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Il Canale on the Adventures of Getting Pizza Certified

Il Canale's oven
Il Canale's oven
Photo: Facebook

There are only four restaurants in the D.C.-area that can lay claim to serving certified-authentic Neapolitan pizza. In fact, just 75 in the U.S. and less than 400 restaurants in the entire world are certified Verace Pizza Napoletana, or "True Neapolitan Pizza," by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napolentana.

Having a VPN-certified pizzeria means following and sticking to strict rules during the pizza-making process. Everything from the oven to the ingredients, and even the dough preparation, must adhere to the regulations laid out by the Italian association. The requirements include a wood-burning dome oven reaching a temperature of around 900 degrees, hand-formed dough (no rolling pins allowed!), "00" wheat flour, Italian tomatoes, certified buffalo mozzarella and a catalog of others.

Georgetown's Il Canale meets every requirement on the list and is one of the four Washington-area restaurants certified to call itself an authentic Neapolitan pizzeria. Francesco Crovetti, manager at the Italian restaurant and pizzeria, spoke with Eater about the certification process, what makes a pizza truly Neapolitan and the proper way to eat a pie from Naples.

Why did you decide to pursue Neapolitan-certification for Il Canale?
I started out serving tables and then asked to transfer and work in the pizzeria. While I was learning the art — because it is an art, making Neapolitan-style pizza — I knew about VPN certification and I thought it was crazy we weren't a part of it, considering we had all the tools, including the passion, to make true Neapolitan pizza.

Why did you feel the certification was important?
It's a tool that we can use to let everyone know the authenticity of the pizza we're doing in the restaurant. Our executive chef, Antonio Biglietto, is originally from Naples and he's in charge of both the pizzeria and the back of the kitchen. In order to tell everyone else [about our authenticity], we felt we needed to become a member of the association and be listed among the, I think, 365 certified pizzerias in the whole wide world.

With only four VPN certified pizzerias in the D.C. area, do you find diners search Il Canale out because of that?
Yeah. We have people that will see our sign from outside and stop in and tell us they never realized we were part of the association. People will come in and say that they're so glad we finally did it. We get many people from New York, too. New Yorkers are a little more adept when it comes to Neapolitan-style pizza.

How strict was the certification process?
It was quite strict. When the first inspector came, he realized that we didn't have the right mixer. We had a planetary mixer which heated up the dough to a temperature not ideal for Neapolitan-style dough. So we had to purchase a fork kneading mixer which rotates and has a fork that replicates the hand gestures that are traditionally used when making the dough in Naples.

So once you had the new mixer set, you were good to go?
Yep. The inspector came by and had Antonio make a pizza in front of him and made sure we were using the right ingredients like Italian-peeled tomatoes and fior di latte or buffalo mozzarella. We only use buffalo mozzarella for our pizza. I think we're one of the only restaurants here in the states that use buffalo mozzarella for all our pizzas. Some use it for their D.O.C. margherita or other specific pies, but we use it for all the pizzas. If we're going to make a pizza, we going to make the best pizza you can get. Not just here in the states, but the whole world. That's what we strive for — making the best pizza.

We get customers, Italians, coming in. You can imagine, they're the most strict. They're born critics. And they've told us they haven't eaten a pizza this good before. Even in Italy.

That's high praise.
Yeah, it is. You work hard for it and you want to make sure the high level is there, making sure the dough and the process is where it should be. It's a lot of passion.

What's the difference between Neapolitan and, say, a New York-style pizza?
The main difference is that Neapolitan is a gourmet pizza. It's a personal-size pizza. It has a very soft and well-oxygenated dough which makes a very light product that's very easy to digest. And it needs to be eaten using a fork and knife. Don't expect to pick up a quarter of piece of pizza and expect it to stay flat like New York style. It's less crunchy.

So you recommend eating it with a knife and fork instead of your hands?
Exactly. The other style of eating is folding it, in Italian it's portafoglio, like an old-style wallet.

Certification requires a wood-fired oven burning at a high temperature. How hot does your oven get?
Well, there's two ways the pizza cooks. There's the flame that goes around the oven that bakes the pizza from the top but then at the same you have the charcoal that is heating the lavic stone that's in our wood-fired oven from Italy. The stone itself is around 450 degrees and the flame above it is 900 degrees.

What's involved in getting an authentic Italian oven installed?
See, there's a dome inside and then there's an upper dome where the smoke goes into which then goes in the chimney up to the roof. The anti-chamber, or the inside dome, can travel on its own. Two contractors then came over and put the oven on the stand, finished the upper dome and then covered it up with the beautiful tiles. As soon as you walk into the restaurant, you see it. It's the main attraction. People love to take photos right next to it. It's beautiful.

VPN-certified pizza can't be more than 11 inches. How big are the pies at Il Canale?
We do 11 inches. We consider them to be personal pizzas but we don't force it. You're more than welcome to share.

Do you ever get requests for bigger pizzas?
Yeah, we get asked that question. We also get asked if we do it by the slice.

What's the pizza like?
It's a thin crust pizza. The outside of the crust is going to be very chubby and thick, and in the middle, the crust is going to be thinner. The pizza chef, the pizzaiolo, opens the pizza with his bare hands only, without touching the edges. That's one of the characteristics of the pizza. And the slap and stretch maneuver [a VPN-required technique], which avoids touching the edge of the pizza keeping it nice and chubby on the sides. When you're done eating your pizza with your fork and knife, you get to the very end where you have all the juices from the tomato sauce and the milk from the mozzarella and the char from the cooking of the pizza. And you use the crust, the term is scarpetta which means "little shoe," to pick up the sauce and eat it.

The end is always the best.
Yes, absolutely.

What are some of your most popular pies?
The most popular is the margherita. The diavolo with tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella and fresh basil and spicy sopressata is also one of the top sellers. It's got a really good kick to it and people love it. And our signature pizza, the Il Canale. People love it. It comes with a base of tomato sauce and ricotta, a little bit of prosciutto di Parma, eggplant, cherry tomatoes and mozzarella. It's got the added saltiness from the prosciutto which melds down with the cherry tomatoes and the eggplant. It's beautiful. And among the white pizzas we have, I would definitely suggest the Georgetown.

What's your favorite?
My favorite is the margherita. I can't contain myself from eating one. We usually serve a pizza at the door so when people stop by to check out the menu, we'll let them have a piece and try and lure them in. It's very tempting for me to just grab a piece of it. It's hard to tell myself not to.
Once every 10 days, I'll sit down at the bar, watch an Italian soccer game, and I'll eat a margherita.

So, you limit yourself to pizza once every week-and-a-half or so?
Yeah, exactly.

I don't think I'd have the will power.
I know, I know. It's not easy.
—Jody Fellows
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Il Canale

1063 31st St NW Washington, DC