Posted By: augie on November 7th, 2008
Antica Port’alba claims to be Naples’ (and the world’s) oldest pizzeria. Opening its doors in 1830, this unassuming restaurant can be off of Piazza Dante. Stuck between a number of used book stores, you don’t see it the first time you walk by. We didn’t at least. In fact, I was hesitant that I had even found the right place. Sitting outside was the restaurant’s pizzaiolo, a somber sad eyed man who motioned for us to sit down in a shaded patio area.
What I ate: Pizza diavola (a “deviled” pizza)
What Margaret ate: Pizza margherita
This was arguable the best part of both pizzas. Even as I watched our waiter carry our pizzas across the alleyway, I could see a golden brown crust that almost glowed in contrast to the white buffalo mozzarella. Before I even took a bite, I knew I was in for something exceptional. How did I know this? Well, for one, I could hold the slice in my hand. After being in Naples for about a week, and eating at least one pizza a day, I’ve already had my fair share of what food critic Ed Levine calls “soupy” neapolitan pizzas. These are hot, freshly cooked pizzas that don’t have the structural integrity that most American pizza eaters take for granted. In many neapolitan pizzerias, often the amazingly creamy buffalo mozzarella and the locally grown tomatoes, once cooked, liquify into a deliciously white and red puddle that forms at the center of the pizza. This puddle, while delicious, is also difficult to eat. Most crusts are too thin to support the center of the pie, and as a result, become soggy and hard to pick up. The pie loses its crust, it’s texture. It’s something special.
This, however, was not the case at Antica Pizzeria Port’Abla. The crust here was slightly thicker than its other neapolitan brethren and singed to a lightly golden color. It was a comfort to eat a pizza with my hands again. But at the same time, I didn’t find many dark, charred spots on the edges and bottom of the crust (a neapolitan signature and also one of my favorite parts of a good pizza).
The Cheese (Mozzarella di buffala):
Both the margherita and the diavola were topped with mozzarella di buffala. This cheese was creamy, fresh, and by american standards, exceptionally good. But in the city that claims to have invented pizza, nothing made this mozzarella memorable. Since I’ve arrived, I have tried better mozzarella (on worse pizza) in other pizzerias around Naples. I will say, however, that the cheese seemed to work better on the margherita than it did on the diavola. To be honest, I think this is probably more of a reflection on the salumi on my pizza than it is on the mozzarella itself.
The sauce on both our pizzas seemed to fit into the same camp as the mozzarella. In America, I would probably be quick to rave about it as being above par. But graded on a neapolitan scale, this sauce was good enough not be noticed, really. Not too sweet. Not too tangy. It seemed to hover in that spot where mediocrity and blandness meet (did I really just use mediocrity to describe a pizza sauce?).
Perhaps the most disappointing element of the pizza at Antica Port’ Alba was the basil. For me, adding basil to a pie is as much a symbol as it is a culinary choice. A freshly cut leaf of basil represents the freshness of a pie’s ingredients and the labor of love that has gone into bringing those ingredients together. All that amazing flavor and aroma packed into one small leaf. Biting into that leaf should be a punch to your taste buds (Sometimes when I’m feeling really sinister, I’ll plan how I’m going to eat my pie according to the placement of the basil and rearrange the leafs to better suit each bite). But at Antica Port’ Alba the basil was dry, flavorless, and burnt. This was particularly frustrating considering the fact that good basil could have really helped draw out the flavor of the mozzarella and sauce. Why was the pizzaiolo so sad looking when we approached? Perhaps he was lamenting his herb selection.
As for the salumi on the pizza diavola, each slice was cut into awkwardly shaped squares that drew attention away from its flavor, which was actually pretty good. Keep ‘em thin and flat, I say.
One more thing I’d like to mention about the actual pizza at Antica Port’Alba: one of my biggest pet peeves about eating a pizza diavola is the fact that often there is nothing spicy or “deviled” about the pizza. My pizza here was no exception to this. Sure, I occasionally found small pepper flecks. But what’s the fun if I have to look for them? A good pizza diavola is very much like a good strip show (sorry mom, but the metaphor sort of works. I mean, I imagine it works, seeing that I’ve never been to a strip show myself but have only heard about them): the excitement is in what isn’t seen, or, in our case, tasted. The pepper flecks and spicy salumi have to stimulate (what other verb could I use?) your taste buds to the breaking point of being too spicy, to a point where the flavor becomes distracting and starts to eclipse the other flavors of the pizza. But a good pizza diavola (maybe I should say a great pizza diavola) takes you to that breaking point without crossing over. In short, its an amazing tease. The diavola at Antica Port’Alba went the opposite direction into a complete absence of spice. There was nothing alluring or tantalizing about the taste. It was like trying to watch a strip show where the dancer wears a full-body jump suit and refuses to show you any skin.
Located in a nice shaded side street full of american tourists and students (like the one writing this review). A margherita pizza will run you about five euros, which seems reasonable, but there is a coperto, or cover charge, for a few euros more. Also, our waiter, a very nice elderly italian man, knew how to squeeze money out of every situation. After we had paid and he came back with our change, he looked me in the eyes and said “For me?”.
After reading this review to Margaret for feedback she candidly told me that I was giving Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, one of the world’s oldest and most famous pizzerias, a terrible review. I tried to protest. But upon remembering that Margaret is about twice as smart as me, I realized that she is probably right. Bashing Port’Alba was never the point of this review. In fact, I really enjoyed eating there and will surely go back at a later date (I just won’t probably get the diavola again). In general, I do spend a little too much time fixated on the negative aspects of a pizza. The reason being; if something is good it is good and there usually isn’t much more you can say beyond that. But if something is bad it can usually be better. So why not try to fix it? I will give Antica Pizzeria Port’Abla 6 out of 8 slices.