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From West Africa to North Carolina: A Special Kind of Pizza

Napoli pizza truck

If you hang around the Napoli Wood-Fired Pizza truck in Carrboro, North Carolina long enough, you’ll start to see the same familiar faces show up every week. The pizza truck draws customers from all over the area and has been a labor of love for owner Gael Chatelain.

Chatelain grew up in West Africa and spent summers in Switzerland and Italy — these trips being the impetus behind his love for pizza. At just 10-years-old, he began making pizza from scratch. When he was 12, his family moved to Hillsborough, N.C. Fast forward to after college, and Chatelain and his now-wife, Sonja, traveled on motorcycles from Southeast Asia to Europe, then down to Mali, West Africa. In Mali, the couple started their first hospitality business, a small hotel and restaurant, where they built a wood-fired oven out of local materials and started learning how to make real deal wood-fired pizza.

napoli pizzas in boxes

When the two decided to move back to the U.S., they knew they wanted to start a business, but weren’t sure how their experience in Africa would translate. A food enterprise sounded like a good start, and Sonja had the idea to install a penny-clad wood-fired oven in the back of his truck. An avid builder, Chatelain was eager to design and build it himself. When the pizzeria truck first opened in 2015, it was stationed in a dentist office’s parking lot, and the team set up tables and lights nightly.

From the very beginning, one of Chatelain’s main priorities was to ensure their pizzas followed the Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) standards for true, traditional Neapolitan pizza. According to the codified rules passed down for generations, Napoli only uses 00 Caputo flour, water, salt and yeast for the dough. For the sauce, D.O.P. San Marzano tomatoes are imported from Naples and mixed with just salt and olive oil. Ovoline fresh mozzarella or D.O.P buffalo mozzarella is spread uniformly to top the pizza. Finally, the oven temperature must be 900-950 degrees Fahrenheit, and the pizza must be cooked in 90 seconds or less.

margarita pizza

“We let our dough develop flavor for several days to give it a unique flavor and texture,” said Chatelain. “We only use wood in our ovens [compared to] so many pizzerias which are switching to the convenience of gas. We’ve never compromised on this original vision and still follow all of these rules today.”

Sustainability and eco-friendliness are another constant. “We do our best to run our business as ethically as possible. All of our locations use only compostable disposables, we pay a living wage, and we offset the wood we burn in the oven with a reforestation program through our partner, One Tree Planted,” Chatelain explained.

In the five years since they opened, a second truck has been added to the family. And they began developing artisanal gelato with interesting flavors such as raspberry prosecco, gianduja, and guava. In addition, they’ve expanded to three brick and mortar locations, all of which have their traditional Neapolitan Pizza at their core.

Napoli gelato

Customers can expect pizzas such as the Apricot, topped with fresh mozzarella, creamy Boxcarr Cottonbell Cheese, sweet sopressata salami, apricot glaze and fresh oregano and the Calabri, featuring a Calabrian chili oil base, fresh mozzarella, spicy Calabrian peppers, garlic, Spanish chorizo, fresh oregano, creamy goat cheese and a sweet honey drizzle. And of course, a menu staple is the classic margherita.

Similar to other restaurants, this past pandemic year has been very difficult, and Chatelain is extremely grateful that all of Napoli’s locations are still open.

Beyond the pandemic, Chatelain is excited to continue building relationships with the community to offer the best products possible and plans to hopefully expand their products to grocers on a national scale.


Cara Hutto

Cara Hutto is a writer whose topics primarily focus on travel, food and women’s rights. She’s an experienced content creator, editor and social media manager and holds a degree in media and journalism from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Follow her on Instagram at @thelocalplate.



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