Da Michelle Report:
I am in Naples now writing this from the lobby of my hotel. I thought I would share my observations while they are fresh instead of waiting until I return to the states.
As soon as my plane landed I went on a march through the labrynthical heart of Naples in search of Da Michelle as my first ever pizza in Naples. I'm taking quite naturally to the rythym of cars, scooters, and pedestrians all ignoring traffic signals and street-sidewalk boundaries to seamlessly share the same space. You get an intuitive understanding for when to speed up, when to slow down, when to get out of the way, and when to assert yourself, and everyone miraculously flows around each other.
And suddenly there it was. A guy in a white coat was lounging in a totally unremarkable doorway smoking and looking distant with a submerged belligerence (Neapolitans seem to wear this look by default). I asked him in Italian if they were open and he expressionlessly motioned me inside. I ordered and ate pizza and observed everything carefully.
Details below, but the big takeaway is this. Judged on taste alone, the Neapolitan pizza I/we can now make is clearly within striking distance of this pizza. When I ate the Da Michelle pizza, my tastebuds felt a rush of familiar tastes and textures - elements I had successfully created at home after many (many, many) experiments and the help of all the good people on this board. This in itself was a shocking, though very pleasant discovery. There would seem to be no mystique-shrouded "super-flavor" that can only be had by selling the home, moving to Naples, and building a brick oven, etc. Essentially, those of us on this board who are making good Neapolitan pizza are already holding the brass ring. Now it's just a matter of continued improvement and personal taste. I'll get more perspective on this hypothesis as I eat at the other well-regarded places over the next few days.
Here is the nitty gritty of what I observed at Da Michelle:
The Finished Pizza
- Bigger and thinner than mine, an easy 12-13 inches+, the cornicione is not significantly higher than the middle. This is reflected in the skin as well, where I did not notice a very large difference between the edge and center.
- The cornicione shows only decent crumb. It actualy looks dense in parts but it tastes light anyway. Nice.
- The tomatoes, cheese, and olive oil are akin to or only slightly better tasting than what we can get access to in the states.
- Relatively sparse sauce and very sparse cheese.
- Nicely tart/lactic tasting crust - wish I could do that.
- Noticable smokey/bitter tang to outside of crust.
- Softness abounds - only the lightest of crispiness to the surface of the crust.
- Identical blonde with black spots look both on top of cornicione _and_ on bottom of pizza, wow!
- Pizza is served uncut, presumably so you can cut/fold it any way you see fit.
- An odd, slap-down on the counter technique was used to form the skin. I couldn't get a good look at it, but it looked different than the back-and-forth technique I've observed on videos of other pizzerias.
- Tons of flour is on hand, and seems to be used fairly liberally in the shaping. It gets all over the floor.
- The final skin consistency makes my brain shout one thing when I see it handled: "Too wet." The dough is not resilient, very pliable, very thin on the counter.
- The skin is dressed on marble. Two big spoons of sauce, cheese, salt, olive oil, basil are put on in that order.
- The skin is then transferred (drug-slid) by hand to a wooden peel. Something struck me as odd though, the peel is too small for the skin. The skin hangs over the side. In fact, the pizzaolo seemed to re-arrange the skin on the peel so it did overhang! The significance of this did not hit me until I was walking back to my hotel lost in thought. He did that on purpose. That way, he does not have to use so much flour on the peel. He "catches" the floppy edge of the skin on the hot oven floor and uses that to drag the skin off the peel. Ingenious!
- The peel is in fact, wood, but not the blonde grain-filled type we are used to seeing. It's a very dark, very hard, and very smooth looking type of wood. I did not notice them dusting it with flour at all.
- Less olive oil was added than I've seen used elsewhere, but the thinner crust still allows the oil to create a soupiness.
- All the guys were wearing San Felice shirts. Maybe they are using the flour too.
- The baking peel appears to be iron, definitely not stainless steel. Like the wood peel it's smaller than the pizza, and this seems to give the desired control by allowing to lift only one side of the pizza then dragging it around to rotate it.
- Sawdust was used to create smoke and the pizzaiolo distinctly held the pizza up in the smoke a few moments before taking it out.
- When placed in the oven, the crust puffs up immediately. This is a hot oven.
- The bake is very fast. It was not very far at all over a minute, if that long. I'm guessing that oven is 1100 degrees.
- The entire staff stopped cooking at one point and did a group shot of espresso the same way college guys do tequila shots. Unclear how this helps the pizza
I went to eat at Trianon afterward but it was closed for oven repair. There was a guy working on it inside and a sign out front. Hopefully they'll reopen this weekend.
More to report from other pizzerias tomorrow.