A woman eats a slice of pizza in downtown Naples, where protests against a McDonald’s ad have been particularly vehement. (PRESSPHOTO/Via Associated Press)

It should come as no surprise that Italians, especially Neapolitans, take pizza seriously. So seriously that a pizza certified as “True Neapolitan” has to conform to a strict set of rules, specified in an 11-page document. Mess with their pizza, see, and Italians mess back.

If McDonald’s executives didn’t understand that before last month, they understand it now. When the fast-food behemoth, which has seen its global profits tumble over the last year, aired a commercial in March implying that Italian children prefer burgers and fries to pizza, Italians reacted with outrage — particularly in Naples, the birthplace of the cheese-topped pie.

“When I first saw it, I couldn’t help laughing, for how ridiculous the commercial is,” recalled Eduardo Pagnani, co-owner of Pizzeria Brandi, one of the most famous pizzerias in Naples. “Then I realized that they were denigrating pizza to promote their product. The commercial is unfair and misleading.” To him, the idea that Italian children prefer hamburgers to pizza is nothing short of “a blasphemy.”

The commercial has sparked YouTube spoof videos, a Change.org petition (with more than 11,000 signatures), a social-media hashtag, a lawsuit — and even a new, downsized pizza. The pizzaiolo behind the latter is calling it Happy Pizza, a reference to the famous boxed children’s meal at McDonald’s. The name is a hashtag on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, too. Search #happypizza, and you’ll see the work of a virtual flash mob: the pride of Italy photographed in all its cheesy, charred-crust glory.

Here’s how the original insult unfolded: In the 20-second McDonald’s commercial, a family of three is shown in a not-so-fancy pizzeria as a waiter stands by waiting for them to order. Mom and Dad hesitate, while their young son doesn’t even look at the menu. When the waiter asks which pizza he would like, the boy exclaims “Happy Meal!” leaving the waiter speechless. The scene suddenly changes: The family, now smiling, is in a McDonald’s, and a voice-over says, in Italian, “Your child has no doubts. Happy Meal, still 4 euros.”

It’s not the first time food-savvy Italians, intent on preserving their culinary heritage, have protested the fast-food chain. In fact, when the first McDonald’s franchise in Italy opened in Rome in 1986, protesters saw it as an unwelcome move toward global domination by American food culture. Journalist Carlo Petrini (who served penne at the original protests) used the anger against McDonald’s as a jumping-off point to found the Slow Food movement, which now has more than 1,300 chapters worldwide, all dedicated to preserving traditional foodways.

But while Slow Food has grown, so has McDonald’s, which almost three decades after entering the country operates 510 restaurants in Italy. In 2013, the company announced it would open more than 100 new restaurants there over the next decade in an effort to increase its market share, which lags behind that in neighboring Spain and France. “We believe in Italy,” McDonald’s Italia chief executive Roberto Masi told Reuters in an interview, “and we have convinced our shareholders in the United States that the Italian market has a potential we can exploit.”

Despite the growth, Gino Sorbillo, one of the nation’s most famous pizzamakers, says the McDonald’s ad shows that the company fundamentally does not understand Italian culture. “In a country where the tradition, the family and the connection with the land are so important, a commercial like the McDonald’s one is a boomerang,” he said.

Indeed, some Italians have responded with spoofs of the ad, which was uploaded to YouTube a month before it was broadcast on Italian television. Egidio Cerrone, a blogger who lives in Naples, uploaded a video showing a family of three in line at an unnamed fast-food chain. The kid looks at the burgers and fries with a perplexed expression. Then, with a strong Neapolitan accent, he asks his dad in Italian, “Daddy, what is this disgusting stuff? I want a pizza!” The video ends with the young boy and other children gobbling pizza on the streets of Naples.

The online Italian news outlet Fanpage went further, producing a hidden-camera video in which a delivery service responds to orders for pizza by delivering Happy Meals instead. The customers are more than confused: They’re livid. Some issue expletives, some threaten violence. In one of the milder exchanges, the delivery man asks, “Do you know this? Italians’ favorite food!”

“No, pizza is Italians’ favorite,” the woman says with a smile. She gets angrier and angrier, and before she shuts him out entirely, she says, “You bring me pizza, I’ll open the door.”

Other responses were more serious. Massimo Di Porzio, vice president of the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, or True Neapolitan Pizza Association, which created the certification, called the McDonald’s ad “a dishonorable attack against one of the symbols of the Mediterranean diet.” The diet, considered one of the most healthful in the world, includes olive oil, fruits, vegetables, legumes, fish and, less frequently, meat and dairy.

The association announced that it’s filing a complaint over the ad with the Italian Competition Authority. The ad went off the air as scheduled last week, but the complaint demands that the company never show or distribute the ad again and that it pay unspecified damages.

“It is obvious that the American colossus is trying to discredit its main competitor, but speculating on children’s health is just too much,” Di Porzio said in a statement. “Should we ever get money from them, the AVPN will surely use that money to establish educational nutrition courses for children.”

Sorbillo, whose Pizzeria Sorbillo was founded by his grandfather on Naples’s via Tribunali in 1935, responded the best way he knows how: with a pizza of his own.

Chef Gino Sorbillo, far right, and other pizzamakers outside one of Sorbillo's pizzerias in Naples. (From Fanpage.it)

“It is a baby Margherita pizza for our younger customers,” said Sorbillo, who owns three other pizzerias in Naples and one in Milan. “It is as good as the traditional one, with the same quality ingredients, but smaller.”

Like the Happy Meal, the Happy Pizza comes with a gift: a magnet or bookmark made of recycled cardboard and bearing the image of pastiera (a cake with eggs, wheat and ricotta), pizza or another Neapolitan product.

“With this product, which costs only 2 euros, we want to merge food and culture: While giving them a healthy and cheap meal, we expose our children to the products of our tradition,” said Sorbillo.

Other pizzamakers have decided they might have an ally in New York, so they wrote to the city’s mayor, Bill de Blasio.

“We want de Blasio to represent and promote the Neapolitan pizza worldwide,” said Sorbillo. “He is perfect for this role, because of his Italian roots and his love for Naples and its pizza.”

In a statement, McDonald’s said it did not want to attack or denigrate pizza, which it calls “an institution” in Italy. “At McDonald’s we love pizza, too, and we go to pizzerias,” the company said. “We are sure that even Neapolitan pizza chefs have brought their children to our restaurants at least once. If they didn’t, we invite them now: After eating at McDonald’s, their children will ask to come back again.”

This is the second time this spring that McDonald’s has found itself on the defensive after being accused of insulting a country’s traditional foods. In February, a Facebook post from the fast-food chain in Mexico said, roughly, “Tamales are a thing of the past. The McBurrito also comes wrapped.” After a social-media outcry, the company posted an apology on its Web site.

In Italy, the controversy comes as the nation prepares to host Expo Milano 2015, the next world’s fair, which opens May 1. McDonald’s is an official sponsor of the event, whose theme is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” Some exhibitors, including Slow Food, had already protested the company’s involvement, and after the Happy Meal ad, some members of the Italian Parliament called for McDonald’s to be excluded from the list of sponsors.

Pagnani, of Pizzeria Brandi, is tiring of the Happy Meal controversy. “We already spent too much time on this issue,” he said. “It’s time to move on. Pizza is the real Neapolitan fast food: freshly baked, healthy and cheap.”

Lombardi is a graduate student in journalism at American University and a fellow at the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

The Happy Pizza includes a small version of a pizza Margherita plus a magnet or bookmark for kids. (From Fanpage.it)