Italy's persistent north-south divide has found another point of contention: pizza. This Italian symbol has long been associated with Naples - where chef Raffaele Esposito invented the modern pizza Margherita in honour of Queen Margherita of Savoy in 1889 - and where it has a completely different preparation technique and ingredients than in the north. And the difference is particularly relevant at a time when the buzz word in pizza-making is a return to tradition; a growing trend that was under the spotlight at the World Pizza Championship in Salsomaggiore Terme, 16-18 April.
Speaking on the eve of the event where 400 chefs from around the world competed to make the best pizza, one of the judges, Pino Ferraro, a Neapolitan pizza master, told ANSA the north-south rivalry is particularly evident "as a return to tradition is focusing on local and seasonal products to make a better and less expensive product." The future of pizza is in embracing its best artisanal history at a time when this dish is also increasingly gracing the menus of restaurants across Italy. Indeed one of the judges at the world championship's 21st edition this year was three-Michelin-starred chef Heinz Beck, from Rome's La Pergola restaurant.
"The trend is for top venues to use pizza in combination with fish or meat carpaccios, which implies focusing on high quality dough and the chef's personal touch," said Ferraro. "I have been working on pumpkin, radicchio and truffle creams for pizza recipes that require the very best stone-ground flours," said chef Beck.
And dough is at the heart of the north-south divide when it comes to pizzas. Neapolitans let it rise from 24 to 48 hours to make it highly digestible so they can use more of it - from 270 to 300 grams - and make the airy, chewy, creamy crust you will only find in the port city.
"Also, we use buffalo mozzarella cheese, sweet San Marzano tomatoes marinated in extra virgin oil, salt and basil and the pizza, which is 28-30 centimetres in diameter, is cooked in a wood stove for no more than two minutes," said the master chef.
Northern chefs use much less dough, 220 grams max, and the leavening is shorter, sometimes lasting only three hours. The mozzarella cheese is Fiordilatte, with a different consistency and taste, the cooking time is slightly longer, up to five minutes, and the result is a thinner, crunchier version of its southern rival.
The Neapolitans' prolonged fermentation develops the dough's structure and enables starches to transform into flavourful sugars while a three-hour rise produces a paler, saltier version. 'The taste developed across the country is completely different,' the organizer of the World Pizza Championship, Patrizio Carrer, told ANSA. "Trends in pizza-making have changed, but this basic difference is here to stay."
And pizzas are here to stay in Italians' diets as a survey by the European Institute of Italian Pizza showed an Italian eats on average 7.6 kilos of pizza a year and one in four Italians eating out for lunch have pizza almost on a daily basis. Though pizzas can increasingly be savoured in restaurants across the country, classic pizzerias are 25,000, making up 40 percent of restaurants in Italy. Another 26,000 take-out pizzerias operate in the sector, raking in 16.6 billion Euros in revenues last year.