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Rome gets its first pizza vending machine, but will Romans bite?

  • ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                A man gets a pizza from a Mr. Go pizza vending machine, in Rome, Friday.

    ASSOCIATED PRESS

    A man gets a pizza from a Mr. Go pizza vending machine, in Rome, Friday.

ROME >> Romans eat pizza all the time.

They have pizza a taglio, cut with scissors to the desired size and heaped with toppings, for lunch. They snack on pizza bianca, without anything on it, or pizza rossa, with just tomato sauce, or pizzette, little pizzas. “Pizza scrocchiarella,” round and thin crust, the type Americans might best recognize, is almost always reserved for dinner.

Essentially, Romans will eat pizza, here and there, they will it eat anywhere. But would they, could they, eat it out of a vending machine?

Massimo Bucolo, a medical device salesman turned pizza entrepreneur, is betting they will. He has installed Rome’s first no-hands pizza machine in a bustling neighborhood within walking distance of the capital’s main university.

He’s hoping that the vending machine — which makes a fresh pizza from scratch in exactly three minutes — will catch on with Rome’s pizza-loving population, especially after hours, when traditional spots are closed and the clientele is, shall we say, less discerning.

“I’m not trying to compete with pizzerias; I’m proposing an alternative,” Bucolo, 46, said one recent evening shortly after he had topped up the machine with cheese.

The reactions from pizza aficionados are perhaps what you’d expect in a city that gave birth to one of the world’s first cookbooks, believed to have been written during the first-century reign of the Emperor Tiberius. Granted, Rome is not Naples; in 2017 UNESCO put the thousands of Neapolitan pizza-makers, or pizzaiuoli, on its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But Romans are at least as devoted to their pizzas, UNESCO recognition or not.

Renzo Panattoni, an owner of one of the city’s oldest pizzerias — known to Romans as “the Morgue” because of its marble-topped tables — was dismissive. Vending-machine pizza, he sniffed, “has nothing to do with traditional pizza.”

He said he was sure locals would remain faithful to the thin-crust version his restaurant has served since 1931, though the thicker-crust Neapolitan pizza has made significant inroads in the city.

And food journalists and bloggers have mainly turned up their noses, with one comparing the vending machine’s creation to a pizza she’d eaten in a rundown area of the Ecuadorean Amazon while on a mission with Oxfam.

“I was massacred,” said Bucolo, who has named the business “Mr. Go.”

But the critics may be counting out the sense of adventure that Bucolo is sure his fire-engine-red vending machine can inspire.

On a recent evening, two IT workers stopped to ogle the machinery, and to eat. Customers can watch the machine do its work through glass panes, and the two young men recorded the process on their phones.

Wheels turned, the flour and water were mixed, the dough was kneaded, pressed into a disc and slathered with toppings (this part unseen) before being cooked in an infrared oven and finally plopped into a paper box: a piping hot margherita, the tomato and mozzarella staple. “It’s what I call the curiosity pizza because it’s the one that costs less and people are more likely to buy if they just want to try it,” Bucolo said.

The margherita option costs 4.50 euros ($5.50), while the most expensive, at 6 euros, is the four cheeses.

One of the tech workers, Maurizio Pietrangelo, bet that his purchase would be good enough. “It’s always going to be better than the frozen supermarket pizzas,” he said. “At least I expect it to be,” he added before wishing Bucolo luck and walking away with his pizza.

Virginia Pitorri, a repeat customer at the vending machine, said she had returned because her young daughter, Ginevra, enjoyed the experience so much the first time. “She likes to watch the machine, it’s fun for her,” she said.

Bucolo hopes that once the initial curiosity wears off, customers will return because getting a pizza from a machine is both fun and tasty. And because the machine is open during the night, he hopes his pizza will make inroads with people such as taxi drivers who work while the rest of the city sleeps. “That market is wide open,” he said.

The pizza machine is the brainchild of Claudio Torghele, a northern Italian businessman who worked with partners and various university faculties for years before officially unveiling the first machine in 2009, manufactured by a company he called Let’s Pizza.

Even he is a little surprised at Bucolo’s gambit, setting up a machine in a city with no dearth of pizzerias. “We never thought that we’d ever have a machine in Rome, but there you have it,” he said.

The machine holds enough ingredients — including various toppings — to make 100 pizzas before needing to be refilled. Bucolo’s machine offers four choices: margherita, four cheeses, spicy salami and bacon. He could also have selected turkey as a topping but thought that might be going a little too far. “I will never include it,” he said. “I want to keep tastes close to Italian palates.”

It’s not the only pizza vending machine on the market. PizzaForno stocks freshly made pizzas that can be heated in the machine (in three minutes) or taken home cold. Pizza ATM says on its website it can cook up to eight premade pizzas simultaneously in four minutes. But the Let’s Pizza machine, which is sold in several European countries, is the only one to make pizza from scratch. “Others have tried to copy us and failed,” Torghele said.

If Bucolo is fearful of encroaching on a sacred staple, he might be heartened by the experience of Domino’s Pizza, which opened its first Italian venue in 2015 and now has 34 restaurants, mostly in the north.

The company has opened five sites in Rome since last November, suggesting that it has made inroads with the city’s diners. Chiara Valenti, marketing manager of Domino’s Pizza Italia, attributed the success partly to beating competitors on delivery times, and adapting to local tastes.

Domino’s also counted on the notion that there were plenty of adventurous Italians who were open to sampling “new tastes,” she said, like cheeseburger pizza or BBQ chicken pizza.

“These are people who are not afraid of putting pineapple on a pizza,” Valenti said, a reference to the often-derided ham and pineapple combo popular in many markets but “a taboo in Italy” because it is associated with a lower-quality product. “That’s just a stereotype,” she said.

Unlike many of his compatriots, Marco Bolasco, a prominent food journalist in Italy, was more equivocal in his assessment of pizza newcomers. He said pizza was “a design concept” that leaves gastronomic room for vending machine pizzas and Domino’s. Such pizza is seen “as an exotic object, like sushi or hamburger,” he clarified, adding, “There’s interest, but for an Italian it’s like eating something that’s not really pizza.”

Dario Cuomo, a screenwriter, was a somewhat easier mark. He bought a pizza with a couple of friends, who commented on the dough preparation (not enough time), cooking method (too violent) and its appearance (a Saltine). Then he took a bite.

“Not bad,” he declared, “considering it was made by a robot.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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