Pizza, Italy's most beloved export, is at its finest in the sun-drenched land of Naples. Neapolitans are enormously proud and staunchly defend their contribution to the world as the true, original authentic.
No one knows for certain where the first pizza was served. The Greeks, who founded Naples over 2,500 years ago, baked flat bread on hot stones, seasoning it with herbs, tiny fish, grated cheese and lard or olive oil.
Tomatoes did not arrive in Italy until the 16th century. At first, they were believed to be poisonous, so they were only used ornamentally. The first time tomatoes appeared in an Italian kitchen was in the late 1700s when a monk included a recipe for them in his book, The Gallant Cook.
Since then, tomatoes have become synonymous with pizza, and to Neapolitans true pizza consists of white crust, tomatoes seasoned with salt, and fresh mozzarella — preferably made from water- buffalo milk which is tangier and richer than cow's-milk mozzarella. A drizzle of olive oil and a few leaves of fresh basil finish the classic variety preferred by Neapolitans, Pizza Margherita. Pizza Marinara, the second-favorite Neapolitan-style pizza, is prepared simply with tomatoes, dried oregano, a thin slice or two of fresh garlic, a drizzle of olive oil and baked in a flash in an extremely hot wood-burning oven.
To protect the good name of classic pizza, a society was formed 20 years ago in Naples against the blasphemous crusts and infidel toppings that dared (!) to call themselves by the same name — a noble but lost cause which, no doubt, explains why you can find a fairly authentic Neapolitan pizza in the United States (especially in New York where America's first pizzeria is still in operation on Spring Street) but will be hard-pressed to find a barbecue chicken pizza or shrimp and broccoli pizza in Naples.
Pizza's modest ingredients and uncomplicated preparation led to mass production and the franchised mentality that has developed as an insidious dimension of American culture since the 1960s. But pizza's simple elegance became a casualty of low-quality ingredients with long shelf life and predictable, cookie-cutter uniformity. Although convenient, filling and cheap fare — particularly for college students or families where a $10 pie goes a long way — it wasn't until the 1980s when Wolfgang Puck's California restaurant, Spago, popularized "gourmet" pizza that a shift back to hand-tossed doughs with flavorful, quality ingredients became the selling point.
What qualifies as great pizza is only a slightly less heated debate than the barnyard dance currently underway between Democrats and Republicans — and a lot of brand loyalty exists no matter how unsavory the product is to someone else.
For example, LaRosa's successful empire indicates strong local support despite the faction (which I am partisan to) that thinks their pizza's sauce is too sugary sweet. Papa John's wins my vote for favorite franchise pizza, which has evoked many an argument when deciding on a convenient, inexpensive choice.
To divert our attention momentarily from the fools and fanatics spinning the race for the Oval Office, we gathered a few pizza lovers — two teens, a college student and two adults who think they know their 'za — to conduct a taste test of our own. We turned to the architects of pizza, the Neapolitans, for ingredient criteria: a crust that is neither too thick or too thin with a texture that's both crisp and chewy; pizza sauce that is house made or, in the case of a Pizza Margherita, topped with fresh tomatoes; flavorful cheese that is neither too generous nor too stingy.
Though there are many small family-run pizzerias in Cincinnati, each deserving a chance for a more comprehensive taste test, my lean expense account allowed me to choose from five individually operated pizzerias that advertise "secret family sauces," "hand-tossed crust" or "fresh, never canned." We tasted two with a loyal following in the 'burbs and three longtime favorites closer to the city center. And as the Neapolitan blueprint dictated, we ordered either Pizza Margherita or a basic Pizza Marinara (cheese pizza). We rated crust, sauce, cheese and overall quality between 1 and 10.
As expected, there were a few things everyone agreed upon, and also as expected, there were more disagreements, which soon deteriorated into name-calling and door-slamming. Here are the results of five people with five pizzas, listed in alphabetical order.
Adriatico's New York Style Pizza (3205 Jefferson Ave., Clifton; 513-281-4344)
Blamed with adding 15 extra pounds to UC's average freshmen, this pizzeria does a brisk carryout business in the campus area. Everything from sauce to the garlic-laden dough is made in-store daily, and the produce is fresh and crisp. The Bearcat Pizza (a huge 30 slices that is said to feed 12 coeds or four members of the football team) is the best-selling pizza.
Adriatico's cheese pizza with hand-tossed dough received our panel's second highest score of 8. Four of us loved the chewy, garlicky crust, while one couldn't stand the amount of garlic (obviously a person with questionable taste) and refused to sit too close to the rest of us. Sauce was spicy and not too sweet with a distinct fresh taste. Amount of cheese was proportionate to the sauce without being too stretchy or stringy.
Constantini's Pizzeria (900 Main St., Milford; 513-965-8100)
None of our panel had ever tried a slice of Constantini's pizza, but I was aware it had developed diehard fans on the East Side since it opening in 1998. Constantini's claims its success is the quality of fresh ingredients and its flavorful, homemade sauce.
This pizza was all over the map for our panel's preferences, but the combined average score came in at 6.5 The sauce indeed was one of the favorites and prompted a "guess the secret ingredient" contest for 20 minutes (fennel?). Crust was thin and crisp but not outstanding; cheese was a little on the lean side.
Fratelli's Pizza (6890 Tylersville Road, West Chester; 513-777-5061)
Fratelli's was another first for our panel (we're all urbanites, and West Chester is practically a field trip), but we've heard from our suburban friends that this is the place to go for authentic, New York-style pizza. The family that owns Fratelli's say they hold the recipes for the crust and sauce under lock and key and keep a discerning eye for quality toppings.
Unfortunately, the sauce not only didn't impress our panel, it was described by more than one as "sour" and "bad." The crust was overly crisp and burnt on the edges and combined with the sauce, overwhelmed any flavor that might have been balanced by the cheese. Fratelli's pizza was the only one of the five that we did not finish and it scored an overall average rating of 4.5.
Pomodori's (121 W. McMillan, Clifton Heights; 513-861-0080)
Pomodori's distinction is in the hand-tossed, wood-fired crusts and the gourmet style specialty pizzas it offers at its two locations. This was another pizza that scored equally low and high with our panel for an average combined score of 7.5. The wood-fired crust did make a noticeable difference, but its crispy chewy texture was favored by the adults more than the younger panelists. Ditto for the fresh salsa-like tomatoes and basil. One teenager asked, "Didn't the history lesson state tomatoes were considered poisonous?" We all loved the creamy rounds of buffalo mozzarella, which even the teenagers agreed was not "too weird."
ZZ's Pizza (2401 Gilbert Ave., Walnut Hills; 513-559-0926)
ZZ's is one of those quiet, small, off-the-strip establishments that we often forget about when we're craving pizza, but it goes to the front of the rolodex now after receiving our panel's overall favorite with an 8.5 score. The crust was chewy, not too thick or thin with a sourdough tang. Fresh sliced tomatoes, garlic, olive oil and a blend of mozzarella and provolone (which gave it a slightly smoky flavor without detracting from the other ingredients) integrated beautifully to leave even the most discriminating Neapolitan satisfied. ©