Of course, we were prepared for Naples, one of Italy's most crime-ridden cities, which this year alone has weathered such scandals as mountains of uncollected trash and dioxin-tainted mozzarella. (The trash has been cleaned up, and Italian authorities moved quickly to remove the bad mozzarella from the market.) Still, Pasquale's warning just a couple of hours after our arrival took us aback.
"One more thing," Pasquale warned. "Do not pay any more than 10 euros for the cab. Ten euros maximum."
In fact, the cab to Da Michele ended up costing 15. The polite young driver seemed to be taking us on a scenic tour while complaining in a mix of Italian and English that Naples's bad reputation was the fault of the sensationalist media and malevolent northerners. When we arrived in the drab neighborhood in front of Da Michele, he explained he was tacking on a two-euro charge (more than twice what is customary, we later learned) for coming to pick us up at our hotel.
After the inflated taxi fare, we faced a 40-minute wait for a table, though these were small inconveniences for truly great pizza. Run by the fifth generation of pizzamakers of the Condurro family, Da Michele is as simple as a pizzeria gets. The storefront, with high ceilings and marble-topped tables, is lighted as bright as a hospital. Niched in the back wall, a bust of Saint Antonio Abate surveys the squad of three men forming an assembly line: One kneads the dough by hand, the next layers on tomatoes and cheese, and the third uses a long wooden paddle to lay the pizza in a wood-burning oven for no more than a minute.
This is pizza stripped to its fundamentals, without the toppings considered superfluous by purists. In a town that seems to have few rules, there are standards when it comes to local food in general and Neapolitan pizza in particular. Da Michele's menu contains two items: pizza margherita (cheese, crushed tomatoes and basil) and pizza marinara (tomatoes, oregano and garlic). It should be noted that the cheese used at Da Michele is, technically, not mozzarella (which is made from water buffalo milk), but fior di latte, a cow's-milk cheese preferred by some master pizzamakers for its slightly drier consistency.
The prices are cheap ($7 for a 14-inch pizza), and the only drinks available are Coca-Cola, orange soda and beer, served in plastic cups.