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Americans make Neapolitan pizza their way

Pizzerias embrace the traditional style, but shrug off certification

“Authentic” is a popular buzz word in the food world, and when it comes to pizza, an organization in Naples, the flatbread’s birthplace, is codifying exactly how proper Neapolitan pizza should be made.

But Neapolitan pizza is spreading across the United States, and plenty of the restaurateurs doing the spreading don’t care whether they’re certified or not.

The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana was recognized by the Italian government in 1998 and has since been issuing certificates to restaurants throughout the world whose pizzas are cooked in wood-burning ovens heated to approximately 900 degrees Fahrenheit, using 00-grade Italian flour, San Marzano tomatoes, either Fior-di-Latte or Mozzarella di Bufala cheeses, fresh basil, sea salt and yeast. Baking time for certified pizzas should not exceed 90 seconds, their diameter should not exceed 11 inches and they should be soft and pliable. If you want a crispy crust, VPN pizza’s not for you.

• IN DEPTH: The March 7 issue of Nation’s Restaurant News examines how pizza concepts are responding to consumers’ increasingly adventurous palates by offering unusual toppings for their pies. Subscribers can access the full article “Pizza chains experiment with unusual toppings.” Subscribe today.

Lenny Veltman, a restaurateur and former contestant on the NBC show “The Apprentice,” hopes his restaurant CHIPP will become the Chipotle of Neapolitan Pizza with its VPN-certified pies.

Veltman went to Naples to be trained and then opened the first unit in the out-of-the-way Brooklyn neighborhood of Sheepshead Bay at the end of January.

“It’s like a lab,” Veltman said of the 1,800-square-food, 55-seat restaurant. Opening quietly in the middle of winter was part of his plan to test the waters, he said. He sells beer and $18 bottles of wine, and is figuring out how to manage dinner rushes.

Pizzas range from an $8.50 Marinara — tomato sauce, oregano and garlic — to a $14.75 Margherita DOC, with the requisite VPN San Marzano tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and basil, along with Grana Padano cheese.

But Veltman and his cooks experiment, and some of the food will decidedly not be VPN, such as the $8.50 dessert pizza — bananas, strawberries, mascarpone and maple syrup, topped with a scoop of ice cream — or the brunch pizza of tomatoes and onions, with an egg broken on top before the pie is cooked.

Other restaurateurs say their pizza would qualify for VPN certification, but they chose not to spend the $2,000 for certification and annual $250 renewal fee.

“VPN’s not a standard of quality, it’s a standard of procedure,” said Jordan Wallace, pizzaiolo at Pizzeria Locale in Boulder, Colo. “That’s not to say there aren’t great VPN pizzerias, but the most famous ones in Italy aren’t VPN.”

The Boulder restaurant, owned by local restaurateurs Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Mackinnon Patterson, uses ingredients imported from the Naples area for its Neapolitan-style pizzas. The name is meant to evoke the idea of a local pizzeria — not one featuring local ingredients — but with modern American service touches including crystal wine glasses, artisanal beer, and red and white Italian wine on tap.

Jarrett Appell is executive chef of Donatella in New York City, which specializes not just in southern Italian food, or even of the food of Campania, the region where Naples is located.

“It’s primarily classic Napoletano,” Jarrett said, and so is the pizza.

But his pizza’s not VPN certified.

“Honestly, the pizzerias in Italy that were certified were some of the worst pizzas that I’ve eaten, “ he said.

Joe Calcagno built his own oven for his new restaurant, 36-seat Capizzi Pizzeria & Wine Bar in New York City. But he wanted more control than a pure wood-burning oven allows. So he made it capable of accepting bursts of gas heat, too, disqualifying him from being VPN. Not that he cares.

“I like American flour better,” he said. He also likes smoked provolone from Wisconsin, which he says is less salty than imported ones.

He also likes a crispier pizza, and that requires slower cooking.

“This is a cross between Neapolitan and New York pizza,” said Calcagno, a Sicilian-American who was born and raised in New York and points out that not all pizza in Italy fits VPN rules, either.

“One pizza that’s popular in Italy right now is the Americano. It has French fries and hot dogs on it,” he said.

Calcagno said he focuses on using great ingredients — including the oregano and red peppers that are hanging to dry in his restaurant.

He makes Italian classics, such as a pie topped with prosciutto, arugula and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, and American classics, including one topped with the best pepperoni he could find, and then he serves his own creations.

One of those is topped with toasted pine nuts, sliced tomatoes, basil and white asparagus.

“I want to use the right stuff and develop the right customers,” he said. “It takes the longest time to get where you want to be that way, but you also get the best clientele.”

CORRECTIONS: A previous version of the story stated that a bottle of wine at CHIPP costs $8. The correct price is $18. An earlier version also misidentified the owner of Capizzi Pizza. His name is Joe Calcagno.

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].


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