If your first experience of pizza was the deep-dish version served by the Chicago Pizza Pie Factory on St Stephen's Green, or at a branch of Pizzaland (where it came with sides of baked potato and coleslaw) or from the DIY counter at Superquinn, where mandarin orange segments were just one of the toppings on offer, the news that Cirillo's on Dublin's Baggot Street has been named the 16th Best European Pizzeria may come as a surprise. (The Dough Bros in Galway came in at 21.)
Ireland at the forefront of pizza-making in Europe? Surely not.
Pizza is everywhere these days. You'll find it in chains and homegrown independents, as well as in pubs up and down the country, where €9 is the magic number. It's perfect food for a pandemic and has never been more popular - or ubiquitous. But until a few years ago, with some honourable exceptions - I'm thinking Gotham on South Anne Street and Independent Pizza in Drumcondra in particular - the standard of Irish pizza was nothing to get too excited about.
So what has happened to Irish pizza to bring it from the stodgy indulgence that it was back in the 80s - when the heft of the dough and the bizarre combination of toppings were almost guaranteed to result in heartburn, if not a full-blown coma - to a gourmet food worthy of international recognition?
A thread on Donal Fallon's Come Here To Me blog is a mine of information when it comes to exploring the history of pizza here.
According to contributor Fabio Gentile, the first pizza sold in Ireland - but only to private parties - was made by Mario Gentile at Bernardo's on Lincoln Place, which opened in 1954. Mario and his brother Bernardino had worked at the Italian embassy in Lucan and went on to open The Coffee Inn on South Anne Street, a student hangout where many had their first taste of pizza, topped with mozzarella, anchovies and peppers.
In 1967, Dr Dionisio Tullio and his wife Irene, the parents of the Irish Independent's much-loved restaurant critic, Paolo Tullio, who died in 2015, opened The Honey Bee on Wicklow Street in 1967, serving pizzas made by Joe Forte from Naples.
Now in his 30s, James Cirillo, owner of Cirillo's, grew up in an Italian restaurant family in Dublin - his uncle Emilio Cirillo owned Nico's on Dame Street, where his father, Armando, was the chef.
"Pizza in Ireland has definitely had a chequered past," he says. "I remember going to Pizza Stop on Chatham Lane on Sundays when Nico's was closed. It was run by Italians and the pizzas were good, but back then, they were made with a harder, Roman-style dough. I think the first place in Dublin to start doing more Neapolitan style pizzas was Paulie's on Grand Canal Street, which opened in 2010.
"Neapolitan pizza has always been softer than Roman-style, but five or six years ago, all the pizzaiolos in Naples started trying to outdo each other by playing around with hydration levels to make a really soft dough. The higher the water content of the dough, the lighter and softer it is, but also the more difficult it is to work with, so it's a test of skill."
Prior to opening Cirillo's, James made numerous research trips back and forth to Naples, where the soft dough of the best pizzas is stretched by hand so it puffs up in the hot oven and forms large bubbles around the edges, which take on a crackling black char, known as leoparding.
"I wanted to serve top quality pizzas," he says, "so I hired pizzaiolo Daniele Accardo from Ancona and we built a traditional Neapolitan pizza oven from brick. We cook with a mix of kiln-dried oak and ash - the oak is heavier and burns slower, so it goes on the bottom, and the ash is for heat and flame.
"The Neapolitan style of pizza is quite sparse when it comes to toppings, but ours are a little more generous and better suited to the Irish palate. We serve the traditional pizzas you'd find in Naples - margherita, marinara, diavola - which is the most popular - and salsiccia and friarielli, a white pizza with Italian sausage and a type of broccoli. At first, we couldn't sell the white pizzas - people would be asking where the tomato sauce was, but now many of our regulars look for them and we often do them as specials."
Although some pizza restaurants here use Irish mozzarella, James brings his in from Italy and uses Irish toppings, including Young Buck, Cashel Blue, Hegarty's Cheddar and Gubbeen Chorizo.
Cirillo's has always supplied pizzas to customers of Toner's across the lane and has continued to do so during the restrictions. During lockdown, its delivery and takeaway business boomed and is now making up for the reduction of the number of seats inside. On Tuesday, the restaurant made 250 pizzas.
"It seems as if every week I hear about a new pizza restaurant opening," says James. "I guess it's seen as cheap and easy, but it still has to be done right. It's a lot of work to do it properly, monitoring the oven and the dough, and the quality can diminish as the quantity goes up."
Some Irish pizzerias use sourdough, but James prefers a traditional yeast dough which proves for 30 hours developing complexity and nuance.
"Sourdough is very hard to work with," he says. "You wouldn't really find restaurants in Naples using sourdough as it's too temperamental. One night during lockdown, we left the air conditioning on overnight and the dough was ruined - temperature is key and if the weather is very humid, sourdough can go bananas."
The judges of the Best Pizzerias list, who visited anonymously, paid fulsome tribute to Cirillo's.
"The atmosphere is more like that of a pub than a pizzeria," they said, "but there is no doubt about the product. The pizza is remarkably like the traditional Neapolitan pizza, well risen and, more importantly, well baked. There is an obsessive research into Italian products, from the tomatoes to the extra virgin olive oil. A real surprise was finding some excellent friarielli! The service is very attentive, the Italian spirit is all in the food and not flaunted in a folkloristic way. The best in Dublin."
While the quality of the pizza on offer at Cirillo's is up there with the finest in Europe, and a new generation of pizza-makers is producing ever-lighter, ever-more photogenic pizzas using top quality ingredients, there is still plenty of nostalgia for the pioneers of pizza in Ireland. Pizzerias such as The Bad Ass Cafe in Temple Bar, Pizza & Cream in Bray, Chew & Chat in Ranelagh and Gino's in Cork were loved as much for their exotic atmosphere as for the pizzas themselves.
It's not possible to create a pizza as good as Cirillo's at home without a wood-fired oven of your own, but that doesn't mean you have to resort to a desultory freezer cabinet option either. Irish company Pizza da Piero has been producing great pizza bases for 13 years and if you make a simple sauce with pureed San Marzano tomatoes, seasoned well, and top it with creamy buffalo mozzarella rather than the cheap rubbery stuff, you'll be off to a good start.
Pizza is a blank canvas for great ingredients and there's no sign that we will be falling out of love with it any time soon.