The much-maligned margherita: ingredients must meet a standard if they are to grace a Neapolitan pizza
The much-maligned margherita: ingredients must meet a standard if they are to grace a Neapolitan pizza

Is true Neapolitan pizza the leitmotif of Italian culture?

Hardly ever has there been another food whose name has been so misused

Samuel Muston@SAMuston
Tuesday 17 November 2015 20:01
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Of all the emails I received last week, this was the happiest: an invitation to go to a London pizzeria called Rossopomodoro to eat pizza and meet the world champion Neapolitan pizzaiuolo.

If you are wondering what a pizzaiuolo is, you are probably never going to be one. The award is for the best Neapolitan pizza maker in the world and was this year scooped by Teresa Iorio, the 19th child of a family of 20 from Naples, who followed her father Ernesto into the pizza trade.

Now, pizza cooked by the best pizza-maker in the world is attraction enough but there was an added boon; this was to be a celebration of Neapolitan pizza making it to the final lap in its marathon bid to get on to the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

The list generally recognises bits of cultural heritage which “require urgent measures to keep them alive” and includes such recondite activities as Chinese shadow puppetry and “the scribing tradition in French timber framing”.

You may think pizza making is about as endangered an activity as, say, television watching. And you would be right. But the thing is there is pizza and then there is pizza.

Hardly ever has there been another food whose name has been so misused. You can find pizza in Italian restaurants in thousands of cities across the world and in lots of supermarkets and quite a lot of them are absolute crap. Chicagoans might be very attached to their deep-pan pizzas but that doesn't mean they are not just a quiche that's been led astray. And the Korean version, with its egregious use of strawberry and blueberry, similarly cuts no ice. And it's not just me who thinks so.

Since 2010, Neapolitan pizza has been considered by the EU to be a Guaranteed Traditional Speciality. What that means is that its preparation, ingredients, and indeed the look of it when it emerges from the wood-fired oven, have to be to a certain standard or you can't give it the sanctified name, Neapolitan.

It is no easy test to pass. Everything from the quality of the salt and wheat flour is prescribed, as is the angle of the pizza-maker's hands, if they want to create a dish with a golden raised crust and traditional tomato and mozzarella top with delicate basil embellishment.

The reason the Italians care about all this is not simply because they are a bit finicky, although they can be. According to a recent study by the Italian National Confederation of Farmers, €60bn's worth of products are being passed off as “Italian”, when they are anything but. Quite a lot of that €60bn is likely to come from the pizza trade, especially when you consider that, in the US alone, every person consumes on average 13kg of pizza per year.

Forget opera and Armani, the real leitmotif of Italian culture is a well-made pizza – it deserves every helping hand it can get.

Now, if only they would do something about those jars of carbonara sauce.

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