An Interview with Peppe Miele

Peppe Miele_AVPN

 

“I was just a young chef coming to America from Campania, Italy bringing the flavor from my region fish pasta, appetizers.”

Peppe Miele is the President of VPN Americas, the American delegation of Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana. Back in 1992, he opened the original Antica Pizzeria and for the first time provided the LA culinary public with delicious Authentic Neapolitan Pizza. After he closed his restaurant in 2011, he dedicated his time to the promotion of the Neapolitan pizza across America, first opening the Accademia della Pizza Napoletana in Marina del Rey (CA) and later, founding Napoletana Consulting, the most accredited consulting company for Neapolitan style pizzeria in USA.

 

When and how did you get into the pizza making business?

I started to make pizza when I was a young man, 19 or 20 years old, helping the older pizzaioli in my neighborhood in Naples. This is when I became familiar with the dough and the art of pizza making.
Fast forwarding quite a bit, I ended up in Los Angeles for a 6 month stay in 1981. My first job was at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. I saw up close and personal just how poor the Italian food was in North America. On the other hand, my arrival in LA happened to coincide with a special moment in the west coast restaurant scene; many famous chefs were opening restaurants.

By the time I returned, three years later, I felt confident in opening my first restaurant, L.A. Trattoria, in West Hollywood. At first, I did not serve pizza. Instead, I offered many appetizers-type dishes, typical of my home region, buffet style. The greatest challenge for me at this time was to do justice to the regional dishes I was preparing, without having the typical ingredients, which could not be found in LA at that time.

After 6 years, I finally decided to begin to serve pizza. In a space adjacent to my restaurant, I installed a wood-burning oven and prepared the first (and, at that time, only) true Neapolitan pizza in the west coast. This new spot was called Antica Pizzeria

 

Life—and business—have ups and downs. Can you share one peak moment and one challenging moment that stands out to you, looking back at your life and career in the world of pizza?

As a restaurateur I was very fortunate. The people of Los Angeles had a strong positive response to what I was trying to do. When I first started making pizza here, the average consumer did not immediately embrace it, but I received a lot of media coverage. Ruth Richer, the LA Times food editor in that period, ended up at my restaurant one day and was spellbound. In fact, she even wrote an article about me!
When I was in West Hollywood, I got a lot of attention from the Hollywood community. For example, Sarah Jessica Parker lived near my restaurant and would often come with lots of friends. She brought people like Tom Cruise, Madonna, Sean Penn, and Keanu Reeves. It was surreal. Essentially it was an easy-going neighborhood restaurant that ended up attracting actors and models.

The low point was, in reality, a low point for the whole city: the Los Angeles Riots in the early 1990s. It was a profound  moment of reflection for all of us, and many people left the city demoralized. More personally, at a certain point I wanted to purchase the building that I called home for 18 years. The ownership was not willing to sell, however, so I ended up selling the restaurant. 

 

Peppe Miele AVPN

                                                                                  (Photo by Voyage LA)

 

What do you see as the importance of the work done by VPN in the Americas? How has it grown over the years?

Firstly, the United States particularly important to us given the history of immigrants from Naples and Southern Italy in general. These people sacrificed a lot to support their families and build a life here. Consequently, VPN has a special sensitivity to the US.

Starting from the beginning, VPN is an association created in 1984 to protect and give a structure to the true Neapolitan pizza. When I learned to make pizza at age 18 there was no exact recipe; it was simply passed down from generation to generation. At a certain point, in Naples, people realized that it was necessary to protect the product that was being bastardized over time. There was a clear need to give structure to the recipe, with regulations and specifications.

Over the years this work has given new life to a product that was dying away, particularly in foreign markets like the Americas. However, to be honest, VPN had a very difficult start in the United States. For example, in 1993 VPN had to go to court against an American association that claimed pizza was born in the United States. We faced many challenges in educating the public. ​​It was impossible to compare American pizza and Neapolitan pizza. They are two completely different animals! I used to bring Neapolitan pizza to the tables of my most loyal American customers and many times they sent them back: "Peppe, you are a great cook but you can't even make pizza!"

But I didn't get discouraged because the Neapolitan Pizza has two great advantages:

- It is very light, easy to digest, simple in terms of flavors, and with a defined fragrance
- After you try it once, if you like it that’s it: you are addicted!

Of course, initially most people didn't understand the need to follow our guidelines so specifically. Over the years, after a lot of educational work, the mentality slowly changed. This shift was also due to the fact that the traditional Neapolitan recipe, executed correctly, is a real winner. In recent years, Neapolitan pizza has had a new boost because it is considered more artisan and gourmet.

 

What is the greatest challenge and most enjoyable part of training VPN students?

I come here (to the training kitchen) and wait. I don’t know who is going to show up! At the end of the day, 90% of the time my students are very experienced chefs who are honored to come here and I am honored to serve them.

 

The majority of the people who come to me are already successful in other parts of the food business and are looking to open something new or different. I am very honored to be part of their life and work.

 

Peppe Miele_AVPN

                                                           (Photo by Culture Trip Chef Peppe | © MidiCi LA)

 

In your opinion, what is the trickiest stage of the pizza making process to get it just right?

Ultimately, everything depends on the answer to a few fundamental questions:

-       What type of pizza are you making?
-       Do you have an electric, gas, or wood-burning oven?
-       Is it a mass-market product or extremely high-quality?

 

The answer to these questions is what dictates at a technical level which solution you will adopt and the challenges you will encounter on your journey as a pizza chef. Working with me, you end up with the Neapolitan pizza, which I represent with pride. It is a gourmet pizza, crafted with quality ingredients.

The key to everything is the dough. If you make a mistake here, you are in trouble. Another very important aspect is the oven temperature: 875°F. The high temperature, wood-burning oven, the movement of the pizza: these are essential components. However, at the end of the day, with all the structural complexities of the Neapolitan recipe, if the dough is poorly made you will never be able to offer a quality product. 

 

What is the most surprising location you have VPN-certified?

I certified a place called The Prospector. It is this place 75 miles outside of Modesto, CA right in the middle of the woods. It serves a community of probably 350 people. Fantastic.

 

Thank you, Peppe! Is there anything else you would like to share with our readers?

At the end of the day, I was just a young chef coming to America from Campania, bringing the typical flavors from my region to Los Angeles. I saw immediately that the art of pizza napolitana was nonexistent here, and I simply decided to start working on it. My history with VPN is a positive continuation of this work. I am still just convincing people to adopt a craft that is addictive, a lot of work, and a matter of pride!