Friday, September 18, 2009

Pizzafest '09

The Verace Pizza Napoletana Association, or VPN, is the Italian-sanctioned organization whose sole task is to certify pizzerias as serving authentic Neapolitan pizza, a prestige many pizzerias, both in and outside of Italy, strive to achieve.

Enter Seattle, Washington. Seattle has more VPN-certified pizzerias than any other city in America, thus making it the perfect location for the VPN's annual Pizzafest celebration on June 24th. Believe me, I fully realize how late I am in posting this, but bear with me.

When my brother and I arrived at the event fifteen minutes late, we were surprised to see only eight or nine people populating the chairs in a small courtyard between two buildings off sketchy Rainier Avenue in Columbia City. Eight or nine people...and both the Italian and American presidents of the VPN.

I had met Peppe Miele, the president of the VPN's American chapter, before, at his pizzeria in Los Angeles, Antica Pizzeria, a very distinguished establishment for Neapolitan pies. The president of the VPN in Italy, Vincenzo Pace, I had not met, though if I had I would most likely have mistaken him for a hitman in the Italian mafia. Thin and tall in a crisp grey suit and dark shades, he poses a formidable figure, and all my stereotype-laced brain cells could think of when looking at him was how recently he may have had someone whacked. I mean no disrespect to him, though, as he was warm and generous in conversation, clearly a lover of true Naples pizza.

At the back of the courtyard a canopied table had been set up, behind which sat a mobile wood-burning oven (courtesy of Inferno Catering) being fed an uncooked Margherita pizza, just prepared by one of the chefs of Ristorante Picolinos. A pair of musicians off to one side provided a miniature symphony of lively Italian standards, adding to the brick-alley atmosphere of the location.

Less than two minutes after it had entered the oven, the first pizza was sliced and offered to the "crowd," followed closely by pizza #2 and pizza #3, and here I was to sample my first of twelve slices of the day. Yes, you read that right, I am revolting.

The pizza was classic Margherita, adhering strictly to the VPN specifications. The dough was soft, airy, and flavorful, clearly the result of a culture biga. The mobile oven had charred the crust to perfection, with myriad leopard spots dotting every centimeter of the cornicione, as expected with dough made with 00 Caputo flour. The sauce was fresh, the canned San Marzano tomatoes coming through clearly. And the mozzarella was creamy, soft, and not at all bland, as can be the case with fresh mozz. The basil--cooked on the pie as opposed to being placed afterward--and the swirl of Italian olive oil enhanced the flavors even further. Ristorante Picolinos clearly had delivered a classic Neapolitan pie, and a damn fine one at that.

A Q&A session then commenced, with Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria owner Joe Fugere describing the legacy of the VPN to the gradually-enlarging crowd, and then fielding inquiries. There seemed to be a lot of confusion among the guests as to what the event was even celebrating, but Fugere was more than happy to straighten them out.

Next up came Pizzeria Pulcinella's crack at the Margherita. The pie was similar to the first in almost every way, except that the sauce on this pizza had a much more striking tomato flavor than Ristorante Picolinos's, perhaps too striking for some. Still, it didn't deviate far from the VPN standards, and it was an exemplary pie, with a sauce so bright and red it may well have been electrified.

At this point, the then-current Seattle mayor Greg Nickels arrived with his staff, bearing a certificate in honor of the VPN and declaring that week to be the official "Verace Pizza Napoletana Week" in Seattle. The VPN's two presidents had a gift of their own for Seattle, offering the mayor a plaque to honor the achievements of the city's pizzerias.

Finally, Tutta Bella's chefs took the reigns at the oven, closing out the evening by serving their Margheritas to a crowd perhaps 200-strong by this point. Their pie was a balance between the first two pizzerias, not as overtly tomato-y as Pizzeria Pulcinella's, and with a less-pronounced cheese flavor than Ristorante Picolinos's. It was a perfect Margherita, just as the others had been, with no fault to be found in it.

Strangely enough, the event's fourth pizzeria to be showcased, Via Tribunali, was a no-show, and no explanation was given as to why they were absent. This was disappointing, as I had eagerly anticipated trying their pies, which many of my friends had recommended with much enthusiasm.

By the end of the night, I had sampled a dozen slices from the three pizzerias, and if I had to pick a favorite, I'd have to go with Ristorante Picolinos's pie, though none of the three was profoundly different from the other two. All are outstanding examples of the Naples-style pie, and each is well worth tasting. Seattle has proven itself to be a pizza-lover's destination, and with great new joints like Delancey opening all the time, this is quickly becoming an indisputable fact.

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