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Consumer Reports


Pizza purists of the world, unite!

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | (KRT) NAPLES, Italy - Antonio Pace has news for you: That tomato and cheese pie you have been eating by the slice all your life - that is not pizza. Real pizza - the kind his family has been making in Naples for 100 years - is made only with special, mostly Italian, ingredients: a specific type of flour, tomatoes and mozzarella. You don't put pepperoni on it, let alone salmon or pineapple.

For years, traditionalists in this southern port city have decried the flashy mutations featured at your favorite neighborhood parlor, while fighting to preserve the old minimalist recipes. So passionate is Pace about his cause that a decade ago he founded a group called Association for True Neapolitan Pizza. It offers a seal of approval to restaurants that make pizza using the proper method and ingredients.

The specifications are so exacting, though, that only a few hundred restaurants worldwide have gotten the certification. And now the old pizza guard has another problem: A shortage of Italians who want to be "pizzaioli" - pizza-makers.

A head-hunting agency recently sought to fill 20 decent-paying slots for "pizzaioli in Naples and came up empty, despite a regional unemployment rate as high as 20 percent.

"The average Italian doesn't want to be in front of a hot oven in August," laments Walter Biggi, chief instructor for the privately owned National Pizza School in Rome.

Antonio Nistico, director of marketing for Gevi, the private employment agency that conducted the search, said that skilled pizza-makers often find it more lucrative to go abroad. There is no official certification process for pizza-makers, but restaurants usually seek those who undergo an intensive four-week training course.

"Some good ones have gone to Australia, Canada, and the U.S., and they've made fortunes," Nistico said.

Yet another factor depressing interest in the profession may be the changing nature of the pizza business in Italy.

There were perhaps 40 pizzerias in the whole country in 1950, says Anthony Pace, founder of the Association for True Neapolitan Pizza. Today, he says, there are 36,000. Many of those are restaurants at which pizza is one of numerous menu offerings, whereas true pizzaioli only make pizza.

The result, purists argue, is that quality has suffered, and the craft of pizza-making has been devalued.

Biggi, the pizza instructor, contends it is impossible to find a decent pizza in the historic center of Rome. Tourist traps abound, while locals frequent a chain called Spizzico, which has partnered with Burger King.

Recently an entrepreneur announced a plan that has the purists gagging: pizza-dispensing vending machines.

"This is not pizza," Pace says of the mass-market imitators, his voice dripping with derision. "It's another thing."

Real Neopolitan pizza, he contends, is made just like the one that, according to legend, was cooked for Italy's Queen Margherita in 1889. The ingredients formed the colors of the Italian flag: tomato for red, basil for green, and for white, mozzarella cheese from the milk of the water buffalo.

Another version, the marinara, has no cheese but more tomato, diced into a thick and spicy topping.

Pace sells both at Cire a Santa Brigida, the landmark restaurant in the center of Naples where his family has been making pizza since 1931. Before that, he says, his ancestors sold pizzas in different locations in Naples as far back as the mid-1800s. On a recent afternoon, Japanese and American tourists mixed with local office-workers on their lunch breaks.

The pizzas he and other traditionalists serve in Naples are works of art. They arrive at the table as individual pies, hot from a brief stint in a wood-fired brick oven. The thin (but not too thin) wheel of soft, light crust is covered by just enough extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, buffalo mozzarella cheese and San Marzano plum tomato slices to delight without overpowering. The purists may allow some mushrooms or anchovies, but they argue that such toppings as pepperoni (it's called spicy salami in Italy) stray too far.

That may be a losing battle - pizzerias catering to tourists have long used American-style toppings, and Arab immigrants have made their way into the business, bringing with them flavors and ingredients of their own - but Pace is still fighting it. With the support of the Italian Agriculture Ministry, he has for years been seeking a European Commission designation that will allow consumers to identify Neapolitan pizza the way they can know they are buying the true bubbly from the Champagne region or Parmigian cheese from Reggiano.

Currently, Pace's association, on the Web at www.verapizzanapoletana.org, certifies nine independent pizzerias in the United States, as well as the Bertucci's chain, which has more than 90 restaurants.

"For those who know, it means something," said Paul Seidman, Bertucci's senior vice president for marketing and product development. Indeed, Bertucci's pizzas - at least the ones without chicken or other outlaw toppings - are closer than most to those that Pace and his brethren serve in Naples. But they have crisper crusts, Seidman says, because "Neapolitan pizza is not all that appealing to most Americans. The dough is too soft."

And that reflects a truism about pizza: There will never be universal agreement about what "the best" looks and tastes like. Even within Italy, there is a war.

Biggi, of the National Pizza School in Rome, argues that electric ovens are superior to wood-fired ones and that a pizza slice should be crisp enough to be held up without drooping.

"There are some people who lie knowing they are lying, and some people who lie out of ignorance," Pace says when asked about that view.

Replies Biggi: "If we ruin the beliefs of a lifetime, it's obvious that there will be people who resist."

One thing both men agree on, though: Pizza dough must be pressed by hand on a table. Tossing it in the air is nothing but a cheap gimmick.

Meanwhile, the Agricultural Ministry is working to set up training programs to help encourage young people to become pizza-makers in the true Neapolitan style, says Rosario Lopa, a consultant to the ministry.

"The need," Pace said, "is infinite."

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