I recently watched Stanley Tucci’s Searching for Italy on CNN. In the premiere episode, he travels to Campania and visits Enzo Coccia, a founder of the slow food movement. Coccia proceeds to take him around the area visiting local farms and other producers for the ingredients he will use to make an authentic Neapolitan Pizza. After watching the sourcing of ingredients and the artistry that goes into making this pizza, I was enthralled. I wanted to taste this pizza so bad, and watching the episode, you could almost smell the aroma of this just baked work of art.
Imagine my surprise when, on a recent visit to Whidbey Island, I had the opportunity to meet Chef Mark Laska, who just happened to apprentice under Enzo Coccia in Italy. During his time in Italy, he went through a lengthy certification process, which resulted in a certificate from the Italian Ministry of Agriculture. This certification grants Laska the title “Pizzaiuolo,” or pizza maker, to make his own version of the Neapolitan Pizza at his restaurant, Ciao, in Coupeville.
Whidbey and Camano Island Tourism hosted me on a press trip for this story.
Unesco And The Art Of Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo
On December 7, 2017, UNESCO inscribed the Neapolitan Pizzaiuolo or pizza maker's art to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It is a culinary technique with four different phases to prepare the dough, baking it in a wood-fired oven, and a specific rotatory movement by the baker. Basically, this honor recognizes the culinary traditions of Campania and its contributions to the culture of the region. No wonder I wanted to try this pizza so bad.
So, although I can’t travel to Italy for pizza right now, I can visit Laska’s Ciao in Coupeville to experience his Italian food artistry. He not only apprentices under Enzo Coccia but also spent time immersing himself in southern Italy’s food culture. When you see Stanley Tucci in a tomato field in San Marzano, Laska picked tomatoes at that same farm. He learned to make mozzarella in Paestum, experienced the olive harvest in Tuscany, and tried pasta making in Gargano. These experiences honed his craft and led to the success of Ciao, which he opened 10 years ago. His attention to detail, including a wood-fired oven, make his food just divine. The epitome of his craft shows when he makes pizza.
“The man I apprenticed under, Enzo Coccia, was part of a group that succeeded in getting Pizza Napolitana recognized as a designated food product by the European Union. So, like Champagne, Chianti Classico, Parmigiana Reggiano, San Marzano Tomatoes, etc., these unique products MUST be produced in a certain way, with certain ingredients, and in a very specific and finite piece of land. Truly, this is a celebration of the unique terroir of the entire region of Campania,” said Chef Mark Laska.
When you say you make Neapolitan Pizza, it must have certain ingredients, (Italian Flour, San Marzano Tomatoes, Fresh Cheese, Italian Olive Oil, Mediterranean Sea Salt) and be made a certain way (dough is made by hand -- and made into a disk in a specific way, a specific size, cooked in a wood-fired oven, and be made by someone who has been certified as a pizzaiolo'' he continued.
“So, while I honor the traditions to make the traditional, I also use the traditional as a canvas to create something new that speaks to me and the terroir I work and live in,” he added. His restaurant offers a variety, and every dish is prepared with traditional Italian techniques. He uses authentic ingredients and locally sourced produce. He shares his love for people by cooking for them, and he is much beloved in the local community.
Ciao has become a destination for its Italian market. You can purchase meals to go, unique gift packs, groceries, and Italian baked goods. Laska also stocks a collection of Italian wines sourced from small Italian wineries.
Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve
Chef Laska looked for a place to establish his business and raise a family.
“The connection to terroir and to slow food made Coupeville, Washington, an ideal place to open. Coupeville sits in the middle of Ebey’s Reserve and is the only historic-cultural reserve in the United States. Aside from being the most majestic place I have ever experienced, the land will remain farmland in memorial. It is the only place in the United States where one could theoretically develop a food product and continue to do so generation after generation,” he said.
This rich historical site preserves both Native and Euro-American heritage and offers great recreational opportunities in this stunning landscape. Ebey’s Landing National Historical Reserve is a partnership between local, state, federal, and private land ownership. The reserve includes mid-19th century historic structures, agricultural buildings, and farmland that is leased and in use. The wide-open prairies and beaches with breathtaking views of the Puget Sound draw visitors in increasing numbers who appreciate this historic area. Words don’t do it justice as to how beautiful this destination is. When you stand on the prairie amidst historic farms and vast Puget Sound views, you can almost hear the whispers of those before you. It is truly a special place, and you can see why Laska made his home here.
Fun Fact: The legal instrument that created the reserve was written inside Ciao’s location, once a law library and law office.
An Itinerary To Experience Stanley Tucci’s Italy On Whidbey Island
Plan to make Coupeville the base for your visit. It is a charming small town and was the film site for the movie Practical Magic starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. There are a variety of lodgings in town, such as the Coupeville Inn, Anchorage Inn, By the Cove Vacation Suites, Fort Casey Inn, and the Captain Whidbey Inn. For the vacation home/condo rental route, check out the Keystone Cottage, Float on Inn, or Whidbey Island Beach Cottage. You can walk everywhere in Coupeville.
Spend some time at Ebey’s Reserve. There are so many things to do. The area includes three state parks, 30 miles of county trails, and beautiful public beaches. My favorite trail is the Bluff Trail that you can access from the Prairie Overlook Trailhead for a lovely hike that will take you to some of the reserve highlights. This is a great location for photographs. When exploring the reserve, make sure to stay on the trails. Unlike most national and state parks, the reserve is mostly privately owned and farmed. Pay attention to the posted signs and stay out of the fields. Respect the farmers and property owners who share this beautiful area with you.
Visit local producers and makers. Whidbey and Camano Islands Tourism has some great suggestions on their website. From April to November, visit the Coupeville Farmers Market. Visit Ebey Reserve Farms such as Salty Acres Farm, Kettles Edge, and Bell’s Farm. No Italian-themed itinerary is complete without some good wine. Check out Comforts of Whidbey, specializing in sparkling wines made from local varietals such as Siegerrebe and Madeleine Angevine. I love to pair their Sparkling High Tide White with Ciao’s fresh cannoli. Holmes Harbor Cellars specializes in limited-production varietal and blended wines. They are crafted exclusively from Washington State vineyards and produced on Whidbey Island.
Whidbey Island really shines when the weather warms up and local produce begins to hit the markets. It is the perfect destination for a weekend getaway, and getting here is half the fun. You can take a Washington State Ferry from Mukilteo or from Port Townsend to Coupeville. If you prefer, you can drive coming in from the north and cross over the iconic Deception Pass. In addition to Coupeville, the cute towns of Langley and Oak Harbor are worth a visit. Each has an easily walkable downtown area with local shops and restaurants.
Penn Cove Mussels are a delectable treat farmed in the pristine waters of Penn Cove. While on the island, make sure to try them at one of the local restaurants. They are harvested daily and are quite tasty. They are best enjoyed simply cooked in a broth with plenty of fresh-baked bread to sop up the juices.