Photos by Ruta Smith

Ciro Damiano couldn’t find the classic Neapolitan-style pizzas he grew up eating in Naples, Italy, when his job relocated him to Charleston, but he found a solution to satiate his craving — he would learn to make the pies himself. After opening a food truck, Damiano moved into a Summerville brick-and-mortar named Antica Napoli, one of just three pizzerias in the state serving certified authentic Neapolitan-style pizza. 

“I always had friends that owned pizzerias, but I always had access, so I never had the need,” said Damiano, explaining why he never learned to make pizza growing up. “[I started making my own] when I moved to Charleston because it was something that I was missing so much.”  

Damiano left Italy for Seattle just over a decade ago while he was working as a manufacturing engineer in the aerospace field. That same job brought him to Charleston in 2013, which is when he started making pizzas in his spare time. 

“I had a friend of mine who had a little trailer, and he built a little wood-fired oven on it,” Damiano said. “He decided to get rid of it, so I bought the trailer from him and started to play with it at my house. I started to see that it was something people started to like.” 

After teaching himself the tricks to the Neapolitan pizza trade, Damiano purchased a food truck in 2016 and made Antica Napoli, which translates to “Ancient Naples,” his full-time gig.  

“With the food truck, I always had some limitations with it being a true certified Napoli restaurant,” Damiano said. “I always had it in my mind to be legitimate and a member of the True Neapolitan-style organization.” 

The 37-year-old organization Damiano referred to is called the True Neapolitan Pizza Association (Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana). The association’s “mission is to promote and protect in Italy and worldwide the true Neapolitan pizza,” according to its website. There are less than 900 AVPN-certified pizzerias worldwide and just three in South Carolina, with Antica Napoli being one of them. So how did Daminano earn this coveted certification?  

First, he opened a brick-and-mortar restaurant in Summerville before getting to work, honing his craft in the restaurant and in Italy, where he trained with a “master pizza chef.” In April 2019, Damiano won a “Vera Pizza Napoletana Olympic Games” gold medal in the under-35 category for non-AVPN pizza-makers. Antica Napoli received its certification in August 2020, joining APizza di Napoli in Aiken and Stone Pizza in Greenville as South Carolina’s lone representatives. 

What makes a true Neapolitan-style pizza? According to Damiano, it’s simple. 

“It’s really not a secret, [but] there are rules to make a Neapolitan pizza,” Damiano said. “That goes from the ingredients you use, the time that it takes to rise the dough, the way that you roll the balls, to stretching the pizza and tossing by hand.” 

According to the chef, these are the rules: tomatoes must be San Marzano, mozzarella must be fresh and the main ingredients should come from the Campania region near Naples. Pizzas are cooked at around 900 degrees for 60-90 seconds, Damiano said. 

“It’s very simple ingredients, but with a very high quality. We make sure to advise the customers, especially when they are a new first timer, we make sure to let them know about the product and satisfy their expectation,” Damiano said. “When you go to grab a slice of pizza, you will have to fold it in half and then you have to fold the tip in so the ingredients don’t fall, because it’s a soft style of pizza.” 

Antica Napoli’s signature pizza is probably its simplest: the margherita. But, Damiano also caters to the masses with creative toppings like pimento cheese, ham, basil and fresh mozzarella, which are found on the “Carolina” pie. No matter the topping, Damiano feels honored to showcase the pride and joy of his Italian hometown in Summerville. 

“It’s that connection with my culture, my being. It kind of created that bridge between me and what I’m missing about my culture and my city,” Damiano said. “There’s no amount of money that will give that satisfaction.”  

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