My mentor in Naples, Enzo Coccia, is a proud man. He is proud to be a fourth generation pizzaiolo, proud that he has two pizzerias with ovens built to exacting standards by the famous forno, Stefano Ferrara, proud that his pizzas have earned him an international reputation for excellence and authenticity, and proud that his good press has led Americans like me to fly all the way to Naples to be his student. The only thing he is not proud of is his inability to speak English fluently.
Since I do not speak Italian fluently, we often did not easily understand each other, especially when our lessons first began and this greatly frustrated Enzo. Often, while I would be trying to slap down the soft dough the way he had just modeled Enzo would say to me in his broken English: “This…..(and he would point to my fingernails that were never short enough for him) PROBLEM!” and he would emphasize the word “problem” by saying it very loudly. My dear teacher’s high standards were only matched by his impatience and since it seemed to give him a certain pleasure to release his frustration frequently, I often liked to pretend I didn’t understand him, when in fact, I knew perfectly well what he wanted from me.
It was unseasonably hot and unbearably humid in Naples when we went there the second week in September. I often felt while I was gently placing pizzas into the mouth of Enzo’s 850 degree wood burning oven that my features might melt off of my face and slide down my arm. Though I didn’t feel particularly attractive during these torrid sessions, I insisted that Val keep taking photos and videos of me and the pizzas so I could replay them in cooler settings and learn the techniques that Enzo was trying so diligently to teach me.
In time, my relationship with Enzo improved. He seemed to admire me for my tenacity because he offered to treat me and Val to dinner at his most popular Pizzaria La Notizia on more than one occasion. Of course, it is hard to be excited about eating pizza at night when you have been slaving over it all day long, but we were touched that he was so generous to invite us and we tried to smile enthusiastically as we perused Enzo’s menu.
One of the things that impressed us immediately, was the diversity of delicious gourmet combinations my mentor offered his patrons…We particularly liked the sound of a light primavera topping with favas, asparagus and pecorino. We tried to order this one, but the waiter looked at us scornfully and reminded us that September is not May and we must order something in season…so we settled on a pizza we knew we could have: one with Vesuvian cherry tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella.
Some Americans do not like Neapolitan pies since they are not as sturdy or as crispy as typical New York style pies…but we loved the delicate puffy crust with the charmarks and the thin centers wet with the sweet essence of ripe tomatoes. Like all Neapolitans, we ate our pizza with a knife and fork and saluted each other with a glass of Enzo’s finest Italian beer. I never caught him looking directly at us, but I think he was very proud when we arrived at the appointed time, dressed in clean clothes, and full of anticipation.