One of the things I wanted to share when I opened the English version of this blog was the relation between Italians and pizza not only as a food but as an essential part of our culture.
I think it’s always fascinating to get into a people’s culture, and this often goes through the food they eat. But that doesn’t necessarily mean every aspect of that culture is good.
One of the issues with Italians and their love for food is thinking that, when it’s about cooking and eating, we are the best at it, more than any other people else in the world. This often applies to everything, not just food, but let’s remain on the topic here.
So our cuisine is the best in the world, no one has the variety we have, we produce the best ingredients and so on… All things that can be deemed to be true, but only up to a certain point. My opinion is that, before you utter any sentence that ends with “is the best of the world”, you should’ve at least traveled enough to have had many experiences. Which, in the case of food, it means having eaten at any corner of the globe, and had good insight into a wide variety of cuisines.
That said, it’s not surprising that, whenever we receive an accolade of any kind, we fly it up high in the sky as a valid reason to be proud of being Italian. Which of course is admirable, but it doesn’t have to be pushed to the edge of ludicrous.
And that brings me to the issue of this article: every year, on 7 December 2017, we celebrate a huge recognition: that the Neapolitan pizza is on the Unesco World Heritage list.
Too bad, that’s not true: it’s not the Neapolitan pizza, but the Art of Neapolitan pizza makers (Arte del pizzaiuolo napoletano) to be inscribed in the Unesco Intangible Cultural Heritage list. There’s a huge difference.
But I shouldn’t explain this to an English-speaking audience. Why? Because if I type on Google the words “Neapolitan pizza Unesco”, the majority of results I will get will give me the correct headlines: “art of Neapolitan pizza-makers is a Unesco Heritage”. That doesn’t happen in Italy.
Since the very beginning, a vast amount of Italian web magazines headlined “Neapolitan pizza” as a Unesco World heritage. That tells a lot about how much the Italian pride (and, I regret to say, ignorance) is involved in spreading fake information and never takes the time to get into the details.
Thus bringing to some confusing issues. Many had even headlined that “Neapolitan pizza is an Intangible heritage”. To which, readers have replied: “How come intangible? I can touch it, I can feel it, I can bite it… What does that even mean”?
It only means that there’s something more behind it. We talk about the art here, not the product it produces.
The word “art” in this context means a lot of things. The first one, of course, is the craftmanship learned by the pizza makers that include all the processes to produce a pizza according to the Neapolitan standards. But it’s not just that. It’s also the way the art expresses itself. In the case of Neapolitan pizzaioli, the gestures, the attitude, even the language (in the pizza-making profession some words are used that are not applied in any other context).
Furthermore, the relationship with the diners, the fact that pizzaioli are not like the usual chefs, who work in the kitchen hidden from the rest of the world. Their work area is there, the counter, the oven, the ingredients, everything is perfectly visible in the main room of the restaurant, in what is the quintessential representation of show-cooking. You will never ask a waiter “please, have the pizzaiolo come out so I can give him/her my compliments” like you would do with a chef. Because the pizzaiolo is there, right under your eyes, and all you have to do is approaching the counter and say “I loved your pizza”.
There’s another important thing that distinguishes art from the object it produces. It’s that art can be reproduced anywhere in the world. Saying that “Neapolitan pizza is a Unesco World Heritage” is like saying the pizza in Naples is. Like the Giza pyramids or Stonehenge, World Heritage sites that can only be seen going there, because you can’t see them anywhere else.
That’s not the same thing with Neapolitan pizza, because the art that produces it can be taught and learned anywhere in the world. And that’s exactly how the petition to propose the application to Unesco gathered two million signatures worldwide. Because pizzaioli who learned this art are all around the planet. And we are not only talking about Neapolitans: they come from Japan, Poland, Taiwan, Colombia, Romania, Argentina, United Kingdom, and so many other countries.
Even if the culture of Neapolitan pizza has become predominant only in the last decade, it has been taught way before than that. Associations like AVPN (Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana) and APN (Associazione Pizzaioli Napoletani) have been worked intensively through the years to promote the knowledge of this art, and teaching it around. That’s also the reason why they united their forces when the initiative of the Unesco application was launched by minister Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio in 2014. After three years of a massive worldwide campaign, the largest that a Unesco application has ever seen, the art of Neapolitan pizza maker was finally inscribed in the Intangible Cultural Heritage list by the Unesco Committee in Jeju Island, South Korea, on 7 December 2017.
So, it’s never enough to stress how the difference between the art and the product is important: because art belongs to the world, and anyone is willing to embrace it, regardless of their nationality.
As I said before, this thing doesn’t need to be explained to the international journalism community, which has always stated it correctly. My point here is to smile at a simple fact about Neapolitan pizza which is often misunderstood by the very same culture that generated it.
But it shouldn’t be surprising. Remember what I told you before about the pride of Italians, who tend to over-consider themselves? That’s even more true with Neapolitans. And, believe me, I don’t say it as a criticism, because as a Neapolitan myself, I’m well aware this is one of the many distinguishable marks of my people. It makes us what we are.
Fun fact. Neapolitans also often claim proudly that Unesco declared our dialect a language. Like it was a special recognition that only our, and not any other Italian dialects received. Too bad Unesco never gave this special recognition at any time: it just stated what linguists have always said, that the majority of Italian dialects are indeed languages. But only Neapolitans saw it like something that put them over the top. Ah, how I love my people…
So the culture of Neapolitan pizza is recognized as a whole experience. Not the actual pizza. The culture the way that it should be and not just basic dough ajd toppings.
I do agree with the food quote. Saying that Italian food is the best in the world is pretty popular opinion. But not for everybody. Some people won’t enjoy because of different pallet. It’s very big world full of delicious food in every part. Well maybe not in UK?? unless it’s authentic Italian or French place??
Yes, exactly. The product is only the outcome of the art that produces it.
You, know, as Italian it’s quite hard for me to say we are not the best in the world, but traveling around I learned that our country is only a tiny bit of this big planet. Although I wouldn’t change my tiny bit for anything else in the world! 🙂
This is why i love to read your articles and talk on instagram. Such an interesting conversations and points of view due to your travelling and insight into pizza and community. You love every bit of what you have tried around world and write about it with passion. You are also very likeable person!
Thank you so much for your kind words! ☺️
Interesting post, I would have liked to see a little more love towards your people. So since this is the first time I am reading your material, I am just curious to learn if you live in Naples, born there or if you’re just a descendant. I simply couldn’t see any pride in your words, considering who we are as people and what we had to go through historically.
Anywho……to the intellectually stimulated readers and to those who would like to learn a little more about our beloved city, here is the Unesco information https://ich.unesco.org/en/decisions/12.COM/11.B.17 and I would suggest a beautiful documentary ” Passione” written by John Turturro ( who is absolutely in love with Napoli even though his family did not originate from there) .
Hi Carmelina, thanks for commenting.
I’m Neapolitan born and raised. 🙂 I love my people and am proud of being Neapolitan. This also means that it’s easier for me to criticize the culture where I come from because no one is perfect and you take people for who they are, with their virtues and flaws. Having an insight point of view allows me ripping the veils of superficiality that inevitably wrap the tales of the external observers. As my aim is to spread the culture of Italian pizza around the world, my privileged point of view means that I can totally be honest with my opinions as I live and breathe this culture and have a more comprehensive understanding compared to someone coming from outside. And it is my duty to show the less known, sometimes less glamour side of it.