One writer finds the South’s most delicious Neapolitan pizza outside of Naples, nestled in Winston-Salem, North Carolina
After devouring a Neapolitan pizza in its birthplace last summer—by way of a classic margherita from L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, one of the oldest pizzerias in Naples, founded in 1870—I realized that pizza in Italy is much more than just dough with melted cheese atop. It’s a rite of passage. On that same trip, I found myself maneuvering the line to make it past the pizza bouncer and inside the world of Pizzeria Concettina ai Tre Santi, which is now my favorite margherita pizza. The sauce and cheese and on-the-table basil plant, from which you can pluck fresh leaves to scatter onto your pizza, made it feel vibrant and alive—far grander than anything else in this world.
What makes a Neapolitan pizza so good? Time and simplicity—the opposite of America’s take-your-pizza-to-go culture. It’s quite basic: good Italian flour-turned-pizza dough, San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil, salt, and EVOO. Back in Durham, I found myself constantly daydreaming about these Naples pizzerias, so I hopped in my car and drove 90 minutes to Winston-Salem to satisfy my pizza craving at Mission Pizza.
Many industry friends—whose opinions I trust—shout to the rooftops that Misson’s is the most incredible Neapolitan pizza in the Southeast, and as I discovered, they are right. Owner Peyton Smith has eaten at hundreds of pizzerias around the world. “Mission states our commitment to the product, to the culture of proper Neapolitan pizza—to telling its story, showing people what it really is, how it’s done, etc.,” says Smith. “The name is also a bit of a self-imposed bar of accountability for us to have to clear consistently.”
I enter and post up on a counter stool. There’s a letter board up front that reads, “To-go pizzas are not advised. Nor cut. Fresh is best.” Even so, while I’m sipping on a chilled glass of Barolo, a customer waltzes in for takeout. “You’re going to make me box this pizza up before you’ve tried it,” Smith half-jokingly says to them. “Sit down next time.” Once you dive into the first bite of a margherita pizza done right, you’ll quickly understand that subjecting it to a 20-minute car ride would be so evil—to the pizza and to yourself. A Neapolitan pizza must be enjoyed at peak deliciousness, fresh out of the oven and straight into your mouth.
At Mission, each pizza is crafted with mindfulness and care in a customized Stefano Ferrara oven. Nine hundred-ish degrees and the end game will transport you into the heart of Naples. Mission’s menu is divided into Pizza Rosse (crushed tomato sauce and EVOO) and Pizza Bianche (no tomato sauce, plus a few wild cards like Pizza Rachetta: “pizza in the front, party in the back,” which is totally up to the pizzaiolo—the pizza maker). I still fantasize about the Bianche pizza with guanciale, smoked mozzarella, black pepper, lemon zest, and arugula (it’s the zest that does it for me).
Mission Pizza’s success is due in part to being unapologetically exactly what they want to be. The pandemic changed Smith’s priorities in terms of operating a restaurant. Set in downtown Winston-Salem, the pizza shop is open four days a week (pre-pandemic, it was seven). “I want to have a life outside of the restaurant,” he says. The spot’s Instagram (@missionpizzaws), operated by Smith, sets the tone for what to expect: a one-of-a-kind dining experience nonadherent to consumer fads and requests. “Dear lady who furiously complained on the internet as if we called her baby ugly…No we do not put chicken on this pizza. No way, no how, never,” Smith wrote on the page earlier this year. Here, it’s best to sit back and enjoy what’s offered on the menu as is.
Or go bold. Pizzakase—the first of its kind—is a take on Japan’s word “omakase” which means “I’ll leave it up to you.” In this case, the diner sits at the pizza counter and surrenders to Smith and his kitchen, who deliver an off-menu pizza dining experience. Expect anything but ordinary. “It’s off the cuff,” says Smith. “On the fly we can do interesting things.” The beauty of it is that the entire meal is a surprise: It could be a smoked pizza, where toppings and the dough are smoked, or a decadent fried pizza filled with oozing burrata. You won’t know until you go. The prix fixe menu, which changes frequently, is five courses (pizza included) but also left in the hands of the kitchen. No nitpicks are tolerated in these experiences, which teaches the diner to go with the flow of insanely good food.
What you’ll hopefully take away from dining at Mission Pizza is the ability to enjoy a pizza as the Italians do: ordered just as it’s stated on the menu, sizzling hot and fresh out of the oven, and along with a group of friends (or strangers sitting next to you at the counter). If Smith’s around, hearing him wax on about his travels and the greatest pizza legends he’s encountered is a real treat. Just don’t ask him for a side of ranch.
Finding Neapolitan Pizza in Naples, Italy
Where to eat, sleep and burn off pizza calories when visiting the birthplace of pizza
In the South, Mission Pizza is the place to go to curb Napoli pizza cravings, but it’s strongly advised to book a flight to Naples, Italy, to discover Neapolitan pizza in its birthplace. In Naples, it’s all about proper ingredients and time, and while everyone has their lists and opinions, as thousands of pizzerias dot the city, Mission Pizza owner, Peyton Smith, and pizza seeker and journalist, Jenn Rice, dish out a few not-to-miss pizzerias — plus where to stay once there.
ROMEO Hotel, a swanky escape amidst the beautiful chaos of Naples, is my go-to hotel when visiting for several reasons, one being its blissful rooftop where one-starred Michelin restaurant, Il Comandante, sits pretty — plus a pool with views of the Gulf of Naples and Mount Vesuvius and the most extravagant breakfast spread you’ll encounter (and yes, Neapolitan pizza slices make their way to sunrise festivities). It was at Il Comandante where I learned how important an in-season tomato is to Neopoliotan cuisine, by way of Executive chef Salvatore Bianco’s “golden tomato” — a dish composed of a stunning tomato is cooked and blanketed in a 24 karat gold sheet. The hotel is within walking distance to many of my favorite pizza spots, too.
Now, onto pizza eating….
A crossover agreement is Brandi. Many will say Sorbilo but this is it for me. “A great pizzeria, hiding in plain sight in a highly trafficked tourist area just off of Via Chiaia, near Piazza Plebiscito,” says Smith. It’s allegedly the place where Pizza Margherita was invented so ordering is an obvious choice. “The pizza here is baked harder than most in Napoli, with more color and more char, yet typical in the way it’s generously topped, resulting in a proper Neapolitan flop and plenty of juice on the plate to use the crust as scarpetta.”
“This brand has become quite celebrated for its modern interpretation of pizza that’s unlikely to offend the dogged traditional mafia,” says Smith. “Highly hydrated, with little leavening, it’s a well fermented, elastic dough made modern by its use of excellent ingredients and remarkable precision,” he says, noting it’s perhaps the best example in the city.
A newcomer for Smith, who notes the reason he visited was solely to see pizza maker, Raf Bonetta. “Living in a middle space between traditional and modern, the pizza I had here is the best pizza I have eaten in Napoli in years,” says Smith. “Immaculate bake, topped judiciously, a cornicione (the Italian word for edge or crust of pizza) at once sweet and nutty, bloomed perfectly, with a crispy eggshell and creamy interior,” he perfectly describes. Bonetta is in the works of opening his own pizza place in Pozzuoli, on the western coast of Naples.
One of the oldest pizzerias in Naples, founded in 1870, and made more famous in Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. It’s always busy but the joint issues numbered tickets to control the chaos and there’s two choices: marinara and margherita.
In Quartieri Spagnol, not too far from ROMEO Hotel, a giant, flashy yellow promotional sign hangs from the alleyway pointing you to the pizzeria as the marketing for this tiny establishment. Otherwise, you’ll walk right by it. Three generations of pizza making later, the spot has no frills and for a few euros, indulge in a nicely executed Margherita pizza and a beer (or two). And you can watch the two pizzaiolos make pizzas while eating fresh-out-of-the-oven-pizza, which is a treat.
A friend introduced me to this spot a couple summers ago and it’s arguably my personal favorite margherita pizza in Naples, and perhaps in the world. Situated in Sanità the lively, insanely busy and working class district of Naples, find this spot by way of a lengthy cue — and a pizza
bouncer at the door to ensure a smooth experience. A family-run business for over 60 years, Ciro Oliva now runs the show and has reinvented the Naples pizza experience with both heritage and imagination combined in a Michelin-worthy dining experience. It might be whimsical inside but the pizza making skills are prominent within each bite….simply perfect, every step of the way.
Burn Off Pizza Calories
In early 1787, poet and playwright Johann Wolfgang von Goethe reached Naples for the first time and described it as one of the most beautiful cities in the world. “Vedi Napoli e poi muori,” (“see Naples and die”) were his exact words. My first hike up Pedamentina San Martino, a 14th Century, zig-zagging, 415-tread stone staircase, to Sant’Elmo Castle and the Certosa di San Martino, and this quote made perfect sense. (You’ll want to add this hike into rotation between pizza eating FYI).
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