by Brian “Bruno” Gojdics
I was fortunate enough to have had a journal with me throughout my first true Neapolitan experience. Whenever I deemed it appropriate, usually after a long day of being beat up by Napoli, I would put my head phones on and I would sit and scrawl until I couldn't keep my eyes open any longer. Often I would wake up with my head in a pool of drool and pen still in hand with the lights on at 4:30 in the morning only to wake up again by the brilliant sunrise behind Mt Vesuvius at 6:00.
It’s nice to have this journal to help me remember the emotions, experiences, sights, sounds, smells and colors that I crossed paths with that week--more specifically, my times with Mr. Enzo Coccia.
The first entry I have in regards to my time spent with Enzo at his pizzeria, Pizzeria Notizia, goes like this: “Before I get into the f***ing insane day I had with Enzo, I'll finish yesterday……” That quote in itself sets the tone of my time spent with Enzo, f***ing insane!*
*Note: I know that the language I'm using is not quite appropriate so from this point on f***ing insane = passionate and vice versa.
The day starts as most days do for me in Napoli. This includes watching the sun rise and then breakfast upstairs on the rooftop. After that Joe and myself head downstairs to catch a cab ride (which by the way was VERY passionate) to the pizzeria. We arrive a little early and wait for Enzo. He arrives, we enter the restaurant, take a few pre-game photos, Joe shares a few words and then leaves. There we are. Enzo and myself. We know very little of each other’s language and with the aid of hand jesters we communicate just enough to get by and shoot up the street for a morning ritual in Napoli-espresso. He looks pissed!
Back at the restaurant I’m wondering how Enzo and I are going to talk. As this thought crosses my mind a stunning Neapolitan girl walks in to act as translator for us. My prayers are answered. As soon as she sits down, we’re off! For the next 90 minutes Enzo talks about the history of pizza. We start in 79 AD when Mt Vesuvius erupts and covers Pompei. We then jump to 640 AD when a gentlemen by the name Gaetano Fiorelli discovers wood fired ovens in some of the ruins. In one of these ovens they found a 7 kilo carbonized loaf of bread that was believed to be eaten by the Roman soldiers at the time (pre Pompei burial in ash and lava). Up to this point the people of the surrounding areas of Napoli have been eating breads fired in wood ovens for roughly 700 years. Fast forward to the late 1400’s when Christopher Columbus arrives back in Spain from the New World. Along with him he brings potatoes, peppers and the tomato. Being a time when Napoli was under Spanish rule these foods naturally found their way there. However, it took the Neapolitans almost 200 years to realize that the tomato was not poisonous to eat. It was not until the early 1700’s that Neapolitans started utilizing the tomato and putting it on wood fired breads with herbs. This time marks the birth of the marinara pizza and the time when the first pizzeria opened in Napoli—Pizzeria Antica(1738).
Another 100 years go by and cheese starts showing up. But this is no ordinary cheese! This is a fresh cheese made with milk from the local buffaloes—Fiore di Bufala. So we are roughly at 1850 now. This time marks the beginning of the Margherita although it did not receive its official name and recognition until Queen Margherite gave her official seal of approval in 1889. And this is where the history lesson ended. Basically all other pizzas are one of these two pizzas with the addition of several more toppings. All Neapolitan pizzas ultimately stem from the marinara and margherita.
Before I go on I have to mention that in Naples recipes and techniques have been handed from generation to generation for hundreds of years. With that said we break out the ingredients and start to make pasta (we call it dough) by hand using an ancient method. I just watched as Enzo starts out with the water in a bowl and dissolves some sea salt into it. Then comes the yeast and it is also dissolved. The final ingredient is flour type 00 (tipo 00). This is added in several additions by the approval of Enzo. Finally, the dough comes together and pulls away from the side of the bowl. It’s ready for kneading.
It takes a moment for me to realize that while Enzo is making the dough he’s not actually yelling at me. For example, Enzo loved to say my name. He would scream “BRI-YIN!!” making sure to accentuate each syllable. I feel like I'm being scolded by my 6th grade teacher and have to remind myself that this is the way the Neapolitans communicate. They are an incredibly passionate group of people. Speaking loudly like they are yelling and using their hands as another way to get their point across is completely normal in Naples. This is how every Neapolitan talks, walks, acts, etc.
Kneading is a long arduous process where you’re basically punching the dough in a hand-over-hand manner that is making the same motions of most industrial pizza mixers. It takes about 25 minutes and it’s not an easy thing to do. Ultimately we’re looking for the dough to have four characteristics:
1. White in color
Enzo is constantly pulling, cutting and slapping the ball of dough on the table with all his might to demonstrate strength, elasticity and softness. Once he feels that all these characteristics have been achieved he turns it out and he starts shaping the dough into balls. He cuts off a big slab for me to shape and this is my first contact with the dough. It really is beautiful and velvety in my hands. “BRI-YIN!” Enzo yells. He wants me to pay attention and try to do what he’s doing. I do it wrong. “BRI-YIN! NO!” He shows me again and I do it wrong once again. Third times a charm, right? Not in this case. This is when he starts yelling, I mean being extremely passionate about what he’s trying to show me. Over and over I’m not doing things to his expectations and he’s getting louder and louder in the Neapolitan way. Arms flailing he looks at me and says “BRI-YIN! ENOUGH!!” And I thought he didn't know English.
We then started working with dough that had been made the previous day. First we pulled it from the trays and floured it up. Enzo demonstrated, I watched. After working the dough to a 5-6 inch diameter with one hand, and one hand only, Enzo moved on to show me the next step in the process. This would be the technique of slapping the dough into the correct size to be topped. This is something that is quite hard to do. More difficult than anything he’s shown me yet. So difficult that out of the 50 pizzas I had the chance to slap out there was only one where instead of getting yelled at, I got a reluctant nod of approval.
And that was it for day one. Thank god I had Irene there to help ease the pain. Over the course of the day we bonded and she really helped me understand Enzo and the methods behind his madness. She sensed that I was having a rough go and she helped me understand that Enzo wasn’t upset (he was actually pleased by my performance). Irene then went on and explained that that’s how Neapolitans are, especially pizzaioli.
On the second day of my training Enzo beat me to the Naples restaurant. Once again we partook in the morning espresso ritual of the Neapolitans. I could tell that he was happy to see me. As soon as we got back to the pizzeria out came the water, flour, yeast and salt. This time Enzo pointed to me and said, “BRI-YIN, PASTA!!” I started dissolving the salt in the water. Once it had become one with the water I added the yeast. As it was dissolving I asked if Irene was coming again to translate again. He shot me the “get your hands off my daughter you filthy American” look and I didn’t bring it up again. I added some flour and got my hands into the salty, yeasty mess that would soon turn into something wonderful. Then came more flour and more mixing until the dough started to pull from the sides of the bowl. Onto the table goes the dough and I start to knead. As all of this is going on Enzo is meticulously critiquing my work. After 10 minutes of kneading I come to the realization that this is going to be another mentally challenging day. Another 10 minutes go by and with sweat rolling off my head Enzo stops me to check the dough. Almost there, almost. Several minutes later I get the same reluctant nod that I’ve seen from him before. The dough is ready for the next step.
I start to shape slabs of dough into balls with Enzo making sure things are going right. I’I'm pretty sure that Enzo thought that I was going to master this technique overnight in my sleep. Day two didn't’t fare any better than day one. I could see a vein starting to bulge in his forehead as he corrected me time and time again. We got through it, though. I was proud of the several that had come out correctly. Enzo was, too.
Slapping the dough into skins was next. As I mentioned above, this is a hard technique to master. It took me months to master the stretching technique that I use now, so I knew that this wouldn't’t happen in 2 days. I gave it my best and a few came out alright. Enzo seemed pleased for the most part.
We took a break for lunch which involved taking a bunch of food across the street to a Neapolitan bank where we made lunch for all the employees in the basement. It was a weird experience that involved a security guard waving a loaded gun around like he was some sort of cowboy, but I’ll save that story for another time.
Back at the restaurant we jumped right back in and started making dough again. This time my energy was spared and we used a mixer so we could make large batches. Once again we started with the water and salt. After the salt was dissolved the yeast was added and also dissolved. Next came the flour in big scoopfuls. The mixer was turning and turning and turning sloshing all the ingredients around until a paste started to form. “BRI-YIN!!! FARINA!!!,” Enzo yells. Two more scoops of flour were added. Five minutes later I start getting dizzy from watching the mixer go round. Enzo stops it and pulls at the dough showing me how unstable it is at this moment. “BRI-YIN!!! He grabs my hand and makes me feel the dough so I understand what he is trying to get across. I barely pull my hand out of the mixer before he turns the mixer on again. Roughly ten more minutes roll on by before I hear my name again. “BRI-YIN!!! LOOK!! LOOK!!” I look first at Enzo because he said something in English again. Then I get my hand into the dough before he has a chance to pull me into it. Not only is the dough white, strong, elastic and soft, but stunningly beautiful!! I mean, if you could have felt this dough! Just amazing!
We started the next batch and after we added some of the flour we started to shape the dough into rounds again. I can’t tell you how many times I heard my name followed by a sharp “NO!” Then I noticed the vein starting to protrude again and fortunately was saved by the next batch of dough needing some flour. I looked at the clock and said “Sweet! Only one more hour to go!”
For the last hour we worked again on slapping the dough. Again, difficulties arose. Enzo and I were both having a hard time. Me with the technique, him with me not understanding his directions (where was Irene?). As tough as it was, we both made it.
The days that I had with Enzo in Naples really were not some of the easiest that I’ve run across in my meager thirty years. However, I have never learned more than I did in the 16 hours I spent with that great man. Speaking of passionate, I have never seen a person more dedicated to preserving an art, craft or tradition than Enzo. The reason he was getting so excited when I was doing things wrong was because he wanted me to be doing them right so badly. He saw in me in the short amount of time we spent together the same passion that he has nurtured over the years--the passion of a true pizzaioli.
There was so much that happened these two days at the pizzeria. Instead of boring you with every little detail, I just told the story of making the dough. What I didn’t tell you about was all the times Enzo, Irene and I shared. I was hoping to paint a picture of how intense this guy can be, not that he is a schmuck. He truly is an amazing, caring person. I really cannot say enough good things about this guy. There is no doubt in my mind that if I had the chance to do it all over again I would jump at the chance to work with this extraordinary man no matter how many times he yelled “BRI-YIN!!”