The rise of Neapolitan pizza
Authentic Neapolitan Pizza options are increasing swiftly throughout the United States. Although only about 50 pizzerias across the country have been VPN certified since the organization began operating in 1998, 10 of those certifications have happened in the last six months.
Additionally, according to VPN Americas, the official American delegation representing the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN), a nonprofit association that promotes and safeguards the Neapolitan pizza-making craft, eight more are in the pipeline and expected to receive certification in the next two to three months. There are many reasons for the uptick.
"Chefs or restaurant owners are trying to follow a trend of going toward more simple and natural food recipes. This particular kind of pizza is prepared in a unique way that preserves the original flavors of its ingredients," said Donato Rumi, VPN Americas marketing and promotion manager.
Joe Fugere, owner of the Tutta Bella pizzerias in Seattle, Wash., and vice president and media, marketing and events director of VPN Americas, thinks artisan food in general is a trend that can be attributed to things like The Food Network.
"I think there's a lot more awareness of what's authentic and what's artisan, and pizza is no exception," Fugere said.
Tutta Bella was the first pizzeria in the Northwest to be certified and only the 10th out of the current total in the country.
Strict guidelines preserve tradition
Neapolitan pizza goes back to 1889 when, according to Italian legend, during a visit to Naples, Queen Margherita of Savoy was served a pizza resembling the colors of the Italian flag. It is said the Queen liked it so much, the Margherita Neapolitan pizza was named after her.
While reasons such as increased consumer interest in simple ingredients, as well as competitive price points (ranging from $8 to $11) are the conventional, and accurate, drivers of this trend, the induction into an elite club steeped in tradition seems to also rank high on the list. It's certainly not easy, being red, white and green.
"They want to make sure that anyone that joins their organization is for the process of preserving the Neapolitan tradition. It's a pretty strict process," said Kevin Toyoda, executive corporate chef of Smashing Tomato in Lexington, Ky. The two locations in Lexington received certification in 2009.
The AVPN was founded in 1984 in Naples and is supported by the Naples Chamber of Commerce. In 1998, the Italian government formally recognized Neapolitan pizza as a traditional food, worthy of preservation, and granted it D.O.C (Denominazione di Origine Controllata) status.
The D.O.C. status sets strict guidelines for the legally permitted ingredients and methods of preparation necessary to produce authentic Neapolitan Pizza.
The process of certification is time-consuming and can take several months. To apply, a restaurant or pizzeria must already be in operation, and the owner/operator must submit a letter stating why the certification is desired. The organization's website suggests discussing a level of respect for the tradition and the rules that accompany it, as well as describing family origin or background.
Additionally, photos of the restaurant, ingredients, the oven intended to cook the pizzas and the final dish must be included in the application packet. A short video showing the preparation and cooking process is also required.
If the application is accepted, a representative from the organization will visit the restaurant and monitor the entire pizza-making process, including customer reactions to the end product.
The price for the certification, which includes one year of membership, is $2,000, and the yearly renewal fee is $250.
The AVPN standards are limited to two types of pizza: "Marinara" (tomato, oil, oregano and garlic) and "Margherita" (tomato, oil, mozzarella or fior di latte, grated cheese and basil).
Some, and there are many, of the preparation and cooking requirements include a wood-burning oven, proper ingredients, such as San Marzano tomatoes grown in the rich soil of Mount Vesuvius imported from Italy, a baking time that does not exceed 90 seconds and proper handling of the ingredients throughout.
Trend spawns knock-offs
Because the VPN is a relatively small organization, policing knock-offs posing as the real thing is difficult, and members try to keep a look out on the VPN's behalf. Many pizzerias claim authenticity, and some even go so far as to use the VPN logo without permission, but Fugere views it as a form of flattery.
"It's like with anything else -- if people are picking up on a trend, they're going to do everything they can to latch on to it. I don't think you can really stop people, but I can't worry about that," Fugere said. "What I have to worry about is doing what we do right. In the end, honesty and integrity will win out."
The coinciding knock-off trend is further proof as to just how far Neapolitan pizza has come in a short amount of time.
"When we began promoting Neapolitan food in the U.S., around 15 years ago, we strongly believed that these products had the potential to be winning products, but the domestic market was not yet ready to accept a different version of a very popular food like pizza," Rumi said. "Looking back on how many new members we have certified in the last few months, and how many more we will approve in the next period, convinces us that we are on the right path."