Novelty fried foods—Mars bars, ice cream, sticks of butters—are for carnies and hooligans—the last refuge of calorie- and flavor-agnostic scoundrels. It’s excess wrapped in excess, battered and oil-soaked into a state of depressing, belt-stretching sameness. But fried pizza is not the invention of some drunken Scot or some twisted circus clown. It’s a tradition that stretches back nearly as far the invention of pizza itself, to the 16th century, when the wives of Neapolitan piemen would fry the leftover scraps of dough and sell them on the street.
More recently, pizza fritta was Sophia Loren’s muse in Vittorio De Sica’s 1954 movie, L’ Oro di Napoli. In it, a young, stunning Loren shows some skill at an open-air pizza counter, flouring and stretching dough into modest discs and dropping them in a cauldron of hot oil. The scene goes on for three or four minutes, but could have gone on for hours and it would have been a masterpiece. Eventually, the camera pans to a young, good-looking Italian sitting on a street cart. He’s eating pizza and smiling like a love-struck fool. Loren blushes, runs her fingers across her chest, touches her hair, smiles back. But here’s what Loren and the viewers and anybody who hasn’t eat pizza fritta don’t know: He wasn’t smiling at the bronzed goddess before him; he was smiling at the golden discs of pleasure she was peddling.
I learned about the arousing powers of pizza fritta last time I was in New York in a place with strong ties to the birthplace of pizza. In a city full of pizzerias ancient and revered enough to be UNESCO protected, Starita stands out as one of Naples’ most important establishments. A small part of that has to do with the fact that it was Starita where Sophia Loren was slinging those pies in L’ Oro di Napoli. A larger part, though, has to do with the fact that the Starita family has crushed tomatoes in its bloodline. So dialed into the ways of dough and sauce and cheese are they that the Vatican would call upon the Starita clan to help Pope John Paul II get his pizza fix.
Don Antonio by Starita in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen is a new outpost of the 111-year-old pizza pantheon. To bring his saucy fever dream to life in the States, Antonio Starita turned to Roberto Caporuscio, owner of Kesté in the West Village, what many consider to be the city’s best pizzeria. He also happens to be Starita’s one-time apprentice, now reunited with his master to bring balance to the pizza force like a couple of Jedi pizzaioli.
These are two of the biggest names in the pizza world, and accordingly their menu reads like an encyclopedia of pizza: white pizzas, red pizzas, gluten-free pizzas, stuffed and stretched and slathered, gilded with truffles, goosed with pistachio pesto, and garnished always with a generous swirl of olive oil from the motherland. Ignore all of this chatter, though, because you are here to eat just one pizza: La Montara Starita. The dough is stretched 10 inches across, then fried in palm oil until just firm and the color of straw. It’s then taken out and given the normal pizza treatment: a ladle of sauce, a light scattering of cheese, and a quick cameo in a blazing hot wood-fired oven. The end result looks pretty much like a standard margherita, but the reality is something altogether different.
The crust tastes of donuts before they’re glazed, of Indian frybread, of the richness of Chicago-style pizza without the phonebook of flour and cheese to work through. There’s an almost truffle-like quality to the pie—the intensely earthy flavor of mozzarella smoked low and slow until the cheese is pregnant with the flavor of the hearth.
Because the crust is that much richer, the tomato sauce needs to be that much brighter. Because the tomato sauce is so jacked with sweetness and acidity, the cheese needs to be that much more assertive. What you end up with is pizza under a microscope, the virtues of the holy trinity of toasted flour, puckering tomato and milky mozzarella intensified to an almost-comical level. You take a bite, then you pull the slice back and stare at it with cocked head and raised brow, as if seeing a childhood girlfriend for the first time since puberty.
It’s a pizza with an Italian body and an American soul. It’s not surprising, then, that it took crossing the Atlantic for pizza fritta to find its footing. I’ve eaten fried pizza in Naples a number of times, but what I’ve had there has been a cautionary tale for the ills of indiscriminate frying: a half-moon of sausage and cheese and weeping crust—painfully reminiscent of the ghoulish acts perpetrated at the state fairs across the country.
But in pizza’s adopted home, pizza’s adapted form is catching on. Montanara pies are popping up on Manhattan menus like forest mushrooms in October. Guilio Adriani of Forcella, arguably the guy responsible for the craze, just opened his third fried-pizza outlet in 18 months. I tried his montanara, too, and liked it just fine, but by the time I stood up, I know all too well that I had just eaten a fried pizza.
For my money, I’ll take Sarita’s all day. Even if Sophia has long since hung up her apron.