Behind Japan's Neapolitan Pizza Obsession

Akinari “Pasquale” Makishima in Naples, 2015. Below, Pasquale with two of his Neapolitan pizza gurus: Adolfo Marietta and Gennaro Corvine.

© Daniel Young

By Daniel Young Posted September 09, 2016

Here's how Japan became one of the top pizza-perfecting nations in the world. In partnership with Phaidon, F&W is sharing this essay and more from Where to Eat Pizza.

According to regulations set by the VPN Association the dough for true Neapolitan pizza must be made with flour highly refined to the doppio zero (“00”) grade. It should have a final pH level of 5.8 and density of 0.79 grams per cubic centimeter. Once shaped by hand into a base no thicker in the middle than 0.4 centimeters (less than 1/6 inch), and garnished with only approved ingredients, the pizza has to be baked in a wood-fired oven at a minimum temperature of 905°F (485°C). The finished Margherita pizza is soft and elastic, its mozzarella appearing over the tomato in evenly spread white patches.

In Japan the number of pizza places proudly displaying the VPN seal of approval is 54, placing them third among pizza-loving nations, behind only Italy, with 200, and the USA, with 77. France, Germany, and the UK each have one. The artisans in those countries attempting pizza the Neapolitan way either can’t make the grade or can’t be bothered to try. “The Japanese pizza makers need something to show they’ve achieved a very high standard,” explains Rossella Ceccarini, who holds a PhD in global studies from Sophia University in Tokyo and is author of Pizza and Pizza Chefs in Japan: A Case of Culinary Globalization. “This certifies the authenticity of what they’re doing.”

The disciple copies the sensei.

Often the Japanese are pursuing a made-in-Naples look, too. Though Neapolitan pizza does not require a Neapolitan-made oven, hundreds of custom-built, wood-fired pizza forni have been imported to Japan from Naples. Akio Nishikawa, the Japanese pizza pioneer who apprenticed in Campania under Neapolitan pizza masters Gaetano Esposito and Gaetano Fazio, took home more than lessons learned to Sakuragumi, his Neapolitan pizza shrine in the Hyogo Prefecture. He ordered a custom-built oven by master craftsman Gianni Acunto to bake pizzas made with imported Caputo “00” flour, San Marzano tomatoes, and Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP. “You have to preserve the tradition if you wish Neapolitans to be moved when they eat your pizza,” says Nishikawa.

Food & Wine: Japanese Pizza

© Daniel Young

It is the prize-winning Japanese pizzaioli trained in Naples who appear most regularly on Japanese television. But recognition from their Italian masters some 6,000 miles (9,656 km) away is valued more. “They learn from the masters,” says Antimo Caputo of Mulino Caputo. “They follow everything. They try to be perfect.” Akinari “Pasquale” Makishima of Pizzeria Trattoria Cesari in Nagoya adopted his middle name to honor Pasquale Parziale, the first of his Neapolitan mentors. “It is common among Japanese pizza makers who have lived in Italy to be linked to a maestro pizzaiolo,” notes Ceccarini. “Apprenticeship is highly valued in Japanese society. The disciple copies the sensei. Only when he has mastered the art is some innovation is allowed.”

Years after winning the best pizzaiolo prize at the 2010 International Pizza Championship in Naples, Makishima still refuses to modify the instructions of his Neapolitan pizza sensei. He won’t even cut back on salt to suit prevailing Japanese tastes. “If you reduce the formulation of salt,” insists Makishima, “it’s no longer pizza Napoletana.”

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