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The View from My Kitchen

Benvenuti! I hope you enjoy il panorama dalla mia cucina Italiana -- "the view from my Italian kitchen,"-- where I indulge my passion for Italian food and cooking. From here, I share some thoughts and ideas on food, as well as recipes and restaurant reviews, notes on travel, and a few garnishes from a lifetime in the entertainment industry.

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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Italy Gets (Even More) Serious About Its Pizza

A Central Element Of Italian Identity

I don't suppose it comes as any surprise that Italians eat a lot of pizza. About four million a day on average. Americans consume twice as many, but there are a lot more of us. Italians produce all that pizza in roughly 48,000 pizzerie (the proper plural form of pizzeria). There are around 61,269 pizza joints in America, in case you were wondering.

Now, you know Italians are fiercely protective of their food. There are rules and laws and consortia and governing bodies covering everything from cheese to ham to olive oil to vinegar. In fact, there are 138 Italian products that are deemed “Denominazione Origine Protetta” or D.O.P., and an additional 83 that qualify as “Indicazione Geografica Protetta” or I.G.P.. (The English translations are Protected Designation of Origin or P.D.O. and Protected Geographical Indication or P.G.I., respectively.) These designations mean there are strictly enforced regulations in place regarding the manufacture and/or production of things like Parmigiano-Reggiano and balsamic vinegar, just to name two. And if an Italian lawmaker has his way, there will soon be another regulated food in Italy: pizza. Or at least the people who make it.

Forza Italia party senator Bartolomeo Amidei has presented a bill to create a registry for all professional Italian pizzaioli. The purpose of said registry would be to protect Italy's culinary traditions and to prevent clueless consumers from being sold substandard pizza. As one who has consumed many a substandard pizza at a variety of American pizza outlets, I say, “how soon can we implement such a registry here?”

Seriously, the proposal calls for anybody aspiring to graduate from the ranks of home cook to the flour-covered halls of professional pizzadom to complete a 120-hour course. Upon passing the course, which will include 20 hours of food science, 20 hours of pizza-making workshops, 30 hours of food hygiene classes and 40 hours of foreign language study, the prospective pizza pro must then accumulate 18 months of experience at the oven before being allowed to register. Compare that to the “training” the high school kid at your local pizza shack probably gets. But then we are talking about real pizza as opposed to the vaguely pizza-like substances most of those places turn out.

To be sure, there are already some trained pizzaioli in Italy. There's even a trade association of Italian pizza-makers, the Associazione Maestri d’Arte Ristoratori e Pizzaioli, or AMAR. But the head guy, Enzo Prete, believes that even though pizza-making courses exist, they are not regulated or standardized, resulting in a lot of unevenly skilled and inexpert hands tossing the dough in Italian pizza places. “The lack of current regulation has created many problems which stem from the fact that chefs are unprepared,” says Prete. “We're delighted lawmakers are trying to create the register and think it will protect our trade.”

Speaking to La Repubblica, Senatore Amidei said, “As Italians we have a responsibility to defend our culinary traditions. Pizza makes up fifty percent of all restaurant takings in Italy, yet more and more people are being served 'fraudulent' pizza that doesn't conform to traditions.”

Speaking of “fraudulent pizza”, I have to wonder what the senator would think of the tomato casserole that blatantly masquerades as “Chicago-style” pizza. Or any of the “innovative” creations that come out of California, most loaded up with any ingredient that wasn't securely tied down in the refrigerator. Or the “stuffed crust” and “flavored crust” antics of various national pizza chains. I have seen Italian pizzaioli stand shaking their heads in bewilderment at such abominations. But this is America, where we suffer from an inbred compulsion to “improve” things – even things that don't require improvement. I, for one, do not consider “hot dog crust” pizza to be an improvement. A perversion, maybe, but certainly not an improvement.

Let's just say for the sake of argument that baseball, a venerable American institution if ever there was one, was seen by Italians to be in need of “improvement”. Nine men on a team obviously aren't enough. There should be two players covering the bases, so let's add men at first, second, and third. And this whole running from right to left is discriminatory to left-handers, so we'll let them run the bases in the opposite direction. I mean, who says “third” has to be third? Why can't it be first if you feel so inclined. Silly rule. Getting around the bases is what matters. Why should anyone care about the direction? Bats should be wider and flatter, more like cricket bats, and to speed things up, everybody gets just one swing – either you hit it or you don't. Let's make the ball more colorful. How about orange? And since the game is played in the summer, players should all wear shorts and sleeveless jerseys like basketball players do. They'd be much more comfortable. There. That should sufficiently screw with an American tradition. All the main elements are still there, but is it still baseball? As far as I'm concerned, the same thing applies when you try to “improve” pizza.

Look, when God craves a slice or two, He puts in a call to Naples, because that's where pizza was perfected. And here's how they make perfect pizza in Napoli: To begin with, production is limited to two types of pizza: “Marinara” (tomato, oil, oregano, and garlic) and “Margherita” (tomato, oil, mozzarella or fior di latte grated cheese and basil). Two types. Due. Period. No pepperoni, sausage, hamburger, mushrooms, green or red peppers, onions, olives, anchovies, ham, bacon, pineapple, chicken “Alfredo” or any of the other “toppings” Americans love to shovel on.

And the crust of said pizza should have a center which is no thicker than 0.3cm/0.11 inches and an outer edge not more than 1-2 cm / 0.4-0.8 inches. Take that, “deep-dish” and “pan pizza” lovers! The crust should deliver the flavor of well-prepared baked bread. No garlic, butter, ranch dressing, or other “flavorings” required.

Only wheat flour type "00" (doppio zero), a highly refined flour which has been milled to an almost talcum-powder like appearance – white, fine and completely free of bran or germ – is allowed in the preparation of the crust. A pox on you, “healthy” whole-wheat pizza crust!

Pure water is required as is sea salt. The recommended tomato is the “pomodoro pelato San Marzano dell’Agro Sarnese-Nocerino D.O.P.” Tomatoes that are genetically modified or altered are not acceptable. The cheese must be certified mozzarella di bufala campana D.O.P, or an acceptable substitute fior di latte dell’appennino meridionale D.O.P or other certified fior di latte. Cold pressed extra-virgin olive oil is the oil of choice. Basil must be fresh. And it must all be assembled and cooked according to the exacting standards of the Associazione Verace PizzaNapoletana.

These are the standards the proposed registry proposes to protect. A further effort to keep Italian pizza pure was launched earlier this year by the country's UNESCO commission, which is seeking to include the art of Neapolitan pizza-making on UNESCO’s prestigious cultural heritage list. Citing the art of pizza-making as a central element of Neapolitan and Italian identity and a symbol of the Italian brand around the world, the selection commission wants Neapolitan pizza to be distinguished from rivals such as New York-style pizza.

Unfortunately, such measures will have little if any effect outside the Italian sphere of influence. Just look at Parmesan cheese, for example. So even if the registry comes about and the UNESCO listing becomes a reality, don't expect Little Caesar's or Hungry Howie's to start turning out vera pizza Napoletana. The only thing the efforts will guarantee is that Italian pizzerie won't turn out pizza on a par with Little Caesar's or Hungry Howie's. I guess we pizza purists will just have to take our little victories where we find them.

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