Monday, March 21, 2011

The Truth About Neapolitan-style Pizza

My waiter, a young man in his twenties wearing a dirty apron that sheathed a prodigious belly usually seen on men some twenty years older, was the model of indifference.

Di Matteo Pizzeria - Margherita pizza
Pizza Margherita at Di Matteo in Naples, Italy

He spoke no English, and as I pointed to the menu to place my order for a pizza, he never looked up from his order pad. The dining room was dim and dusty — this restaurant had been around since 1936 — with mountainous piles of fetid, decomposing garbage just outside the front door. A few feet away on the adjoining street, cars and motorbikes competed in a diabolical contest to see who could lean on their horns the longest and loudest. When the pizza arrived, it was small (by American standards), misshapen, unsliced, charred all around and sparse on the toppings. This was the best pizza I'd ever had, in the best pizza joint I'd ever been to.

Di Matteo Pizzeria
Di Matteo pizzeria in Naples, Italy

I was in Naples, Italy. The pizza joint was Antica Pizzeria e Friggitoria di Matteo, or just Di Matteo for short. It's located on Via dei Tribunali, a narrow, claustrophobic main thoroughfare that boasts several of the oldest pizzerias in the world. I was here to find out why Neapolitan pizza, or Pizza Napoletana, is considered by many to be the best and most authentic style of pizza.

There are many different "styles" of pizza. If you grew up in the U.S., you're probably most familiar with the "New York-style" pizza; basically a large, round "pizza pie" with a spongy crust that's topped with any number of ingredients and cooked in a commercial gas oven. In New York City you often buy this pizza "by the slice" from guys with names like Sal or Carmine. Another style from New York is the "coal-fired" pizzas made famous in joints like Lombardi's and Grimaldi's. More recently, authentic "Neapolitan-style" pizza — what has historically been known has Pizza Napoletana — has gained popularity in the U.S.

What's so special about Pizza Napoletana? Like many Italian foods, it boils down to history and taste. With regard to taste, Pizza Napoletana is the essence of simplicity; a few high quality ingredients combined and cooked in such a way to create a whole greater than the parts. The iconic version of Pizza Napoletana is the Margherita. A charred crust, thin in the middle and thicker around the edges, fragrant of yeast and bread, combines with the acidity of the tomato sauce and the richness of the Mozzarella di Bufala cheese, and then sprinkled with sea salt and fresh basil leaves. The pizza is baked in a wood-fired oven at 900 degrees for 60-90 seconds.

Di Matteo Pizzeria
Wood-fired pizza oven at Di Matteo

The history of pizza is long, but suffice it to say that mankind has been slathering ingredients on top of baked dough for thousands of years. Of course, pizza is most often associated with Italy, particularly the city of Naples. Pizza Napoletana dates back to the early 1700s (corresponding to the introduction of tomatoes in Italy), and the recipe of the iconic Margherita pizza to the early 1800s. The name was established in 1889 when the Queen of Italy, Margherita of Savoy, visited Naples and was presented with a pizza made with ingredients featuring the colors of the Italian flag: red tomatoes, white cheese and green basil. There is still a pizzeria in Naples today — Pizzeria Brandi — that traces its origins to the pizzaiolo (pizza maker) Raffaele Esposito who is credited with preparing the pizza for the Queen.

So for pizza connoisseurs, true Pizza Napoletana is the gold standard of pizza styles, both in taste and history. But for those of us who aren't pizza experts, how do we tell when Pizza Napoletana is "real" and not "imitation?" Can we get real Pizza Napoletana in the United States.? In Texas? Who decides what's real and what's fake? Is real always better than fake?

The sign for authentic (true) Neapolitan pizza
Vera Pizza Napoletana certification plaque at Di Matteo

The short answer is: yes, true Pizza Napoletana is (obviously) better than versions that use lower quality ingredients or shortcuts in the preparation. And there is a system in place to ensure that we as consumers get the real deal. And you can get it in Texas. The story of "true" Pizza Napoletana begins in Naples in 1984 with the formation of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana ("Association for True Neapolitan Pizza").

The AVPN is a trade association tasked to promote and defend the true Pizza Napoletana. Among other activities, it sets guidelines for the ingredients and preparation of true Pizza Napoletana, and certifies that restaurants and pizzaioli are properly trained in those guidelines. A pizzeria that successfully acquires certification can display a "Vera Pizza Napoletana" plaque as a way to let consumers know that it makes the real Pizza Napoletana. Furthermore, in February 2010, The European Union granted Pizza Napoletana legal status as a Specialità Tradizionale Garantita (Traditional Specialty Guaranteed). This is a type of trademark that prevents "fake" or imitation makers of Neapolitan-style pizza (which may be of inferior quality) from claiming they produce true Pizza Napoletana.

Wood-fired pizza oven at Dough in San Antonio
Wood-fired pizza oven at Dough Pizzeria in San Antonio

Here in the U.S., the AVPN has established an organization known as VPN Americas as the official delegation for true Pizza Napoletana. Based in California, it follows the exact same guidelines as the Naples association, and is responsible for certifying pizzerias and pizzaioli in the U.S. Currently there are over 40 pizzerias certified as Vera Pizza Napoletana in the United States.

Pizza Margherita at Dough in San Antonio
Pizza Margherita at Dough Pizzeria

In Texas, there are three VPN certified pizzerias: Cavalli Pizzeria in Irving, and Dough Pizzeria and Luciano Pizzeria in San Antonio. Dough is perhaps the most well-known Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) restaurant in Texas, with a loyal clientele and new plans to expand to Dallas. In my experience, Dough's "Margherita STG" pizza is the closest you will get to the real thing in Texas. In Houston, Chef Michael Kramer of The Tasting Room Wine Cafe has completed VPN training in California. The Tasting Room CityCentre location has a new wood-fired oven, and although the restaurant itself is not yet VPN certified, it is producing pizza Margherita in the tradition of true Pizza Napoletana.

It's a unique combination of globalization and legally-protected local food traditions that allows the spirit and flavor of true Pizza Napoletana to be made available worldwide. Obviously there are many pizzerias and styles of pizza throughout the world that are of a high quality and don't necessarily need a certification. But for those of us who are interested in the traditions and history of what we eat and cook, Vera Pizza Napoletana is a great resource to make sure we get the real deal when it comes to Neapolitan-style pizza.

This blog entry was originally posted 14 March 2011 on the website.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Who's afraid of a little haggis?

This is a story about haggis, a dish traditionally associated with the cuisine of Scotland. There are many myths, legends, rumors, and even poems associated with haggis. But most importantly, haggis is a delicious and nutritious dish.

Haggis with neeps and tatties at Feast Houston
Haggis with neeps and tatties at Feast Houston

I want to get that out in the beginning (the delicious and nutritious part) because the story of haggis can be a bit of a bumpy road for those outside of Scotland, particularly in those cultures that shy away from eating the internal organs of animals (I'm looking at you America).

There's an old saying, "You don't want to know how sausage is made." In other words, we all love to eat sausage, but if we knew what ingredients went in to it, we might not want to eat it anymore. The same is true for haggis. But the story of haggis is irrevocably tied to its recipe and ingredients, so there's no way around a full airing of its preparation. So here goes.


The main ingredient in haggis is sheep's "pluck." This is an inclusive term for the internal organs of a sheep, specifically the trachea (windpipe or throat), lungs, heart and liver. These materials are chopped up and combined with other ingredients like oats, onions, suet (sheep's fat), and various spices like thyme, sage and rosemary. The whole lot of it is mixed up and stuffed into a sheep's stomach or ox bung (don't ask) and then boiled in water.

The dish is plated with a side of neeps and tatties, the cheeky Scottish term for mashed potatoes and rutabaga. The combination isn't random; the potato and rutabaga offer a welcome starchy/sweet balance with the intense earthiness of the organ meat. The haggis is either left in its casing, in which case you ceremonially cut it open to reveal the haggis inside, or it's removed and spooned on to the plate for easy access. Traditionally, the drink of choice when eating haggis is, not surprisingly, Scotch whisky.

I asked my friend and expatriate Doug Robertson about his experience with haggis growing up in Scotland. "It's more of a special occasion dish. We didn't really cook it at home. It's popular in rustic restaurants, especially for breakfast. It's obviously a big deal for a Burns supper."

Burns supper? That would be Robert Burns, eighteenth century poet and Scotland's "favorite son." His poems and folk songs are well known, including Auld Lang Syne and Tam O'Shanter. Every year on or around January 25th, Scottish societies, clubs and admirers all over the world hold "Burns suppers" to celebrate his birthday. Did I mention that Robert Burns wrote a poem to haggis? Indeed, he wrote an entire poem, Address to a Haggis, literally singing the praises of the Scottish national dish.

Feast Restaurant
Chef Richard Knight of Feast Restaurant

The ceremonial "entrance of the haggis" is a big part of a Burns supper, with a large haggis carried in as bagpipes play. Address to a Haggis is read, a toast is made with whisky, and the haggis is divvied up among the guests. During the recent Burns celebrations this past January, Houston's Feast Restaurant was asked to prepare haggis for several suppers here.

Feast is known for serving English cuisine, so I asked co-owner, chef and Englishman Richard Knight about Scottish haggis. "You don't see it a lot in England, but with the recent popularity of nose-to-tail cooking, you'll occasionally see haggis on menus in London." According to Knight, his English business partner and chef James Silk spent time cooking in Edinburgh (Scotland), and that's the basis for their recipe.

In addition to making haggis for Burns suppers, Feast put the dish on its regular menu over a weekend in January. It's rarely on the menu at Feast, and I've never seen it on any other restaurant menu in Houston. I'd never tasted haggis so I made a reservation for dinner, bringing along my friend Peggy, an American who had lived in Scotland and eaten the haggis there. Referring to the Feast version, she commented, "It's meatier than the haggis I remember. I recall a lot more filler in Scotland, a lot more oats." That said, we both agreed that the haggis at Feast was delicious.

Feast Restaurant
Uncooked haggis at Feast

The comment regarding "filler" in haggis is pertinent. Like a lot of infamous or exotic dishes, the recipe for haggis is historically made up of stuff left over after the "good stuff" is finished. So after the exquisite lamb chops and rack of lamb and other conventional cuts of the lamb were used (usually eaten by the wealthy), what was left over - the organs, etc. - were chopped up, mixed with "filler" (like oats) to make it more substantial and sometimes nutritious, and then served (usually to poor people) as a dish like haggis.

Canned and frozen haggis
Canned and frozen haggis

Today, haggis isn't just a poor man's dish, and it's not just served in restaurants and at Burns suppers. Haggis is available in a can. And frozen. And it's shipped to haggis lovers (read: Scottish expatriates) all over the world. Except in the United States. In 1971, for health reasons, the U.S. prohibited the import of food containing sheep lung. Then in 1989, the U.S. banned the import of all beef and lamb from the United Kingdom due to the "mad cow disease" crisis. So what's a haggis-loving Scottish expatriate in the U.S. to do?

I called Debbie Tosh, buyer and general manager (and expat Scot) at British Isles, a store in Houston that specializes in products and food from the U.K. "We have canned haggis. It's made from Scottish recipes, but manufactured in the U.S." I asked the obvious question, how much of it does she actually sell? "We sell a lot. There's a big community of Scottish expatriates in Houston, mostly associated with the oil industry. We sell by the case for Burns suppers. And we do sell some as gag gifts."

Canned haggis ready to eat
Canned haggis ready to eat

I bought a couple of different kinds of canned haggis at British Isles to try them out. One of them is made by Caledonian Kitchen which, ironically, is manufactured in Ohio by a company headquartered near Dallas by owners who have no connection to Scotland other than their distant ancestry. In 1992, on a pilgrimage to Scotland to trace his ancestry, owner Jim Walters got hooked on haggis. Back in the U.S. he realized there was no haggis to be found, so he made his own based on Scottish recipes. He started serving it at Scottish festivals in the U.S. and eventually started canning it and selling it.

In 2003, a Scottish magazine invited Walters to submit his haggis to a tasting competition in Scotland. Canned haggis from nine manufacturers in Scotland plus Walter's Texas haggis were entered. The Texas haggis came in an impressive 5th place. I asked Walters if he was there to accept either bouquets or brickbats from the Scots for his impressive placing. "No, they wouldn't let me attend. I think they thought I'd show up in a kilt and cowboy boots!"

So what does canned haggis taste like? First, it's more pungent than the Feast restaurant version. The earthy, meaty, somewhat metallic flavor of the offal (organs) is more pronounced, though not necessarily distasteful for most people. If you've ever eaten beef or chicken livers, the overall flavor of haggis is somewhat similar. The pungent flavor is cut by the nutty oats, which are more prominent in the canned version. The oats also offer a nice crunchy texture. The spices are also noticeable, and add an extra dimension of flavor.

My conclusion? Haggis is perhaps an acquired taste, but it's certainly nothing to be afraid of.

This blog entry was originally posted 15 February 2011 on the website.