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The Art of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo

If you opened Google Search on your browser today – 6 December 2021, you would have noticed the Google Doodle celebrating pizza. The Doodle links to an interactive, fun game asking users to cut the pizza into slices based on the toppings and number of slices requested. But why is pizza being celebrated today?

For most of us, pizza is celebration food, comfort food, all kinds of food. Had a breakup? Let’s order pizza. Won a game, let’s order pizza. Kid got the best grades in class, let’s order pizza. Alone at home and hungry but no mood to cook, let’s order pizza. Finished fasting, let’s order pizza. Just returned home from some place where food was just not palatable, let’s order pizza. Plan to Netflix and Chill, let’s order pizza. We order pizza for just about everything. We all have our favorite pizza places, we are picky about what and how much toppings goes on it, we’ve fought for that last slice, we’ve stolen toppings off others’ (read siblings and partners) slices. We all have some fun pizza memories.

My weirdest pizza memory was about 10 years back in the rural lands of Kutch. I was on fieldwork research in a very, very remote village somewhere like half an hour away from the pristine Mandvi beach. The host I lived with was a widow with a 9 year old son. The village was so small that it had just one vegetable vendor, one grocery shop, and about four hamlets divided by the community. The house I was staying in was just outside all the hamlets, you could call it ‘no-man’s land’. One day, the TV in the house showed a Dominos pizza advertisement, and my host lady asked, what is pizza? I assure you of all the long Instagram captions and even longer blogs I write, I have never been so much at loss of words to explain something about food. It left me even more lost because the previous day I had been asked what was cheese. So, how do I go about explaining to a woman who had spent her entire life in that small village which you could walk from one end to another of in less than 10 minutes, what pizza was! She didn’t know cheese, I wasn’t even going to try to check if she knew what most of our toppings were. A small summary of my answer to her was – it is roti topped with subzi and coagulated milk. She didn’t speak Hindi or English or Gujarati. She only knew Kutchi. I have no idea what she understood from what I said in Gujarati.

Anyways, I digress. The question today is, why is Google celebrating pizza on this day?

According to Google, on this day the culinary Art of Neapolitan ‘Pizzaiuolo’ was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

What is the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity?

The UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity is a list of diverse cultural practices and expressions of humanity. The List aims to raise awareness of the importance of unique practices and expressions while encouraging dialogue that respects cultural diversity. The festival of Navroz – the Parsi New Year, for instance, is a part of this list. The Argentinian dance – Tango is also on this list. The art of Chinese Calligraphy and Shadow Puppetry are on this list. The Sanskrit theatre art of Kerala – Koodiyattam, is on the list. Mudiyett – the ritual theatre and dance form of Kerala is also on the list. The traditional art of performing the Ram Leela is on the list. The traditional Rajasthani folk dance – Kalbeliya is on the list. Chhau – the traditional folk dance from Odisha and West Bengal is also on this list. Of course, Yoga is also on the list. And the list goes on.

What is the Art of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo?*

The Art of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo is a culinary practice comprising of four different phases relating to the preparation of dough and its baking in a wood-fired oven involving a rotary movement by the baker. The element originates in Naples, the capital of the Campania region in Italy, where about 3,000 Pizzaiuolo now live and perform. Pizzaiuoli are a living link for the communities concerned.

What happens in Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo?

First, the dough is kneaded by the Pizzaiuolo until it reaches the desired consistency and smoothness. The dough is then shaped into balls, called ‘staglio’ in the local dialect. Alongside, the oven is prepared for baking by burning the beech wood. This is the first phase of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo.

Next, is a more visual art involving a sort of performance for the onlookers characterized by the ability and spectacularity of the Pizzaiuolo who goes on to spread the dough, called ‘ammaccatura’ and models the raised rim, called ‘cornicione’ using skilled movements of the hand for the dough’s extension, called ‘schiaffo’, thereby creating a disk-shaped pizza base. The Pizzaiuolo then makes the dough spin and twirl between both his hands and then raises it into air with a quick movement, often singing traditional songs. To give you a little perspective, if you’ve ever seen the traditional cooks make roomali roti, making that roti fly in the air, this raising of the dough disk in the air is somewhat similar. This would be the second phase of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo. This is the main ‘performing’ part of the this art.

Next, the toppings are added on the dough disk. The Pizzaiuolo puts the ingredients on the base beginning at the center of his ‘stage’, spiraling over the base in a clockwise direction, creating an imaginary ‘6’. This is the third phase of the Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo.

Last, the pizza is placed in the prepared wood-fired oven for baking, and the baker uses a rotary movement to ensure uniform baking, adding to the performance. This is the fourth and final phase of the Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo.

The Pizzaiuolo elements engage not just the Pizzauolo involved in making the pizza but also the guests. It is a social ritual that takes place between the Pizzaiuolo’s bench and the oven, and always in the center of the Pizzaiuolo’s ‘stage’. As the ritual takes place, the Pizzaiuolo and the guests as well as the host share convivial moments where stories, songs, and social value of everyday life are spread in a continuous collective feedback. As this happens, the younger folks try to learn the art from the masters as it is being performed.

Who are involved in the Art of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo?*

There are three primary categories of bearers:

  1. The Master Pizzaiuolo
  2. The Pizzaiuolo
  3. The Baker

Apart from this, there are also families in Naples who reproduce the art in their homes. The element fosters social gatherings and inter-generational exchange. It assumes a character of the spectacular with the Pizzaiuolo at the center of their ‘bottega’, sharing their art.

Every year, the Association of Neapolitan Pizzaiuoli organizes courses focused on the history, instruments, and techniques of the art to continue to ensure its viability.Technical know-how is also guaranteed in Naples by specific academies. Apprentices can learn the art in their family homes. However, knowledge and skills are primarily transmitted in the ‘bottega’ where young apprentices observe the masters at work, learning all the key phases and elements of the craft.

How did the Art of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo become a part of the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity?

The Art of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo is an important part of Italy’s oral traditions and expressions from Naples – the birthplace of our beloved pizza. The petition for inscribing the art as part of the list was made way back in late 2000s. The art finally became a part of the list in 2017. The day this happened, pizza makers in Naples celebrated by handing out free pizza on the streets. There was an actual petition to support the pizzaiuolo application which received support from over two million people! How strange is it that it took over 250 years of waiting for pizza to become humanity’s heritage, its real intangible heritage.

What is a Neapolitan Pizza?

The classic Neapolitan pizza has only two variants –

  1. The classic Margherita that has tomato, mozzarella, olive oil, and basil, representing the red, white, and green colors of the Italian flag. The pizza is said to have been named after Italy’s Queen Margherita of Savoy.
  2. The classic Marinara that has tomato, garlic, oregano, and olive oil.

Every other topping you see on the pizza came later, and is not the original, or as people consider it fashionable to call it now – ‘authentic’. We still continue to call it pizza and dig in.

Rachel can have as many anchovies on her pizza, Joey can order his ‘Joey special’, and George Stephanopoulos can go about his date wearing just the towel and hoping he’d gotten the one with mushroom, green pepper, and onion as he’d ordered, instead of fat-free crust with extra cheese! (Free tip: If you got none of these references, you need to watch F.R.I.E.N.D.S)

Next time you order pizza, remember it is not just pizza, it is a slice of history and valuable intangible cultural heritage you are having. And it is ok to have pineapple on the pizza, I really like it like that.

* Source: UNESCO

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