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Neapolitan pizza, guaranteed

Times Staff Writer

Peppe MIELE balances his idea of perfection gingerly between three sausage-sized fingers. With the eye of an appraiser, he lowers his stubbly chin to eye-level with the subject and checks to see that every aspect of the pizza crust made in his kitchen is up to par.

“The bottom must be 0.1 to 0.3 centimeters in height,” he says, “approximately the thickness of a credit card. The outer crust must be the height of a quarter, and very dense. You see this?” He points to a mole-sized charred spot on the rim. “This proves it was cooked in a wood-burning oven.”

The pizza Miele makes at his Marina del Rey restaurant, Antica Pizzeria, is the only pie in Southern California certified as Genuine Neapolitan Pizza, or Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN), by a Naples, Italy, association of the same name. The VPN association -- composed of chefs, historians, scientists and politicians -- certifies pizzerias that make Neapolitan pies in the traditional manner. Since 1984, it has certified almost 200 pizzerias in 10 countries, 130 of those in Italy and 12 in the United States.

Last month, Italy’s Ministry of Agriculture passed a law officially recognizing Neapolitan pizza as a regional traditional specialty akin to Chianti Classico, Prosciutto di Parma or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Thanks to the resulting media coverage, business for Miele is booming. But it’s not at Antica Pizzeria, an unassuming, quiet spot in an unlikely shopping mall location -- it’s his other business that’s taken off.

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Since 1998, Miele has served as founding president of VPN in the United States; as such, he’s the only person authorized to certify Genuine Neapolitan Pizza in the U.S. For this service, he charges no fee. But he also trains chefs to make the real thing. Sometimes they fly him to their cities (most recently Seattle), and other times, chefs come to Antica’s kitchen. Miele says he now receives 15 to 20 e-mails daily from cooks who want to learn how to make Neapolitan pizza.

What does it take for pizza to be certified VPN? Under existing regulations (new ones have been proposed for Europe), the dough must be kneaded by hand or with a mixer approved by the association. After rising, the dough must be shaped by hand -- no rolling pins allowed. The pizza must be cooked on the bare volcanic stone surface of a bell-shaped, wood-fired pizza oven. Margherita, the most classic of the five pizzas VPN recognizes, must include tomatoes (imported San Marzano or fresh Italian plum tomatoes), extra-virgin olive oil, fresh basil, fresh mozzarella and pecorino Romano. Barbecued chicken pizzas and Hawaiian specials need not apply. It also must be served straight out of the oven.

The 12 approved pizzerias in the U.S. (11 if you discount the one Miele put on probation for using a gas oven) include Francis Ford Coppola’s swank Cafe Niebaum-Coppola in Palo Alto; a little-known pizzeria in Sheboygan, Wis., called Il Ritrovo; and Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria, the newly certified Seattle-area restaurant.

According to Miele, Restaurant Associates’ (and the Patina Group’s) Joachim Splichal recently sought training from Miele for his Disneyland venue Naples Ristorante e Pizzeria, but Miele refused because the restaurant’s oven uses both gas and wood. (Splichal could not be reached for comment.) Last year, Miele had traveled to New York to certify Restaurant Associates’ Naples 45, which sends its pizzaioli (pizza chefs) to train with pros in Campagna, Italy.

Miele’s own VPN standard juts out from the side of the building opposite the restaurant patio. The seal shows Mt. Vesuvius framing the outline of a Pulcinella (the traditional masked player from Commedia dell’Arte) holding a pizza on a peel. It was presented to him by one of the association’s board members in 1990, back when Miele was running his first restaurant, La Trattoria, on the site of the present A.O.C., on 3rd Street in Los Angeles.

Before coming to the U.S. in 1981, Miele trained under Naples chef Luigi Vettosi. But he always had a passion for Neapolitan pizza. When he was running errands for his family at the age of 5, Miele loved to stand in the windows of Naples’ pizzerias, watching apron-clad men knead and toss dough, then shovel the rounds with wooden peels into raging-hot ovens. “I always wanted to make pizza,” he says.

Today, there’s nothing he likes more than sharing his passion. Last week, Calvin Kim spent five days training at Antica with Miele and his staff, for which he paid $3,000. (Miele charges $1,500 for a three-day workshop.) Kim, a 37-year-old entrepreneur, once owned several teriyaki restaurants and later owned gas stations in Seattle. In November, he plans to open a family-style restaurant in Tacoma, Wash., called Le Flame Wood-Fired Pizza. On a recommendation from one of Miele’s former students, he came to Los Angeles to research the “wood-fired ovens and pizza concept.”

Miele put Kim on the line on his first day, having him work full shifts Thursday, Friday and Saturday. By his fourth day, Kim estimated he’d already made 200 to 300 pizzas.

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Jose Barrios, Antica’s senior pizzaiolo, who started with Miele in 1992, watched Kim mix dough. First, they made 13-pound batches of dough -- each enough for 38 to 40 pizzas -- using yeast, water, flour and salt, mixing and shaping it until Barrios could feel the right consistency. Next, Barrios showed Kim how to form the crust without busting holes in the dough.

“You have to push it with the fingers,” Kim explains, “hit on it, then flip it around and stretch it out.”

They let the dough rise for 45 minutes then cut it into 9-ounce balls and covered each in plastic film. Later, they flatten the balls and toss the dough, stretching it until it’s credit-card thin in the middle and four-fifths of an inch thick on the outside. Then they spoon the tomato sauce into the center, and, using a prescribed “spiraling motion,” they cover the surface with it. They add a pinch of salt, also in a spiraling motion. Next comes the mozzarella, placed in a lattice pattern, and then a scattering of basil leaves. Finally, a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, applied in a spiraling motion, starts from the center and moves outward.

American pizzerias, Miele admits, can’t be certified according to exactly the same standards used by VPN in Italy. For example, “practically everyone” in Italy uses Caputo flour for pizza baking, but it is not readily available in the U.S., and he doesn’t require it of his members. (Miele, who imports it, does use it at Antica as long as he can get it.) California-grown Italian plum tomatoes, he says, taste close enough to Italian San Marzanos to pass muster. Importing buffalo milk mozzarella or other Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP) mozzarella can be prohibitively expensive.

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At Antica, Miele gets around this by making his own nonfermented fior di latte mozzarella out of boiled curd, milk, salt and water. This involves continuous stretching of the mixture by hand until the cheese is silky-smooth. The fior di latte is made in the same manner as other mozzarellas but uses more milk.

VPN recognizes only five versions of Neapolitan pizza: marinara (tomato, oregano and garlic, no cheese), Margherita, Margherita extra (same as Margherita but with cherry tomatoes and buffalo mozzarella from Italy’s Appennino region), calzone (a pizza shell stuffed with ricotta, mozzarella, basil and prosciutto) and formaggio e pomodoro (tomato, olive oil and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano). Any of these also may use fresh basil.

Miele doesn’t seem to be getting rich from Antica Pizzeria itself, a 100-seat restaurant that wasn’t nearly filled on a recent Friday night. Antica’s pizza Margherita is a well-kept secret at $9.50 for a 14-inch pie; the menu also offers pizza marinara and calzone. In Italy, Miele explains, the proper way to eat pizza is to cut out the middle. Slice around the edge, savor the inside, then use the thicker crust to sop up the rest of the tomato and cheese.

Miele is also proud of several other Neapolitan specialties, including timballetto -- a puff pastry cylinder filled with pasta, meat sauce and fior di latte mozzarella -- and, for dessert, pastiera napoletana, a vanilla-and-lemon-flavored cake filled with candied fruit and dusted with powdered sugar, prepared by Barrios.

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Miele and Barrios communicate with each other in Spanish and in food. Barrios has been cooking in Miele’s kitchen since Miele owned La Trattoria. In those days, Barrios knew nothing -- he’d been working at a fast-food pizza place before training with Miele. After three months on the job, Barrios arrived at work with “wet eyes,” Miele recalls. “He came in very emotional and said, ‘I can’t do it the way you want.’ ” But Barrios persevered, and now he’s one of the most skilled pizzaioli in the country.

“I’m proud,” Miele says. “I’m taking him to Naples with me next year.”

The occasion? The annual Pizza Fest. Miele plans to invite all of his VPN chefs for the September event, where some 40 pizza ovens will be lined up outdoors and manned by the world’s top pizzaioli, who will compete to make the best pizza.

Miele judged the contest last year, and a Japanese chef won. Next time, he wants to show Italy what the American pizzaioli can do. And in the future, Miele hopes to set up a small VPN school in L.A.. “I’m a cook,” he says. “I like to work with cooks. I like to teach, to promote. It’s part of my personality; I can’t change it.

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“I want to be the one who wakes ... California people ... from the bad dream of pizza they have on their mind.”

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Antica Pizzeria, Villa Marina Marketplace, 13455 Maxella Ave., Marina del Rey, (310) 577-8182.


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