Naples struggles to recruit pizza makers

June 19, 2003

NAPLES, Italy  -- The old pizza guard in this southern port city is having trouble finding folks who want to be "pizzaioli" or pizza-makers.

A head-hunting agency trying to fill 20 decent-paying slots for "pizzaioli" in Naples came up empty, despite a regional unemployment rate as high as 20 percent, according to a Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services report.

"The average Italian doesn't want to be in front of a hot oven in August," said Walter Biggi, chief instructor for the privately owned National Pizza School in Rome.

Antonio Nistico, director of marketing for Gevi, the private employment agency that conducted the search, said that skilled pizza-makers often find it more lucrative to go abroad.

"Some good ones have gone to Australia, Canada, and the U.S., and they've made fortunes," Nistico said.

The problem may be compounded by the changing nature of Italy's pizza business.

There were perhaps 40 pizzerias in the whole country in 1950, says Anthony Pace, founder of the Association for True Neapolitan Pizza. Today, he says, there are 36,000. Many of those are restaurants at which pizza is one of numerous menu offerings, whereas true pizzaioli only make pizza.

The result, purists argue, is that quality has suffered, and the craft of pizza-making has been devalued.

Biggi, the pizza instructor, contends it is impossible to find a decent pizza in the historic center of Rome. Tourist traps abound, while locals frequent a chain called Spizzico, which has partnered with Burger King.

"This is not pizza," Pace says of the mass-market imitators. "It's another thing."

Real Neopolitan pizza, he contends, is made just like the one that, according to legend, was cooked for Italy's Queen Margherita in 1889. The ingredients formed the colors of the Italian flag: tomato for red, basil for green, and mozzarella cheese from the milk of the water buffalo for white. 

Another version, the marinara, has no cheese but more tomato, diced into a thick and spicy topping.

Pace sells both at Cire a Santa Brigida, the landmark restaurant in the center of Naples where his family has been making pizza since 1931. Before that, he says, his ancestors sold pizzas in different locations in Naples as far back as the mid-1800s.

Pizzerias catering to tourists have long used American-style toppings, and Arab immigrants have made their way into the business, bringing with them flavors and ingredients of their own.

With the support of the Italian Agriculture Ministry, Pace for years has been seeking a European Commission designation that will allow consumers to identify Neapolitan pizza the way they can know they are buying the true bubbly from France's Champagne region or Parmigian cheese from Reggiano.

(See related stories Italians face likely battle to trademark pizza and Trademark pizza? Surely you jest)

Currently, Pace's association certifies nine independent pizzerias in the United States, as well as the Bertucci's chain, which has more than 90 restaurants.

"For those who know, it means something," said Paul Seidman, Bertucci's senior vice president for marketing and product development.

The Agricultural Ministry is working to set up training programs to help encourage young people to become pizza-makers in the true Neapolitan style, says Rosario Lopa, a consultant to the ministry.

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