Over the past two decades, Neapolitan-style pizza — a disc of naturally fermented dough that’s topped with tomato sauce and cheese, and then baked — has gone from trend to popular mainstay on menus in pizzerias and casual restaurants throughout the U.S. And aside from the obvious factors (the simple deliciousness of a margherita pizza), there’s at least one other reason for this: a small but mighty Italian association called Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN).
Established in 1984, VPN includes members from some of Italy’s oldest pizza-making families, and the organization enacts strict standards over what, exactly, can be called a Neapolitan pizza, requiring its certified pizzas to use specific ingredients, baking temperatures, and equipment. Today, it’s a cultural marketing outfit as much as a resource for pizza makers. While expansion remains at the forefront of VPN’s goals, little has changed in terms of the rules.
Those strict rules lead to another unintended effect: They act as a universal standard by which we can compare pizzas across the United States. In an update to this exercise from 2014, Eater verified the current cost of a margherita pizza at the 98 VPN-certified pizzerias in 29 states. Perhaps unsurprisingly, New York and California have among the highest-priced margherita pizzas in the country. It’s Pennsylvania (thanks to Il Pizzaiolo in Pittsburgh), however, that has the highest average pizza price, at $17.50 per pie. Kentucky, where Smashing Tomato and its sister restaurant are the only two VPN-certified pizzerias in the state, average $8.90 for a margherita pizza, earning the state the “least expensive” designation. All in all, the average price of a margherita in the U.S. in 2018 is about $13.34.
What really goes into a VPN pizza?
In order for a restaurant to obtain VPN certification, each pizza must be made with tomatoes (fresh or canned); fresh mozzarella; extra virgin olive oil; fresh basil leaves; grated Parmigiano Reggiano, Grana Padano, or Pecorino Romano; thinly sliced garlic; oregano; and sea salt — and nothing more. Authorized shops must install and use a wood-fired dome oven operating at a temperature of about 900 degrees Fahrenheit; use the highly refined, milled, type “00” wheat flour; include hand-worked dough, or dough mixed by a low-speed mixer; and use only fresh yeast, “biologically produced, solid, soft and beige in color, with an insipid taste and a low degree of acidity,” as the VPN website writes.
Though VPN members are not required to source ingredients directly from Italy, they must submit all American-made ingredients to the organization for review. President of VPN Americas Peppe Miele explains that the issue with ingredients sourced within the U.S. is that producers have less experience in the Italian style.
“If you open a can of tomatoes made in California, you will probably have a lot of juicy water, with not much pulp and very meaty pieces of tomato,” he says. “In Italy, instead of having a lot of water, they make a puree of tomato juice and the taste is sweeter, with less acidity.” Plus, for many Americans, imported Italian ingredients (which some argue are better than American counterparts) are a shortcut to “authenticity.” “There is a sizable population of people that would place a premium on imported ingredients from Italy,” says Michael A. Cohen, a marketing professor at New York University’s Stern business school, noting that the price of a pizza may differ for a number of different reasons.
This level of detail has led VPN to act as a sort of a middleman between purveyors and VPN-certified restaurants. According to Nicolette Manescalchi, the pizza maker at VPN-certified A16 in San Francisco, the organization’s list of approved ingredients helped narrow the search for the right distributor. “We have a really good relationship with Casa de Case,” she says, referring to the American-based importer of Italian goods.
“We know every single one of our vendors personally,” says Casa de Case owner Howard Case. “We travel often to Italy, and we visit every one of their facilities, so we are pretty intimate with their production techniques.”
Beatrice Ughi, the owner of Gustiamo, an Italian food purveyor based in the Bronx, says that her company is just trying to keep up. “We are growing with the pizzerias that want to use good ingredients,” she says, noting that the main ingredients pizzerias ask about are tomatoes, cheese, and flour — the building blocks of a classic margherita.
VPN’s top priority is about keeping traditional Neapolitan pizza making alive but, Miele insists, “We are not against innovation if that means achieving a greater result in taste. We are open to change and we have changed.” This past year, Unesco’s Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage recognized Neapolitan pizza by issuing it the intangible cultural heritage of humanity status that Italy had submitted for in 2015. It was a tremendous source of pride for the country and the roughly 3,000 Neapolitan pizza makers that petitioned for it. As Miele boasts, “our message was received.”
In the States, economic factors such as cost of living, rent, ingredient shipping costs, the cost of wood (for the oven), and labor impact each pizza’s price. In cities like New York or San Francisco, a higher price point is necessary in order for pizzeria owners to keep up with significantly higher rent prices; in smaller cities like Pittsburgh, it’s often more expensive to source specialty products like those VPN encourages. In short, city life — not to mention quality ingredients — is expensive no matter which way you slice it.
Helena Gonzalez is an Eater intern. Jeff Sant is an illustrator and motion designer.