Not a review, not a rant. A love story from Naples. Pizza included.
There’s been a superabundance of stories in Barcelona this week. The bad news dam has cracked; depressing updates of all kinds have spurted forth with increasing vigour, lightly dousing then drowning us in disingenuous statements and dubious opinions.
In the deluge, a small story almost slipped past unheeded. Not a news item of any great import. Not a story that matters. Just a food story. Another new restaurant planning to open in Barcelona. One of thousands more.
This restaurant’s name, however means something to me: L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele.
If it weren’t for Da Michele this blog might not exist.
Twenty years ago, I went to live in Italy and fell in love with a Catalan girl, whom I later followed to Barcelona then married.
And this is a love story. But it’s not about the girl. It’s about the food.
While in Italy, we visited Naples with our flatmates. This was the pre-Internet age, or close enough. There was no TripAdvisor, no Google Maps, no social media, no food blogs to suck the spontaneity from travel (I am not unaware of the irony of posting this on here). There was also a lot less tourism, especially in Naples, which I shall refer to as Napoli from now on, through force of habit and my bone-deep, priggish pretentiousness. We didn’t even have a guide book.
We rattled down in a cheap train from Tuscany, counting every Lira left in our volunteer-budget savings tin, with rucksacks for pillows and no real idea of where we were going. We somehow found a youth hostel and some bunk beds. Hungry, tired and broke we fled the hostel’s fug of damp socks and flatulence and asked a passerby: “Dove mangiare pizza?” Or words to that effect.
A big grin and an instant, emphatic, unhesitating answer: Da Michele.
The queue was a casting call for an Italian art-house movie about social class: a clutch of cigarette-smoking car mechanics in greasy overalls, an elegant couple dressed for the opera, flirting teenagers, gesticulating geriatrics. The disorientation continued inside. There was no list of toppings. If memory serves, there was a choice of margherita or something even more minimal; a marinera perhaps. House wine, beer or Coke. Bare tables, dirt-cheap prices.
“What is this shit?” I remember thinking.
Then the pizzas came out. I’d lived in Italy for a few months by that point. I’d eaten good pizza. I’d enjoyed truly authentic local Tuscan cuisine (crostini, wild boar pasta, crostini, wild boar pasta, repeat until you say basta and move villages, or lose the will to live) and Roman pizza. But nothing prepared me for this. Da Michele smashed my preconceptions.
It was transcendent, an agape of Neapolitan revelation. The pillow-soft, black-blistered dough was impeccable, heavenly; the tomato tear-inducing; the cheese a stringy ambrosia. It’s just a pizza, I thought, so why do I feel like weeping? And can I have some more?
I looked around the table; the rapture had consumed us all.
I grew up loving food. My mother cooked with devotion and care every day, as did my grandmother. I could cook a bit myself by 1997, though I still liked to bolt on the safety wheels of my Delia Smith recipe book for confidence from time to time. (I still do.) But something changed in me that day. I’d tasted food’s potential to stir emotions, glimpsed the power of simplicity perfected. My curiosity was already kindled but Da Michele stoked the fire.
So when my wife sent me a WhatsApp, telling me that Da Michele was to open in Barcelona, I didn’t know what to think.
I’ve never been back to Napoli, though I’ve always wanted to. The city’s freewheeling, piss-taking, rule-breaking, open-armed hospitality charmed me utterly on that first visit. But do I want to go back to Da Michele? It’s unlikely (but, I suppose, possible) that the pizzas are the same, after all the movie fame and easy tourist dollars. Even if they were, I’m not the same. And do I want Da Michele to come to me? Do I want a manufactured replica of the 1870 Neapolitan original transplanted to foreign soil, a faded, franchised, corporate simulacrum of something I once loved?
Well, yes, obviously I do. Pizza, mmmmm, etc. Even imperfect pizza is enjoyable so I’ll be there when Da Michele opens on Consell de Cent 106, Barcelona, in December. I’ll probably review it. I may mention the company’s spin-offs in Rome and London and its apparent plans to build a blazing chain of wood-fired pizza-oven beacons right across Europe, like a scene from Lord of the Rings, re-imagined by a carb-starved greedy bastard.
It won’t really be Da Michele, though. Not the Da Michele of my dreams.
This is a love story. A story of a first love. Other loves may be richer, more complex and more profound. But we all remember the first time; our fumbling, heart-pounding, greasy-fingered ecstasy; our wham, bam, grazia ma’am moment of tongue-tingling revelation. Da Michele, thank you for the memories.
Image is (C) L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele