A Naples pizzeria story

The story of pizzeria Di Matteo in the tale of its owner, from humble origins to UNESCO tribute to Neapolitan pizzaioli.

The “Antica Pizzeria e Friggitoria Di Matteo” is unimpressive from the outside. It looks like a typical workshop opening on a typical alley in Naples historical center, and it’s hard to believe that such a small place had given a huge contribution to the history of Neapolitan pizza.

The owner, Salvatore di Matteo, smiles when it’s mentioned to him. “The hall upstairs has one hundred and fifty seats, and so far it’s enough. But when my family opened, in 1936, pizza was still a street food, to be eaten standing, and the pizzeria was only a countertop, a wooden oven and a window on the street where customers could lean in and ask for their pizzas.”

Things changed little in the postwar period: in a Naples devastated by air bombings pizza was a cheap meal, to be eaten quickly in the street.

“Pizza in Naples was eaten as ‘booklet pizza,’ folded in four to be held while walking,” Mr. Di Matteo explains, “and like any street food it had evolved with some adaptations, like a thick edge to allow people to hold it without soiling their working clothes during their lunch break.”

It was during the economic boom in the 1950s that the pizza became food for restaurants too, to be eaten while seated. Pizzerias started with some small tables on the street, like Pizzeria Di Matteo, where Salvatore Di Matteo’s father, mother and uncle worked.

Meanwhile, in fast-foods’ and take-aways’ America, pizza had evolved into a mass phenomenon and unexpectedly a US President changed Pizzeria Di Matteo’s and Neapolitan pizza’s history.

US President Bill Clinton, who was in Naples for the 1994 G7 summit, wished to taste again the “booklet pizza” he enjoyed in Naples when he vacationed there as a student. It was epic: “It was unplanned, the president was visiting San Lorenzo monumental compound nearby. Security was airtight, to the point that my father could not reach his own pizzeria.” Images of the 42nd US President eating with his hands the pizzeria Di Matteo “booklet pizza” were on the world news and triggered a re-discovery of Neapolitan pizza. Now the crowd of tourists flowing on via dei Tribunali, the Decumanus Maximus of Naples ancient Roman city, can choose among dozens of pizzerie, but Salvatore Di Matteo is not worried of competition “On the contrary, every pizzeria, every different family of pizza-makers has their own pizza. With the same ingredients, a few meters away from each other, each of them can make a completely different pizza.”

Family tradition is at the root of the “pizzaiolo” art: “I ahve grown up among the flavor and taste of pizzas, but somehow I absorbed them even before being born,” jokes Salvatore di Matteo, “Actually, for a matter of hours I wasn’t born in the pizzeria: my mother worked together with my father, and there was no maternity leave in a family owned enterprise!”

Flavors and tastes which are the ones given by pizza’s ingredients, the typical products of the land that are now recognized and protected by geographical indications “I feel a special care for this topic, I am also a testimonial for a project called ‘Eccellenze del Sud’ [“Southern Excellences”]. Protection of geographical indications is paramount for the future of the pizza or any other gastronomical product that make unique and famous the Neapolitan and Italian cuisines. But it works both ways: using high quality ingredients makes the pizza a representative of the land, with its agricultural and gastronomical tradition.” The pizza success becomes an incentive for the survival of traditional economy of the region, which implies protection of its unique environment and landscape.

But there are also ingredients that are anatema for a Neapolitan pizzaiolo: “Never, never, not even as a provocation, pineapple. on pizza. Just why? Would you put a banana on a kebab?” cuts short Mr. De Matteo.

“Neapolitan pizza is made unique by ingredients like San Marzano tomato DOP, the buffalo mozzarella DOC, La pizza napoletana è resa unica da ingredienti come il pomodoro San Marzano DOP, la mozzarella di bufala DOC, the Apennines’ fior di latte STG, the provola di Agerola DOP, the pomodorino del piennolo DOP. Then we have the yellow tomato from Vesuvius, the friarielli, Neapolitan sausage ‘at knife’s point’… The pizza represents the excellence of Southern Italy, or simply the Italian excellence. Thus mushrooms too, like porcini of Central Italy, Emilia’s Parmigiano Reggiano, Friuli’s San Daniele ham. The richness of Italian cuisine is actually the diversity of traditions within a few kilometres areas.”

Recently Neapolitan pizza has received the UNESCO prized recognition. “It is an important acknowledgement,” underscores Salvatore Di Matteo “because UNESCO has recognized the importance not of the final product, the Neapolitan pizza, but of the work technique of Neapolitan pizzaioli, which has been listed as intangible world heritage. It is acknowledged that what is unique is not the pizza, but our way of making it.”

It’s an art that has to be taught in the correct way, and so far it has been handed down from the pizzaioli to their apprentices. “I wish that UNESCO recognition will lead to a State controlled institution that will safeguard quality and future for the youth starting this job, the future of Neapolitan pizza.”

A future that Salvatore Di Matteo hopes will keep following the tradition. “We hope to go on this way, our tradition has proved to be able to adjust to a world that has changed enormously since 1936. Presidents and celebrities have come and gone, but the pizzeria in Naples remains the window on the Decumanus: whoever leans in to buy a pizza, looks over the entire landscape of quality products of our region and of Italy.”

This article was written for the volume “Terreno Fertile” by the Embassy of Italy in Turkey in 2018

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Piero Castellano

Piero Castellano

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Photojournalist and writer, traveler, biker, based in Genoa, Italy.