It's a dark, wet February evening in Newcastle, but the light from Cal's Own's pizza oven is shining proudly through its front window. I'm here to meet Calvin Kitchin, the restaurant's eponymous founder. He leans on his right elbow, slightly hunched forward, looking up at me across the table as we talk. He doesn't blink or look away very much. It's kind of intense.
But then the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN) attracts intense people. It's the high church of pizza, directed from Napoli with the mission of protecting the soul of true Neapolitan pizza. It's a very exclusive club—and Kitchin is the first British chef ever to be accepted into it.
Pizza in Newcastle wasn't great when Kitchin started making his own, back when he was still a joiner working on building sites around the North East.
"I knew there was a level higher than what we were getting in the UK. It was just finding what it was, and why it was like that," he says. "Even the pizzas on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons looked better than the stuff we were getting."
Early experiments with greaseproof pans, tin foil, and his home oven were disappointing. But then, after following YouTube tutorials and reading up on the Internet, Kitchin made a breakthrough.
"One Christmas, I got a gas barbecue and I was working on a house up the coast—a big mansion. The bathroom was getting done in these marble tiles. I said to the tiler, 'Can you do me a tile this big for the barbecue?'"
Kitchin fired up the barbecue, clamped down the lid, and got the tile up to about 500 degrees Celsius. It charred the bottom of the first pizza in 30 seconds. Almost immediately, he was swamped with pizza orders from mates.
"I was actually selling them on the building site and stuff. I had a panini grill, and I'd heat up the slices on the grill."
Now, Kitchin has got the stamp of authenticity he's been hankering after for years. The AVPN was founded in 1984 as a reaction against homogenised, frozen pizzas which the founders saw as having perverted the true soul of Neapolitan pizza. Pizza Hut, Domino's, Papa John's, and their ilk were the heretics. "We are against the cultural and commercial deformation of our pizza and against its industrialisation," founder Antonio Pace explained at the time. Like I say, kind of intense.
The AVPN has stipulations for every step of the pizza-making process, collated in a document that runs to more than 3,500 words. Only margaritas and marinaras count, and then only if they come from a wood-fired oven. The tomatoes and cheeses are tightly regulated, and you need to use "a traditional copper oil canister" to add your extra virgin olive oil at the end. The water you use in the dough must have a calcium content of between 60 and 80 milligrams per litre.
Newcastle hasn't been the easiest place to find converts to the Neapolitan way, and Kitchin says he is not in the business of "pandering" to the pale, stodgy Northern status quo.
"If I wanted to do that, I'd put ham and pineapple on the pizza, I'd do chips and curry sauce and all that sort of stuff. I'm not in it to make money," he reasons. "I'd like to just be able to pay the rent here, which is very difficult when you've got the general public in Newcastle and the North East [who are] very much into that sort of thing. They've got this idea of what food should be."
When Cal's Own moved to its current location in the leafy suburb of Jesmond from a spot in nearby Heaton last year, Kitchin switched from serving huge New York-via-Naples hybrid pies to pure Neapolitana, and stripped the menu right back. It didn't go down well.
"The first couple of weeks, people were outraged. It was like World War III had broken out," he remembers, laughing. "They were so upset that they couldn't get all this shit on their pizza. They didn't want to taste what a real Neapolitan pizza tasted like, they wanted to taste like their version of pizza tasted like."
Does the lack of appreciation get to him?
"Yeah, of course. It really pisses you off."
In the kitchen tonight, there's little chat between Kitchin and his two chefs. The only sounds are the slap of dough ball on floured worktop, then the scrape of the flat metal peel as Kitchin chivvies the roundel of dough onto it. Then, the smooth sweep of a ladle spreading tomato sauce around the raw dough, and hunks of mozzarella being torn and dotted on top. Then it's oil, basil, salt, and into the 500-degree, Napoli-built oven, where Kitchin teases the doughy disc with the peel.
Finally, the pizza is levered up into the dome to get its characteristic leopard-spot charring on the cornicione. And it's done.
I take a slice. The creamy mozzarella contrasts delicately with the acid-tang of the tomato sauce, and the base has a perfect savoury-sour crunch. It's kind of intense—in a good way.
As I reach appreciatively for a second slice, Kitchin tells me about a couple who recently came to Cal's Own with their grandchild, and requested that they didn't burn the pizza this time. He's sticking to his guns, though.
"People say it's burnt, or it's sloppy, it's soupy in the middle and stuff. But if you actually read the VPN specifications, that's what a real Neapolitan pizza is," he says. "That's what I've got to do, you know?"