Naples Eats: Top 5 Pizzerias in 2 Days
I took advantage of a long weekend in Spain due to Day of the Immaculate Conception, to finally make a long anticipated trip to Naples. Now, Italy being Catholic, this also turned out to be a holiday weekend in Naples as well, leading to very thin hotel room availability and high room rates, but the compensation was a lively and festive atmosphere.
One of the main reasons for wanting to visit Naples was of course the food. Naples is considered to be the birthplace of pizza, and also the birthplace of the margherita pizza, so I just had to check it out! I had actually looked into doing a food tour, but due to the holiday weekend, they weren't running. It was actually kind of amusing: I wrote to one outfit, and got two separate emails in reply. The first one said that they were fully booked and had no availability, while the second one (I'm assuming the second person hadn't realized that I already got a reply) answered, perhaps more honestly, that it was a holiday weekend in Naples and so it would be too crowded to do any tours!
Whatever the case was, I absolutely did not miss having a tour. It was easy to research the pizza hot spots around town, simple to navigate the streets, and also quite effortless to order. Not only are the menus straightforward (pizza margherita, etc.), a lot of places have English menus and English-speaking waiters.
So my first stop was Pizzeria Starita, at Via Materdei, 27/28. You can see in the approach up to the restaurant, how Naples really reminded me of a Chinatown in New York or San Francisco, for example. Narrow streets, merchandise piled up on the sidewalk, fishmongers with their displays of their goods with the fish water running into the streets...
Apparently this pizzeria appeared in L'Oro di Napoli, hence you can see her picture all over the restaurant! This place operates in a very familiar way, for those coming from the US. A host greets you at the front, they take you to a table, there's waiter service throughout, you ask for the check and pay at front.
Starita is known for its Montanara, which is a pizza where the dough is fried first, then topped, then baked in the oven. When I was wavering between ordering the Montanara Margherita and another pizza, the waiter was quite decisive in telling me to go for the Montanara, and when I asked if I should order an appetizer, he was also quite firm in advising me to just stick with the Montanara as it would likely be enough.
And it sure was. Not so big or heavy that I felt sluggish, but just right. Light even, for something that's fried. The toppings were tomato sauce, smoked mozzarella, and basil. The dough wasn't greasy at all, even though it was fried, and as I would come to learn later with "regular" pizzas in Naples, the fried quality actually gave the pizza nice structure.
Next stop was L'Antica Pizzeria da Michele, at Via Cesare Sersale, 1. This is a very much raved-about restaurant, with some warning of long lines. Now with this restaurant, there is a sign inside that you have to find the host and have him give you a number, but when I entered and said I was just one person, I was seated right away.
Unlike other places, and much like at a restaurant in Chinatown, they combine parties at the same table. I think this makes things a lot more efficient! More people can be seated and served at once, and I don't feel rushed to finish my meal to give up my seat for someone else.
Oh yeah, and apparently this pizzeria also appeared in a movie. Julia Roberts eats here in Eat, Pray, Love, which leads to her photo being seen in the restaurant.
Now take a look at their menu. I love restaurants that have a limited menu! The only options here are Margherita (with cheese) and Marinara (no cheese), and each one comes in a few different sizes.
So this was my first experience with a regular pizza margherita, and boy was I surprised by it. The sauce was so thin and watery, you could see through to the crust. There's just a smattering of cheese (that was to be expected), and single basil leaf (just one!).
The taste was alright, but I felt the crust was SOOOOO doughy. As in, it felt tiresome and monotonous to be continually chewing naked crust, on and on.
My next pizza margherita was at the famed Pizzeria Gino Sorbillo, at Via dei Tribunali, 32. Many seem to regard this as the "best" pizza in Naples, and Gino Sorbillo is also known for standing up to the mafia, refusing to pay them the money they usually demand for "protection." So one day they burned down his restaurant, but Sorbillo up and reopened it in an act of defiance.
The crowds definitely corresponded to the hype, and I must say that the wait here was an almost traumatic experience. First, you have to fight your way through the crowd to the guy standing in front of the door. Why do you have to fight your way through? Because everyone is crowded and packed in, not wanting to miss hearing their name being called out over the din of the crowd and the music of nearby restaurants. So I actually had to try twice to fight my way to the front! First try I couldn't even make it all the way through.
So after you put your name down with the host, then you wait to hear your name called. You keep standing around, being jostled constantly by the crowd with new people trying to fight their way to the front to put down their name, then going back out, people leaving the restaurant, people entering the restaurant when their name is called. Sometimes I thought I would lose my balance just be shoved around.
You don't want to go anywhere because after 1 hour, you feel like you've waited long enough that it should be any minute. Then another hour passes, and you ask the host if they've called your name. Before you even finish your question, they say they haven't called it yet. You feel like you should keep waiting because you've already sunk 2 hours into the venture. And then when nearly THREE hours pass, they finally call your name!!!
Except then you're sent to a bench inside, waiting for another waiter to call you to a communal table. There are also tables for individual parties, but this horseshoe-shaped table is pretty good for couples and singles.
I must note that the waiter manning this communal table was quite jovial. He asked where I was from, and when I said California, he started singing a song about California!
Finally when it was time to order, I got the regular "Pizza Margheritta" (they spell it with 2 t's on the menu) for 4€. There is actually a vast menu, with other Margherittas of different, perhaps more premium ingredients, but everyone at this communal table seemed to be ordering the basic one.
So how was it? I now get why Sorbillo has so many fans: the sauce was bright and assertive, the cheese characterful, almost pungent, and the crust soft yet paper thin. You can see how it drapes over the side of the plate like a thin blanket. This is definitely a fork-and-knife pizza (like the other pizzas you sit down and eat, in Naples).
Oh, and more than one leaf of basil 🌱👍 All the parts together made a delicious pizza, so it was worth the wait... this one time.
Next up was Pizzeria Brandi at Salita S. Anna di Palazzo, 1/2. Now, this place is famous because it's regarded as the inventor of the Pizza Margherita, created when one of their chefs made a pizza in honor of Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savory, and Italian unification, the with the Italian flag colors of red (tomato sauce), white (cheese), and green (basil).
However, I don't know why but Brandi is kind of pooh-poohed in the lists of "great" pizzerias of Naples. Perhaps because people think it's too famous for obvious reasons?
Pizzeria Brandi, like Starita, also operates like a "normal" restaurant. You go in, there's a host, you put down your name, and THEY EVEN TELL YOU ESTIMATED WAIT TIME (looking at you, Sorbillo). When I found out that I would have to wait 2 hours, I decided to order takeout, which they said would take only 15 minutes. That gave me some time to observe the cooking in the kitchen - the workers here seem to really enjoy their job! They asked customers how they liked the pizza, and bantered with one another.
So, pretty close to the 15 minute estimated wait time for my takeout pizza, I was handed my cardboard box which I took to the nearby Piazza del Plebescito to eat. I have to admit, this was one of my favorites! The sauce wasn't too watery and covered the crust sufficiently, the cheese was nicely distributed. And perhaps because it was served on cardboard instead of a glazed china plate, the crust maintained a dryness and crispiness which was lacking at da Michele and Sorbillo, and is a quality which I very much enjoy.
Only downside was the lonely basil, that perhaps blew off to the crust in the oven, making it even more sad!
But still, this was one of my best experiences with pizza in Naples. It wasn't just the quality of the pizza, but also because I didn't have to wait half a day for it, and I could eat it with this beautiful view. Oh yeah, and the takeout price is only 3.50€!
My final stop for Pizza Margherita this trip was at Pizzeria di Matteo at Via dei Tribunali, 94, down the road from Sorbillo.
They have a dining room, but also a takeout window. You can see that they also have pictures touting famous people visiting their pizzeria: in this case President Clinton visited!
They bring the pizza out of the oven in batches, so keep an eye out when they take out a new lot to get your pizza at its freshest possible.
Being a pizza you eat on the street, they hand it to you in paper, folded into quarters. Given how saucy the pizza is, with hardly any cheese or basil, and a relatively thin crust, it becomes kind of like a juicy pita sandwich! I quite enjoyed it, and it cost only 1.50€
I felt like that would wrap up my pizza samplings, but I paid one more visit to a pizzeria after da Matteo for a last treat. Down the street from da Matteo is Pizzeria dal Presidente at Via dei Tribunali, 120. The story is very much tied to da Matteo! They say that there were two brothers who ran da Matteo, and after President Clinton visited da Matteo, one of the brothers split off and opened dal Presidente, and named it such even though the Presidente went to the original da Matteo!
Like its sibling, dal Presidente has a dining room, as well as a takeout counter. Instead of pizza, I ordered a frittatine. This was a fried ball of pasta, enclosing a gooey center or rags and cheese. Quite indulgent and rich, but tasty end to my tour of pizzerias!