Most of us know the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) as the force behind the conservation-minded list to end all conservation-minded lists: the ultra-prestigious World Heritage list.
Listed World Heritage sites — emphasis on the word “sites” — must be of “outstanding value to humanity” and, of course, be a physical locale that’s either man-made (cultural) or an example of Mother Nature’s most breathtaking handiwork (natural). A small number of the 1,031 World Heritage-designated properties, Machu Picchu included, are mixed cultural/natural sites.
Outside of places that can be visited, admired, experienced and, most importantly, protected, UNESCO also maintains lesser-known World Heritage non-sites in the form of the Intangible Cultural Heritage list. (Actually two distinct lists, both a mouthful: the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity and the smaller List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in Need of Urgent Safeguarding).
A brief definition of intangible cultural heritage:
Intangible cultural heritage includes oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts.
It makes sense that UNESCO would strive to recognize and preserve cultural rituals, practices and events — kabuki theatre, tango dancing, mariachi music and Turkish oil wrestling to name just a few — alongside majestic tourist traps, massive-headed monolithic statues and white marble mausoleums. But do gastronomic traditions make the cut?
Hungry for heritage
They do, but rarely, as only a modest handful of food-related inclusions have been made since UNESCO launched the Intangible Cultural Heritage program in 2008. They include French and Mexican cuisines (both 2010); the Mediterranean diet (2010), a designation shared by seven different countries; Turkish coffee culture and Keşkek (2013, 2011); Japanese washoku (2013); Armenian lavash bread preparation (2014); Gimjang, the traditional Korean process of preparing and preserving kimchi; and traditional Croatian gingerbread craft (2010).
Now Italy, a country that’s already home to more World Heritage sites (51 in total — mamma mia!) than any other nation and a decent number of UNESCO-recognized cultural traditions (Sicilian puppet theatre, Sardinian folk singing, etc.), has officially enshrined a culinary staple on the Intangible Cultural Heritage list.
It tastes great with cold beer.
It’s simply adored by New York City subway rats.
You can hold the anchovies (or not).
It’s not spaghetti and meatballs.
'A product that has conquered the world'
Although authentic Neapolitan pizza has had a tough go of it as late, the Italian government successfully pushed for its most esteemed edible to receive UNESCO protection. And to be clear, it’s the craft of traditional Neapolitan pizza making, not the pizza itself, that UNESCO has listed under the label “The Traditional Art of Neapolitan Pizza Makers.”
"Finally, the world recognizes the capability of the pizza maker," renowned Neapolitan pizza maker Gino Sorbillo tells the New York Times. "We make a product that has conquered the world."
Red, white and green: Italy is fiercely proud and protective of Neapolitan pizza. (Photo: Riccardo Erre/Flickr)
It goes without saying that a real deal Neapolitan pie is just a wee bit different than the buttery, cheese-bloated bastardization of pizza that Americans consume by the delivery car-load. This is exactly why Italy sought Cultural Heritage designation — to distinguish its landmark flatbread from the 1,001 variations — the good, the bad and the totally foul — that have followed.
"Pizza has become such a global product that many countries have, as a matter of fact, forgotten that it's Italian or Neapolitan," Culture Minister Dario Franceschini told Italian news agency ANSA in 2016, calling the potential for UNESCO inclusion a "great opportunity."
Justice of the pizza
Cooked in a wood-fired brick oven, traditional thin crust pizza from Naples is created through a highly specific, regulated process. There are no deviations and certainly no rolling pins or machines allowed. And there are only two kinds of traditional Neapolitan pizza, both of which, shock, omit pepperoni and black olives: Marinara (raw tomato, garlic, olive oil and oregano) and Margherita (all the same plus mozzarella and fresh basil). True purists will claim that said tomatoes on a true Neapolitan pie must be San Marzano tomatoes, a variety of pointy and meaty plum tomatoes grown in the fertile volcanic soil of the Sarno River Valley near Mount Vesuvius. The mozzarella best be buffalo — Mozzarella di Bufala Campana that is.
To the Little Caesars-inhaling masses, this all might seem unnecessarily fussy. It’s just pizza, right?
Eh, not really. In Italy — particularly in Naples, which itself boasts a sprawling historic city center listed by UNESCO — pizza-making yields more than just a greasy/crispy/heavenly meal. It’s a source of cultural pride, an art form, a humanity-bettering culinary tradition that should be honored and upheld.
Italy’s bid to recognize Neapolitan pizza on the Intangible Cultural Heritage List had been kicking around for a while, but its 2016 nomination was the first time a formal proposal has been drafted and submitted to UNESCO for consideration. Said proposal was authored by the Ministry of Agriculture and supported by various Italian governmental and cultural institutions. As reported by the Guardian, the proposal was supplemented with a petition signed by more the 85,000 pizza lovers from Italy and further afield.
Editor's note: This story has been updated since it was originally published in March 2016.