The Pizza Police
No pineapples. No stuffed crusts. And no center thicker than a tenth of an inch!
By Julie Reno
When Naples native Raffaele Esposito invented the modern pizza around 1889, he certainly could never have imagined just how popular his dish would become. Or just how scrutinized. While Italians lay claim to its development, the pizza has since been altered mercilessly (yielding mostly terrible results). Pineapple and ham? Domino’s stuffed crust? Pizza bagels? Elio’s?
I should start by revealing the location of my own perfect pizza: Denino’s Pizza Tavern, which has made its home on Port Richmond Avenue on Staten Island since 1937. The place is run by the family of the original founders, a fact that some claim contributes to the consistent quality of the pie throughout the decades. Staten Islanders, Bayonners, and Brooklynites alike have been eating here for generations, my family included.
Here’s a recent Friday night: The kitchen door swings open and out walks a waitress with a silver platter. The pizza arrives. I raise the first slice to my eager mouth and take a bite. As the thin, brick-oven crust, creamy mozzarella, and sweet but tangy sauce meet my taste buds, I can’t help but think: This must be the perfect pie. It’s the same epiphany I’ve had every time I’ve dined there over the past 10 years or so of my life.
But lately some doubt has crept into my pizza judgment. Does the perfect pie actually exist? Is my definition an accurate one? If it does, what criteria can be used to determine authenticity and perfection in an every-pizza-for-itself world?
Turns out I’m not the only one wondering. The government of Italy is, too. Enter the Pizza Police. Yes, police. Policing pizza. The Italians have launched a campaign intended to weed out poser pies and restore a national dish to what they see as its proper form.
In May 2004, Italian Agriculture Prime Minister Gianni Alemanno visited Naples to inaugurate new laws that now govern the authenticity of Neapolitan pizza. The rules dictate exactly what constitutes an authentic pizza, and grant a seal of quality for all restaurants worthy of being labeled S.T.G. — Guaranteed Traditional Specialty. It’s obvious that the Italian authorities will have a very difficult time enforcing the new legislation, and it is still more or less uncertain how exactly the rules will be put into effect.
But however they’re realized, some argue that the Italians are stubbornly trying to “copyright pizza,” while the Italians’ rebuttal is that they’re defending the excellence of a cultural commodity. The new law was published in the Official Gazette and headed by a state seal. It ran three pages long, including eight articles with six sub-clauses.
The goal of the Italian Ministry is to basically rescue the bona fide pizza from the countless fakes out there. It seems a lofty and out-of-reach goal, considering how much the definition of pizza has morphed since its birth. Pizza now comes in an overbearing multitude of different shapes and styles: round, square, thin, deep-dish, stuffed-crust, frozen, brick-oven, etc. I feel the plain pie is almost always the best choice, but now there are even regulations on something as simple and timeless as that.
Pizza parameters existed even before the newly installed laws of La Pizza Polizia did, but these were enforced by a group know as the Verace Pizza Napoletana Association. There are only two pizzerias in New York City that have received a seal of approval by the V.P.N.A., and those are La Pizza Fresca on East 20th Street in the Flatiron district, and Naples 45, which is located on Park Avenue in Midtown East. The new certification requirements being put into effect by the Italian Ministry are similar to V.P.N.A’s guidelines.
So when it comes to pizza, what is the Italian Ministry of Agricultural Politics’ definition of authentic? While the Italians tend to be tolerant of a wide variety of styles, the common agreement is that Neapolitan pizza is the real deal. As far as dimensions go, the newer rules say that the pizza must be circular. The diameter cannot be any greater than 14 inches. The crust has to be less than three-quarters of an inch thick, and if the center is any larger than a tenth of an inch, the pizza does not qualify. If you’re a pizza, you’re also out of luck if your dough was not kneaded by hand. Machines and rolling pins? They’re tools for amateurs and just simply unacceptable.
In addition to rules about shape and dimensions, the S.T.G. seal will only be granted unto a worthy restaurant if it utilizes the types of ingredients — including salt, flour, yeast, tomatoes, and cheese — specifically laid out in the I.M.A.P. law, and those ingredients must come from Italy in order to be considered authentic. The tomatoes must be plum tomatoes (from San Marzano, as specified by the V.P.N.A.) and the mozzarella should be made from the fresh milk of water buffalo. Processed ingredients are not acceptable. The new guidelines even stipulate the order in which the ingredients should be incorporated.
In addition, the law defines Neapolitan pizza as made from a specific type of yeast and wheat flour. As far as cooking the pizza is concerned, it must be done on the bare surface of the oven, excluding the use of any type of pan. The oven itself must be made of brick and fired with wood, and the pizza should be cooked at 905 degrees Fahrenheit. From my own experience, the best pizza has only ever come out of brick ovens. I feel it’s the only way to get a desirable crust. Apparently the Italians agree.
Such government intervention might seem a bit over-the-top, but the Italians aren’t the only ones taking a stand against the widespread tainting of a national cuisine. The Japanese have recently unleashed the Sushi Police to patrol restaurants all over the globe on a mission of separating “real” Japanese cuisine from any wannabe-authentic eateries. The Japanese are waging war against the restaurant world for the same reason as the Italians — they’re tired of “uncertified” restaurants ruining their cultural dishes, and they’re on a mission to change that, or at least to recognize the places that are getting it right. (There is some rich irony here, considering the Japanese are known for putting mayonnaise on top of their pizza.)
There will inevitably be people who criticize these move as just another step in the worldwide Food Police’s increasing power. But the Italian Ministry’s push is no fascist move against our free will to eat what we please. The fact of the matter is that Italians aren’t planting pipe bombs in Pizza Huts across America, nor are they picketing with signs suggesting that “inauthentic” pizza has no right to exist. They are simply recognizing restaurants that craft a truly Italian pie and rewarding them with a seal of approval in hopes of increasing their popularity, therefore exposing a greater segment of the general public to genuine, respectable pizza and the rich tradition that comes with it.
I grew up in a family of New Yorkers, so I’ve developed a great appreciation for a good slice of pie. Whether it’s true Neapolitan or Brooklyn-style (New York’s own culturally-loaded form of pie), the ingredients and the method of creation will always leave its stamp on the pie. To some people, pizza is pizza. To others, like me, pizza should be viewed as nothing short of an art form and a cultural tradition. I’m going to have to side with the Italians on this one: A pizza not made correctly is a disgrace. • 7 March 2008
Julie Reno is a writer and sometime-rocker from New Jersey. She is now based in Philadelphia.