NAPLES "Pizzaioli" or pizza chefs in Naples, birthplace of the Margherita, handed out free pizzas on Wednesday in protest at high prices charged by rivals who, they say, use the spike in commodity prices to rip off consumers.
In the city where the classic "Margherita" with mozzarella, tomato and basil topping was invented in the 19th century -- and named in honor of a queen with a taste for fast food -- 30 cooks lit up six wood-burning ovens to cook 5,000 thin-crusted Neapolitan pizzas for queues of local people and tourists.
The group staged the protest in Piazza Dante to demand stricter price controls to defend the reputation of a traditional Neapolitan product which they said should be "the synthesis of quality and low cost."
Commodity prices, like fuel prices, have fallen back from record highs in the past month on worries about global consumer and business demand as the world economy heads into a slowdown. But retail prices have so far failed to reflect that trend.
"Everything has become more expensive now, including pizza, for people who need to watch what they spend," said 19-year-old Arianna Masiello, taking advantage of the free pizza offer.
Pizzaioli in Naples favor fixing the price of a slice at 3-3.50 euros ($4.40-$5.15) -- when most pizza outlets charge a minimum of 4 euros and often nearly twice that much.
"In Naples and elsewhere in Italy that should be enough to cover costs and give a profit margin, without damaging quality," Sergio Miccu, president of the Association of Neapolitan Pizza Cooks, told Reuters.
The Treasury says that in June the price of pasta jumped more than 30 percent and that of bread more than 13 percent, and consumers are feeling the pinch.
Italians are likely to spend an additional 2,000 euros per family on food and energy bills this year.
Italy's biggest consumer group wants shoppers to observe a "bread strike" on September 18 after last year's "pasta strike."
Agriculture Minister Luca Zaia proposes introducing low-cost staple products to protect consumers from price hikes he blames on speculation by "five groups that control 80 percent" of the retail food sector in Italy.
(Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino; reporting by Stephen Brown; editing by Tim Pearce)