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…