At midday, in a side street off Naples’ car-clogged Corso Umberto I, a small crowd starts to gather at a nondescript doorway. Twenty years ago, you might have spotted Diego Maradona here; now, during the World Cup, there are banners strung from rooftops portraying the pudgy genius who led the local football team to two league titles in the late 1980s. Half a century earlier, SSC Napoli’s first great idol, Attila Sallustro, used to come here as well.
Da Michele is a humble pizzeria, a bustling, historic shrine to simplicity. It offers two pizzas – marinara, with tomato, oregano and garlic, and margherita, with tomato, mozzarella and basil – in three sizes. It has beer and Coke. That is all.
Beyond the grey marble tables in the packed dining room, the pizzaiolo spins another pizza from slow-fermented sourdough. Swirled briefly with San Marzano tomatoes, sprinkled with local mozzarella and anointed with oil, it is plunged into the wood-fired oven, emerging a couple of minutes later as lunch. The result is a soft, pliable, digestible crust, crowned with glorious bubbles of flavour.
My companion is Giuseppe Mascoli, a London-based Neapolitan and owner of Franco Manca, one of the few London pizzerias to take it as seriously as Signor Condurro, who owns Da Michele. Giuseppe’s zeal is unbounded: he even has a pizza oven in his Positano home to perfect his recipes.
The original Franco Manca in Brixton – there is an outpost in Chiswick now (pictured) – was inspired by Da Michele. It offers more choice but the philosophy is the same: sit down if you will, but remember that pizza is, at its best, a sublime snack, not a restaurant meal. And you may well have to queue.
Franco Manca’s sourdough, made from organic Italian flour, rises gently, for 20 hours or so, giving it a savour when cooked which puts lesser pizzas to shame, as does its cornicione – the crust – which is a deeply rewarding chew. The ingredients are impeccable: San Marzano tomatoes from the Amalfi coast, olive oil from Sicily and organic mozzarella from Alham Wood Organics in Somerset.
Da Michele and Franco Manca are timely reminders that fast food need not be junk food, nor need it be expensive: a pizza and a beer at Da Michele costs around €6. The depressing litany of additives in snack foods performs three functions: obscuring inferior ingredients, prolonging shelf life and turning kitchens into skill-free zones. Take the mysterious “flour improvers” in mass-produced bread, for instance. This may be naïve of me, but why are they necessary? The only improvement you can make to organic flour from Naples’ Antico Molino Caputo, which Franco Manca uses, is to turn it into perfect pizza.