The format of the demonstration was as simple and consistent as the Montanara itself: while Caporuscio explained in heavily-accented English the history of the Montanara and the related Montanarine and Pizza Fritta, Starita, his former mentor, tirelessly and, it seemed, effortlessly prepared the pizze one by one, pausing at times for Caporuscio to answer questions and point out specifics of the process. We learned, for example, that in Naples, fried pizza, far from being a new concept, may in fact predate the oven-baked variety, though the modern Montanara owes some important distinctions to Starita.
It was Starita, for one, who had the idea of finishing the Montanara in an oven, thereby evaporating some of the oil remaining on the crust and browning the few ingredients on top; this technique is now practically standard. Additionally, Starita made the seemingly simple, but noticeable decision to use smoked, rather than plain Buffalo mozzarella on the pizza, recognizing a golden combination with the fried dough. Whether the average Americans customer is aware of these innovations or not doesn’t seem to matter: in the case of Caporuscio’s relatively new restaurant, Don Antonio by Starita (on which he collaborated with Starita), the Montanara has topped the classic New York stand-by, the pizza Margherita, as the number one selling pizza on the menu.
The Process – Crafting the Montanara
Chefs Caporuscio and Starita use the same dough for the Montanara as for their non-fried pizze. As in Naples, the recipe is simple: water, flour, yeast, and salt. For such a simple dough, however, it is important to use only the highest-quality ingredients—Caporuscio recommends Caputo flour—and perhaps even more importantly, the proper techniques. For one, chefs should measure humidity and temperature daily so as to compensate accordingly with more or less flour. The main secret to quality Neapolitan pizza (especially the Montanara), Caporuscio notes, is the pizza maker himself (the pizzaiolo), who uses only his hands for mixing and kneading.Machine mixers have a tendency to remove too much air from dough, causing it to become overly-dense and unable to rise sufficiently around the edges during frying. For this very reason, Neapolitan pizzaioli typically avoid excessive stretching and flipping of dough in favor of a gentler touch. If one absolutely must use a machine mixer, Caporuscio concedes, one should choose a fork or arm mixer over the Hobart, which runs too quickly and thus makes dough too warm. Ultimately, hand-mixing allows one to most easily and accurately gauge when dough has reached what Italians call “Il Punto di Pasta”—the perfect texture and consistency for making pizza. Once this has been achieved, the dough should be left to sit at room temperature for at least two hours.
For the Montanara and other fried pizze, Caporuscio and Starita use only canola oil, heated to 100˚F. During the demonstration, Starita very gently placed the dough into the fryer, wherein it immediately began to bubble and crisp-up; to facilitate somewhat-even frying, Starita actively spun and flipped the crust until it reached a desired level of doneness—this was no passive deep-frying, where frozen french fries are dunked unceremoniously into a vat of old, questionable oil, but a careful, calculated art form perfected over three generations of Staritas. It was wonderful to watch Starita—a consummate chef and entertainer despite the language barrier—in his element, poised over the fryer and brandishing a wide slotted spoon as if it were his instrument. So methodical was the older chef that, were it not for his occasional quip or wisecrack in broken English, I would have thought he was in a sort of active meditative trance.
When the dough had finished frying to Starita’s satisfaction, he lifted it vertically out of the fryer, allowing some of the oil to drain off before placing it on the counter to be coated in tomato sauce, basil, and smoked Mozzarella di Buffalo. The topped Montanara then was placed directly into the oven for the final part of the cooking process; when a sufficient amount of oil had cooked-off and the toppings had browned suitably, the Montanara was finished, ready to be sliced and served.
Texture-wise, the crust of the Montanara was crisp and light—far lighter than I would’ve imagined any fried food could be; additionally, the pizza was not even particularly oily, most likely a result of oven-finishing. Starita’s instincts were spot-on, as the smoked mozzarella paired beautifully with the fried-then-baked crust. Indeed, every ingredient on this simple pie worked, both individually and in harmony with one another. The sauce, we were told, was a Ragù napoletano which had been cooked partially in a wood-fired oven to gain a subtle amount of smokiness (I couldn’t taste this, though it doubtlessly added to the total flavor). Ultimately, the Montanara was spectacular, with a large amount of flavor, both obvious and subtle, for such a relatively simple pie. There was no shortage of samples either, as Starita must have produced ten or more of the delicious, diminutive pies, as well as generous amounts of Montanarine, smaller pieces of fried dough topped merely with sauce and pecorino romano. The presentation amounted to a suitably tasty and filling breakfast, a wonderful start to the third and final day of the ICC.
Author’s Note: The night before the Montanara demonstration, my cousin LJ and I decided to have dinner at Don Antonio by Starita. Though the restaurant was almost totally filled, we we fortunate to get a table by the kitchen, where we were treated to an excellent view of the chefs at work. We started our meal with an appetizer of arancini, a Neapolitan meat-filled rice ball I have eaten and loved since my early-childhood in Brooklyn, and two of the least expensive Italian beers on the menu. The arancini, of which there were only two, were small and not particularly exceptional, though in their defense, they aren’t the restaurant’s specialty, nor were they our reason for visiting. As soon as we’d finished our appetizer, the waiter came over to take our pizza orders: LJ took the Margherita S.T.G. (Guaranteed Typical Specialty), while I ordered the Pizza Fritta, filled with cherry tomatoes, homemade mozzarella, fresh ricotta, and salami.
Our pizze arrived in only a matter of minutes, piping-hot and lovely to behold. Any reservations we might have had because of the arancini were quickly and utterly erased after the first few bites of these incredible pies: LJs Margherita was masterfully done, as good as any pizza I’d tasted in either New York or Italy, while the interplay between the fried crust and fresh filling of my Pizza Fritta was simply remarkable, a delight to eat and surprisingly light for a fried, stuffed entree. LJ and I shared our pies 50-50, which turned out to be the perfect amount of food for the both of us very capable eaters. When we got our bill, it turned out to be perfectly reasonable, even affordable for a meal of that size and quality in Manhattan.
Ultimately, our experience at Don Antonio by Starita was a very positive one. I would highly recommend this restaurant to anyone in Manhattan looking for excellent pizza and other authentic Neapolitan dishes, including Pizza Fritta and the Montanara. Additionally, I am happy to report that the waitstaff was courteous, fast, and professional—even when I returned to look for my outer jacket, which I’d left in the cloak-room.
The downloadable menu can be found here.
All photos by John M. Sconzo, MD. For more photos from this demo, please see the Flick’r photoset.