The Art of Pizza: Franco Pepe Pizza Experience in Naples

Debuting on Silver Moon (and expanding to Silver Dawn in Spring 2022), Silversea’s S.A.L.T., which stands for Sea and Land Taste, is an innovative new program celebrating the culinary arts of our destinations. There are four pillars to S.A.L.T. At S.A.L.T. Kitchen, a restaurant dedicated to showcasing food and wine from the region in which the ship is traveling, the regional menu offers daily-changing options based on the port of the day. In S.A.L.T. Lab, guests enjoy the challenge of cooking regional dishes. S.A.L.T. Bar celebrates cocktails made with local ingredients. All aim to bring the experience of life onshore onto Silver Moon.

The S.A.L.T. Experiences program moves in the opposite direction. This exclusive-to-Silversea series of shore excursions, hand-curated by local experts in the worlds of cuisine and wine, offer personal connections to the places we visit. In this series of stories, we share our experiences as we travel through the Mediterranean. We hope you’ll join us.

Today we are in…Naples. When Silver Moon docks in Naples, Mount Vesuvius’ peculiar summit is capped by a misty hat of clouds. The still active volcano owes its truncated shape to the eruption that blew its top off in 1944: we’re going to get closer to “O’ gigante da muntagna” (the mountain giant) today as we head out north, towards the old town of Caiazzo and the world’s best pizzaiolo: Franco Pepe. We’re going to eat at his chef’s table, just us – the restaurant is normally closed for lunch.

“Isn’t it odd to travel an hour outside of Naples to eat pizza?” you might ask. Well, let me tell you: the journey is not just worthy, it’s memorable. Pepe is a “pizzaiolo’s pizzaiolo”. He’s got colleagues flocking to pay homage from the four corners of the world, countless awards, a steady line outside his restaurant, Pepe in Grani. He’s going to be featured in an upcoming high-profile TV series, of which we can’t say more now (spoiler alert: it’s huge.)

Franco Pepe’s signature ‘Margherita Sbagliata’ pizza pie

Unsurprisingly, his Margherita Sbagliata is the cover star of one of Modernist Pizza’s volumes. Pepe’s signature pie gets its name (sbagliata means “wrong”) from its peculiar toppings: while a regular Margherita typically starts with tomato and is then topped with mozzarella and baked, the Sbagliata starts with buffalo mozzarella and only post bake is finished with two uncooked reductions, basil and a rather special pomodoro.

Before we hit Pepe in Grani, we’re going to see where the buffalo mozzarella on that famous pizza is made, and where the heirloom tomatoes that top it grow. After a smooth drive, crossing a plain that used to be a lake and passing lush hills filled with fossils and fertile volcanic soil, we arrive at Il Casolare in Alvignano. Owner Mimmo La Vecchia, smiling under a huge moustache, leads us inside.

What a sight. A well-choreographed ballet takes place around us, as cheese artisans stir, pull and squeeze. “Mozzarella” comes from the verb “mozzare” or to break off, referring to the way the stretchy mass is hand cut to make the finished product. The air is heavy with the scent of fresh milk and brine. There are vats full of fresh buffalo milk (“We source it from a handful of dairy farms within a 15Km radius,” says Mimmo) mixed with day old whey and rennet; cauldrons where the curds are melted; massive tanks full of brine, where the finished mozza rests.

Mimmo La Vecchia, owner of Il Casolare, where fresh mozzarella is produced/Laura Lazzaroni

Mimmo hands us plates with still warm mozzarella: tiny knots, almost snappy under the teeth, and big slices of 1Kg balls, oozing milky juice. The flavor is incredible, grassy and nutty. S.A.L.T. Kitchen’s executive chef buys some provola and pecorino cheese to take on board and we make our way to the tomato farm La Sbecciatrice, a few kilometers away, in a tiny hamlet with just one main road. Another Mimmo, one of two Barbiero brothers, greets us and shows us the family home.

We sit in what used to be the farm’s stable, where he’s set up a table for a tasting of bruschetta with his vegetable compotes and chutneys. He tells us about “Resistenza contadina”, a collective of like-minded local farmers who practice organic agriculture, focusing on heirloom varieties of vegetables and legumes – a respectful, sustainable philosophy. He tells us about his pomodoro riccio, an ancient tomato ultra-rich in antioxidants. It grows nearby, with almost no irrigation, on a small lot. It’s all hand-picked. He makes his version of ketchup with it. “We wouldn’t be growing it if it wasn’t for Franco,” Mimmo says.

But now it’s time for lunch. What’s better than to be taken by Franco Pepe himself on an exclusive tour of his Pepe in Grani (housed in an 18th century 3-story palmento, where olives used to be pressed)? A private tasting at the table of his Authentica (basically, a VIP room at the top of the restaurant), with him stretching, topping and baking the dough right in front of us, explaining it all. I’ve known this man for many years, and every time I visit it’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Franco Pepe’s famous pizza dough is light, custardy and delicious/Laura Lazzaroni

I’m afraid the photos won’t do it justice. The fried pizza we have as starter, the slices of piping hot pizza (yes, there’s also Margherita Sbagliata) with toppings you wouldn’t find anywhere else: different kinds of heirloom pomodoro, several vintages of Grana Padano, buffalo mozzarella, tuna and anchovies, a rare kind of onion…. Underneath it all there’s Pepe’s famous dough: light, custardy, delicious. And digestible. Franco knows I love his Calzone con Scarola Riccia (a recipe of his father’s) and makes one especially for me. There’s even pizza-dessert. We get up and we feel right as rain. We’re just sorry it’s over.  

Inside tip: Don’t eat a big breakfast and don’t go for extra servings of mozzarella and bruschette at Il Casolare and la Sbecciatrice, Franco Pepe’s private tasting is truly a feast (but you can buy some cheese to bring home, vacuum packed, or even some mozzarella to snack on back on the ship: artisanal mozzarella is best kept at room temperature).

More info: the tour lasts about 6 hours, but you can rest on the bus ride (1 hour each way). The shore excursion is available aboard Silver Dawn in Spring/Summer 2022.