ROME — Not since McDonald’s erected its first golden arches in Italy in 1986, a stone’s throw from the Spanish Steps, has anyone dared such culinary effrontery as Domino’s Pizza just did. Last week it announced it’s opening up a pizza delivery shop in Milan.
The audacity of an American restaurant trying to sell pizza to Italians has been met with nothing short of outrage (and such politically incorrect comparisons as selling ice to the Eskimos). Gourmands imploded and Twitter exploded.
Before I criticize, let me admit I am no culinary purist. Sure, after nearly 20 years in Rome I don’t drink cappuccino after the noon church bells toll and I don’t allow parmesan cheese anywhere near my seafood. But I am also the first to chase around Rome to find a giant turkey whose breastbone must be crushed to fit into my tiny Italian oven in late November. I admit to smuggling Kraft Macaroni and Cheese into the land of real pasta so my children can understand their American heritage.
I would order Domino’s pizza in America without pause, but there are two basic problems with the Domino’s concept in the Italian context. Leaving aside for the moment the whole funny-flavored, thick chewy-crusted, dripping American-style pizza pie, the idea of anonymous online home pizza delivery is as foreign here as stuffed cheesy bread.
Sure, takeout pizza in Italy is common enough. It usually entails a trip to the local pizzeria and a long conversation with the pizzaiolo while he makes the pizza, with you sipping a glass of wine while he is asking if you want the fresh tomatoes cooked or left raw and if you want buffalo or regular mozzarella. You then carry the stack of piping hot pizza boxes home, careful not to tip them so the fresh tomato sauce doesn’t drip out.
Often you can call ahead with your order to diminish the wait, but then you miss the cordial chat with your neighbors waiting for their pizzas, too. Many local pizzerias will deliver pizza to local customers that are in walking distance, but generally only if you have small children, are sick or otherwise unable to come get it yourself. Otherwise, why wouldn’t you make the outing, just to say hello?
Online-based home delivery of food, which Domino’s promises, is just not common in Italy for any sector save a scant few grocery stores, wine shops and sushi joints that offer a modified version of it, generally with a 24-hour advance order or, at the very least, with a phone call to verify that you really exist and to set the delivery time. And that’s not a bad thing.
I posed the question of Domino’s style delivery to the pizziaolo at Pizza Remo, my neighborhood pizza joint in the Testaccio district of Rome. “If someone can’t come get the pizza, we can deliver it to the door or send it up in the elevator,” he said. “We do it for some elderly ladies when their grandchildren visit.”
When I asked about online ordering and the ease of getting a pizza in just “a few clicks” he looked at me as if I had simply lost my mind. “Nobody is that busy,” he said. “A meal is not something you tick off a checklist, seniora Americana.”
What he is referring to is the whole concept of food and the act of obtaining it, which is a wonderfully social occasion in Italy that I hope is never replaced by faceless home delivery and one-click ordering. In Italy, despite its many shortcomings and frustrations, personal interaction over food —whether it is a pizza or a five-course meal — is what makes Italy so wonderfully Italian.
Sitting alone in one’s apartment and ordering a pizza online or from a smartphone without talking to anyone at all, which seems like a human right in the United States, just seems so perversely detached here. How do you know who’s making the pizza? Did you smell the wood burning in the pizza oven? What’s the Italian pizza experience without all that?
At least there is one bright glimmer of hope. The man behind the courageous move to import something as American as Hawaiian pizza to a land where fruits and starches are enemies outside breakfast is … Italian. He is Alessandro Lazzaroni, who has, thankfully, promised not to try to introduce Domino’s Bacon Cheeseburger Pizza or Domino’s Chicken Carbonara to people who know better. He used to run a McDonald’s franchise among his other ventures. And he believes Domino’s will work in the untested Italian pizza delivery market precisely because such a service doesn’t exist.
“Domino’s is a global brand, with American roots, and we’re proud to be able to introduce it to the Italian people — with a twist,” he says. “We will be using a recipe created by us, using locally-sourced wheat. Everything else is purely Italian.”
Lazzaroni promises the Italian version of Domino’s will purchase their products from Italian producers. “we’ve created our own recipe, starting for the original pizza recipe, with Italian products, like 100 percent tomato sauce and mozzarella, and products like Prosciutto di Parma, Gorgonzola, Grana Padano and Mozzarella di bufala Campana.”
You may not find those items on a Domino’s pizza anywhere else in the world, but you will find them in every single pizzeria in any city in Italy, which makes Lazzaroni’s goal even more challenging, even if he does seem to know his customer.
And maybe he’s right. Maybe this is the death knell of the neighborhood pizzeria, soon to be replaced by delivery joints and an American-style detachment when it comes to food. Hopefully not.
With the exception of McDonalds and Burger King, many boundary-busting brands that have thrived elsewhere have failed to make it here. McDonald’s has more than 500 outlets in Italy which are immensely popular, in part because they use far fresher ingredients in the Italian market than in other countries. Last year, they launched a controversial advertisement claiming Italian kids preferred Happy Meals to pizza, which was countered by a rebuttal ad in Neapolitan dialect that claimed that Italian kids prefer their pizza. Ben & Jerry’s ice cream failed to break into the gelato market except for a few stores in tourist meccas like Florence, though you can still find a sparse selection of gooey ice cream tubs in some upscale supermarkets.
Starbucks, whose popular coffee bars were actually inspired by owner Howard Schultz’s 1983 trip to Milan, has yet to make an appearance on any Italian street corner, though Schultz told CNN that “someday there will be a Starbucks in Italy.” May that someday never come so tourists won’t miss out on the pleasures of the true Italian coffee experience.
Kentucky Fried Chicken, which bombed in Italy when it was first introduced here the 1970s, has a lonely store in a shopping mall on the outskirts of Rome and one in Turin. Dunkin Donuts had several shops in Rome from 1999 to 2002 until its Italian owners filed for bankruptcy. Hard Rock Café thrives with signature stores and gift shops in Rome, Florence and Venice, though they all serve decisively Italian-friendly food. And you can find Subway sandwich shops in many tourist sections of Italian cities, though the Italian deli choices are far more authentic than anything you’d find elsewhere.
Domino’s plans to open two more outlets in Italy after its Milanese debut and who knows, it might just be crazy enough to work. The first American fast food invasion back in the 1980s by McDonald’s launched the highly successful Slow Food movement in Italy, which has come to symbolize all that is good about not eating from Styrofoam boxes. Let’s hope Domino’s spawns a similar gastronomic gift of appreciation for not eating out of cardboard.