PEOPLE who have watched the film "Eat, Pray, Love" (2010) remember the scene in which Liz, played by Julia Roberts, finds her heart-throb pizza in Naples' L'Antica Pizzeria Da Michele, said to make the best in the world. After one bite, Liz says, "I am in love, I am having a relationship with my pizza."
Some Italian chefs in Shanghai insist that only the thick, soft and fluffy Napoli pizza represents the essence of Italian pizza tradition. They stick to the old methods, tossing it in the air to stretch and shape the dough, then bake it in a wood-fired oven. Of course, they choose only the freshest ingredients expressing Italian terroir.
But in Shanghai, the thin and crispy Roman pizza is also very popular. Since it's made by machine, it's not as labor intensive and, thus, it's more affordable.
Napoli pizza has a very long history. The first pizza in Italy is said to have been sold as fast food on the streets Naples in southern Italy in the 16th century.
It became popular in 1861, when Neapolitan baker Raffaele Esposito made a pizza topped with tomato, mozzarella cheese and basil, representing the three colors of the Italian flag. But it became famous in 1889 when Queen Margherita visited the city and Esposita named the pizza after the queen. It's known today as the classic Margherita pizza.
Italian chefs in Shanghai describe the secrets of Napoli pizza.
"Napoli pizza is distinguished by its appearance - the dough thick and puffy, with slightly burned outer edge with small bubbles of golden brown in the center," says Tino Giuseppe, chef de cuisine at Favola Italian Restaurant in Le Royal Meridien Shanghai.
Chef Giuseppe says that based on traditional recipes, the thickness should be 5mm for the outer edge and 2-3mm for the center.
The difference in thickness gives distinctive, complex textures - crunchy and crispy edges together with the soft and chewy bread-like center, says the chef.
Rolling out the dough by hand and baking it in a wood-fired are authentic techniques of making Napoli pizza, according to chef Giuseppe and Sergio Zanetti, executive chef at Shanghai Marriott Hotel Pudong East.
"Only hand-rolling gives the dough enough elasticity, which helps it turn into a soft-bread-like texture in the oven," explains chef Guiseppe.
A wood-fired oven imparts a distinctive smoky and wooden aroma. In Italy, the wood of olive trees is traditionally used, while in China, the chef favors the wood of fruit trees.
"Another reason I personally believe Napoli style tastes better than Roman style is that the ingredients used in the south are fresher," says Stefano Balduccio, executive chef at the Suzhou Marriott Hotel, who hails from Sicily.
The three classic Napoli pizzas include the Margherita, Margherita DOC and Neapolitan pizza. The first two are made with fresh, juicy tomato, buffalo milk mozzarrella, aromatic basil and olive oil. Margherita DOC replaces tomato with cherry tomato, which is more flavorful and juicy. The third is much simpler, made with tomato sauce, olive oil and garlic.
For authentic flavor, it's best to import the flour, yeast, olive oil and mozzarrella from Italy, many chefs believe.
"It's important to select the best ingredients, especially if you make pizza outside of Italy," says Alessandro Santi, chef de cuisine at ON56 in Grand Hyatt Shanghai.
"Don't use knife and folk but your hand because the pizza is originally a street food," says chef Giuseppe from Le Royal Meridien Shanghai.
To complement the pizza, choose a wine with flavors like that of tomato, says Brian Zhang, winner of this year's Best Sommelier Competition of French Wines in China.
"I love Xinomavro (a red wine grape in Greece) with pizza because it tastes the closest to tomatoes of any grape variety. It has good acidity to cut through the cheese," he says.
He recommends pairing Italian pizza with Italian reds, such as Barbera d'Asti and Chianti Classico, rich, full bodied and with good acidity.
Shanghai Daily tries four authentic Napoli pizzas in Shanghai and Suzhou, made by chefs both following the old recipes and making some adaptation.
Margherita (118 yuan+15%)
Fresh from the oven, the pizza crust is bubbling and golden on the outer edge and soft and chewy in the middle. The fragrance is of milky mozzarella and fruity tomato. The flour and cheese are imported from Italy.
Chef Giuseppe uses old yeast to make the dough soft.
Pizza Carpaccio (178 yuan+15%)
This is a white pizza using the same crust, but instead of tomato sauce, it's topped with arugula salad, Parmesan cheese and thinly sliced raw Australian beef. The meat has been marinated in salt and lemon juice for 36 hours, making it tender and fresh-tasting. The crisp, slightly peppery arugula balances the creamy cheese and adds an herbal touch to the aroma of meat and cheese.
Venue: Favola Italian Restaurant, Le Royal Meridien Shanghai
Address: 8/F, 789 Nanjing Rd E.
Tel: 3318-9999 ext 7778
Capricciosa (110 yuan net)
This is one of the few restaurants in Shanghai where diners can see chefs tossing the dough high, spinning, stretching and catching it a few times. Whirling the dough helps preserve moisture content and makes the dough crispy outside and soft inside.
The recipe is based on the classic Margherita, combining tomato, mozzarella cheese, basil and extra virgin olive oil.
Tomato, cheese, flour and oil are all imported from Italy, says chef Zanetti.
Venue: Casalingo, Shanghai Marriott Hotel Pudong East
Address: 1/F, 15 Xinjinqiao Rd, Pudong
Della Pizza (108 yuan+15%)
Chef Stefano Balduccio was inspired to make this pizza by his mother who always rolled the dough by hand and baked it in a wood-fired oven. To make the crush crispy and crunchy, the chef adds fresh yeast and mineral water to the dough. His toppings are both classic and diverse, including anchovies, ham, artichokes and fresh oregano. Before serving he sprinkles olive oil and sprinkles oregano leaves on top.
Venue: Alto Vino Italian Restaurant, Suzhou Marriott Hotel
Address: 2/F, 1296 Ganjiang Rd W., Gusu District, Suzhou