Pasquale Illiano grips the handle of a pizza peel in his hands while staring into his volcano-shaped, wood-fired oven. Its glowing embers heat pizza dough so fast that it chars, rises, and is ready in roughly a minute. The red-tiled oven, custom made in his home city of Naples, is a focal point in the back dining room of his South Kingstown restaurant Pasquale’s Pizzeria.
On this summer Friday evening, Illiano and his cooks are continuously moving Neapolitan-style pizzas in and out of the roughly 900-degree forno to satisfy the after-work crowd and hungry vacationers.
Not far from where he’s cooking, Illiano displays his framed certification from Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (AVPN). It illustrates his aptitude and faithfulness to the association’s rigorous pizza-making standards. The AVPN guidelines describe everything from the diameter of the thin-crust pizza to the placing of the mozzarella, which “should appear in evenly spread patches, with the green of the basil leaves slightly darkened by the cooking process.”
In fact, Illiano is not only certified – he’s the organization’s designated trustee and consultant for New England. If the AVPN learns that a restaurant is struggling to stay true to its pizza-making guidelines, “I go in and I help them out,” Illiano says. “And you know, that’s pretty neat.”
Illiano’s cooking has recently received recognition including a mention in the Italian food and wine magazine Gambero Rosso and inclusion on a list of the best pizzas in America put together by an Italian website called 50TopPizza.
“We happen to be a little bit out of the way – we’re not even in Providence – but I was lucky enough that they visited,” he says. “We got 33 out of 50, which I consider to be okay. I’m a very picky and ambitious guy, so I’m kind of shooting for a better ranking next year.”
After all, Illiano has been perfecting his skills for roughly 35 years. Born in Naples, he started making pizza while working in a tourist resort as a teenager and quickly became fascinated by the process. In 1995, he came to the United States for a cooking job and settled in Virginia before moving on to positions in New York and later Rhode Island.
Noticing the increasing American interest in the pizza of his youth, Illiano opened Pasquale’s Pizzeria in 2015 in the South County Commons complex. In 2020, to keep up with demand, he moved the restaurant from its original location across the street to its current, larger space. He then created Neapolis, a gourmet market with imported Italian groceries, baked goods, and freshly made gelato, in the original storefront.
Illiano, who lives in Westerly with his wife and daughters, is quick to point out that his pizza-making skills aren’t limited to the Neapolitan style. At Neapolis, he serves Roman-style pizza by the slice, and at the restaurant, he also offers New York-style and Grandma pies, which are cooked in an electric oven.
“When I do something, I get really into it,” says Illiano, “and pizza happened to be one of those things that when I was exposed to it, I wanted to go all the way in.”
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