneille prosciutto tends to be saltier. Alternative mozzarella is Fior di latte, or Vacca which are slightly creamier and more absorbent of a saltier meat.” – As Davide engaged in the details of his top ingredients, he emphasized their individuals characteristics and the importance for pairing toppings.
These simple and pure ingredients are not only the foundation of the first pizzas in Naples, but the pride and joy that La Taverna, maintaining their kitchen’s reputation and the art of their creation. Apart from these mandatory fresh ingredients, and their simplicity, Davide commanded my attention to the utmost temperamental and distinguishing factor in the making of a real pizza Napoletana: the preparation of the dough. The golden pie. More delicate than a crystal champaign flute is the impasto, or the pizza crust.
“Water from Naples is known to be of lesser quality, and when combined with the flour (one of careful se- lection) it has an unparalleled ability to create texture like no other dough. Essentially, the dirty water has a polishing effect.” And when this mixture is paired with the patience and skill, the results are explosive. The secret to preparing a good dough – what sets the Napoletana pizza apart above all traits – is the proportion and time allotted for rise. Davide seemed nearly religious about the precision of timing to allow for the perfect rise. “If the dough is prepared and immediately sent to the oven, it is being baked prema- turely. As a result, when a pizza in this state is consumed, it continues to expand in the stomach leaving the consumer feeling heavy, unable to enjoy the value of each bite. Furthermore, this leaves one less room for a complemented beer or after dinner digestive. On the contrary, when preparing the dough allowing it to fully rise lends more quality to create a pizza, and when consumed, it is more evenly di- gested.” Thus, pairing well with a beverage and permitting a more orgasmic experience.
After a stolen hour with Davide, drilling him on the real traits of Pizza Napoletana, he offered me their business calendar which dis- played a collection of photographs by a local professional who portrayed the staff in scenes from famous Italian Pulcinella shorts dating back to the 1920s (im- ages featured on the previous page, and opposite). Both Da- vide’s parents are from Naples. In fact one of La Taverna’s piz- zas, the ripieno, is based on a local favorite growing up where Davide would frequent with his father. This specialty is crafted with ricotta and mushroom cream rolled inside the outer crust. Though heavy and mighty fulfilling, the pizza ripieno definitely draws a particular crowd. “In general, catering to young eat- ers and families, the Margherita is a popular favorite as well as the prosciutto crudo.”
La Taverna of 15 years has maintained a loyal crowd of locals and a lucky tourists ranging from young couples to small families, many re- peat customers. His latest spot L’altra Taverna (The other Tavern) attracts a more after-work special, slightly trend- ier crowd offering other kitchen plates beyond the pizza. The atmosphere here is more chic presenting a slightly more romantic dining experience. Pizza-goers are greeted by the famous image (featured on the cover), of Ghisa (a Milanese policeman) greeting the historic Napolitano icon Totó, symbolizing the meeting of two dramatic and culturally opposite characters. This image sets the tone for this out-of-place cuisine where one will inevitably feel captured. Though the pricing remains the same between the two, L’altra Taverna sees more demand for the bufala, and extras (ricotta, salame, variations on toppings) and a preference for the artisan beers (Menebrea, or Baladin).
Davide resides just outside of Milano in Varese and very much enjoys his buzz to Milano. Milano, completely separate world from Naples (some claim “a different Italy”), caters to the eating out mentality. For Davide, a social environment is beneficial to one’s health and to his kitchen. With little advertising, La Taverna and L’altra Taverna are hot spots based on word of mouth and local reviews. One pivotal review came in 2008 when Cor- riere della Sera covered Davide’s pizza and mentioned the rare ripieno crust, which no other place yet produces. He takes great pride in his kitchen staff, mostly young men who have studied the art of pizza Napoletana. A young business man, his motivation is to increase the awareness of quality dinning experiences and with the intimacy that his pizzerias provide. He expersses no interest in expanding his pizza beyond his management, perferring to maintain his work in Milan without creating a chain business. “The more restaurants you open, the likely your quality is to de- crease. I prefer to focus my energy on improving what we have now.”
For all of these reasons, and after some serious pizza experiences, it is safe to say that the best pizza (the pizza Napoletana) in Milano and perhaps throughout the Northern regions lies in the heart and hands of La Taverna. If there is one that can’t be easily reproduces and certainly impossible to to mass produce, it’s the true pizza Napoletana. Though they can be found outside of Naples, pinpointed a “true” pizza napoletana requires a little more than a hungry stomach and nose for richness. The true pizza requires little journey into the culture of this exquisite edible creation.