Located south of Naples, Cilento is a region that has it all: sea (the Tyrrhenian), mountains (the Apennines), the second largest national park in Italy, and, perhaps most importantly, excellent food. Not only has Slow Food recognized eight products from the region that are worth protecting, but the area is also inextricably linked with the Mediterranean diet.
In the mid-20th century, the American physiologist Ancel Keys decided to live in Pioppi, on the Cilento coast, where he had noticed that the inhabitants were living longer than most. It was here that he studied and began championing the Mediterranean diet, which has since been inscribed on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
The area’s culinary practices, including the Mediterranean diet and the eight Slow Food Presidia, are the foundation upon which 28-year-old Cristian Santomauro has built a truly unique gastronomic initiative: the pizza cilentana, also called the ammaccata (literally “dented” or “pressed,” so named because the pizza is pressed directly on the wooden pizza peel).
Hailing from Piano Vetrale, a tiny inland village, Cristian learned how to make this kind of pizza from his grandmother Teresa. As a child, he spent his Saturdays helping her prepare bread for the week. “If there was a bit of dough left over, my grandmother would say, ‘Let’s make an ammaccata,’” Cristian tells us. The bread and pizza dough were one and the same: mother yeast and durum wheat semolina (made from the saragolla heirloom variety of grain) mixed with soft wheat flour (made from risciola and carosella, two other heirloom varieties). She would then press and shape the dough on the wooden bread peel, creating an oval-shaped pizza, before sliding it into the wood-burning oven.
Although he trained and worked as a mechanical engineer, Cristian felt a calling to spread the word about this unique Cilento-style pizza. He decided to use the pie as a way to celebrate and promote the traditional products of Cilento, starting with the goat cacioricotta that his father produces fresh every morning. So in 2014, he began preparing the ammaccata at home using a tomato sauce made with sautéed garlic and onion, lots of mountain oregano and grated Cilento goat cacioricotta, and traveling to various pizzerias and farmhouses to share his creations.
Although he trained and worked as a mechanical engineer, Cristian felt a calling to spread the word about this unique Cilento-style pizza.
Not long after dedicating himself to pizza making, Cristian met Daniela, a passionate cook and pastry chef who later became his life partner. She studied at a vocational high school called Ancel Keys that specialized in culinary and tourism courses. They dreamed of opening their own restaurant, with Cristian making the pizza and Daniela in charge of the kitchen.
Then, in 2017, their dreams became a reality. The couple took over Villa Marchesa, a large farmhouse in the town of Castelnuovo Cilento, about ten kilometers from the sea. While the concrete building, a relatively new construction, lacks charm, Cristian’s exceptional products alone are worth the trip.
On our visit, he tells us about the journey of rediscovering the ancient grains used by grandmother, and how her directives still reign supreme. “The dough is mixed in a madia (a wooden trough), and strictly by hand,” he explains. Since the dough is low in gluten, it can’t withstand being stretched out as thinly as Neapolitan pizza. So Cristian puts a little flour on the wooden pizza peel and then slightly spreads and shapes the dough into an oval – Teresa originally used a rectangle-shaped bread peel and spread out the dough to fit the space as best she could, which is how the ammaccata got its shape.
“Another rule of grandmother Teresa was about the importance of the wood used in the oven: the rowan to start the fire, the heather for the aromas and the olive tree for maintaining the fire. Plus, the wood must be placed at the back of the oven and not at the side,” adds Cristian, small details, apparently insignificant, that nevertheless contribute to creating the perfect product.
When in February 2020 the ammaccata was deemed a PAT (Traditional Agricultural Food product) by the Italian government, the rules of grandmother Teresa became enshrined as the correct way to make a real ammaccata.
Cristian’s pizza menu is all based on traditional local products, all Slow Food Presidia: menaica anchovies, fished in the coastal village of Marina di Pisciotta with an environmentally friendly type of net (called a menaica); goat milk cacioricotta, obtained from the pure milk of the Cilento goat; the Cilento white fig; mozzarella nella mortella, in which the mozzarella is preserved in myrtle leaves that add an extraordinary aroma to the final product; and the cracked olives from Cilento, which are dented one at a time using a sea stone and then preserved in oil.
Daniela prepares a non-pizza menu also based on traditional products: cilentani fusilli, a type of long, tubular pasta; Cicerale chickpeas, organic and grown with very little water; soppressata di Gioi, cured salami sliced very thin; and cilentani cannoli, lightly fried and stuffed with an extraordinary cream. “All the products used are grown in the garden as grandma Teresina once did or come from small producers in Cilento,” she tells us.
Their farm in Castelnuovo Cilento is today a destination for residents and tourists alike, united in their search for a new and original gastronomic experience. This former engineer has provided such an experience, demonstrating that innovations can be made to the Mediterranean diet while preserving ancient traditions and spotlighting small producers. His pizza has ancient flavors and speaks of local products and traditions as a history book would. So we say, let’s all hit the books!
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