What, Exactly, Is a “Certified” Neapolitan Pizza Place?

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Neapolitan pizza, or, the style of pizza made in Naples, Italy, is something many consumers are learning about. It is nothing like what comes from Pizza Hut, Papa John’s or Domino’s. It is not a thick-crust pizza, nor is it a thin, crispy pizza. It cooks in 90 seconds or less in a blistering, wood-fired oven that reaches 900 degrees, and it has a charred exterior edge and a soft center. It's never topped with cheese shreds out of a bag. It's also not easy to prepare correctly.

For a long time, Houston has had only one pizza maker and pizzeria who has been able to market his “certified” status when it comes to Neapolitan pizzas, and that’s Bill Hutchinson of Pizaro’s. He trained to be a pizzaiolo (pizza maker) before opening the Memorial location in 2011. The Montrose one, which opened in 2013, is actually a certified pizzeria. Now that Cane Rosso has opened its first Houston restaurant, there are two with certified status. Here's what all that entails. 

The best-known certification organization in the United States is the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana or Real Neapolitan Pizza Association, or VPN for short. Both Pizaro’s and Cane Rosso hold these certifications. Hutchinson also just received a second certification, from the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani, or APN. For purposes of this discussion, our focus is on the certification requirements of the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana.

According to VPN's website, it is “an international non-profit organization founded in the mid 1980's by a group of Neapolitan pizzaiolis (pizza makers) seeking to cultivate the culinary art of making Neapolitan pizza.” It was deemed a “denomination of control,” or DOC, by the Italian government in 1984. That’s a fancy way of saying the government recognized the organization’s authority to set standards for what, exactly, constitutes true Neapolitan pizza.

Certification begins with a week of intensive training at real, working restaurants, either in Naples or Marina Del Rey, California. Hutchinson went to California and was put to work cooking pizzas along with receiving instruction. He trained under Peppe Miele, the president of Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana Americas, who Hutchinson says is “the master.” “He set the organization up, he’s from Italy, he’s been in the pizza business his whole life.” The goal is to cook Neapolitan pizza the way it was prepared 300 years ago.

Hutchinson learned how to make dough, how to get it to rise, the fermentation process and which products to use. The regulations for each process are exacting, as are the ingredient specifications. These days, the intensive training costs $2,750. Hutchinson feels it was worth every dime. “I wouldn’t recommend you open a pizza shop without some kind of professional training behind you,” he said.

The individual training to become a certified pizzaiolo, or pizza chef, is only the beginning and is not the same as getting a restaurant certified. “You have to be open and operating before they’ll even consider you,” explained Hutchinson.

The standards for ingredients are exacting and define factors such as approved brands, water content in cheese and percentage of protein in wheat flour. There’s even a specification for the salt: It has to be a type of sea salt. Equipment has to be from an approved manufacturer.

During the certification process, several videos have to be sent to the organization that show each step of the pizza-making being performed correctly. Furthermore, a representative for the organization may come on site to check over everything in person. “VPN has the right to come in at any time and inspect your facility,” said Hutchinson.

That’s where someone like Cane Rosso’s executive chef, Dino Santonicola, comes in. He was raised in Naples, Italy, the home of Neapolitan pizza, and has been in the pizza industry since he was old enough to work. “In Naples, we didn’t have a lot of choice. You either don’t work or you work in restaurants,” he said. Working in the neighborhood pizzeria proved a good fit, and Santonicola, who says he always wanted to travel, knew that if he could make pizza, he could get jobs in other countries. He’d offer his help working in pizzerias in other cities across Italy and Europe, and considered it an “extended vacation.”

Twelve years ago, he was asked to help open Via Tribunali, another VPN-certified pizzeria, in Seattle, and that’s what brought him to the United States. Santonicola was helping open another Napoletana pizzeria in Washington D.C. when Jay Jerrier asked him for help getting the first Cane Rosso open in Dallas.

Santonicola’s experience was such that he received his VPN certificate without going though the training. He’d already been through it in the most “real world” way possible in Naples. Sometimes, when a pizzeria applies to get certified, Miele, the VPN founder Hutchinson trainer under, sends Santonicola, who is considered a “fiduciary,” to check a place out.

If a pizzeria passes all the certification criteria, the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana sends a framed certificate and a sign to display with pride. It took eight months for Hutchinson to get his. “[Miele] trained me and he was still hard on me — but he should be. It’s not a rubber stamp,” said Hutchinson. “The thing I like about the VPN is it ensures consistency and quality.”

Santonicola emphasized that the Vera Pizza Napoletana certificate is not simply a marketing tool. It’s hard work to maintain the organization’s rigorous standards, and making any other kind of pizza would be easier. For that matter, educating American consumers on what authentic Neapolitan pizza should be like is still a challenge.

“There are a lot of rules,” he said. “A lot of people use in the States the VPN just for marketing. They start it and then down the road, they realize then it’s a lot of work. Not just the physical work; it’s a lot of mental work, even dealing with the [customers]. It’s not that you say to people, ‘Oh, we make pizza VPN; you’ve gotta love it,’ and everything is magic. It doesn’t work that way.”

He does admit that selling customers on the soft-crusted, charred-edge results is getting easier, though. “Today, after 12 years, it’s way easier to have people love Neapolitan pizza. With all the media and Facebook, it’s more ‘well-connected.’ People can actually see what they’ll be eating.”   

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