Paolo Tullio: A ho-hum, soggy effort
Via Chiaia 226,
Published 11/09/2010 | 05:00
You've heard me say it before, I know, but the gastronomic home of the pizza is Naples.
Flat breads have been cooked on stones for millennia, the ancient Greeks did it, and the Romans copied an Etruscan version called picta -- not a million miles away in sound from the word we use today. But none of these variants would look like a modern pizza, for one reason. It wasn't until the early 17th century that tomatoes became part of the European diet.
Explorers of the New World had brought back tomatoes to Europe a century earlier, but they were regarded as poisonous and used as table decoration. It was the poor people of Naples who were the first to take a chance. They boiled up the tomatoes, hoping that this would break down any toxins, and put the resulting sauce on flat bread. The pizza as we know it was born.
Two years ago, I was in Naples to try the pizzas in Fratelli la Bufala, a pizzeria that has branches in New York, Madrid and elsewhere. The pizzas were acceptable, but no more than that. At the time I kept saying to myself, "This is most peculiar, a ho-hum pizza in Naples." It was, I felt, a little shocking -- a bit like discovering that your favourite restaurant has no chef but buys in ready meals for microwaving.
This year I was back again, and I had in mind Pizzeria Brandi -- the oldest pizzeria in Naples, founded during the Kingdom of Naples in 1780. Not only is it the longest established, it's also famous for having invented the pizza Margherita in 1889. This arrangement of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil leaves makes the three colours of the Italian flag -- red, white and green. It was created for the wife of Victor Emmanuel, the first king of a united Italy, and her name was Margherita.
So I'm sitting having an expensive glass of beer in Italy in the Galleria Umberto, one of Europe's very first shopping malls, built in 1890. It's a vast marbled edifice, soaring five or six storeys to a glass ceiling and it's full of very expensive shops.
Anyway, I'm talking to the barman and I ask him how far it is to Brandi. "Forgive me for saying this," he replied, "but I suggest you give it a miss. They have a wonderful reputation, but the pizzas are poor." He left and a man at a nearby table turned said: "Don't mind him. The pizzas are good in Brandi."
With this conflicting advice, Marian Kenny and I strolled up towards the beautiful Piazza del Plebiscito, where the ancient pastry and coffee house Gambrinus sits on a corner, and then up Via Chiaia, a narrow pedestrianised street with the sort of shops that are hard to resist. About 100m up on the right, you'll find Pizzeria Brandi.
We got there about seven and asked for a table. "We're not open till 7.30," we were told.
"Can we have a drink and wait?"
"Sorry, no sir. We're still setting up. 7.30 we open."
We spent half an hour doing a bit of mild shopping and came back at 7.30pm on the dot, to find most of the tables already occupied by diners. Maybe they were friends of the family and, unlike us, were allowed an early start.
We took an outside table and looked at the menu. For all its fame and history, the pizzas are not expensive to Irish eyes -- they're all in the €7 to €12 range. However, Brandi is the home of the half-bottle. We wanted a glass of white wine and were told only a half-bottle was available. Then, I asked for a large bottle of sparkling water and was told they only had half-bottles. Not a great start, then.
A lone guitarist set up and began the usual litany of Neapolitan songs -- 'Come Back to Sorrento', 'Reginella', 'Catari', 'Oi Mari', 'Malafemmina' -- (my request) -- 'Funiculì, Funiculà' and, bizarrely, 'I Left my Heart in San Francisco'. I could see the hideous prospect of the whole tourist experience opening up before me. All we needed now was a peripatetic vendor of roses and a pleading mendicant to complete the tourist picture.
We'd come for pizzas, we'd hung around waiting for pizzas, so that was what we ordered: a mushroom pizza for Marian and Capricciosa for me. The half-bottles arrived and we waited, watching an interminable line of people who hadn't booked being turned away.
If these were regular customers, that would be a good sign, but they were all foreigners, which meant that Pizzeria Brandi doesn't have to try very hard. What does it matter if they fail to please? Those customers won't be coming back anyway. And there are hordes of new ones begging to be let in.
The pizzas arrived and they were okay. Not any better than you'd get in Dublin, and as for Marian's mushroom pizza, you really had to look to find the mushrooms. I had peas on my Capricciosa, which I've never encountered before. But fillings aside, the pizzas were undercooked and soggy -- precisely what you wouldn't expect in this city of expert pizza makers.
The waiter who had refused us entry came over. "Are you enjoying the pizzas?" he asked.
"Not a lot," I replied.
He had a look of theatrical surprise: "What don't you like?"
"They're under-cooked," I said. "We always serve them soft," he said and went away.
We ate what we could, had a coffee and left, paying a bill of €34, which, trust me, in Italy is top-end prices for pizzas. Am I discouraged? Not a bit, I promise you I will find a pizzeria in Naples that will prove my contention that the best pizzas are to be found in this city. Sadly, I now know they are not to be found in either Brandi or in Fratelli La Bufala.
Value for money: 6/10