Do you remember when Neapolitan pizza hit the mainstream? It was about 15 years ago — and the food world was in a tizzy. The romance of blazing hot ovens married perfectly with the upscale presentation of the elegant, blistery pizzas they produced. Savvy restaurateurs snatched imported ovens, tomatoes, flour and even the pizza makers themselves. Why was it all necessary? Because of the rules, of course!
I’m referring to the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana rules, which aim to define true Neapolitan pizza as that which is made according to traditional standards. The European Union adopted those standards right around the time Neapolitan pizza took off in the U.S., so now Neapolitan pizza is considered a TSG (Traditional Specialty Guaranteed) product. That means “real” Neapolitan pizza is now defined by specific measurements, ingredients and preparation techniques. The rules were created to preserve a tradition. But what would you say if I told you they actually destroyed it?
My pizza tour guests love revealing their pizza “hot takes.” A popular one lately has been admitting to disliking Neapolitan pizza. People complain about soggy, watery pizzas. I used to defend this description as indicative of the style, but the fact is that most Neapolitan pizzas in the U.S. just aren’t made very well. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a pizza maker claim that a clearly burnt or raw pizza is “how it’s supposed to be” when it’s really just a poorly made pizza.
By defining such a strict set of rules, the AVPN created a goal that’s nearly impossible to achieve. Maybe that was the original idea, but it seems to have backfired because now so many people respond negatively to poorly made Neapolitan pizzas that they’ve turned against the style entirely. That’s why so many Neapolitan pizzerias in America have ditched the strict guidelines in favor of characteristics their customers actually want.
From a protectionist perspective, this might seem like the death of Neapolitan pizza. But I see it as its salvation. Rather than limiting the style to an extremely specific recipe, doesn’t it make more sense to honor pizza’s ability to change? Well-known pizzerias like Paulie Gee’s, Roberta’s, Ops, and Razza aren’t making pizza the AVPN would recognize as Neapolitan, but in a sense they’re more true to the original Neapolitan concept simply because they ditch the rules in favor of what their customers want.
Think about any pizza style and you’ll quickly notice that none strictly adhere to a set of rules. One of the main tenants of New Haven pizza is that it’s baked in a coal-fired oven, yet Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s Apizza are the only two New Haven pizzerias currently doing so. How about Detroit style? It has sauce on top of its cheese, right? But Loui’s doesn’t and that’s one of the oldest spots. We define styles to make it easier for us to establish expectations. In the barbecue world, we think of Texas and South Carolina as having different styles NOT to establish a right and wrong, but to signal to the customer whether they’re getting beef or pork.
When we put restrictions on a dish, we sentence it to death. The entire reason pizza has global reach today is because it has been allowed to adapt to local ingredients and culture. I love Neapolitan pizza and think its arrival in the U.S. has inspired an explosion of quality pizza, but I see its greatest value as inspiration for what’s to come and not as a museum exhibit.
SCOTT WIENER is the founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City and SliceOutHunger.org Instagram: @scottspizzatours