Livia Hengel meets the new breed of female pizza makers shaking up Naples’ male-dominated food scene.
“Fried pizza is Woman,” Isabella De Cham tells me boldly as she drops a half-moon pizza pocket into a bubbling fryer and I watch it rapidly double in size. “It’s always been made by women, that’s why we say ‘pizza fritta è donna’.” I’ve come to visit her at 1947 Pizza Fritta, a small eatery located near the city’s train station, to learn more about this cultural and culinary phenomenon – not fried pizza, but female pizza makers.
Enter any pizzeria in the historic centre of Naples and you’re sure to observe a crew of men kneading, stretching, tossing and baking superlative pies for throngs of hungry customers. Pizza in Naples is not only a source of epicurean pleasure and national pride; it is regarded as a veritable art form, one that is vying to be included in Unesco’s “Intangible Heritage” List (results to be announced in early 2018).
With hundreds of establishments striving to be recognised as the best in the city, it’s hard to stand out from the crowd, but one thing is certain about the competition: it’s dominated by men. But after watching Sophia Loren fry up pizzas in Vittorio De Sica’s L’Oro di Napoli, I knew this wasn’t just a man’s trade and, thus inspired, had set off in search of her modern heirs.
At 24, Isabella is already considered one of the best pizza makers in Naples and has been compared to Sophia Loren’s character for her superlative creations. Her favourite variant, which features smoked provolone cheese from Sorrento, cacciocavallo, rucola and lemon zest, even landed her the title of Pizza Champion at the Campionato Nazionale Pizza DOC in Nocera last year.
“Traditionally pizza margherita was considered a luxury because mozzarella was costly. And standing in front of an oven was an arduous task – so it was the man’s job. Fried pizza instead used common ingredients, ricotta and fatty pork bits, and was smaller in size so it was easier for feminine hands to fold,” she explains as she opens her palms. They are indeed nimble: perfect for kneading and folding the small pies.
And Isabella isn’t the only woman causing a stir. In an era of celebrity chefs, there are naturally plenty of celebrity pizzaioli, but one is particularly conspicuous. Blonde, bubbly and often outfitted in a flowing peasant blouse, Teresa Iorio isn’t your traditional Neapolitan pizza maker. She is the first woman to win the Trofeo Caputo Pizza Championship, earning her the title of Worldwide Champion Pizzaiola – an achievement that is proudly documented in photos hanging on the walls of her pizzeria, Le Figlie di Iorio.
“My father was a pizzaiolo and my mother made fried pizzas on the weekends,” Teresa, who opened her restaurant in 2006, tells me. “My love for pizza came from my father. You see, I am the 19th of 20 children and I started making pizza when I was 12 to help out the family and lessen his load.”
She is proud of her heritage and credits her success to the secret recipe she’s inherited. “It was an enormous satisfaction to win the Trofeo Caputo Championship in 2015 and be recognised for my pizza, a tradition I’ve carried over from my father,” she says. Now Teresa wants to share that tradition, with ambitions to give back to the local community by creating employment opportunities for women.
“I want to dedicate my work to others, it’s my biggest desire,” she says, sliding a pizza into the burning wood-fire oven. She is collaborating with the highly successful Neapolitan Rossopomodoro restaurant chain to make fried pizzas at their waterfront location and hopes to expand her brand, “femmena e fritta” (female and fried), in order to train and hire women in her image.
“I’m a feminist,” she says. “I love women, and too many are disadvantaged and in need. My hope and dream is to teach women my trade and give them the opportunity to work.” In her own establishment, Teresa practises what she preaches – she employs two of her sisters and a niece.
Another up and coming pizzaiola, Maria Cacialli, also began her career young – very young. “I began [my training] in my mother’s womb,” she says. “My mother and my father met in a pizzeria and I was practically born on bags of flour. Making pizza was always my dream and it will remain so for all of my life. I have it in my DNA.”
Her pizzeria, La Figlia del Presidente (The Daughter of the President), is an homage to her father Ernesto Cacialli, who famously handed a pizza to former US President Bill Clinton in 1994 and promptly became immortalised as “The President’s Pizzaiolo”.
I ask Maria if she finds it difficult to be a woman in a world dominated by men, and she chuckles knowingly. “The difficulties are every day,” she says. “I work alongside 20 men, including my husband and son; it’s not easy for a woman to make space for herself and command attention. But I am very tenacious and strong, I’m always able to overcome the odds.”
Why doesn’t she hire other women to work alongside her? “Women have a mind of their own,” she laughs, “I prefer working with men… they’re easier to control.”
©Independent Digital News and Media, written by Livia Hengel