There Will be No DOCtoring Here
|Margherita Pizza D.O.P., Pizzeria Libretto, Toronto|
Mislead. Bamboozled. This is the average North American who has recently purchased what we have come to regard as “pizza”. Apparently we have been tricked for years into thinking that those chewy slices that we have embraced as a culture are the real deal. But no true pizza welcomes ham, or sausage or even the ever popular pepperoni – well no authentic Neapolitan pizza anyway.
Thanks to a panel of prestigious pizza aficionados, and the legal assistance of the European Union, there is real pizza out there -- complete with a definition and convenient stamp of approval.
I’m talking about real Neapolitan pizzas and we can even find them in our very own GTA. Where? Pizzeria Libretto. For years savory circular pies of various style and thickness have passed for “pizzas” but no more! A few short years ago Italians officially took back the snack they shared with the world, horrified by its mutations as it traveled to every corner of the globe. Tandoori chicken pizza? Grilled Pizza? Desert Pizza? Sacrilege! They did what any food loving traditionalists would do in times of crises -- turned to the law.
To claim their cultural relic, Italians, or should I say Neapolitans, created an organization in the mid 1980s devoted to the cultural preservation of the sensational national nibble -- the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana or A.V.P.N. They created a series of rules and guidelines necessary to follow in order to produce the regional specialty. But it was not until 2004 that the organization joined forces with the Italian Ministry of Agriculture to make a case for certifying authentic pizza at the European Union (E.U.). As a result they are now included in the Union’s ongoing effort to officially classify regional foods as definable cultural products. In this process, product names are essentially trademarked resulting in verifiable stamps of authenticity. The classification assures consumers worldwide that what they are purchasing is the real deal. Other food stuffs which have been certified include Champagne, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, Parmagiano Reggiano etc. In Italy such foods garner the designation D.O.C. (Denominazione di origine controllata). So what does pizza need to be today to be considered authentic? According to the E.U. and A.V.P.N., a true Neapolitan pizza must meet several requirements. The pizzas must not only be assembled in a certain way but must also meet certain measurements; be heated within a certain timeframe at a particular temperature; involve ingredients from specific regions of Italy; involve particular ingredient combinations and preparation methods; and even be cooked in a certain type of oven. There are also only two certifiable types of Neapolitan pizzas: Marinara and Margherita.
|Margherita Pizza D.O.P., Pizzeria Libretto, Toronto|
Pizza has a history, and its creation was no accident. Naples claims pizza originated there in the 1700s. Many historians argue that the first Pizzeria was the Antica Pizzeria Port d’Alba. It served Marinara pizzas – pizza topped simply with tomato, garlic, olive oil and oregano. The pizzas take their name from the sailors who ate the dish upon return from long fishing trips. The equally famous Margherita pizza has been linked to Naples and a baker named Raffaele Esposito. Legend has it that Esposito baked three different pizzas for a visit of King Umberto I and Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889. The Queen favored the pizza which displayed the colors of the Italian flag. The red was represented by tomatoes, the white by mozzarella cheese and the green by fresh picked basil leaves. The pizza was dubbed Pizza Margherita in her honor. Think you’re making a margherita tonight with those farmer’s market tomatoes and basil bunches from your garden? Think again. The integral ingredients in the pizza making guidelines are also specified. They must originate from distinct Italian regions and are also protected cultural products. For instance, not just any mozzarella cheese can be used on these pies, it has to be mozzarella di bufala campana and fior di latte dell‘appennino meriodionale D.O.P. And those tomatoes -- San Marzano or nothing!
So what does a humble Toronto pizzeria need to do to become certified? That'ssomething Max Rimaldi, owner of Pizzeria Libretto, is contending with as I type. His Ossington and Dundas West pizzeria is one of the first Toronto pizzerias in the midst of getting certified by A.V.P.N. In order to attain his certification Max needs to not only practice what A.V.P.N. preaches but pass their inspection – an inspection he must also pay for. Though the organization is a labor of love and as such non-profit, members have to pay dues -- membership fees and certification fees. Max needs to fly and accommodate some Italian pizza master judges who will taste, pinch, squeeze, fold and smell his offerings before giving him their seal of approval – and no doubt will be expected to clean up the mess after its all said and done. Luckily Max will not have to purchase round trip tickets from Naples for his inspectors. He is going through a board of middlemen, the American chapter of A.V.P.N. known as Verace Pizza Napoletana Americas, or V.P.N. Americas, which will send an inspector from California, specifically the chapter’s founder Pepe Miele. Max had to do more than make a few phone calls and apply online. He had to send photos: of his pizzas; oven; establishment (tables, customers etc.); dough (before and after rising); dough machine; mise-en-place; etc. – and potentially a lock of hair of his first born child. He is still waiting patiently to arrange his inspection because much like the Italian bureaucracy, the heads of V.P.N. Americas work very slowly. But while he twiddles his thumbs, Max and his partner Rocco Agostino make pizzas according to the certification body’s standards and rules. Pizzeria Libretto even takes its name from the A.V. P.N. pizza charter (the Italian version), specifically from the description of the final product which describes the crust as being easily pliable and foldable into the shape of a little book, or “libretto”.
|Margherita Pizza D.O.P., Pizzeria Libretto, Toronto|
Though he does his best to follow the charter's rules, Max and his chef Rocco Agostino follow an Italian cooking philosophy first and foremost. “We follow the philosophy of Italian food -- local ingredients, what’s fresh immediately, we are not going to import everything, it comes down to fresh ingredients and inspiration,” and for the dynamic duo that means forsaking the charter’s cheese rules. According to the rules, Max should only import and use one of two types of cheese for his pies -- mozzarella di bufula campana and fior di latte dell‘appennino meriodionale D.O.P. But that’s one rule he will not abide by. Why? Cost, freshness and industry corruption. Importing fresh cheese from another continent on a regular basis is anything but cost effective nor is it conducive to showcasing the incredible quality of the fresh product. “I just got back from Italy and had multiple layovers and waiting periods and I feel tired and less than fresh, now imagine what that does to a piece of fresh cheese”. Max also encountered problems regarding imported products’ dates of production -- they were frequently forged to appear more fresh than they actually were. Max wanted something fresh and local but akin to the Italian product so he teamed up with a local dairy farmer just outside Toronto who produces local Italian style cheeses. The result: -- “Our ricotta on our Marinara – it is made Friday morning and served Friday night – it’s a dream.” That dreamy cheese now comes in twice weekly. The brains behind the certification board understand that exceptions must be made abroad to comply with the charter but still create a winning result. They are not quite so lenient in Italy – take for instance Max’s favorite pizzeria in Naples – Da Michele. To him and many others they offer the epitome of Neapolitan style pizza but technically they break a major rule – they use a lighter seed oil in place of olive oil. For Max, “they are absolutely still incredible and authentic though they break the charter’s rules. If I’m above the standard I should be able to do what I want”. Italians are defensive of their traditions, but they will admit when something is good despite breaking rules. Da Michele uses different oil to “save on cost and to prevent the oil’s flavor from overpowering the pizza flavor,” but in every other respect they are so Neapolitan that they only produce two types of pizza for sale – the Marinara and the Margherita. So are these Libretto pizzas really so distinct? My first attempt to find out resulted in a nearby restaurant getting my business. I arrived at Pizzeria Libretto late on a Saturday night greeted by a large line, at the front of which I was informed that my party would become the twentieth group waiting for a table. As we left the bustling restaurant discouraged, a woman in a mink coat muttered “not to worry, we’ve only been waiting for an hour and a half so far”. An hour and a half later I finished dinner at the Lakeview Lunch. I was anxious to eat whatever was worth hours of lining up. Was this pizza heaven or hype? The next Friday I reached out for some informed company to test the waters– my cousin and his fiancé – he, a pizza fanatic, and she, a pizza fanatic by proxy. They not only make their own pies in their oven on a routine basis but have eaten pizzas all over the city and abroad – including authentic Neapolitan pizza in Naples. I opted to arrive alone first in order to line up while they made their way downtown. I was pleasantly informed by the hostess that it looked like forty five minutes or so. An hour and a half later my party and I were starting to resemble dehydrated fruit. We were packed tightly into the restaurant not designed for waiting – left to hover over a group of four diners, salivating over their salumi platter, dribbling on their shoulders – did I mention I’m a vegetarian? Just when we were beginning to become irate we were offered our table. Despite the fact that the overstuffed restaurant continued to bustle out of control around us, things moved fairly smoothly from then on –something I attribute largely to our graceful waiter who strutted around the room like he had on a pair of invisible heels. Our appetizers impressed but still could not wipe the frown off of my cousin’s fiancé face, “nothing is worth that wait”. My cousin was more optimistic but I was beginning to get very nervous. One by one our mains arrived. We strategically ordered some authentic pizzas and some of Libretto’s more liberal creations. We tucked in to three varieties – the rapini, garlic, black olive, goat’s cheese and mozzarella; the Friday special, the D.O.P. Marinara prepared traditionally but finished with a generous dollop of fresh Ontario ricotta; and the D.O.P. Margherita. We even tested out the spelt crust on one of them to see how it fared. It was unanimous. Ethereal. Bliss. These pizzas were fantastic, and even more surprisingly to me, exactly as the charter intended. I was careful to bend, fold, smell and observe the traditional Margherita. It was just as it was meant to be -- blistered with bits of charring on the bottom, soft and chewy, crisp on its edges, lightly doused in tomato, topped with just melted cheese. “A characteristic aroma, at once perfumed and fragrant” (as the charter lays out) released from it’s centre where the olive oil, fresh basil and tomato had “perfectly amalgamated”. It was divine, and though it was the first to arrive at our table for several minutes, divided three ways it was enough to raise the spirits of my cousin’s fiancé, who looked down and said, “Forget about what I said – this is amazing.” But was it my favorite? No. The untraditional ricotta on the Marinara was something truly special, delicately flavored and scrumptiously creamy (but an addition that would no doubt have a Neapolitan grandmother turning in her grave) and the balance of flavors on the rapini pizza (which had no tomato in sight) left me wishing that I had accepted the accidentally doubled order of it. So why get certified if the rules are perhaps too stringent? Can’t their fabulous and more innovative pizzas speak for themselves? Pizzeria Libretto wants their certification because pizza is something about which everyone has an opinion. People talk Max’s ear off about what they consider authentic pizza – but as a member of A.V.P.N. he won’t have to argue – their seal of approval will show any who visit his establishment that he not only knows about pizza but purveys a certifiable product – one executed so perfectly that it may even provoke his more traditional customers to order one of his pizzeria’s own inventions. Ultimately A.V.P.N.’s rules can be more like guidelines for pizzerias like Libretto –attention paid when necessary but like the charter’s description of the final product, flexible.