• Trip to North Korea shows pizza maker a shocking slice of communist life

    Tags: Commentary

So you think it's tough making pizza in your town?

Got "customers from hell" whom you can't seem to please no matter what you do for them?

Tired of paying ever-increasing business taxes to a government you think wastes most of your hard-earned dollars?

Chances are you've likely got it easy compared to one Italian pizza maker and his trainees.

You want pressure? Try spinning skins for Kim Jong Il, president of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, better known as communist North Korea.

Ermanno Furlanis did and lived to tell about it, though the 36-year-old cook from Northern Italy's Pizza Institute is in no hurry to do it again.

According to a story in the New York Daily News, in 1997, Furlanis, his wife, Marylu Baracett, Italian hotel chef Antonio Macchia and his wife, Rosella, all went to North Korea where Furlanis had been hired to teach several military officers how to make authentic Italian pizza.

Steve Coomes, Editor

Their adventure was both chilling and stirring.

According to the story, when the Italians arrived in the capital city of Pyongyang, the quartet figured out quickly just how undemocratic the People's Republic really was. Their passports disappeared, and when Furlanis demanded to see the Italian consulate, he was informed there was no such thing.

"It was not pleasant," Furlanis told the Daily News. "We were a little scared."

I'll say.

Before their trip began, the four were told they'd stay in a hotel but were instead sent to a cavernous marble-inlaid building whose surrounding lawns were being manicured by armies of workers cutting each blade of grass with small scissors.

Try getting your delivery guys to do that to your green patches during slow times.

Without explanation, Furlanis and Chef Macchia next underwent a battery of medical tests. Once finished, they could sightsee with their wives while they awaited the results.

One memorable spot, Furlanis said, was a visit to what the North Koreans claimed is world's deepest-dug subway. Their guide pointed out sliding bomb-blast doors that could convert the tunnels into the world's biggest fallout shelter.

"They always think about war," Furlanis said. "They always told [us], 'America very bad. We have to beat them. We have no fear.' "

When the day came to train the Koreans, the two men were driven four hours outside Pyongyang to a different world.

The Italians stared in disbelief at nude North Koreans washing their only clothes in a river. The manicured lawns of the city were gone, the grass eaten for food in a nation where two million people starved to death during the 1990s.

Military armaments were placed strategically along otherwise beautiful Pacific beaches.

Finally, they arrived at a series of fences and guarded checkpoints that enclosed a seaside resort and a complex of bungalows. The group's escort said this was the vacation place "of the Hero of the Fatherland," Kim Jong Il.

The Italians were led to a large kitchen equipped with everything Furlanis told the Koreans he needed to make pizzas.

Furlanis set to work preparing all his ingredients, made a pie and offered it to several military generals.

"I was not so calm," Furlanis told the Daily News. "I was thinking, 'If this pizza is not good, what will happen to me? I could disappear.' I waited the longest minute of my life for somebody to talk to me."

Finally, a general smoking a big cigar "told me the biggest compliment of my pizza career: 'To make such a dough, you have to be a very sophisticated person,' " Furlanis said.

He then taught a group of army officers how to duplicate his pizzas. The group, he said, took exceedingly detailed notes.

"One of my pupils came to measure the distance between the olives," Furlanis said. "I could not explain the concept of creativity."

On another morning, Furlanis and Macchia were taken on a ship anchored near a floating amusement park. A barge was tied to a ship onto which all the pizza equipment had been moved overnight.

The busy Furlanis had just finished making enough pizzas for a big luncheon when a solider moved him inside to a windowless room on the ship.

Curiously, Macchia was allowed to continue cooking and saw Kim Jong Il walk onto the ship. He recognized the revered leader easily because all key personnel wore a picture of Kim pinned to their lapels.

The meal that followed, plus others like them, Furlanis recalled, were sumptuous affairs that stretched on for three hours.

Furlanis later summoned the courage to ask one of his hosts how a privileged few could eat so well in a nation where millions starved.

"He answered me, 'People live like this all over the world,' " Furlanis said.

A recent story in The Telegraph told of Kim's love of Italian food, French brandy and rides in gleaming limousines -- and about North Korean orphans who are wasting away on daily rations of a half pound of rice, plus milk and cereal. That's half the daily amount recommended by the United Nations.

Nice guy, this "Hero of the Fatherland."

So, do you still think it's tough making pizza where you are?

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