To Sri Lanka and Back, With a Touch of Opera

Warm greetings to all at the end of the year! As I look back on 2018, Spacca Napoli continued to be a gateway to other cultures—inclusive of pizza, and beyond Chicago.  This year my travels ranged from Las Vegas to New York, Naples to Sri Lanka, and back to Naples. I’ll go in chronological order:



The year began with a short trip to Naples. There, the Italian Press was introduced to the project I had been invited to participate in as a producer, the Pino Daniele Opera. A small group of the principal musicians previewed a couple of musical tracks for an anticipated CD and future concerts. Among them were Paolo Raffone: Pino Daniele’s longtime arranger, friend, and pianist, and recently retired professor at the Music Academy in Naples, and Michelle Simonelli: a super talented young singer on vocals. Not a small undertaking as Pino Daniele is a name associated with and loved by Neapolitan people as one of the most important musical voices of Naples. Thus to carry his music on and interpret his songs is charged with strong emotions for everyone concerned. Daniele died in 2015 at age 59, but this project had been in discussion before his death, and now was the moment to bring it to life, as an unplugged homage to his beautiful work. I was thrilled to be included, and to have the chance to give something back to the city that has given me so much. More on that later in this letter.

From Naples I went to the area of Negombo in Sri Lanka. This was my first time in Asia. I was invited by Ruwinta Amith, who is planning to return to his family’s village, Weennappuwa, after many years of working at the B & B Donna Regina in Naples. Ruwinta and his father, Fernando Alow, had bought land the size of a football field, their plan was to build and run a community bakery that would include bread, pizza and other treats, and provide a place for those nearby to gather and relax. So Mimmo and I went down for the adventure, to see it and to see how we could help out. With the oven just completed, we fired it for the first time, made trial dough for pizze fritte, discussed kitchen and restaurant layouts, and designed oven utensils—all for the joy of it. At the end of our stay we were even able to host a “friends and family” pizza party. Baking in another country, culture, and climate presented new challenges. The humidity, ingredient supplies, type of wood, all are different. We became part of the family by making bread together. This area is a beautiful, verdant, fascinating place. Besides the lush greenery, mountains, jungles, and coast, some parts of the country can enfold an English church, a Buddhist Temple, a Hindu Temple, and a Mosque all in one square block. Ruwinta has a large, warm, loving family. We were immediately at ease and felt welcomed in from the start. In transit for home I made a quick stop in Rome to visit with Gabriele Bonci, better known as the Michelangelo of Pizza. Bonci has opened a couple of locations in Chicago and we stay in touch.



Pizza Expo Las Vegas is such a great and fun annual March event, where colleagues reconnect with each other and we all watch new talent come onto the scene. There is always much to learn, the best of which occurs in an atmosphere of shared ideas. My first time at the Expo: March, 2004; the only year missed, 2006, the year we opened; Valentine’s Day.



I was back again in Italy on invitation to present alongside Roberto Caporuscio at the eleventh edition of LSDM - La Strada della Mozzarella.  Many international guests flew in from all over the globe to Paestum to join leading Italian chefs in exploration of Naples’ most beloved ingredient: Mozzarella di Bufala DOP. Paestum is in a beautiful part of Campania, the Cilento. It overlooks the sea, has twin ancient temples, an important antiquities museum, and, as well, is part of a very important food region. I shared my story and attachment to Italy, my take on what makes and sustains a pizza practice—and how mine has evolved over time.  This (The) word—practice—still defines my everyday experience. Bringing a beginner’s mind to the daily mixing of the dough is how I stay connected, insuring that the art and craft of making the pasta stays at the top of my list of what is important.  By doing so, I, along with other Neapolitan pizza makers here in America, sustain the bridge to Napoli.

I also showcased one of our new favorite pizzas, Pizza Blu. This pizza features Cuor di Ceriali, a dough with a mix of cereals and seeds, that balances beautifully with the flavors of fior di latte, caramelized onions, roasted mushrooms and walnuts. The signature blue cheese is wrapped in mirtilli, a wild blueberry. Il Palagiaccio is the caseificio, the maker of this cheese. They are located in the Mugello north of Fiesole, their family farm dates back 1000 years. I was first introduced to the cheese when I met the producer and proprietor of the caseificio, Luigi Bolli, in Chicago. One thing I try to do and did with this cheese, is ask how best to be used, and this gave birth to this particular pizza.

From there I returned to Naples for the first full concert of the Pino Daniele Opera, which took place in the cortile (open courtyard) of the Museum at Capodimonte—a former Royal Palace—on May 27th. Over 450 people attended the concert, which featured a full cast of musicians, many of whom had played with Pino over the course of his career, and have stellar careers of their own. It was an exciting evening and a beautiful night for all who were there, with palpable energy and joy.   

A few days after the concert, I was part of the Caputo Pizza Village along the waterfront, the Lungomare Ceracciolo, in Naples. An annual event, the Pizza Village spans ten days, features demonstrations and exhibits, showcases 50 historic Neapolitan pizzerias, and draws 500,000 visitors for a sampling of 100,000 pizzas and music. This time around Roberto Caporuscio and I joined forces with Gino Sorbillo. Our presentation, titled Da Emigranti e Imprenditori (from emigrants and entrepreneurs), highlighted once more the link between Naples and America.  My pizza: Pizza Blu.    



To my great surprise, I learned in early spring that Spacca Napoli was going to receive a wonderful award in a ceremony, Top 50, to be held in Naples in July at the Teatro Mercantile, so I made a quick plan to go back.   50 pizzerias located in Italy were recognized, as well as several pizzerias from around the world. Thanks to the Consorzio di Tutela Della Mozzarella di Bufala DOP, we were given the accolade “Migliore Pizzeria Napoletana Fuori dall’Italia 2018” (Best Neapolitan Pizzeria outside Italy, 2018).  This is an incredible honor that I felt, and feel, truly humbled by.



The New York Pizza Festival was held on October 6th and 7th on Crescent Avenue parallel to the famous Arthur Avenue. This area is known as the “Little Italy” of the Bronx—it is a very strong Italian community. The first of its kind, this two-day event was open to the public, with 30 of us pizzaiuoli from all over the U.S., plus 10 pizza makers from Naples, all presenting our many wonderful and different styles of pizza. I shared La Buzzanca, with the cuor di cereali pasta, fior di latte and stracciatella cheeses, porchetta, and tartufo nero. This pizza was inspired by Marzia Buzzanca and her locale Percorsi di Gusto, in l’Aquila. There are so many great pizza makers here in America and around the world I admire and respect; it is always a pleasure to showcase their work.

From New York, I headed back yet again to Italy to help with the olive harvest and the last days of the wine pressing (la torcia), at Le Campestre in Castel del Sasso, Provincia di Casserta. I can’t ever say enough about this family, their generosity to me over the years, and the pleasure I have in watching Liliana and Franco’s two grandsons as they grow. Picking olives under the sun is hard but rewarding work, physical and meditative together.  The beauty surrounding us on these gorgeous autumn days with blue skies and light breezes was soul nurturing. Our midday meals were rewarding and robust, such as (add examples Jon, or take out the “such as”!!) enjoyed with rustic wine and good conversation.



I had time for one last trip back to Naples in 2018, for a third concert of the Pino Daniele Opera project which took place on Dec 19th, just before the Christmas holidays. This one was held at the historic and stunning Teatro Augusteo on Via Toledo—or Via Roma, depending who you ask! With a 16-piece orchestra including many of the same guest musicians (plus a few others) who had played at Capodimonte, the evening was both homage and showcase of so much talent and heart. Once again led by the principals of the project, Paolo Raffone and Michelle Simonelli, I was so pleased that so many of my dear friends and colleagues made over these years, from in and around Naples, were able to join us.  It was a celebratory evening. The CD bearing the same name will be released on Jan 15th of 2019 on disc and digitally.


I really count my blessings every year at this time, and want to give a big thanks to my staff, customers, friends, vendors (here and abroad), and anyone who helps make Spacca Napoli the place that it is, everyone who stops by to say hello, and all who continue in various ways to create this space of community. If I haven’t had the chance to say it to you in person, this “thank you” is for you.

Happy New Year, enjoy our year in review, and see you in 2019.