33 years ago in the birthplace of pizza, a few people decided that there was a right way and a wrong way to make a pie.
I ate some great pizza in Northampton, Massachusetts last weekend at a place called Joe’s Café. I know: “great pizza” and “western Mass” aren’t exactly synonymous. But the few times a year I’m in Northampton I make it a point to pop by Joe’s for a “Joe’s Special” (green peppers and pepperoni) and a $13 carafe of Burgundy that can best be described as wine.
What sets Joe’s apart is the style of pizza they sling. Part New England bar pizza, part Greater Boston-style Greek pizza, and part St. Louis pizza, Joe’s pies don’t offer any truths about the pizza of a specific region. They’re amorphous. What they do offer is an admission: pizza is universal, and this polyamorous union of dough varietals taking place in the Pioneer Valley is proof.
While this writer likes very much the idea of a pizza that borrows from three separate traditions, there are some people who are serious about the singular nature of their pizza. Profoundly serious.
Cue the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana—the True Neapolitan Pizza Association.
The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana was established in 1984 in Naples, Italy with this mission:
"To promote and protect in Italy and worldwide the 'true Neapolitan pizza' ('verace pizza napoletana'), i.e. the typical product made in accordance with the characteristics described in the International Regulations for obtaining a collective brand mark 'True Neapolitan Pizza.'"
In the Associazione’s 11 page, six article constitution they lay out several pizza maxims:
First (both in constitution and philosophy), a pie worthy of the AVPN seal of approval must be one of two things: marinara (tomato, oil, oregano—and not that dry stuff sitting in the back of your cupboard—and garlic) or Margherita (tomato, oil, mozzarella or fior di latte, grated cheese and basil).
The pizza must be cooked in a wood-fired oven, and that oven, which must be a double-dome-style oven, must be built to the specifications that the constitution claims have been “unchanged for centuries.” The end product must be “easy to manipulate and fold,” and the crust should taste like “well-prepared, baked bread.” For the marinara, the red of the tomato must present itself, and the oil and oregano and garlic must be “perfectly amalgamated.” For the Margherita, the mozarella must be evenly distributed across the pie, and the green of the basil must darken a bit during the bake. These rules are, however, malleable:
The association reserves the right to accept variations of the product and recognize their authenticity if they are informed by the Neapolitan tradition of pizzas and are not in contrast with the rules of gastronomy, with judgment reserved to the Association's committee as stipulated in the first “disciplinare” of the “Verace Pizza Napoletana”
The rules of gastronomy, people. Insert :tears of joy: emoji.
And the requirements continue. There are rules about the kind of flour one can use (wheat flour type “00,”); rules about the kind of water one can use (“fit for human consumption”—thanks guys—contain no gas, have a pH of 6.7, be between 20-22 degrees Celsius, and be “moderately hard”); there are rules about the kind of salt one can use (sea salt); and there are rules about the kind of yeast one can use (“Compressed yeast, biologically produced, solid, soft and beige in colour ,with quite an insipid taste and a low degree of acidity must be used. Yeast must be purchased in packages ranging from 25-500 grams.”)
You also have to use specific tomatoes (a few D.O.P.s are acceptable) and mozzarella. And you should be vigilant about which oil you use (make sure it’s resistant to high temperatures). But wait, there’s more: If your basil isn’t fresh, you’re not making real Neapolitan pizza. If your oregano isn’t Origanum vulgare from the Labiatae family, you’re not making real Neapolitan pizza. And if you’re not letting your panetti (dough balls) rise in a mattarelle (a case to hold dough balls, usually made of wood), you’re most certainly not making real Neapolitan pizza.
It all seems overwhelming, especially if the pizza is already good enough to speak for itself. To understand why so many pizzaiolos subject themselves to such strict standards, I called up Clementina and Alessandro Scelsi, the owners of an AVPN certified pizzeria in Belfast, Maine called Meanwhile in Belfast (yes, there is world class pizza to be eaten in Maine).
Clementina and Alessandro are both from Italy—Clementina from Salerno; Alessandro from Torino. Alessandro makes the pies—he got his AVPN certification in Naples—and Clementina runs the business. They’re both very serious about pizza, and equally as serious about the AVPN certification.
“I think it’s great because it makes sure the pizza stays authentic,” says Alessandro. “It’s hard in the states because everything gets modified and Americanized. Which is OK, but we want to be authentic and make pizza like it was made 300 years ago in Naples. AVPN helps us stick to the rules and stay authentic.”
Clementina has similar feelings.
“The AVPN certification helps us to spread the Neapolitan pizza tradition and culture. Walking into our restaurant feels like walking into a restaurant as if you were in Italy. We like to promote the Italian lifestyle—healthy, simple, and clean. Everything is authentic, made from scratch, made to order.”
Clementina says she and Alessandro—who both lived and worked in D.C. before eventually settling in Maine—chose Maine because it reminded them of Italy.
“In Maine, there is an abundance of fresh and organic produce, as well as locally sourced fish and meat,” she says. “As in Italy, in Maine we can work with farmers and plan our menu according to what is available and fresh.”
The AVPN certification protects a food tradition and that is a good thing, but I still wondered if—especially in the United States—the certification functioned more as a marketing tool than anything else.
“In a way,” says Alessandro. “But the certification can also definitely help us make people believe that there’s an organization that’s trying to follow some rules to make great pizza.”
A pizzeria does not need to be AVPN certified to make great pizza—the best pizza I ate in Naples (at Lombardi a Santa Chiara; you should go there) was from a pizzeria sans certification—but if your pizzeria is AVPN certified, the odds say you’re probably making excellent pizza. And if that’s the case, what’s wrong with a couple of rules?