Learning to Make the Best Pizza in the World
The planet’s top pie-making school in Naples teaches 300 years of Italian technique in 30 days. Our writer tries to learn it all in one week.
All great teachers have their own strange quirks. Why should master pizza professors be any different? This thought occurs to me as Enzo Coccia, who runs a world-renowned pizza academy and two of the finest pizza restaurants in Naples, shouts, “Attack! Attack!” just inches from my ear. He’s demonstrating the proper way to work the oxygen bubbles from a mass of sticky, fast-rising dough.
His chief lieutenant, Davide Bruno, has the stocky build of a drill sergeant and, during the course of the morning’s instruction, makes a sensitive pizza novice from Honolulu leak quiet tears in front of the wood-burning oven.
There’s also Michele Triunfo, the diminutive 81-year-old master baker who’s worked in pizza joints across this ancient Italian city since he was 12. He remembers when the Yankee GIs liberated the city during the war—“they brought with them the finest flour”—and the last time the famous volcano Vesuvius erupted, in the winter of 1944. He appears, Yoda-like, when Coccia summons him, dressed in natty chef’s whites, to offer runic bits of wisdom to the fretful students. “The finest dough, it should be soft, like a baby’s bottom,” Triunfo says. When events overwhelm, as they invariably do, he throws his hands in the air and laughs.
Don Triunfo is laughing now. I’m attempting, after slamming at the dough like a wheezing prizefighter, to master what Coccia likes to call “the delicate dance” of proper Neapolitan pizza making, which includes shaping fresh dough into little panetti balls, as smooth and round as plums. They’re then molded into pie shapes, which is accomplished with a practiced sideways flip.
To Triunfo’s amusement, the balls I produce are lumpy, like sticky chunks of volcanic rock. “Don’t worry. It’s your first time,” he reassures me. When my pies are shaped like teardrops and elongated water balloons, his voice is more urgent: “Don’t rush. It will turn into chewing gum!” As we move one of the pies toward a roaring oven, he throws up his hands again, and he’s laughing so hard, I think he’s about to cry.
“This is a disaster,” the old baker says. “Now you are sweating too much! A good pizzaiolo does not sweat into his dough!”
A good pizzaiolo does all sorts of things I can’t do, as I’m quickly discovering on my first day at what’s considered, among those who consider such things, to be the Sorbonne of pizza schools. The normal course of study at Coccia’s Pizza Consulting school in Naples lasts for a month, but the master, whose former students operate successful, critically acclaimed pizza operations in places such as Shanghai, Tokyo, and New York, has grudgingly agreed to take me on for a week of intensive training.
Unlike other pizza accreditation operations across town, Coccia takes no more than four students a month. “Fifteen people to a class, you learn nothing,” he says. “It’s like stealing money!” There will even be a final exam at the end of the week, complete with a battery of discerning Neapolitan pizza tasters, like at the conclusion of some madcap TV cooking show.
“Honestly, it’s all hard, and if you make one mistake, you will pay for it all day,” says Matt Resich, a fellow student who’s come to learn how to make pizza the proper Neapolitan way. Like me, Resich is a wide, burly gentleman, prone to sweating in front of a hot oven, and like me, he’s a New Yorker who grew up immersed in that city’s great romance with the pizza pie. Also like me, he’s quickly learning that everything he cherished about the classic New York pie—the sweet sauce; the addictive, oily taste of processed cheese and pepperoni; the delicate crackle of recently warmed, prefrozen crust—doesn’t cut it among the stern pizza mandarins of old Napoli.
“Your pizza in New York is more like bread,” Coccia declares on that first day. “They use heavy, unleavened dough. The technique for flattening and shaping the pizza is not traditional. The quality of toppings—awful! The ovens are all wrong! Every step of the process is wrong.” The maestro takes out a bottle of golden, fruity La Torretta olive oil from Sicily and uncorks it. “Smell this—it’s lovely. They use this in some good places in New York, but mostly they use sunflower oil, palm oil, terrible cheap stuff,” he says. And don’t get Coccia started on the grim, soul-crushing pizza chains of America. “Ahhhh, Papa John’s, don’t talk of it,” he shouts, his face turning a deep shade of tomato red. “My students after two weeks are making better pizza than those places!”
Coccia has earned his strong opinions in a city where people argue over pizza crust the way North Carolinians argue over pork barbecue. His father was a Neapolitan pizzaiolo, and his brother still runs the family trattoria near the train station. Coccia began selling pizza on the streets at age 12 and opened his first restaurant, La Notizia, almost two decades ago on a little street in the northern part of town called Via Caravaggio, which winds down to the bay. There are now two La Notizias on Via Caravaggio, and both are renowned for the purity of the marinara sauce, the quality of the seasonal ingredients, and impeccable technique. “Maybe 50 percent of the pizzerias we have in Naples are not so good but still better than anything in Rome,” says Maurizio Cortese, an influential local critic. “Another 40 percent of the pizza restaurants are quite good even by our standards, and then 10 percent are the very best. Enzo is the best of the very best.”
Students at Pizza Consulting are issued red pizzaiolo aprons and jaunty red baseball caps, and for the first week of the monthlong course, they’re drilled on how to make their dough by hand. “Push, Push!” Coccia implores. “The yeast is like a living human being—it needs oxygen to breathe.” The next day, after another hectic morning session of dough beating and pizza ball-making, I attend an impromptu historical lecture from Antonio Mattozzi, whose book, Inventing the Pizzeria: A History of Pizza Making in Naples, is the authoritative text on this dense subject.
No one quite knows where the word “pizza” comes from, but Mattozzi’s best guess is the ancient Greco-Byzantine word “pita,” which means a kind of flatbread or cake. The earliest record in Naples dates to the late 1700s, when street vendors began selling wheels of baked dough covered in a simple tomato-based sauce to sailors around the harbor—the original word for “marinara” sauce means “from the sea.” During the 1800s, richer, more expensive toppings were added, including smoked mozzarella and fresh basil leaves. Since then, the basic elements of the classic Neapolitan pie—the mozzarella, the bright marinara sauce flecked with olive oil and fresh oregano, the trademark soft, puffy-edged crust—have stayed the same.
“Why should our pizza change?” Mattozzi asks. “The dish has a simple round base. You can put anything on it. It is good for a snack but can also feed an entire family for pennies. Pizza is like the blue jeans of comfort food.”
At Coccia’s pizza boot camp, they pride themselves on making it the old-fashioned way. “One hundred hours is too short a time to explain 300 years of technique to you students,” Bruno says. “It can create a lot of stress.” I practice a sideways flipping motion to get the round, now-leavened panetti balls into the shape of an actual pie.
Unlike in Rome or Chicago, the classic Neapolitan pie has a soft crust and a small moon shape, and it’s designed to be eaten as a snack folded on the street or with a knife and fork at a table. Flip the dough too little, and the pie will be too thick; flip it too much, and the crust will be too thin and burn off in the oven.
The process isn’t that difficult at first, but I begin to wither under the speed and endless restaurant-style repetition. My fingers go through the dough, and the pies start to look increasingly like giant, misshapen almonds. “Slide and twist your hands,” Bruno urges. “React, don’t think! The water is cold, you’re jumping into the water, you are like a fish swimming in the sea.”
On the day before the final exam, I attend a prep session at the smaller of the two La Notizia restaurants with two of Coccia’s employees—Patience Kennedy, from Nigeria, and a tall, genial baker named Luigi Aprea, recently returned from Rome. Kennedy shows me how to prepare the marinara sauce by slowly mixing in 25 grams of salt for every 25,000g of San Marzano tomatoes with the center cores removed by hand. Aprea briefs me on how to identify fresh mozzarella by running a finger over its top to check for moisture (“Old mozzarella looks like yogurt; not a good look”) and on the rudimentary way to prep a wood-burning oven—you need one pile of coals to cook the pizza and a lit log to char the crust. As we work, the little room begins to fill with pleasant smells of sizzling sausages, baked bread, and wood smoke.
Rain clouds hang low on the day of the big test. Resich and his partner, Inthira Marks, arrive dressed in red aprons and pizza hats and begin making the day’s dough in one of the mixers. “Today is more humid. What does that mean?” Bruno asks darkly. “More flour,” replies Resich, though how much more flour is the tricky part, because the last dash of flour establishes the consistency of a batch and, once added, can’t be undone.
We set about chopping the egg-colored dough into lumps and making the panetti balls. I make mine too fast at first, and Bruno yells, “Mr. Adam, slow down. Your balls are too big!” in a loud, happy voice. Soon Coccia arrives, and one by one, the tasters from the neighborhood begin to show up. Resich preps the oven, which is at its maximum heat of roughly 900F. He readies the three paddles, or “peels,” for baking—one heavier paddle made of wood, which lifts the pie from the prep station to the oven, and two made of metal, one to manage the pizza while it’s in the oven and the other for the fire.
The bricks at the top of the oven begin to glow white hot. “OK, now you make pizza for us, tranquilo, no problem,” Coccia says. My first few pies are passable, but soon things go haywire. “This one has a little hole in the middle, you’ve ruined it,” Bruno says, throwing the dough aside. Resich passes me the wooden paddle for the first time. I dress one of the misshapen wheels of dough Bruno has discarded and dab it with marinara, olive oil, bits of mozzarella, and a few tears of fresh basil. We hoist the pie onto the wooden peel, slide it onto the sizzling oven surface, and grab the metal paddle. “Quick spin!” Bruno commands, but I don’t spin it fast enough: When we take it out, the pizza is burned on one side and not cooked enough on the other. “Here, try one more,” Coccia says, giving me another of my discarded saucers of dough, which he’s shaped into pizzalike form. We dress it and shove it into the oven.
The sweat is pouring down my cheeks now, but the top of the pizza bubbles and sizzles pleasingly as I spin it around. On Bruno’s command, I bring my almond-shaped pie out of the oven, then set it onto the counter just like I imagine a real pizzaiolo should, with a slightly awkward flip. Coccia comes over, and for a moment, we regard my cooling pizza in silence. The crust is puffy around the edge, and for the most part, the melted mozzarella is evenly dappled over the tomato sauce. I take out my phone, snap a picture. Coccia takes one little bite, then another. He sighs, shrugs his shoulders, and sighs again. “I’ll give it a six for cooking and a seven for topping management,” he finally says. And what about the crust? “It’s too crunchy,” Enzo says. “We couldn’t serve your pizza here in Naples, but I’m sure we could sell it to your friends back in New York.”
A month-long course at Enzo Coccia’s Pizza Consulting in Naples starts at $3,135, not including travel or lodging.