Ten years ago I hopped a plane and flew to Rome, took a train north to Florence and then back south to Orvietto, a small town in southwestern Umbria, before returning eventually to Rome. I didn't tour the Vatican, the Coliseum or the Pantheon. Didn't walk the halls of the Uffizi Gallery. And I didn't shop for gold and leather along the Arno. All I did was eat.
Over long and lavish lunches I consumed rabbit and squab and veal. I ate pasta Amatriciana, Bolagnese and Carbonara. In the mornings I ate small pastries and drank jet-black coffee. In the afternoons I'd sometimes snack on gelato. But every night, I ate the same thing: pizza.
In Orvietto, a menu printed in Italian was only a temporary handicap. I picked a pie at random and waited in the small, crowded dining room while pulling from cheap Italian beer. My pizza arrived a few minutes later, lightly topped with mozzarella, a few wisps of prosciutto and, in the center, a single egg, its yolk a bright and glistening yellow.
Dough Pizzeria Napoletana Pork Love $20 Marghertita STG $20 Fontina $16 Antipasto $18 Autumn Burrata $14 Nonnas Salad $9 Roasted Olives $9
That yolk turned out to be the best crust-dipper I've ever encountered, and that pizza launched a life-long hunt for authentic Italian pie — a search made easier, at times, by the Vera Pizza Napoletana Association (VPN), an organization devoted to the protection of Neapolitan pizza.
My northern Italian pizzas weren't technically Neapolitan, but in stateside pizzerias, Naples' approval often means you're in for an authentically Italian pie. Founded in 1984, the VPN's mission is simple: to increase the value of the pizzas produced and processed according to Neapolitan tradition. The group maintains tight protocol for the preparation and processing of certified pizzas. Flour, water, salt and yeast – the amount and type and treatment of each is specified. Toppings have to be just so; Italian plum tomatoes and a choice of Mozzarella di Bufala or Firo-di-latte are mandated for a margherita, a special sauce laced with fresh garlic is prescribed for a marinara. A restaurant that passes a stringent inspection receives a sequential VPN number and a certificate to post inside the pizzeria.
Peppe Miele is the president for VPN Americas LLC, the American branch of the Italian organization. His restaurant, Antica Pizzeria (#58 ), was the first American pizzeria certified VPN. By the time the second stateside pizzeria was blessed with the VPN logo, Pizzaiolo in Mt. Lebanon, 106 restaurants around the world shared the honor.
Cavalli Pizza (#265) in Irving was the first Texas Pizzeria to be VPN-certified, in 2007. Campania Pizza (#284) in Southlake followed in November 2008. When Luciano (#283) and Dough Pizzeria (#292) in San Antonio were certified, they shared the honor with 56 other pizzerias in the States; 63 American restaurants are currently listed on the VPN website.
By August 2011, when the second Dough Pizzeria Napoletana opened, in Preston Hollow, Dallas' pizza enthusiasm was already swelling like a blackened crust blister. The San Antonio location had recently been featured on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, and Guy Fieri and his spiky hair had whipped local pizza enthusiasts into a froth. Customers waited outside in sweltering heat to be the first to try Dallas' latest addition to the Neapolitan pizza scene.
The excitement was understandable. Preston Hollow had already gotten a taste of the good stuff, only to have it yanked away. In 2010, Jay Jerrier set up a temporary pop-up pizzeria in a small tea house called Chocolate Angel Too, in a large strip mall at the corner of Preston and Forest. Jerrier had left Campania Pizza in Southlake after ushering it through its VPN certification. He thought the shop was cutting corners and wanted to embark on his own project, something that stayed true to the Neapolitan rules. (Campania has since lost its VPN status).
Jerrier pulled up a trailer-mounted pizza oven, swiped credit cards with a reader tethered to a laptop and served up pies to BYOBing customers. But the pop-up, dubbed Cane Rosso, lasted just six months. The owners of Chocolate Angel Too had seen the power of the pie, and they wanted in on the action, but negotiations with Jerrier over a permanent pizzeria fell apart. In June of 2010 Jerrier tossed his last round in Preston Hollow and took Cane Rosso to Deep Ellum.
Still craving their pie shop, Chocolate Angel Too's owners, Keith Hall and Brad Liles, partnered with Doug and Lori Horn, the owners of Dough Pizzeria Napoletana, who were looking to expand out of San Antonio. They ordered another volcanic stone pizza oven from Italy and painted the walls of the former tea shop a deep and rusty red. They bought Formica tables and booths of faux leather. And just over a year after Jerrier pulled his trailer away for good, Dough Pizzeria Napoletana's second location opened for business.
Since the San Antonio location maintains its status with the VPN, everyone assumed the new Dough would also be certified by the pizza pope. They sure make it look like they are. The menu reads "Authentic Pizza Napoletana" across the top and tells diners that "pizzerias that follow the rules are allowed to make true Pizza Napoletana and display the certification logo." The rules are then summarized in a few bullets on the menu, giving the distinct impression that Dough's ability to follow those rules has been tested and approved. A recent review in the Dallas Morning News celebrated its VPN status, saying the restaurant management "takes pride" in its certification. The same sentiments are echoed on the pizzeria's website.
But Dough had us duped. Liles admits they have yet to even start the process. That's why no certificate is visible in the Preston Hollow restaurant. And you can tell by the pies themselves: None of the four pizzas I tried over two visits should meet the VPN standards.
The crusts were pliable and soft, just as they should be, but the texture was off. The exterior was blistered and blackened but the inside was doughy, dense and too moist. The center of each pizza was too thick. The slices stood at attention when I held them. There was no droop, a signature of Neapoletan pies.
The toppings were wonderful, save for the overbearing truffle oil on the arugula and proscuitto pizza. (Attention chefs: Please back away from the truffle oil.) A Fontina pizza makes use of earthy mushrooms that play nicely off the nutty melted cheese.
An antipasto plate was loaded with cured meats, oven-roasted vegetables, cheeses and, on my visit, a grape mostarda. Not grape tomatoes, but grapes. The sweet and tangy condiment disappeared in seconds.
Salads were certificate-worthy, too, especially a simple plate of romaine hearts dressed with a squeeze of lemon and topped with three dollops of sweet fresh ricotta. Capers, tomatoes and onions added depth to the dish without taking away from its simplicity. It was perfect.
The burrata, not quite. Stiff and dry, the cheese resembled nothing of the creamy, soft decadence the name invokes, and butternut squash, mushrooms and sage added noise instead of complementing the cheese. True buratta needs nothing more than itself to shine.
It's that same lack of restraint that haunts pizzas like "pork love," topped with so much meat it borders on obnoxious. Perfect Neapolitan pizza should be almost as light as air; this was heavy eating that left me bloated and questioning my sterling pizza-intake credentials.
The problem is in Dough's proofing process, the stage where the dough balls expand and mature. The VPN recommends a room temperature proof; the Preston Hollow location ferments its dough under refrigeration, a process that requires less supervision by the kitchen. Cold proofing is easier than that done at ambient temperatures, which can be unpredictable.
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Refrigerated dough requires more yeast, which makes it harder to control when it comes to room temperature before going into the oven. If it sits out too long it takes off, expanding and becoming unmanageable. If it stays cool it doesn't cook as nicely in the oven. The outsides blister but the insides don't come to temperature. Water inside the dough doesn't have time to boil and steam away, and you're left with the dense crust I ate at Dough rather than the light, airy versions I coveted back in Italy.
In a document summarizing the history of the VPN, Antonio Pace, who started the movement, says "the pizza secret lies all in the dough rising." He describes the delicate balance of water, ambient humidity, ambient temperature, salt and yeast. Making dough in the summer is different from making dough in the fall. Making dough in Naples is different from making dough in Dallas. As Pace puts it, "You can standardize the process, but it is the experience that refines the art."
In other words, even if Dough did have a VPN certificate hanging on the wall of its Preston Hollow location, the pizza still might come up short. The experience Pace refers to can't be absorbed in the short 21-hour classes taught by the American chapter of the VPN in Marina del Rey, California. Like master bakers and other culinary artisans, the art of making bread, and making it well, takes years of hands-on experience and constant exposure to perfect examples of the craft. In Naples, a young pizzaiolo can walk across the street for mentoring. In Dallas, he's plugging "pizza proofing" into YouTube.
Dough's San Antonio store may very well be a shining example of the Neapolitan pizza-making. The Horns have to be doing something right to earn the attention of the Food Network, Texas Monthly, Food and Wine and the other glossies that have flocked to their shop. But in Dallas, at least for now, something is lost in translation. Neapolitan pizza isn't a process you can stamp out, feed with investors and watch flourish. This is slow food, and it must grow slowly.