I'm curious what you think leoparding should be like in your opinion.
Since Neapolitan pizza is a cultural heritage of the people of Naples, one should attempt to understand the issue of leoparding, at least initially, from their point of view. Within the last 4 years, I have read many Neapolitan pizza reviews by Italian/Neapolitan food journalists. I do not recall a single review wherein the reviewer mentioned or analyzed the leoparding on a pizza.
Has a pizza, in Naples, ever been professionally known to be a better pizza on the account of its leopard spots? What is the so-called "leopard spot" or "leoparding" to Neapolitans? What is it supposed to look like, feel like, taste like? Is it an integral part of the Neapolitan pizza or is it incidental? Is it a hallmark of the Neapolitan pizza?—which is often used by many to superficially distinguish Neapolitan from non-Neapolitan pizzas. Do people of Naples consider leoparding a normative characteristic of the Neapolitan pizza? If yes, what is its value: cosmetic, gustatory, or else? These are questions that need to be answered by a professional pizzaiolo who has in-depth knowledge of the Neapolitan pizza tradition. The Neapolitans that I have communicated with on this matter tell me that leoparding is a highly misunderstood facet of Neapolitan pizza. Perhaps my opinion on this matter is just as misconstrued. As an amateur pizzaiolo, this is an issue that I can not quite put my finger on. It is ostensibly riddled with certain ambiguities, indecisiveness, randomness.
At this stage of my inquiry, I am of the tentative belief that leoparding is perchance of less fundamental gastronomical value than limited evaluative value. Yet, to judge a Neapolitan pizza solely on the basis of its leoparding sometimes or oftentimes amounts to judging a book by its cover. Even when the leoparding appears to be decorous, the texture and/or flavor of the baked dough maybe deficient. Conversely, when the leoparding, not browning, is absent or almost absent, the pizza may have excellent textural and gustatory qualities.
One problem is that, it does not make sense to me to talk about leoparding without having a clear idea as to what it is that we are looking for. It may seem inane or even comical to set forth a technical definition and description(s) of the leopard spots in order to be able to identify them. We are advised that not every kind of dark spot is a leopard spot, and that they can take on, within a limit, different shapes and sizes, which make it difficult to give a satisfactory, catch-all description of them because of their supposed randomness or variability. Criterial descriptions often tend to be limited, in many ways reflecting the describers’ practices and preferences, ruling out as much as they include.
Accordingly, viewed from one perspective, I rather lay off or play down this issue of leoparding as superficial or potentially misleading, especially when all I have is a picture of a Neapolitan pizza. However, viewed from another perspective, the issue is of substance. It is not that I am ambivalent about this subject matter, but that I believe there are more fundamental issues at stake than being obsessively preoccupied with attaining leopard spots, sometimes even at the cost of neglecting the texture and flavor of the end product. In other words, in my opinion, there are other vital issues that should take precedence before one can meaningfully reflect on the issue of leoparding
. Back in my college years, I had a philosophy instructor who advised me, "In pursuing your college education, aim for knowledge, not grade. Grades do not necessarily demonstrate that you have achieved understanding. If you study for knowledge, the grade will come automatically." Likewise, perhaps it would be wise, particularly for a beginner, to primarily concentrate her/his efforts on the fundaments of dough production. According to Ciro Salvo, Neapolitan dough does not happen by just mixing the ingredients and letting the dough ferment for a period of time. It takes an appreciable amount of knowledge, experience, skills, and sensitivity to be able to make Neapolitan pizza per his vision.
As such, I think it would be prudent, particularly for an aspiring pizzaiolo such as myself, to focus primarily on the developmental aspects of making Neapolitan dough while placing more emphasis on factors such as, just to name a few, "dough strength" (without which a commercial pizzaiolo’s job can be a nightmare) and "texture" and "flavor" of the baked dough (which take considerable amount of time for an aspiring pizzaiolo to develop enough sensitivity to discerningly evaluate them). Then, secondarily, one can focus on the leoparding, which, under certain circumstances, can be used as a telltale, making certain revelations about how and under what conditions the dough may have been developed and/or baked.
For whatever it is worth, let me share with you some interesting observations a Neapolitan friend of mine made recently about the leopard spots (macchie di leopardo
). While he is not a professional pizzaiolo, he has limited experience in making Neapolitan pizzas, and he has examined the pizzas of a multitude number of pizzerias in Naples, where he has been living all his life for the past 57 years. His observations may not have professional value; nonetheless, they may have normative value, i.e., how Neapolitans, naturally not all, view the leoparding on their pizzas. Unfortunately, I can not say that I fully understood his ideas because of the language barrier.
First, he implicitly let me know that this is not a straightforward matter. Then, he made some correlations between the leopard spots and various conditions under which Neapolitan dough ripens. He also mentioned the effects of warm/cold fermentation, long fermentation, dough temperature, and oven management. Next, he seemed to make a distinction, not necessarily a separation, between the "leopard spots" and "burnt blisters", and sometimes between "well baked spots" and "charred blisters", in addition to "leoparding" and "browning". I am not clear on the distinctions he made, but I think he tried to tell me that burnt/charred blisters, depending on their sizes and distribution, are not considered leopard spots. He stated, "Let's say that without an evenly distributed amount of well cooked spots the neapolitan customer would send back his/her pizza." Then he added, "If you see a large, let's say over half centimeter in diameter, charred blister, that would indicate an over leavened pizza which has been also badly cooked." At last, he expressed to me that, if dark matter is smeared all over your finger tips after you are done with eating your pizza, then something is wrong. If pieces of crumbled chars precipitate on your plate and the table surface around it, then something is wrong. If you taste charcoal in your mouth, then something is wrong. He concluded his observations by advising me to bother with scraping the tomato sauce to see what lies thereunder. Good day!