Traditionally comprising just five ingredients – flour, water, salt, olive oil and tomato – today pizza has been interpreted in so many different ways that it can at times bear no resemblance to its original form.
The turn took place around 1980 when pizza really started to become popular outside of Italy – in North America in particular. It was at this time that pizza parlors were popping up all over the globe claiming to be purveyors of traditional Neapolitan pizza even though what they were serving was in fact far from the classic (insert comment about pineapple and plastic cheese here).
In order to differentiate the traditional Neapolitan pizza from the myriad topping-heavy adaptations, Antonio Pace founded the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza Association or AVPN) in June 1984. The AVNP is a not for profit organisation with the mission of promoting and protecting the integrity of traditional Neapolitan pizza both in Italy and across the globe.
“Once the pizzas started to develop and be exported around the world, the tradition of Neapolitan pizza started to lose its authenticity because people were starting to make their own styles,” Pace told Hospitality. “I wanted to make sure that the rest of the world knew that pizza was born in Naples and that everything else being made was just a variation. I wanted to make sure that tradition was preserved and that people knew that there is a certain way that true Neapolitan pizza has to be made.”
In order to achieve this, Pace registered the Association and the name Via Pizza Neapolitan, which translates to ‘true Neapolitan pizza.’
“The Association has a lot of value to it because it’s not an association that you can buy into, you need to earn it,” says Pace. “To be part of this Association, you need to demonstrate that you can create traditional Neapolitan pizza, not just once, but on an ongoing basis. Each year venues get tested.”
AVPN President Antonio Pace
Authentic ingredients make for authentic pizza
According to the AVPN, there are only two types of pizza that can achieve the accreditation: pizza marinara (tomato, oil, oregano, and garlic) and pizza margherita (tomato, oil, mozzarella or fior di latte, basil). That’s not to say that restaurants can’t come up with their own variations in addition to the core staples, but in order to gain the accreditation, these two dishes need to adhere to strict guidelines: the pizza dough must be made from Type 00 flour, only Italian San Marzano tomatoes can be used, the oil must be extra virgin olive oil, the mozzarella has to be of a high quality and the pizza oven must adhere to a certain standard.
It might seem odd to some that only a particular type of imported Italian tomatoes can be used, but as Pace explains, there are a number of reasons why the inclusion of San Marzano tomatoes is non-negotiable.
“Apart from it being the first product ever used in the gastronomic world, they have a really particular structure. The San Marzano tomatoes are drier than other varieties, and also has more humidity where they’re grown due to the volanic soil, so the taste is completely different. The acidity balance with the sweetness is second to none,” says Pace.
“There are two more reasons: one is that the skin is a little bit thick, so it’s easier to remove, and the second is that there are very few seeds inside. Tomato seeds contain tannis so they can be bitter at times but the San Marzano has very few seeds. Also, when San Marzano is mature, it continues to holds its structure very well.”
Johnny Francesco at 400 Gradi
When it comes to the type of mozzerella, the rules are a little more relaxed. Pace says that two different types of mozzerella can be used: fior de latte, which is made with cows milk and is less [watery] making it ideal for pizza, and buffalo mozzerella, due to its high quality and taste. Unlike the San Marzano tomatoes, the mozzerella doesn’t have to come from Italy, it just needs to be of a high standard, says the AVPN.
The value of authenticity
Johnny Francesco’s 400 Gradi in Melbourne achieved the AVPN accrediation five years ago following intensive training in Naples. Although it’s not a requirement to train in Italy to secure the accreditation, Francesco says it gave him a far deeper understanding of the history, culture and tradition that true Neapolitan pizza emcompasses.
“I think it’s imporant to train in Naples because they understand the connection between culture and pizza,” says Francesco. “It usually takes about five to six months to achieve the accreditation and in those five or six months there are a number of exams you need to pass. You have to understand it both on a technical and practical level – just understanding the oven takes a long time.”
Francesco, who the won the 2014 world’s best Neapolitan pizza award at the Pizza World Championships in Parma, Italy, admits that at times it can be challenging trying to explain to customers why their pizza isn’t piled high with an assortment of toppings, but over time people have become more educated about the quality and authenticity of real Neapolitan pizza.
Pizza oven at 400 Gradi
“A lot of the people that come to my restaurant – just by looking at the product – start to ask questions because traditional Neapolitan pizza looks completely different to the rest of the pizzas. The crust looks different, how the ingredients are presented, how quickly it comes to the table due to how quickly it’s cooked… so people do ask.
“At the start it was difficult to educate the customers. My first two or three years were spent talking to my customers, telling them why Neapolitan pizza is so special and what the Association is all about but today, people are starting to become very interested.”
Pizza oven at 400 Gradi