It’s The Real Thing, by John Arena
Note from Peter: Here is the first of what we hope will be many new guest columns from John Arena. If you haven’t already seen the interview piece we did with him a few weeks ago, scroll down and catch up. In this column he addresses, in his inimical way, the matter of authenticity. I have a feeling this isn’t the last time he’ll have something to say on the subject. Welcome back, John!
Anyone who grew up in the early 70’s will remember the iconic Coca Cola ad that ushered in a new era of international marketing for what is America’s most popular export. The ad featured an attractive group of multi-cultural young people singing about the unifying social virtues of Coke. Well, on my most recent trip to Italy I was reminded of just how effective that campaign was. I couldn’t help noticing that in every pizzeria I visited, Coca Cola seemed to be present on every table right next to the wine and beer. No surprise right?
In fact I was surprised and here’s why: On the first night of my trip I flipped open an Italian magazine and saw an ad extolling the virtues of Coca-Cola Originale. The premise was that there is a very specific way to serve a proper Coke. Instructions included temperature, glass size and shape, packaging (small glass bottle) and even the number of ice cubes (3). Of course as an American I found this expression of Italian food obsession ridiculous…until I returned home and was served a watered down, flat fountain Coke in a glass filled with far too much crushed ice. Damn it! Those Italians were right again. There is a right way and a wrong way to do everything, and even the smallest detail can change the outcome.
And so it is with our pizza. As Americans, many of us found it silly that organizations were formed to codify the making of Neapolitan pizza. Our press derisively dubbed these groups, The Italian Pizza Police. But perhaps they missed the point. The Italians weren’t saying, “This is the only way to make a pizza.” They were trying to identify the best way to make a very specific type of pizza. That, I believe, is the difference between the Italians and the Americans. In the U.S. many consumers are still arguing over which pizza is “real” with virtually every style and regional variation having its advocates and detractors (yes, I mean you Jon Stewart). In Naples and the surrounding areas, the places where you would expect such an issue to be most contested the issue has been resolved quite practically. Surely Neapolitan pizza is a specific thing but pizza is, as Brad English has described it, “Dough with something on it.”
In fact, in many places pizza is also dough with something in it, as we were served many variations that were stuffed, folded and especially fried. That’s right fried! Not fried and finished in a wood oven — just fried. One of the oldest pizzerias we visited, Pizzeria De’ Figliole, didn’t even have an oven, just giant fryers serving up delicious, light, golden pizzas lovingly made by the same family since 1860, long before the alleged birth of the pizza Margherita.
My point is this: At Pizza a Metro in Vico Equense, their amazing wood-fired pizza is 1 meter long, and available with a vast array of toppings. At the legendary da Michele only the original classic Margherita and marinara are available. The brilliant Franco Pepe is drawing guests from around the world to the tiny village of Caiazzo to experience what he insists is NOT Neapolitan pizza but what he proudly describes as the pizza of his grandfather. Remarkably, at the wonderful da Concenttina ai Tre Santi, the dine-in pizza was distinctly and deliberately different than the pizza they made for take-out! All of these variations, and many more are enjoyed by the pizza lovers of Italy. Each type has its own clearly defined methods, ingredients and origins. The key to all of this, as a pizza maker, is to zero in on what you are trying to achieve and then apply the methods that will produce results that are an expression of your personal vision. That, my friends, is the real thing.
Coming next month: Making NY style pizza in Italy with a dream team of American pizza masters.
Recent Articles by John Arena
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Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.
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