Have you ever heard of deep fried pizza? I must honestly admit that despite my interest in various types of food and culinary trends in different cultures, I had never heard of it until I came to Milan. The whole idea of fried, filled dough is, of course, nothing new: think of Russian pirozhki, Azerbaijan kutaby or empanadas born in Spain and now widespread in Latin America. But pizza?
When I was planning my trip to Northern Italy, I asked my Italian friend which foods I should try. He said: "Piadina, farinata and... pizza fritta: deep fried pizza!" At first I thought I had misheard. But no, that was exactly what he said.
Curious, I went to explore Italy's rich culinary history in search of the origins of fried pizza. The first clues were found somewhat far from Milan though: in Naples. Pizza fritta used to be sold there for a long time as a simple but satisfying street food, easy to hold in one hand. It was just one of many kinds of food until it became popular in late 1940s.
At that time, right after World War II, Italy, especially its South, was in a poor economical condition and cooking even simple traditional baked pizzas wasn't that easy: many firewood bakeries were destroyed as a result of bombings, and electricity bills were very high. For fried pizza the same simple dough is used, but it is cooked much faster in boiling olive oil, thus making an almost instant and more satisfying meal due to the absorbed oil.
Naples' pizza fritta was known by a few nicknames. One of them was "Pizza delle donne" - "Women's pizza". That's because it was mostly women who sold them on the streets to support their families and gain a little financial independence.
Another nickname was "Pizza a otto" - "eight-days pizza". Due to extreme poverty people sometimes weren't able to pay for the food right away. So pizzas were sold in credit. You could eat pizza on the spot and have eight days to pay for it. It worked flawlessly in small neighborhoods where people knew each other for their whole lives from birth to death.
And this close relationship between neighbors led to another tradition: women who were selling pizzas on the streets took turns: they would agree on which day of the week each lady would sell her pizzas to avoid competition and to let each seller earn some profit.
Who knows, maybe pizza fritta would have stayed just as one of Southern Italy's examples of street food, if not for the movie "The gold of Naples" where Sophia Loren portrayed the after-war fried pizza vendor.
So the half-moon crispy pocket with melted cheese, ham and tomatoes made its way north.
After some searching, I found a place in Milan, very close to the famous Duomo square, on Via Angelo, 19 where you can enjoy pizza fritta. And it is not some fancy restaurant, but rather a small "hole in the wall" - authentic Napoli-style pizzeria where you can watch the golden dough bathing in boiling oil and becoming your savory lunch: "Zia Esterina Sorbillo" ("Aunt Esterina Sorbillo").
Its founder Gino Sorbillo comes from Napoli. His grandparents, pizzeria owners, had 21 children. And all of them become pizzaioli: pizza chefs! Gino's father was the nineteenth of those 21 children. Literally growing up in a pizzeria, Gino learned all the secrets of the trade and developed his own style in the art of pizza making. He is well-known in Italian and international culinary circles, having been featured many times in documentaries and magazines, and also being a judge for international pizza making contests. Together with his younger brother Toto, Gino opened a few locations where pizza fritta is served: three in Napoli and one in Milano, naming them after their beloved aunt Esterina who was the firstborn of the 21 children.
In spite of its very central location in Milan, "Zia Esterina" is an inexpensive place where you can satisfy your hunger quite quickly. It is a very popular eatery, though, so there is always a line (or, rather, a crowd) outside. To get a pizza, find where the line ends, and when it's your turn, squeeze inside the tiny shack with a counter where you pay beforehand for your order. You can watch pizzaioli working right behind the counter. After you pay, you will get a receipt with your order number. Do not lose it! Now go outside, join the crowd, and wait 'till your number is called. Keep in mind that numbers are called in Italian. So if you do not understand the language, you may want to remember who was in line in front of you and see when they got their order; you will be next.
Now grab this amazingly tasty creation wrapped in wax paper and head to the nearby square where you can sit on a bench, stretch out your tired legs, watch people pass by, listen to the street musicians and enjoy your pizza while it's still hot: a golden, bubbly, crispy thin shell encrusting soft, fragrant, hearty cheese with meat and tomato filling. A piece of sunny Napoli in Milan.
Want to learn numbers in Italian and buy a pizza like a native? It’s easy! Read my post about Language learning resources.