ROME A vending machine that bakes fresh pizza in minutes for a few euros has got Italian chefs in a whirl before it hits the streets in the coming weeks.
The bright-red "Let's Pizza" machine uses infra-red rays and technology developed at the University of Bologna to knead flour and water into dough, spread it with tomato sauce and a choice of topping, and cook it -- all in less than three minutes.
Its developer, Claudio Torghele, says the machine has proved popular in trials in two Italian regions, but gourmets say it is an affront to traditional methods of cooking the classic dish.
"This is not just a vending machine, it's a mini-pizzeria," said Torghele, 56. "It has windows where you can watch the pizza-making process. Kids, including my own, love it: when the machine is working, there's always a crowd."
The device was developed with help from Anglo-Dutch group Unilever, which tested it in Germany, Torghele said. He hopes to launch the machines across Europe and in the United States, with ingredients varying according to local tastes.
At present it offers four toppings -- cheese and tomato, bacon, ham and fresh vegetables -- at an average cost of 4 euros. Torghele thinks "Let's Pizza" will appeal to Europeans looking for cheap options as a recession hits their pockets. "If I want to eat a great pizza, I go to a pizzeria. But our product is satisfactory, low cost and available 24-hours a day," he said. "This is crisis proof ... McDonald's is increasing its sales. Low cost, fast food is in demand."
Italy is famed for its cuisine and has seen a movement develop against fast food, called "Slow Food." But it has more vending machines than any other country in Europe, according to an industry body, mostly doling out hot coffee drinks.
Purists say the Italian pizza -- invented in the 18th century in the southern city of Naples -- cannot be rushed: the dough must be mixed and left for 12 hours, the ingredients kept fresh, and the oven pre-heated to around 300 degrees.
"This machine is a toy," Pino Morelli of the Association of Italian Pizzerias said. "Perhaps it will find a niche overseas, but Italians are born with pizza: their mothers feed it to them as babies. They understand it."
In Pizzeria Brandi, nestling near the center of ramshackle Naples, the reaction to Torghele's invention was cool.
The restaurant invented the pizza Margherita in 1889 in honor of the queen of the newly unified country, its tomato, mozzarella and basil toppings mimicking Italy's flag.
"Unfortunately, today people invent many things, but you can't make any comparison, especially in terms of quality," said chef Marcello, taking a break from sliding pizzas on a wooden pole into the dome-shaped oven. "The only benefit is the price."
"We should scrap this 'pizza machine' and bring back the old jukeboxes: at least they were charming," said Paolo Pagnani, who owns the historic restaurant.
(Additional reporting by Cristiano Corvino, editing by Paul Casciato)