Who makes the real pizzas: the Romans, the Neapolitans, or the Egyptians?

ITALIANS heaved a sigh of relief last week that at least one threat to their national dish had been averted.

Meddling Eurocrats, it was claimed, were threatening a ban on the traditional wood-fired ovens used to make pizza, on the grounds that they were unhygienic. Pizzeria owners faced having to use gas, electricity or, horror of horrors, microwave ovens to turn out one of Italy's most famous gastronomic exports.

Brussels denied having any such plans, but Italy's pizza industry, which turns out some 2.8 million pizzas daily, has plenty of problems of its own. There is a chronic shortage of pizzaioli, or pizza makers, unchecked growth in pizza outlets - bringing a worrying drop in standards, according to food critics - a battle between the Neapolitan and Roman schools over which recipe is more genuine, and a boom in take-home pizza that is horrifying purists.

The President of the Italian Pizzamakers' School, Enrico Fama, says there is a shortage of 3,000 pizzamakers for the estimated 35,000 pizzerie in Italy. Now professional schools turn out only 300 graduates a year. Many seek employment overseas, where they are in great demand. "Even if their cooking skills are not so hot, their nationality gives them credibility, and if they are Neapolitan, so much the better" joked Mr Fama.

"The real problem is that even if it is well paid - a good pizzaiolo can earn from 3 to 6 million lire [pounds 1,000 to pounds 2,000] a month - it's physically hard work, and many Italians simply aren't interested," he added. The gap is being filled by dough-twirling immigrants. Egyptians feature prominently in pizzeria kitchens, but it is not uncommon to see a Romanian or a Sri Lankan at work.

The demand is the result of steady growth in pizza outlets. A recent survey of 13 Italian cities showed a 23 per cent increase in the number of pizzerie in the past two years. Countless restaurants have also added pizza to their menus.

"Quality has often been sacrificed to quantity as competition grows stiffer, but now that trend is being reversed. The market is near saturation, and clients have become more discerning, so owners are investing in better ingredients and service to keep their market share," said Mr Fama.

Italians are also slowly discovering the joys of dialling a pizza, though it is still a tiny segment of the market. "Our siesta days are over," said the pizzamakers' spokesman. "Italians have frenetic lifestyles and even if it's not perfect, a good dial-a-pizza will at least be warm and tasty. And there are no dishes to wash afterwards."

There is a lively dispute over which is the best and most authentic pizza - the deeper, softer base with a rim, originating in Naples, or the thinner, crunchier Roman variety. Neapolitan pizza kings are pushing for a special DOC seal of approval for outlets wishing to claim they sell "real Neapolitan pizza"- they must guarantee to use buffalo mozzarella, local olive oil and the flavoursome San Marzano tomatoes. Their Roman opponents accuse them of being pretentious.

In the capital, with an eye to the hordes of hungry pilgrims expected to visit Rome during the Jubilee Year, new fast food outlets are emerging on every corner. "Even pilgrims have to eat, and a slice of pizza is convenient and healthy" said Mr Fama. "The problem is that it tempts people who are in it only for the money, and it's impossible to make a really good pizza if your heart is not in it."

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