When Naples-born Peppe Miele read an article that asserted pizza was an American invention, he had to do something. "I knew the history went back thousands of years," he says. "There were pizzerias in Naples that have been there for hundreds of years."
From a friend in Naples, he learned about Verace Pizza Napoletana, an organization based in Italy dedicated to preserving the tradition of true Neapolitan pizza, and started the American chapter 20 years ago.
Anyone can become a VPN-certified pizzaiolo by taking a series of classes in Naples or at Miele's restaurant, Antica Pizzeria in Marina del Rey, Calif. Today he counts 23 restaurant members (listed on his web site), plus dozens of individuals who took the class just to learn how to make traditional pizza.
I visited with Miele for a story I am researching for Wine Spectator.
A chef by training, his first job was at Il Fornaio when the San Francisco-based restaurant chain opened its first branch in Beverly Hills in 1982. After a brief return to Naples, he came back to Los Angeles in 1984 to find the town ga-ga over Wolfgang Puck's creative pizzas.
"Wolfgang Puck stole the idea of pizza and made it into something else," he says, sitting at a table across from the wood-fired pizza oven that has pride of place in his airy restaurant on the second floor of a Southern California mall. He sounds philosophical, not angry. "The pizza I knew was a not a "gourmet" item (he makes the hand signal for the quote marks). It's simple mamma food. It's the ingredients, the equipment and the techniques that make it special.
"Look, I loved those (creative) pizzas. They tasted great. But a lot of imitators didn't have a clue. The old ways needed to be protected."
For Miele, the last straw was ordering a Margherita at an American chain pizzeria and getting something totally unrecognizable to him. The sauce was sweet, the cheese was not fresh, and it was gloppy. "Honestly, they shouldn't call it Margherita," he sighs. "It's a pizza with a tomato and cheese topping."
In his training classes, students learn how to mix dough by hand so they get a feel for it, even though they can and probably will use electric mixers in their own pizzerias. They learn how to keep a wood-fired oven at a constant temperature, how to choose mozzarella that will melt without breaking, how to scatter the ingredients unevenly so every bite is different.
So how good are Antica Pizzeria's pies? They can be excellent. Miele takes me behind the counter to watch his pizzaiolo make one. Everything looks good as he slides it into the oven, but the temperature is not quite hot enough to bake it completely before the cheese over-melts and loses its pristine white look. It tastes good, but Miele insists on getting up from the table and making another one. The second pizza is better. The dough has a crisp exterior and a soft center. The cheese has melted into lovely pools that set off the bright green of the basil leaves. We both reach for a second slice.
So what makes a true Neapolitan pizza? When it is good, it has an artisanal quality. It feels handmade. It's uneven, and there's just enough topping to deliver the flavor without overpowering the taste of the thin crust, puffy at the rim. The dough has a tenderness that plays against the charring from the wood fire, something that doesn't happen in other types of ovens.
To Miele's credit, he has no objection to the new wave of creative pizzas in America. He believes there is room for all kinds of variations. The popularity of artisanal pizzas, even if they don't aim for a true Neapolitan style, has lifted the game and made discerning consumers more aware of what makes a good pizza. As a result, more Americans are curious about what true Neapolitan pizza is. They try it, and they often come back to his style, he says.
He also thinks the widespread emphasis on ingredients in upscale pizzerias has pushed pizza makers everywhere to get better at their craft. "I think it's great," he says. "Pizza has evolved for the better."
Neapolitan pizza isn't the only accepted style in Italy, either. "You can drive from Naples to Milan and find all kinds of pizza," Miele points out. "I am a chef first and a pizza maker second. I appreciate the dedication and the craft that goes into making something that tastes good."
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