Yu Jun-hwan, the 40-year-old owner-chef of Pizzeria del Popolo in Goyang, Gyeonggi Province, had no idea that he would achieve the prestigious title of this year's world champion for crafting the finest Neapolitan pizza.
On June 21, a day after competing in the 2023 Trofeo Caputo against some 500 contestants from 22 countries, he received an unexpected text from the organizers declaring him the winner. The text came through just as his plane touched down back in Korea.
Opened in 2016, Pizzeria del Popolo had already gained fame by word of mouth. However, after his victory, there has been a significant increase in interest. When The Korea Herald visited the pizzeria on a Tuesday afternoon, people were seen lining up two hours before opening time for the dinner service.
"Compared to Italians, who casually enjoy pizza on a daily basis, I have noticed that many Koreans experience indigestion after eating it. I take pride in creating pizzas that are easily digested, ensuring that anyone can feel comfortable and satisfied after enjoying it," said Yu.
Yu revealed that the key to his exceptional pizzas is in the dough.
The dough at Pizzeria del Popolo is chewy, offering a unique experience of evolving flavors. As you chew on the pizza, the taste transitions from salty to slightly sweet. The distinctive crust is a compelling reason for diners to come back.
To have his restaurant staff experience Neapolitan pizza in Naples, he took all 10 of them along.
"We were staying in a small apartment. I recall the night before the competition when all the employees were asleep. I had bought some standard flour from a grocery store in Naples, then worked at the apartment kitchen to make a dough and ferment it overnight for eight hours to prepare it for baking," Yu said. It is the same process that is followed at his restaurant.
Rather than adding numerous toppings, Yu's approach involves considering what to leave off of the pizza. This dedication to simplicity and authenticity contributes to the pricing of the pizzas at Pizzeria del Popolo, which range from 9,200 won to 28,600 won.
Yu competed in the section titled "Specialita Traditionale Garantita," or STG, which strictly follows the guidelines outlined in UNESCO's list of the Art of Neapolitan "Pizzaiuolo," and therefore considered the essence of the annual competition.
The pizza edge -- called the "cornicione" in Italian -- must also not exceed 1 to 2 centimeters in thickness. The total diameter of the pizza must be within 35 centimeters, and the middle part where the toppings are placed must be less than 0.4 centimeters thick. The ingredients also have specific weight requirements, including the olive oil, tomato sauce and cheese. Furthermore, the dough should be baked in a firewood oven at 430-480 degrees Celsius for 60 to 90 seconds.
At Pizzeria del Popolo, 17 pizza varieties are served.
For first-time diners, Yu recommends trying the classic Marinara, which features only tomato sauce, garlic, oregano and basil. There is no cheese.
Acquiring a taste for certain foods could take time, so that is why he suggests starting with a simple Marinara as an introduction to the world of Neapolitan pizza. Other offerings include the Margherita con bufala, which includes buffalo cheese, or the flavorful Napoletana, topped with anchovies, black olives and capers.
Many customers ask for Yu to open other branches, as there is often a long line.
"I believe that running a successful pizzeria should not be approached as a commercial venture, which is why I have no intention of franchising in the future. In Naples, there are hundreds of traditional pizzerias that have been handed down for generations. Only a few have just recently expanded with additional branches. Opening branches is not inherently a bad decision, but it requires considerable time and effort to train apprentices who can replicate my work."
Yu's first pizza experience holds a special place in his memory, dating back to his college years in the early 2000s, when he was backpacking in Rome.
He stumbled upon a humble pizzeria where, despite having limited cash, he ordered a Neapolitan pizza for less than $2. That singular moment left an impact on him and served as a trigger for his passion.
This cherished memory fuels the master pizzaiolo to share his experience with his customers as much as he can.