Italians are serious about their pizza. So serious, in fact, that they even have an organization to certify whether something really is pizza. The Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) gives a special designation to restaurants meeting strict requirements that respect the tradition of Neapolitan pizza. According to the VPN, true Neapolitan pizza comes only from starting with specific ingredients and applying a precise, time-honored method. Admission standards are so rigorous that fewer than 90 restaurants in the country have achieved VPN status.
Charlottesville may soon have its first. Lampo, open since December, has begun the application process and is determined to see it through. Even without VPN status, Lampo has made a splash, with lines out the door every day and a group of young owners as talented as Charlottesville has seen. Chefs Loren Mendosa, Ian Redshaw and Mitchell Beerens have cooked at some of the area’s top restaurants, while Andrew Cole was the longtime beverage director at tavola, where the four worked together before launching Lampo.
In February, I checked on Lampo’s progress during a visit with VPN-certified master Ettore Rusciano, a Naples native whose Washington, D.C. pizzeria, Menomale, many pizza enthusiasts call the Mid-Atlantic’s best. Thanks in part to Rusciano, Lampo already had in place many of the elements necessary for VPN status, like the proper “00” flour for the dough, San Marzano tomatoes and an imported wood-burning pizza oven so massive it had to be lowered into the restaurant through the roof. True VPN pizzas must be cooked at least 900 degrees Fahrenheit for no more than 90 seconds.
Rusciano was in town to train Lampo’s chefs in pizza preparation itself, and there’s no substitute for learning from a master. To be sure, Lampo’s pizza was already good, and Rusciano even said as much. But, Rusciano’s lessons helped the chefs take it to another level, with the most striking difference being how light and airy the crust became when following Rusciano’s technique. “We are in a near constant state of study at Lampo,” said Beerens, “always looking for new ways to improve at our craft.”
Rusciano was glad to oblige with ways to improve—in virtually every detail, from the organization of the food station to how to stretch the dough. And this was not dogma for the sake of dogma. For each piece of wisdom, Rusciano had an explanation. Why not lift the pizza when removing it from the oven? “The smoke can contaminate the taste,” warned Rusciano. Why not touch the dough after stretching it into a circle? It can create uneven crusts.
After a long morning of pizza school, we sat down for a lunch of antipasti and insalate that showcased the talents and passion of the kitchen. Cavolo nero, a salad the team first created at tavola, is so delicious and well-balanced that it has had a cult following ever since: Tuscan kale, candied almonds, pickled mustard seeds and parsnips in apple cider vinaigrette. Straciatella was at once refreshing and satisfying, with farro, torn pieces of bufala mozzarella, red onion, walnuts and tangy pomegranate seeds. “Very good,” Rusciano said of the meal. “Top-quality ingredients.”
But, as delicious as the chefs’ novel creations are, what stands out is their humility and passion in embracing a food firmly grounded in the past. Rusciano explained that the key to Neapolitan pizza is “staying true to the original method of preparation, which is hundreds of years old.” Conversely, the most common error, he said, is “trying to modernize the style and deviate from its heritage.” Indeed, VPN’s strict deference to heritage deters all but the most devoted traditionalists from even bothering to apply. In an era where chefs vie to create the next big thing, who on earth wants to bind themselves to age-old rigid rules?
The Lampo chefs do, that’s who. They had no qualms about making the VPN’s required certification “to accept, respect and promote the tradition of the Neapolitan pizza strictly following the specification of the VPN.” And, as humbling as some chefs might take a full day of critique, the Lampo chefs eagerly sopped up the knowledge. “They were the ideal students for this,” said Rusciano.
Of course, tradition is not for everyone. The trademark charred crust, which I find delicious, others have called “burnt.” And so many customers balked at being served pizzas unsliced, as is the custom in Naples, that the Lampo crew finally broke down and offered pizza scissors to anyone preferring sliced pizza.
So, how is Lampo coming along in the VPN process? “They are very passionate about making great—as opposed to good—Neapolitan pizza,” Rusciano said. Yeah, yeah. But are they going to be VPN-certified or not? “I am absolutely certain that they will qualify for VPN status,” said Rusciano.