I've always known the Italians were excellent cooks, brilliant artists and builders of the finest racing cars ever to take a checkered flag.
What I didn't know, though, was that Italians could be so funny.
Take Italy's Minister of Agriculture, Giovanni Alemanno, for example. He's a riot.
He's only got one joke in his whole routine, but it's a doozy.
Wanna hear it?
Steve Coomes, Editor
He wants to trademark Italian pizza -- and enforce it.
What a hoot, right? He kills me.
And bores me.
Alemanno wants to standardize and homogenize the world's most varied -- bastardized, really -- and commercialized dish. (See also "Italians face likely battle to trademark pizza")
Tradmarking pizza would mean all pizza would have to be made by methods approved by the Italian's Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN, and translated genuine pizza association). Genuine pizza, to Alemanno's thinking, also must be made from genuine Italian ingredients, rendering ingredients made elsewhere verboten.
Let me ask you something: When was the last time any of you -- with a food cost below 50 percent -- ordered all your foodstuffs from Italy?
Never, you say?
Pittsburgh pizza maker Ron Molinaro actually was a member of the American arm of the Genuine Pizza Association -- before he realized membership had no real benefits and surmised "the whole thing was bogus."
Molinaro, 21, co-owns Il Pizzaiolo with his father. The wood-fired pizza served at his place represents his never-ending quest to bake and serve the ultimate Neapolitan-style pie.
On multiple occasions Molinaro has traveled to Italy to sample pizza from the country's great shops. While there in 1997, he saw the Genuine Pizza Association sign in several shop windows, learned about the group's dedication to pizza perfection and decided to join.
"I was inspired and wanted to do anything that would help make my pizza more authentic," said Molinaro. "I wanted to take it to another level."
After joining "Vera Pizza," as he calls it, Italian members welcomed him into their shops and showed him how they made pizza; some even took him to the places where Italy's best pizza ingredients are made. The trip was the experience of a lifetime, he said.
Molinaro also visited Peppe Miele, owner of Antica Pizzeria in Marina Del Ray, Calif., and the VPN's American division president. Miele is charged with training prospective American pizza makers to make pizza the association's way.
Problem is, Molinaro said, the association's way is the bland way.
"They teach you how to make a basic, generic pizza, but there's no attention to the quality of the ingredients," said Molinaro. "And because pizza makers are very jealous of techniques and secrets, (the members) don't tell you the best way to make it. And I don't blame them."
Specifically, Molinaro said, the association teaches pizza makers how to make a single-rise dough designed for use in four hours. Both his mind and his mouth say that's not enough fermentation time to develop flavor, character or texture.
While in Italy, Molinaro said the best pizza dough he found was made in Naples. It had an unusually high water content, was made at 4 in the afternoon and fermented in wooden boxes in marble-lined rooms where the temperature was about 65 F. Never refrigerated, the dough was used no sooner than 9 the next morning.
"I ate some of the dough raw, and it was so sour it burned my tongue," he said. "But when you baked it up, it had a flavor that I can't get off my mind. I think about it every day."
The pizza shop where Molinaro found his dream dough wasn't a VPN member. Nor were any of his favorite pizza shops in Naples and elsewhere around Italy.
"The better places in Naples don't even recognize Vera Pizza," said Molinaro. "They are vera pizza as far as I'm concerned."
Needless to say, Molinaro hasn't renewed his VPN dues and said he never will.
"Vera Pizza is a scam," Molinaro said. "They said you had to buy Italian flour. That's a total scam. The flour they say you have to use (Caputo) is blended with flour from Manitoba. That doesn't sound too Italian."
(Several attempts to contact Mielle and talk about the association were unsuccessful.)
Putting a trademark on a dish -- a food category, really -- is in Molinaro's words, "ridiculous," especially when it comes to pizza. He said the pizza in Italy alone is so diverse that the VPN could never standardize that country's product, much less take on the myriad other pizza shops in the world.
"It's hard to trademark or patent something that's so open to interpretation," Molinaro said. "Who's to say an Italian was the first person to smear tomatoes and mozzarella on dough and bake it in a hot oven anyway?"
Alemanno appears to be the most recent to make the claim -- but no one's listening to him.