To many, pizza is nothing more than a half-cooled pie in a grease-stained box.

But that version is a different stripe entirely than what’s being served out of the volcanically hot ovens at the heart of Neapolitan pizzerias.

Neapolitans are fanatical about their pie, which is why in 1984, they organized the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (True Neapolitan Pizza Association). The organization labors to officially recognize authentic Neapolitan pizzerias following true artisan traditions.

Wood-burning oven at Pizza Pura
The wood-burning oven at Pizza Pura is not only beautifully decorated in mosaic tiles but also heats up to 900 degrees to give pizzas a Neapolitan taste and crunch. 

Peppe Miele is the president of the North American VPN delegation, certifying restaurants in the U.S. and Canada. His restaurant, Antica Pizzeria, was the first in the states to achieve VPN status. He now teaches aspiring pizzaioli — or pizza makers — how to following in his footsteps.

“We provide them with the correct information — how to make the product in the correct way, including the equipment and the ingredients,” Miele says.

In the list of acceptable ingredients, there's no room for mozzarella that comes in a brick, for example. Only water-packed, fresh cheese will do. For the sauce, San Marzano tomatoes, grown in volcanic soil in Italy, are preferred, though not essential. It’s the canning process that matters the most, says Miele.

“Italians have a process of canning that’s different than Americans,” he says. “It looks different in the juice, like pulp and juice together.

Contrary to popular belief, the VPN dictates the quality of the ingredients, not the specific brand. “It has to be the quality that matches our requirements,” Miele says. “If you can find good flour in America and good tomatoes in America, there’s nothing we have against that.”

The crust, a subject about which Italians could write vast treatises, is where the VPN really drills down specifics. Neapolitan pizza is cooked fast and hot in a domed wood-burning oven, which burns at about 900°F. That high heat leaves characteristic blisters of char on the bottom of the crust.

“When it comes to equipment, it actually makes everything happen,” Miele says.

Dough Matters

Working with real dough

One of the many letters of the Neapolitan pizza law is that a pizzaiolo must make the dough from a type of very fine flour, which gives the pizza a texture that can’t be replicated with other flours.

“It has to do with the protein inside of the flour,” says Ben Mixson, who’s deep into the complicated process of applying to be VPN-certified. “The glutinous structure in real Neapolitan flour, you can’t imitate it,” he says. “You can try to fit your ingredients into that template, but it’s not the same.”

Mixson’s restaurant, Pizza Pura, is in a gritty but growing warehouse-and-arts district in Asheville, N.C. His wife and business partner, Laura Mixson, who insists on hand-pulling the mozzarella and making the dough in small batches, masterminds Pura’s pizza.

She uses only live yeast and allows the dough to rest for 24 hours before it's fired, which is above and beyond the requirements of the VPN. That extra fermentation not only adds structure to the crust, but also a yeasty complexity that underdeveloped dough just can't touch. It's an age-old, but very specific approach that Ben calls "rustic but serious."

“As owners, it’s important for us to convey that this process is a couple hundred years old and we’re just borrowing and paying respect to tradition,” he says.

The Mixsons only need to send one more video of their dough-making process to the VPN. Then, the group will determine if it’s time to fly to North Carolina for an onsite inspection.

If the Mixsons are successful, they’ll receive a sign to hang on the wall and a sequential VPN number. Only about 60 pizzerias in the U.S. bear the VPN seal, not including multiple branches of a single restaurant.

More have certification-worthy pies, but haven’t jumped through the hoops. “If their hearts are in the right place and they’re really trying to respect that tradition, you can tell in the product,” Ben says.

It’s Alive

Mozzeria opened in 2011 in San Francisco, and quickly worked to get certified. “We decided to get AVPN certification because we take our pizzas seriously,” says David Rosenbaum, who coordinates media for Mozzeria. “We want to show people that we care about the quality, and how the pizzas should taste.”

The certification process wasn’t easy. “They have strict guidelines as they want to uphold their history and reputation, so we had to undergo a long process,” Rosenbaum says.

The fact that most of the staff, as well as the owners, at Mozzeria are deaf makes the achievement even more impressive. “We believe we are the only AVPN certified pizzeria in the world that is deaf-owned,” Rosenbaum says.

Traditional wood-burning oven
Kuwait City’s SOLO Pizza Napulitana wood-burning oven. 

According to Amr AlRefai, owner and pizzaiolo of Kuwait City’s SOLO Pizza Napulitana, the world of Neapolitan pizza is full of surprises.

“I’ve had pizzas better than Napoli in Japan,” says AlRefai, as avid about traveling as he is about pizza. Indeed, in 2010, Japan’s Akinari Makishima won the VPN-sponsored Pizza World Championship. Japan is second only to the U.S. for VPN-certified pizzerias outside of Italy.

Kuwait isn’t even close to those numbers; AlRefai owns the single certified pizzeria in the country.

A former finance major, AlRefai decided to leave the corporate world and open a pizzeria after spending some time in Italy.

“I tried this pizza and I feel in love, honestly,” he says. “I’ve never had something like it before — and I can still taste it, 14 years later.”

The majority of people who eat AlRefai's pizza love it, he says. Even so, he never stops trying to perfect the craft of Neapolitan pie.

“It’s a non-stop learning process,” he says.

That’s because dough is essentially a living creature, what with the peculiarities of yeast and how it reacts to its environment, he says. “It’s sensitive. The weather makes a difference, the water makes a difference, the salt makes a difference, and every day you discover something new.”