James Elliot, co-founder of Neapolitan pizza restaurant Pizza Pilgrims, is standing in the kitchen of his pizzeria in London's Soho, reluctantly teaching me how to spin pizza.
"Imagine you're holding a football," he says. "Now, put the pizza on the back of your hands with the weight falling off the front."
I mimic an angry bear, claws bared. The pizza pretty much falls on to the floor. Unlike Elliot, I don't have the knack. Moments before, he'd been showing off his skills: speed-kneading the doughy disc of a pizza base, stretching it out, shuffling it over his knuckles, spinning the base airborne, cartwheeling it round a finger, and then placing it back down on to the metal worktop ready for a swirl of tomato sauce and a handful of toppings. It was all done in about 30 mesmerising seconds.
As Elliot speaks to me, he is constantly moving and shifting, meeting the steady flow of orders as they pop up on the pass.
"It's all about the momentum. You end up getting this rhythm going and spinning is a part of this," he says. "I'll always spin it and catch it once for some reason. It becomes a little tick—another thing you do that proves your worth as a pizza chef."
Elliot certainly doesn't have much to prove. He learned his skills travelling around Italy in a little van with his brother Thom, visiting famous pizza pie haunts like Pizzeria Da Michele and meeting pizza guru Antonino Esposito on the ultimate pizza odyssey.
He learned most in Naples, where pizza is pretty dogmatic to say the least. For a Margherita to be recognised by The True Neapolitan Pizza Association (Associazione Verace Pizza napoletana), it has to conform to a 127-page document. There, Elliot tells me, spinning is not as frowned upon as using a rolling pin, but it's up there with pizza sacrilege.
"People in Naples think of it as a bit unnecessary. Take bartenders with flare when compared to actually making a delicious cocktail," he says. "Flare is seen as tacky; almost like you're making up for something."
Stateside, they see things differently. At least, eight time-World Champion Pizza Acrobat Tony "Michael Jordan of Pizza Throwing" Gemignani does.
"I respect both sides—cooking and the acrobatics," he tells me. "Both play a role in our industry [but] most people that say spinning is showboating can't do it. There are a lot of haters out there!"
Gemignani argues that spinning does have a purpose. It gets a pizza base to the size you want, naturally thickens the ends of the base without force, and "as you toss the dough, the air is drying out the outer portion of the base making it crispy on the outside but light and airy on the inside."
It is also looks pretty cool.
People in Naples think of pizza-spinning as a bit unnecessary. Take bartenders with flare when compared to actually making a delicious cocktail. Flare is seen as tacky; almost like you're making up for something.
The finger spinning, behind-the-back trickery of hardcore pizza-spinning makes for pretty mad viewing too, as US Pizza Team star Nino Coniglio demonstrates. You know what they say—"No one can toss a pie like a Brooklyn guy."
Curiously though, Coniglio's pizza-throwing mentor Domenico DeMarco, an Italian native whose pie Anthony Bourdain has called "the best of the best," doesn't spin anymore. In 2009 he told The New York Times: "It's something you do when you're a young man. You have to do something to attract the people. It don't do any good for the pizza."
Back at Pizza Pilgrims in London, Elliot says spinning is a New York thing.
"The only practical reason I like to spin a pizza is to get a round pizza. If you spin it from the middle, spinning and catching, you get a feel for whether it's spinning round or with a kink," he explains. "It bypasses the brain and your hand goes, Yeah, that's right. In New York, especially with the big slice guys, there's more practical implications because of the size of the pizza."
He then introduces me to Ivan, who has been listening and shaking his head. A young Italian pizza chef with a tattoo of a Margherita on his upper left arm, Ivan is a Neapolitan pizza nut who grew up in the business and has ended up, as Elliot says so many Italian pizza chefs do, married to the job.
Ivan doesn't spin. Instead he stretches out the dough for the base using a technique called schiaffo or slap.
"Spinning I not like too much," he says, slapping the dough down on to the steel top in disdain. "It is like when a football player is good at freestyle but in the match he is not good. In Naples, pizza is like art."
"Yeah," I say, wiping my brow. "I don't spin either."
This post originally appeared on MUNCHIES in July 2015.