Italians face likely battle to trademark pizza

Nov. 18, 2002

When Antony Tagliamonti heard the rumor, he thought surely it was joke.

He was told that Italian Minister of Agriculture Giovanni Alemanno is seeking to trademark pizza according to Neapolitan pizza-making standards (dough must be shaped only one way, all ingredients must be grown and made in Italy, and only certain toppings are allowed). Pizzas made outside those guidelines, Alemanno said, couldn't be sold as "pizza."

The rumor proved true, and Tagliamonti was incensed.

"It made me feel angry they'd try to do such a thing," said Tagliamonti, 23, and a two-store London-area Domino's Pizza franchisee. He said he's heard rumors of authentication squads moving throughout Europe, seeking non-compliant pizzerias.

Tagliamonti then set out to raise some awareness of the issue during the UK's celebration of National Pizza Week, Nov. 11-17. He called Domino's UK's public relations firm for advice on staging a protest that would attract some media attention, and asked customers at both his shops to sign a petition against the proposed "pizza trademark."

"We got about 600 signatures on the petition, and we took that and a pizza to the Italian Embassy (in London)," Tagliamonti said of the Nov. 12 protest. "There were about 25 of us, mostly employees and a few customers, who went to the embassy."

The small group waved signs and chanted slogans in protest of the threatened certification, and as a few TV cameras rolled, the unit moved toward the embassy's front door.

Domino's Pizza UK franchisee, Antony Tagliamonti, led a "Save Our Slice" protest at the Italian Embassy in London on Nov. 12. The 25-member group of employees and Domino's customers protested the Italian government's proposal to trademark pizza.

"We actually got through the gate to deliver the petition, but about 10 minutes later we were escorted out by security," said Tagliamonti. "They told us we had to leave, and we did."

When the not-so-dramatic showdown ended, Tagliamonti was happy he had fired a shot in what will likely become a pizza public relations war.

He had to do something, he said, because in essence, what the Italians have said by moving toward trademarking pizza is suggesting non-Neapolitan pizza is subpar.

"I don't think my pizzas are in any way an inferior product," said Tagliamonti. "I love Italian pizzas, but I'm just all for choice. If I want a Texas barbecue pizza or a Hawaiian pizza, I'll have it."

Cloudy claims

In 1984, the Associazione Verace Pizza (Genuine Pizza Association, or "Verace Pizza Napoletana" [VPN] as it's known in the U.S.) was formed in Naples, Italy, to promote the culinary tradition of pizza. The association claims pizza was born in Italy and perfected in Naples.

As the association developed, its Italian members moved not only to gain an official certification for Neapolitan pizza, but to examine whether restaurants that make pizzas in non-Neapolitan styles could be denied the right to call their products "pizza."

Not only would this mean every pizza maker in the world would have to buy only Italian ingredients, they would have to mix dough in an association-approved mixer, shape the dough by hand only -- not even so much as a rolling pin is allowed for this, and dough slapping is totally verboten -- top it with an austere assortment of toppings, and then bake it on the stone deck of a wood-fired oven.

Also in 1984, Evelyne Slomon published The Pizza Book, currently the lone seminal work on the origins of pizza. Asked whether the Italians had a chance to trademark their beloved pie, the pizza researcher snickered.

"I say, 'Good luck,' " said Slomon, a New York City-born chef by trade, who now co-owns Nizza La Bella restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. "What are they going to do? Go after every pizzeria in the world?"

Not only would that effort be futile, Slomon said, for the Italians to claim pizza -- as the world largely knows it anyway -- was born of their hands is bogus. Reading from The Pizza Book, Slomon said, "Italians may have made pizza famous, but they certainly didn't invent the concept of the dish. Here the debt is clearly owed to the Greeks."

British food historian Colin Spencer disputes Slomon's claim somewhat, but not to the Italians' benefit. Flatbreads topped with herbs, garlic, meat and fish, he said, have been eaten the world round for multiple millennia. In a recent Domino's UK press release, Spencer said, "Many people believe the Italians or the Greeks are the inventors of pizza, but this is simply not the case."

Even the VPN Web site details how the Romans returned from invading Palestine (a century before Christ's birth) and began copying the Palestinians' and the Israelites' practice of topping unleavened bread with herbs. Here, too, Spencer gives a nod to Middle Eastern peoples as co-creators of pizza.

Most sources do agree on the origin of so-called commercial pizza. Baker Raffaele Esposito is credited with making a simple pie of thin dough topped with crushed tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil leaves as a birthday gift for Italy's Princess Margherita in 1889.

The dish was a hit not only with the princess, but with the Italians as well. So much so that just 16 years later pizza was being sold in New York City's Lombardi's Italian restaurant.

The price of authenticity

Tagliamonti said it's not only absurd the Italians want to dictate how pizza must be made, he's incensed Italy's agriculture minister would use such a strategy to increase the country's food exports.

"It's all about selling more of their products," Tagliamonti said. "They can talk about history all they'd like, but that's not their point."

A look at the U.S. VPN site makes clear another aim: the generation of association fees and dues.

If an operator wants to become a member, he must take a three-day training course in Marina Del Ray, Calif., where VPN president Peppe Mille owns and operates Antica Pizzeria. Course fee -- not including travel and accommodations -- is $2,600.

If after the course one wants to join, he must pay $700: $200 to register, $200 in annual dues (paid a year in advance), plus $300 for a sign that bears the "Verace Pizza Napoletana" insignia.

Still, said operator can't hang that membership sign until a VPN member/delegate visits his operation to approve said operator is following his training. Additionally, the prospective member must foot the delegate's entire bill for travel and accommodations.

According to the VPN Web site, there are about 70 members world wide. (Interestingly, the "VPN Store" link lists no items for sale.)

Two VPN members are U.S. pizza makers: Miele and Ron Molinaro, Jr., owner of Il Pizzaiolo in Pittsburgh. Neither could be reached for comment on this story.

In a Sydney Morning Herald story published in August, Pizza Mario owner David Cowdrill (See "Italian food certification proposal ...") said he's member #153 of the association, a designation he received after training for one month at a top Neapolitan pizzeria.

Australians, he told the paper, regard his genuine Neapolitan pizzas as somewhat austere. Somewhat surprisingly he said that Italian pizza makers don't mind pizzas with toppings beyond the certified norm -- to a point.

"When I told them in Naples the kind of toppings we use here, they were just amazed," he told the Herald. "They don't mind if people outside Italy want to put pineapple or tandoori lamb or whatever on their pizza -- but there is no way it could ever be a genuine Naples pizza."

Topics: NAPICS

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