SCOTT SIMON, Host:
If you want to learn how to make world-class pizza, you go to Italy, right? Well, some of us would say Chicago. But in any event, last year, a California chef stunned the pizza world when he - not an Italian, not even a Chicagoan - won the world pizza competition in Naples. Tony Gemignani...
(SOUNDBITE OF SCOTT SIMON LAUGHING AS HE STRUGGLES TO SAY GEMIGNANI)
SIMON: My apologies, sir - has now opened a school for American pizza makers in the town of Manteca - my apologies to Manteca, too, if I'm mispronouncing that - in Northern California, and invited an Italian master chef to teach classes. Lonny Shavelson reports.
LONNY SHAVELSON: Graziano Bertuzzo, the world's pizza master, slices a fist-sized ball of dough across a smooth Italian marble countertop dusted with flour while white-aproned students crowd in as if just being near the master will transfer his magical touch with the dough to them. His assistant, Matia Toneto(ph) translates for the students.
MATIA TONETO: There's more flavor, more taste of the dough.
SHAVELSON: They've gathered here from American pizza meccas, like New York and Chicago, and from Oklahoma and Rhode Island. As Bertuzzo shows them how to mix older mother dough with fresh new dough for the perfect balance of flavor, they almost swoon with adulation. Student Lou Mercado(ph).
LOU MERCADO: He has the hands of a surgeon. He takes his hand and puts it on top of yours, and he demonstrates how you push the dough out.
SHAVELSON: And Joe Carlucci from New York.
JOE CARLUCCI: Think of it as a college basketball player going into the NBA as a rookie and playing with Michael Jordan. I'm loving this.
SHAVELSON: But this pizza school has more than one superstar. These instructors hold prizes in dozens of international competitions from sauce to pizza acrobatics.
Unidentified Instructor #1: I'm a five-time world champion, the highest pizza toss in the world.
SIMON: I'm the current two-time reigning world champion in velocidad, which is fastest pizza maker in the world. I make five pizzas in 48 seconds.
SHAVELSON: But Tony Gemignani was the first American to ever win the all-out, every ingredient counts baking competition in Naples, pizzas' homeland. His secret...
TONY GEMIGNANI: I deseeded all my San Marzano tomatoes, took all the seeds out. A lot of guys didn't do that there. The seeds are bitter. People might say, why is he doing that? The yield isn't good in sauce if you take out all the seeds. It was the best pizza I've ever made.
SHAVELSON: And Bertuzzo, the master himself, says he has more pizza prizes than he can show with his fingers. The students are constantly asking what he thinks of American pizza. He answers like a diplomat.
GRAZIANO BERTUZZO: (Italian spoken)
SHAVELSON: Instructor Bruno de Fabio(ph) translates.
BRUNO DE FABIO: He's actually very complimentary because he feels that if the masses in this country are enjoying that meal, then that means that the pizza makers in this country are doing something right.
SHAVELSON: Bertuzzo praised American pizza makers for understanding the American market of thick-crusted pizza loaded with toppings. But then he said that just wouldn't sell in Italy.
BERTUZZO: (Italian spoken)
DE FABIO: In Italy, the most important part is the pizza dough. When there's a lot of toppings, it masks the flavor of the dough, it doesn't allow the dough to cook properly in the oven. And this is a major factor.
Unidentified Instructor #3: Just going to get a little bit more sauce on this, and then we're going to go with the whole milk mozzarella. This looks really good.
SHAVELSON: That pizza is ready for one oven while two are coming out of another, cheese bubbling. Bertuzzo slides them onto tables covered with red and white checked tablecloths. Leo Spirrizi describes what he looks and tastes for.
LEO SPIRRIZI: Lift the pizza up and looking at the bottom of the crust, we like to see, you know, some char marks. Char marks are going to give it some of that smokiness flavor to it. You could taste the oil that's in the crust, the salt. You could taste the spices individually in the tomato. The cheese is going to complement the sauce.
SHAVELSON: Bertuzzo teases his American students about what he says is the major difference that separates them from Italian pizza makers.
BERTUZZO: (Italian spoken)
DE FABIO: In Italy, when you say, hey, I'm a pizza maker, it's a job that's very respected and then very well-paid.
SHAVELSON: Bertuzzo says diners in Italy's premium restaurants expect to see pizza on the menu. The U.S. champions at this pizza school say that serving their pizza at America's five-star restaurants will be their next victory. For NPR News, I'm Lonny Shavelson.
SIMON: And to see a video of the master pizza chef at work, you can go to our Web site, npr.org.