See Naples and dine

Simple tastes ... Naples' ovens are wood fired.
Simple tastes ... Naples' ovens are wood fired. Photo: Corbis

Paola Totaro returns to the city of her birth, in the shadow of Vesuvius, where a tightly-held culinary history is fuelled by fire.

'We live in an age," noted one of my London neighbours wryly, "when pizza arrives at your home before the police."

"Not in Napoli," retorted my 11-year-old, quick as a flash. "Real pizza comes out of a wood fire; never, never from a box."

For us Neapolitans, la vera pizza - true pizza - is one of the joys of life: simple, fresh flavours that evoke the essence of this ancient city as vividly as a glimpse of Vesuvius, the sensuous mounds of Capri and the surrounding glorious, half-moon bay.

Heading out for pizza on the night of arrival "home" has become a ritual, a kind of gastronomic shoehorn that helps us slip comfortably into Neapolitan mode. That first pizza has also become a slightly superstitious mood-setter; if the splash of fragrant, ripened tomatoes, buffalo-milk mozzarella and fresh basil leaves turn the centre into a heavenly, doughy juice and the lightly charred crust holds firm, all will be well with our visit.

The truth is that in Naples, city of my birth, I've yet to have a bad pizza experience. The variety is never-ending - from the classic Margherita to the array of more adventurous varieties sprinkled with regional cheeses and seasonal vegetables such as the Neapolitan greens known as friarielli, local mushrooms or peppery rocket - but the execution is always simple, sparse, fresh.

Though it's hard to go wrong, there is a sure-fire way to ensure you're eating the best pizza: choose a pizzeria that displays the distinctive "Vera Pizza Napoletana" sign. They're hard to miss and show Pulcinella, Naples' most famous 17th-century commedia dell'arte character (antecedent of old Punch) wielding a green pizza paddle with a bright red pizza on it.

In these pizzerias and restaurants, the dough will always be made the day before to traditional recipes, allowed to rise for 10 to 15 hours and then stretched and beaten into shape by a pizzaiolo, who will have trained on the job for two to three years before becoming a fully fledged artisan. La vera pizza, of course, will always be cooked in a brick, wood-fuelled oven, never an electric one.

This symbol of tradition emerged in the 1980s when a group of artisanal pizzaiolo families rebelled against the invasion of the fast-food industry, frozen pizzas and the Americanisation of the dish. They launched a campaign - soon to be emulated in other regions - to protect their city's best-known dish.

At the time, Antonio Pace, one of Naples' best known pizzaioli (his restaurant Da Ciro remains one of the best), explained it this way to Corriere Della Sera: "We are fighting nobody, we just want to affirm our ancient traditions. We are against the cultural and commercial deformation of our pizza and against its industrialisation; the ready-to-eat and frozen pizzas sold in supermarkets have nothing to do with the original ones."

It took years of hard work - and the robust patronage of a socialist mayor, Antonio Bassolino, who later became a minister in the national government - to ensure that this early "real-food" campaign triggered the setting of standards and internationally accepted accreditation, defining and protecting the brand of Vera Pizza Napoletana, or true Neapolitan pizza.

In the early days, there were just 20 pioneering members of Vera Pizza Napoletana, among them pizzerias I remember from my childhood, such as Salvatore at Mergellina. Now, there are hundreds who proudly display the sign throughout Italy and abroad.

For a change, try the calzoni, feather-light dough filled with ricotta and greens or a sparing amount of mozzarella and tomato and doubled over. Skip lunch one day and indulge in fritto napoletano, bite-size delicacies of fresh pizza dough deep-fried with seasonal vegetables or stuffings, from pancetta to mozzarella and smoked provola cheese. They sound heavy but incredibly, wonderfully, they're not: the only rule is they must be eaten immediately and very hot.

Where do pizza purists eat when in Naples? Here are my favourites, enjoyed with familial pizza lovers, who never tire of reuniting around a dish.

Ristorante Mattozzi

This is my mother's favourite, one of Naples' best-known restaurants, run by a family who have been making pizza for 150 years in the heart of the well-heeled Via De Mille shopping district. On weekends, chattering queues snake from the restaurant on to the street. You can't book but service is efficient and breezy and the pizza and fritto napoletano unparalleled. "There's a great variety but thankfully Mattozzi stays with the classics," my mother says. "Always fresh ingredients and none of those obscene combinations of toppings done to please tourists."

Via Vilangieri 16 80121; +39 081 416 378.

Da Pasqualino Antica Pizzeria

I spent an unforgettable birthday night here last winter with rain sheeting outside, warmed by wood burning in the pizza oven. It was a Sunday night, a football game was on the big TV and Napoli was playing. We barracked for the team with the pizzaiolo, who raced up the staircase, apron covered in flour, to howl with joy when his team scored. Two pizzas and a pleasant bottle of local white will cost less than €25 ($30). What this pizzeria lacks in decor is made up for in spades by its delectable seasonal pizzas. My favourite is the one with friarielli and mozzarella, while my husband swears by the one with salsiccia piccante (a fiery salami). My friend Pasquale eats only the Margherita.

Piazza Sannazzaro 79, 80122; +39 081 681 524.

Reginella

Perched on the roof of a stunning old villa on the Posillipo hillside, Reginella has a view across the Gulf of Naples to Vesuvius and Capri, and beyond, that encapsulates Goethe's "see Naples and die" comment. Expect to pay a little more here for great pizzas, wonderful fritto misto and fresh seafood among huge, lively tables of families eating and drinking outdoors - bookings are essential. This is my Uncle GianLuigi's favourite.

Via Posillipo 45, 80123; +39 081 575 4020.

Dal Delicato

I can't count how many times I've been here - as a kid, a teenager, a new mum (my youngest at just 12 weeks was quiet for a whole meal, watching the ceiling fans turn one lazy summer's evening). It's best to sit outside in summer, though, as the ovens are in the dining room. The waiters have all been there a lifetime and are Napoletani from central casting. I'm partial to their marinara pizza, and the beer is always icy cold. They do a fantastic calzone, too. It's right by Mergellina marina, which is a great place for a post-dinner stroll and gelato. (Incidentally, in Naples a marinara is not a seafood pizza but one of the oldest traditional varieties, similar to the Margherita, with tomato sugo and the addition of olive oil, garlic and oregano.)

Largo Sermoneta 34, 80121; +39 081 667 047.

No pizza hunt can be complete without a foray into Spaccanapoli, the oldest 'burb of the city. Here you will find the smallest and most crowded pizzerias in the maze of alleys and lanes criss-crossing the area. There are also several friggitorie, literally "fryeries", where puffs of fresh dough disappear into enormous vats of boiling oil then reappear light as air on your plate, accompanied by tiny vegetables, cheeses or folded over as calzoni.

Via Tribunali is where I usually head and one of the best spots is Il Pizzaiolo del Presidente (Via Tribunali 121; +39 081 210 903). Originally known as Caccialli, all that changed in 1994 when Bill Clinton ventured in after a NATO meeting. Pizzas here cost no more than €6 but you have to eat quickly because it's always full.

Last but not least is Brandi (Salita Sant'Anna di Palazzo 2, 80132; +39 081 416 928). Founded in 1780, it's a favourite with visitors because it boasts the invention of the Margherita, in honour of the princess of the same name who tasted it in 1889.

Brandi's kitchen is consistent, it's laden with history and the murals of local scenes are kitsch but also rather lovely. My husband hid a special jewellery gift in the bread basket one year - and the waiters still remember it.

Lufthansa has a fare to Naples from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2400 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Hong Kong (about 9hr with a partner airline), then to Munich (12hr 45min) and to Naples (1hr 40min); see lufthansa.com.

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