The charms of the politically incorrect pizza

So much for locavorism. Authentic Neapolitan pizzas require overseas ingredients.

Jacob Richler
The charms of the politically incorrect pizza
Photograph by David Bagosy

This was my kind of pizza. The casually formed dough of its periphery was blistered from intense heat, while its crumb was well-aerated and surprisingly elastic. Where crust met toppings, the texture grew moist and invitingly creamy. It was also very thin, a mere vehicle for the truffle paste, shredded mozzarella and thinly sliced porchetta—all centred by a whole runny egg. This pizza was not built for sharing, so I ate it all, and swiftly.

That was last week at Pizzeria Libretto, which shares space on a bustling stretch of Ossington Avenue in Toronto with a handful of happening tapas joints and trendy watering holes, some scary Vietnamese karaoke bars, and a few rundown garages. Libretto is unique: it is the only pizzeria in Canada to boast membership in the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN).

“VPN Member 291,” the menu reads. “Vera Pizza Napoletana requires strict adherence to the culinary discipline of the association. A wood-burning oven, San Marzano tomatoes, all-natural fresh mozzarella and double zero flour, along with proper technique, must be used.”

To be precise—and the EU-recognized VPN rules are nothing if not that—a Neapolitan pizza should be no more than 35 cm in diameter, with a raised crust of one to two centimetres in height, while the balance should not exceed a thickness of 0.3 cm. This must be “soft, elastic and easily foldable”—without cracking. It must be made of “00” flour, fresh yeast, salt, water and nothing else, and cooked in a wood-burning oven. And it can only be topped with tomatoes sourced from San Marzano, Italy, as well as either fresh mozzarella di bufala or fior di latte (cow’s milk version of same).

You have to hand it to the Italians, I thought to myself while finishing up lunch with a necessary espresso. Not for inventing pizza. But for more recently launching “slow food,” and with it, all the resulting interest in traditional, local foods, making locavorism the dominant culinary trend of the new century. All that and then they turn around and insist that to make true pizza, you should import an Italian oven (their volcanic stone makes for the best results), Italian flour (no one else makes the fine grind called “00”), Italian tomatoes from the San Marzano region (a certified Denominazione d’Origine Protetta product since 1996), and Italian cheese (unless your neighbour happens to raise water buffalo). It is all so dizzying that your average Toronto foodie will easily and simultaneously insist on the culinary supremacy of Neapolitan pizza and the moral virtue of local food without being aware of the slightest contradiction.

To be fair, New York got this ball rolling. Even though, unlike any city here, they have a long distinct pizza tradition of their own. Their new obsession with Neapolitan pizza knows no bounds. When in 2009 New York magazine published a cover story proclaiming “The year of the pizza,” the subhead promised “The definitive manifesto to the Neapolitan revolution.”

The reverberations in Toronto began that year with Pizzeria Libretto, followed by Queen Margherita and lastly with Mark McEwan’s Fabbrica. Each is equipped with the necessary Neapolitan wood-burning oven (about $30,000, installed) that can handily attain 1,000° F and cook a pizza in 90 seconds flat. Each uses VPN methods and a VPN product list to turn out pizzas of similarly exceptional quality. Doing the rounds, I asked the chefs if the former was essential to the latter.

“You have good product, you have good pizza maker, you have good pizza,” said Massimo, a 25-year pizza-making veteran from Naples transplanted to Queen Margherita. Manager Christopher White at Libretto and Fabricca ex­ecutive chef Rob LeClair (who in New York trained at Kesté under the legendary Roberto Caporuscio) confirm that fine 00 grind is essential to the correct texture of pizza dough, and the particular balance of acidity and sweetness of the San Marzano plum tomato is uniquely suited to the raw tomato sauce necessary for pizza. We might be able one day to make both, and those fresh mozzarellas too, but in the meantime, quality trumps locavorism.