A new trend is on the brink of rapid expansion in the pizza industry. Part of its allure builds on the themes of authenticity and locality that have propelled recent food movements like sustainable eating.
"I think Neapolitan style pizzas are going to be the next big pizza trend because of [(their) rustic flavor and authenticity," said Maria Caranfa, RD, Foodservice Analyst, Mintel Menu Insights.
Caranfa said Mintel has flagged regional ethnic cuisine as a premiere growth area for its 2010 menu trends predictions. As cuisines like Italian have become more mainstream, she said, restaurants will dig deeper to pinpoint specific regions and their culinary traditions to captivate restaurant-goers' interests.
"Among geographical claims associated with pizza so far 2009, Neapolitan style ranks fourth behind Italian, New York-Style and Sicilian claims, respectively," Caranfa said.
Mintel isn't the only foodservice research outlet that's throwing its lot behind Naples' staple for 2010. According to Technomic's Menu Monitor, Neapolitan style menu offerings in the top 500 pizza chains have increased by 171 percent in the past year, increasing their offerings in places like CPK ASAP, Villa Fresh Italian Kitchen, and especially Pittsburgh-based Vocelli Pizza.
But besides becoming an increasingly visible offering at multiunit pizzerias across the nation, Neapolitan pizzerias could represent an innovative model for the pizza industry, offering a truly artisan, original and quasi-fine dining product at an approachable price point. And the best part is that it can be standardized for multiunit expansion with a little creative foresight.
Punch Pizza has offered the first promise of such a business model. Started in 1996 by John Sorrano, who spent his childhood in Milan, and John Puckett, founder of Caribou Coffee, the duo just opened their seventh authentic Neapolitan pizzeria at Stadium Village in Minneapolis.
Make no mistake: This chain isn't halfway Neapolitan. Punch's multiunits zap their pizzas in wood-burning, 800-degree ovens to authentically char crusts; use only flour, water, yeast and salt to make dough; and offer many pies with the indigenous Italian mozzarella di bufala and San Marzano tomatoes, which are sanctified by the Vera Pizza Napoletana, the organization verifying Neapolitan pizzerias' true authenticity.
Yet Punch's price point hovers barely over $10 for a pie a little too big for one, even with these premium ingredients.
Of course, people's definitions of "authentic" Neapolitan differ greatly both here and abroad. Neapolitan pizza -- as the European Union has recently defined it to protect against imposters -- decrees the use of only Italian-sourced cheese and tomatoes, among other details, like the importance of the pizzaiolo, the designated, studied chef in charge of crafting every single pizza.
The next step
But sourcing local ingredients is fueling Neapolitan pizza's popularity on this side of the pond, and arguably more in the spirit of the pizza's inception. That's the thought of Neal Brown, owner of new Neapolitan pizzeria Pizzology in Indianapolis's Northern enclave of Carmel.
"In Naples, the way they do things is great cause of way they source product," Brown said. "We're still doing things in the Italian mentality; it's about the source, sourcing as fresh as we possibly can."
Brown, formerly chef-owner of an upscale experimental French restaurant, came to Pizzology with a fine dining mentality, a mind toward expansion, and an unpredictable restaurant model.
"I sort of look at Pizzology in the Chipotle mode," he said. "I think (founder) Steve Ells did an amazing job at Chipotle, and love his philosophy â€¦ (there are) like 140 Chipotles, but the guy buys as much local stuff as he can. He literally exhausts his sources."
Brown believes the future model for small, multiunit restaurants is this mix between the artisan mentality and philosophy mixed with a large-scale rollout to "help the greater good." Of course, he acknowledges the special problems of taking artisanal food to the masses, such as keeping within target budget while buying from local farmers, who often don't sell to chefs when they can get a better price at the farmers market.
"We (chef-owners) are going to haggle," Brown said. "We have to make our price on our bottom line. That's a huge hurdle for us. That being said, it just so happens that the stuff we're using for pizza isn't the same stuff that other restaurants are using."
With a little foresight and creative business plans that match his out-of-the-box offerings, such problems are easier to overcome than one might think. How does he cement pizzaiolos for each future location?
"We have culinary students," he said. "Everyone (working) in there is a qualified chef. They were all hand-picked with a plan."