Is Pizza Getting Too Gourmet for Its Own Good?

Fancy tasting menus and celebrity pizzaioli are part of a new wave of pizza glorification.

Margherita Sbagliata from Pepe in Grani

Lido Vannucchi

Beloved all around the world, pizza might be Italy’s biggest culinary export. And though pizza has never gone out of style, it’s experiencing a renaissance in Italy and beyond. A wave of next-gen pizzerias with sleek interiors and an insistence on the slow food principles of using only the highest quality ingredients is sweeping across Italy.

Pizzaioli are becoming as famous as rock stars. Some are borrowing techniques and even investing in the kind of high-tech equipment used in Michelin-starred kitchens. There’s a whole organization dedicated to ranking the best pizzerias in the world. But with the emergence of pizza tasting menus, has the gourmet-ification of this humble food gone too far?

Having recently done the pizza tasting menu at Pepe in Grani, I’m not sure. Featured on the Netflix series Chef’s Table: Pizza, Franco Pepe is one of Italy’s most famous pizzaioli. People travel from all over the world to eat at his pizzeria in the small town of Caiazzo, in the hills about 25 minutes north of Caserta. A third-generation pizzaiolo, Pepe originally pursued a career in physical education, but when his father died, he returned to Caiazzo to help his two brothers run the family’s pizzeria. 

His brothers wanted to continue using their father’s recipes to make traditional pizzas, but Franco had a different vision of pizza — a vision that exalts the products grown and produced in the region, using them in creative ways. His is one of the few pizzerias in Italy where all the dough is made by hand, but other ingredients are transformed in innovative ways, so you might get a pizza topped with dehydrated olive powder or basil reduction. One of his most famous creations is the margherita sbagliata, made by cooking only the dough and mozzarella in the pizza oven and then putting tomato sauce, basil reduction, and olive oil artfully on top.  

Franco Pepe

Errico Damiano

When he decided to go off on his own, it was seen as a betrayal to his family. His gamble paid off though. A 2014 Food & Wine article by the late food critic Jonathan Gold headlined “This Might Be the Greatest Pizza in the World” quotes Los Angeles-based pizza chef Nancy Silverton as saying, “People have been making it for hundreds of years in Campania, but it feels almost as if Franco invented pizza and everyone else is just copying him.”

Indeed, many of the pizzerias ranked the best in the world by 50 Top Pizza are run by young chefs following in Franco Pepe’s footsteps. Some of them, like Pier Daniele Seu (ranked No. 8) and Jacopo Mercuro (ranked No. 17) have gained devoted followings in Rome, where I live. But while the gospel of pizza has spread all over the world, Campania remains its spiritual home.

My husband Marco and I made our first trip to Caserta in January to try the pizza at Pizzeria I Masanielli, which was crowned No. 1 by Top 50 Pizza. I made that reservation two months in advance and we were so enamored by the incredible flavors and textures of Francesco Martucci’s pizza that immediately upon our return to Rome, I booked a table at Pepe in Grani, so we could compare them.

Pepe in Grani interior

Courtesy of Pepe in Grani

When you book a table at Pepe in Grani, you have to choose whether you want to sit in the ordinary room or the tasting room, and there’s a minimum of four people for tables in the tasting room. Having done the à la carte option at I Masanielli, I was curious to try the tasting menu experience at Pepe in Grani, so I booked a table for four six weeks in advance and figured we would invite a couple of friends. We ended up bringing two of Marco’s friends, both of whom are Italian. 

Upon being seated at our table, we were presented with both the a la carte menu that lists all the pizzas, fritti, etc. and a smaller menu offering three options for the tasting menu. The cheapest option costs €35 and includes one fried starter, four slices of pizza, and one fried dessert. The €45 option includes one fried cone, one slice of fried pizza, five slices of pizza, one fried dessert, and fried strips of dough with honey and rosemary. The €65 option includes a flute of strawberry Spritz, one fried cone, one slice of fried pizza, eight slices of pizza, one fried dessert, and the fried strips of dough with honey and rosemary. Our friends ordered the €35 option, while Marco and I ordered the €45 option. 

Seeing that pizzas on the a la carte menu range in price from €5 to €15, which is pretty typical for Italian pizzerias, one of our dining companions immediately decided that the tasting menu was a rip off. Four slices of pizza for four people equals one whole pizza per person, she reasoned, and thus it would have been cheaper to just order four different pizzas from the à la carte menu and share them. If you look at it that way, perhaps she was right. But if you consider that at most fine dining restaurants, tasting menus cost at least three or four times as much, the fact that you’re getting a tasting menu designed by one of the most renowned chefs in Italy for a mere €35-45 is a steal.

As with fine-dining restaurants, the pizza tasting menu at Pepe in Grani is designed to take guests on a culinary journey that expresses the philosophy of the chef. No one — not even our cost-conscious dining companion — had any complaints about the quality of the pizza. Even the fried pizzas, which can be too heavy or oily, are light and crisp at Pepe in Grani.

The crux of the debate comes down to whether or not pizza is worthy of the tasting menu format. Despite the wave of next gen pizzerias doing all kinds of innovative things with their sourcing, preparation, and flavor combinations, there persists the notion among many Italians that pizza is supposed to be cheap. At old-school pizzerias in Italy, you can still get a pizza for under €10, so €15 for a pizza is considered expensive here. A pizza tasting menu would have been unheard of ten years ago. Of course, everything is relative. A single pizza at Una Pizza Napoletana in New York (tied for No. 1 with I Masanielli on the 50 Top Pizza list) costs $25. 

Crisommola del Vesuvio from Pepe in Grani

Lido Vannucchi

Personally, I’m glad I did the tasting menu, but if I were to go back I would probably book a table in the ordinary room and just order a bunch of different things. If you go, don’t skip the margherita sbagliata and save some room for dessert so you can try the Crisommola del Vesuvio, a slice of fried pizza topped with jam made with apricots from Vesuvius, hazelnuts, mint, lemon-scented ricotta di bufala, and dehydrated olive powder. Whether you go for the tasting menu or order a la carte, it’s definitely worth the trip to Caiazzo.

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