Cognitive taste, Fearless Critic, Food, Pizza

GQ’s Alan Richman trashes Italian pizza, but makes a glaring mistake

pizzaIt’s one thing for a food writer to opine about which pizza style is his or her favorite—everybody seems to do it, whether in New York, New Haven, or Naples.

But it’s a breathtaking mistake for a seasoned food writer like Alan Richman, in his widely read new GQ evaluation of the top 25 pizzerias in America, first to completely misstate the definition of Italian DOC pizza; then to imply, without evidence, that the whole Italian population supports that misstated definition; and, finally, to use that misstated definition as the basis for a condemnation of the entire pizza culture in Italy. He writes:

“ITALIANS ARE WRONG. Not about cars or suits. About pizza, and they’re not entirely mistaken about that, only about crusts and buffalo-milk mozzarella…the Italians are proudest when they can substitute fresh mozzarella from the milk of buffaloes and label their pies Margherita DOC…In my opinion, buffalo mozzarella is pizza’s second-worst topping, exceeded only by whole anchovies… All that excess liquid has to go somewhere, which is why the bottom crust turns to mush, not that it was ever particularly crispy…this is why Italians need a knife and fork. This is why our pizzas are better than theirs.”

“The Italians are proudest” when they can substitute in buffalo-milk mozzarella and “label their pies Margherita DOC”?

veraceThe Italians aren’t wrong—Mr. Richman is, about just about everything. First of all, Margherita DOC doesn’t require buffalo-milk mozzarella. The rules set out by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana allow for either (1) mozzarella di bufala from Campania (water-buffalo-milk mozzarella); (2) mozzarella STG fior di latte appennino meridionale DOP, (a regular cow’s-milk mozzarella that can come from Campania, Molise, Basilicata, Calabria, Puglia, or Lazio); or (3) another cow’s-milk fior di latte. This from the statutory definition:

“Mozzarella: mozzarella di bufala campana D.O.P., mozzarella S.T.G. fior di latte dell’appennino meridionale D.O.P. o altro fiordilatte certificato.”

Ditto for the rules for pizza Margherita as set out by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, which not only states that either bufala or fior di latte is acceptable, but even gives a different name to a bufala pizza. Under the Italian Ministry’s definition, the regular “Napoletana Margherita” has fior di latte, not bufala; then there’s “Napoletana Margherita Extra,” which calls for bufala:

“Agli ingredienti base devono essere aggiunti, per la «pizza Napoletana Marinara», l’aglio e l’origano; per la «pizza Napoletana Margherita Extra», mozzarella di bufala campana DOP, basilico fresco e pomodoro fresco; per la «pizza Napoletana Margherita», la mozzarella STG o fior di latte Appennino meridionale e basilico fresco.”

But Mr. Richman doesn’t stop at getting the definition wrong; he also suggests that all Italians, if offered the choice, would choose bufala—implying that they embrace, or somehow aren’t bothered by, the sogginess of the crust. Is Mr. Richman—who has “traveled 20,000 miles” in researching this extensive set of pizza rankings—unaware that the fior di latte-vs.-bufala crust-moisture debate is a raging, unsettled controversy in Italian gastronomical circles, both inside and outside of Naples? This is one of the world’s great food cultures we’re talking about, and its culinary community deserves better than the naïve assumption that they all just like their crusts soggy.

“I’ve eaten in Naples,” explains Mr. Richman. But he must not have eaten at (arguably) the city’s most famous pizzeria, Da Michele, which uses only fior de latte d’Agerola, and never mozzarella di bufala; they don’t like the excessive liquid that drips from bufala. And although there are many pizzerias in Naples that do put bufala on pizza, just about all of them also offer fior di latte, and customers are divided between the two options. In other regions of Italy, in my experience, the use of bufala is even less common.

To misunderstand the cultural norms of a foreign country is forgivable; we’ve all been guilty of that at some point or other. But to flippantly trash another country’s food culture on the basis of a set of statutory rules that one hasn’t even looked up is irresponsible journalism.

I think a retraction should be in order.


  1. Well said. I was reading this article as I waited to fill a prescription last week and the whole mess just left me shaking my head. I kept flipping back to the front cover to make sure I hadn’t picked up Maxim by mistake. On the upside, he probably saved himself a lot of time by cutting out the pesky “research” thing.

  2. Thanks for setting things right from… Italy. The best pizzas I enjoyed were eaten in Napoli, and all of them had fior di latte topping, of course. I was pointed to the importance of the choice between bufala and fiordilatte(cow milk mozzarella) by Neapolitan friends, luckily i was well suggested.

    My interpretation of the push toward mozzarella di bufala from some food operators:
    mozzarella made of bufala milk is more expensive of the other type, no wonder that some pizzerias (this happens also here in Catania more and more often and is not a good trend) tend to offer it as a “premium” feature even if the overall quality of the pizza worsens.


  3. Jason Hirst

    I think Richman is also wrong about anchovies.

  4. gennaro

    Live in Naples for a while and then start talking about pizza!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  5. Gah! Richman is so off sometimes!

    To Logan: Pfft “research,” who needs it! 😀

  6. The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking.

  7. well an american that would suggest to Italian how to make the perfect pizza .. rofl.. we travel a lot around the world and everytime we say place claiming italian pizza we cry looking how they do it.
    Please mr Richman that some of your time come in Italy, dont go eat pizza just go around italy to discover what ingredient we use their spacial taste .. first step to learn how to do a great pizza.

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