A Bit of Pizza

How a quest for Neapolitan pizza became a crypto-traditional discovery.

A Bit of Pizza
Illustration by Savitri Jeppu

How a quest for Neapolitan pizza became a crypto-traditional discovery.

L’Antica Pizzeria Da Michele! Good choice!” approves Vincenzo. It’s 2019, and my brother and I are on a taxi ride through the Italian city of Napoli—or Naples—to feast on some authentic Neapolitan pizza.

L’Antica opened in 1906, and is famously featured in the Julia Roberts starring film adaptation of Eat, Pray, Love. They serve only the two most traditional varieties of pizza, margherita and marinara, and are famously known for their quality of ingredients.

On the volcanic plains to the south of Mount Vesuvius grow the small and pear-shaped pomodorino del piennolo del Vesuvio or ‘hanging tomatoes of Vesuvius’, valued for their shelf-life as well as their taste: the longer they hang, the more pronounced their flavour. It is only these tomatoes, or their larger substitutes the San Marzano tomatoes, that are allowed on a traditional Neapolitan pizza. Along with other ingredients like mozzarella cheese from a specific semi-wild variety of water buffalo, they go through the special hand-twirling process that makes these pizzas unique.

In 2010, the European Union assigned the “Traditional Speciality Guaranteed” tag to the Neapolitan pizza’s ingredients, while the UNESCO in 2018 recognised pizza twirling as part of the “intangible heritage” of Napoli.

Travelling forth for a taste of such tradition, little did I know I would soon be swept up in a different world entirely: that of Bitcoin and blockchains.

“Do you think it’s the best pizzeria in Napoli?” I ask Vincenzo about our chosen destination.

“Well, it’s good”, he says, “but I’ve only eaten there three times. It’s a good pizza but I like taking my time to sit down and eat and enjoy with people…” Due to the popularity of L’Antica Pizzeria, there are long lines and rushed seating arrangements, which can affect the ambience for a laid-back meal.

“What is your favourite place?” I quiz on.

“It’s called Pizzeria Fiore Bianco,” he says. My thumbs fly into action straight away, skimming through search results to read up more.

“I love traditional style”, Vincenzo goes on, but this “new age” pizza is really good. Their dough is lighter and tastier. Also you can sit down, take your time and enjoy.”

My Google search doesn’t throw up much, (curious?) but if there’s anything I’ve learnt this year it’s to trust my gut. So, when Vincenzo offers to take us to the new place instead, I jump at the opportunity.

I’ve been to numerous pizzerias, and the Fiore Bianco doesn’t look or feel very different. They have traditional pizza, interesting unique combinations…and the one that catches my eye: it’s called bitcoin.

We ask what it’s all about, and—much to our surprise—our quest for good pizza is delivered hot with a slice of tech and the deliciousness of innovating on tradition.

Bitcoin and pizza, it turns out, have a long history. Back in 2010, three months after Neapolitan Pizza got EU recognition, bitcoin enthusiast Laszlo Hanyecz wanted to spend some of the bitcoins he had mined on real-world goods. The transaction was finalised through an online forum, and Hanyecz sent ₿1000—worth $30 at the time—in exchange for two Papa John’s pizzas.

The value of those 1000 bitcoin has since shot up to over 25 million dollars, causing people to dub Hanyecz’s meal “the most expensive pizza in history”.

But what is Bitcoin, exactly?

If you’ve been reading even a bit of the news, you’ve probably heard of cryptocurrencies. Bitcoin is the first of them; an idea proposed by the pseudonymous Satoshi Nakamoto as an alternative to today’s bureaucratic banking system.

At the heart of bitcoin is the blockchain: a sort of “digital transaction log meets democracy”: Bitcoin’s blockchain records are in the form of “So-and-so sent this much money to this person,” but, instead of a specific entity (the bank manager; an accountant; the government) managing the account books, they’re collectively managed by all the computers of all the people running bitcoin software.

To prevent people from indiscriminately adding money to their own accounts, there is a system of secret keys—and the “democracy” angle: everyone has decided not to recognise transactions unless the keys match. If a few people decide to play by different rules, their transactions would be rejected by most people and, therefore, become useless and irrelevant.

But while Bitcoin uses this system for tracking money, the same system could be used for tracking literally any data. That’s where the other uses of blockchain come in.

This technical detour eventually winds back at the pizzeria, where we have now enjoyed a traditional margherita, as well as a unique “pizza 081” containing cream of friarielli, salciccia, provola and fried friarielli.

Blockchain enthusiasts Fabiano Roberto and Dario decided that people should be able to purchase pizza with bitcoin even in the land where it had originated. And so, they started a pizzeria. One with delicious new kinds of pizzas and a lighter bit of flour dough, which integrates not just different flours into their crust but also blockchain into their recipes.

Besides accepting payments in bitcoin, the duo wanted to grow to a stage where they could use blockchain to trace origins of the food they bought.

I spoke to Andrea Varriale, then director of Start-up Grind Malta, who believed that “this technology can fight corruption, the real problem of our under-development, so we use what we have to attract audiences in our lovely city (Napoli)”.

He told me he was launching a challenge that would start from Napoli, but be open to all the pizzaiolos in the world. The pizza makers would be judged on charisma, the originality of the flavour, and the beauty of the blockchain representation, and the winner would receive 1BTC and be named the creator of the Blockchain Pizza. Even then, it was no small-scale operation, with the mayor of Napoli buying a pizza through bitcoin back in 2018.

Today, “Napoli Blockchain” is going strong, and a quick Google search reveals how the blockchain has been put to use for everything from encouraging waste disposal to collecting funds for COVID-19 relief.

Blockchain is just a digital ledger; a digitised record of whatever data is added by its members. This means people can easily add extra information like “this transaction is for water-buffalo milk”, but blockchain itself cannot verify that the information is actually true.

What blockchain can do is allow people to cryptographically sign data, which means trusted authorities—the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, perhaps?—can add their stamp of approval, which can then be passed on down the line.

The traditional Neapolitan pizza is said to be the direct ancestor to the “New York style” pizza. The latter started when Gennaro Lombardi opened America’s first pizzeria in 1905; an employee named Antonio Totonno Pero cooked the pizzas and went on to start a pizzeria of his own. But the balance of power has now shifted, with the dollars of New York giving a rough time to the euros of Italy.

Today in 2023, the Pizzeria Fiore Bianco is unfortunately closed, one of the many victims of the coronavirus pandemic. But there is nevertheless a whole movement simmering in Napoli involving food, blockchain and a deeper cause against corruption.