Ty Swenson
Cary Kemp of Pizzeria 22 holds up his designation as a True Neapolitan Pizzamaker from L'Association Verace Pizza Napolentana in Naples, Italy (the birthplace of the style). Kemp's restaurant is #430 with the designation worldwide.

West Seattle pizzeria acknowledged by Naples, the birthplace of it all

According to lore, the archaic form of Neapolitan-style pizza started in Naples, Italy in the 16th century. It was a peasant food cooked quickly in insanely-hot wood-fired stoves, with a diversity of ingredients slapped onto flatbread and sold cheap on the streets.

Legend claims pizza stepped up in clout in June of 1889, when Naples pizza man Raffaele Esposito created the first Pizza Margherita (the simplicity of tomatoes, mozzarella and basil – representing the Italian flag) and presented it to the queen consort of Italy, Margherita of Savoy. She dug it, and the rest is history.

Some 124 years later, Cary Kemp and his establishment Pizzeria 22 in West Seattle carries on the Neapolitan tradition of making pizza, and his pursuit has been officially recognized by L’Association Verace Pizza Napolentana (VPN for short, “True Neapolitan Pizza” in English) in 2013. Kemp joins 430 other pizzerias worldwide with the distinction. Around 150 of them are in Naples, or, as Kemp calls it, “ground zero of pizza.”

VPN explains the organization, established in 1984, is about protecting tradition: “Old Neapolitan pizza masters, given the spreading of fast-food chains and the large use – sometimes inappropriate – of the denomination ‘Original Neapolitan Pizza,’ decided to found an association based on a protocol in order to protect and increase the value of the pizzas produced and processed according to the old Neapolitan traditions and customs.”

The process
Kemp explained that a true Neapolitan pizza is held to strict guidelines in ingredients and procedure by the VPN. Only San Marzano tomatoes, grown in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, are used for the sauce, Italian mozzarellas are a must, and very specific flour types and rising strategies are employed for the dough. A wood-burning stove, non-processed toppings, specific mixers (including hands), and other proper techniques are all part of the formula.

As an end product, VPN explains the pizza must have a “raised edge and thin center ... (and) the pizza should be soft and elastic, and easily foldable.” Kemp defines his finished product as the “perfect balance of quality and simple ingredients … (meant to be) savored like you are eating a quality steak.”

To prove Pizzeria 22’s worthiness, Kemp took dozens of photos and videos documenting every step they take in making their pies.

“They want to see how you make your dough, what kind of mixer you have, what kind of flour you are using, what the dough looks like after its been mixed, and then after its been portioned and risen,” Kemp explained. “And then they want a picture of a Margherita pizza and marinara pizza before it’s baked, and then the video is start to finish of the pizza maker pulling the dough ball out of the pizza tray, spinning it, and putting in the oven and taking it out.”

To get that signature result, Kemp said ovens need to run around 850 degrees (he uses apple wood, an easily procured product in Washington … until the wine fields take over) and the pizza needs to cook from 45 to 90 seconds. One second over, and you ain’t making Neapolitan.

A pizza man’s journey
Kemp, now 44, graduated with an English degree from University of Washington in the early 90s and, as it goes, “Most English degrees usually end up making pizza.”

He started out working at Paisan in Belltown after school, and became entrenched in the Seattle chef’s life for the next decade. In 2002, he traveled to Naples with a friend with a goal of bringing wood-fired pizza to Seattle. He trained with the originals, and came back to help launch Via Tribunali (another VPN-certified pizzeria in Seattle and beyond).

He helped open several more pizzerias in the area over the next decade, intermingled with his duties as a tour manager for Neil Young over nine years. As an aside, during a tour, Kemp became part of the show when Young decided he wanted to perform one of his first recorded tunes, “Sultan.”

“We are going to do a song called Sultan,” Kemp recalled Young saying during a sound check in 2008. “Cary is going to be playing a gong, and we are going to dress him up in a Sultan costume.”

“Neil’s kind of a benevolent dictator,” Kemp said, noting he had little choice in the matter. You can enjoy Kemp in full Sultan garb thanks to YouTube.

The road life came to an end when Kemp decided it was time to focus on family (he has two daughters now) and open Inferno Catering (a mobile wood-fire pizzeria).

He was working at a Via Tribunali in Georgetown in 2010 and noticed West Seattle folks kept coming over and saying they did not have a proper wood-fired pizza joint on the peninsula.

He started looking along California Ave., and eventually found his spot in Dec. of 2010. After some renovation he opened up shop in June of 2011 at 4213 S.W. College St. in the Admiral District. He named it Pizzeria 22 (“Ventidue” in Italian) “after a very small hole in the wall pizzeria in Naples … one of the countless pizzerias in Naples, many locals and experts feel that Ventidue is indeed one of the best.”

As for the significance of becoming VPN-certified, Kemp said it is a longtime dream come true.

“We are part of a rare fraternity, a historic organization … and all of the greatest pizzerias in Naples are all numbers (on the VPN member list). Being part of that history and tradition is important and it’s been a goal and dream of mine – I’ve helped start a couple restaurants that are certified now – so it’s nice to have my own restaurant finally being certified.”

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