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jengineer 07-02-2008 01:47 PM

This man needs help
 
Anyone near this guy to guide him to the path of enlightment?

One man's quest for the perfect pizza | ajc.com

One man's quest for the perfect pizza
By JOHN KESSLER
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 07/02/08

The guests file into Jeff Varasano's Buckhead home with bottles of wine, and he greets them warmly. Mostly, they're first-timers.

"I've only met three of these people," says Varasano's partner, Heather Stokley, surveying the nearly two dozen eager souls who have scored an invitation to the evening's pizza tasting. "They're friends of friends, Internet friends. There's such a big list of people who want to come."

VARASANO'S VERITIES
Pizza lovers the world over write of their experiments with Jeff Varasano's recipe and technique, as outlined on his Web page: slice.seriouseats.com/jvpizza. Others check out the site to drool over the pictures of his pizza. Here's a small slice of the site:

The dough
He doesn't believe that the flour or water matters as much as the sourdough starter . Also vitally important: letting the ingredients rest before mixing and then kneading the dough a good long time. His dough stretches to near transparency, a state he calls "windowpaning."

The sauce
It's little more than very carefully deseeded canned tomatoes that he crushes rather than purees.

The baking
He cooks it at a temperature around 825 degrees, with the pizza stone somewhat cooler than the radiated heat above it. Varasano achieves this in his electric range by running it on the clean cycle with the latch disabled. The glass oven door must be covered with foil lest a spare drop of sauce touches it and makes it shatter. (Yes, it's happened.)

His take on Atlanta pizza
Jeff Varasano has no kind words for even the city's most highly regarded pizzerias. One serves "perfectly tasteless cardboard," while another is a "fake Neopolitan wannabe." Closest worthwhile pie: Washington, D.C.


Over the past two years, Varasano pizza supplicants from across the city, the state and the country have beaten a path to his oven door. Some out-of-towners have spent the night in his guest room. According to Varasano, the former CEO of a well-known pizza chain once jetted in, tried a few slices and left town the same day.

All this for pies that he tops with mozzarella from the local Publix and bakes in a jerry-rigged KitchenAid electric range wrapped in so much tin foil it looks like a moon lander. Varasano, a software engineer by training, claims his pizzas are as good as any in the country. This fall, the city can put that claim to the test when he opens an actual pizzeria in south Buckhead.

Most fans discover Varasano, 41, through his Web site a now-legendary reference text for the pizza-blogging demimonde. He first posted this 22,000-word opus in a single, near-infinite scroll in late 2004. It got picked up by the Web directory Boing Boing over a year later, and it promptly got so much traffic it crashed his server.

"It's one of the sickest things ever to hit the Internet," says Ed Levine, a pizza expert who now hosts Varasano's page slice.seriouseats.com/jvpizza on his food community, Serious Eats. "It's like the 'War and Peace' of pizza blog posts. And the thing is, Jeff does it in this really geeky way."

Oh, yeah. Varasano a software engineer who set out to "reverse engineer" a pizza as light and gently charred as the one he considers New York's best has refined his technique over the past eight years and via umpteen thousands of pies.

"I didn't set out to run experiment after experiment," says Varasano, adding that one attempt melted all the plastic off a toaster oven. "Every one I thought was going to be the one."


A pizza wasteland

His intensive trial-and-error methodology hasn't resulted in a recipe as much as something more like a mapping of the pizza genome.

How did he do this? Why did he do this? What would motivate a techie who was supposed to develop the next big thing in database management to give his life over to pizza?

That's easy. He moved to Atlanta.

A Bronx native, Varasano had always taken good pizza for granted. But then on a fateful day 10 years ago, he walked into a metro Atlanta chain that boasted "New York Style Pizza," ordered a slice, and ...

"And I felt like I was in bizarro world," says Varasano, shuddering at the memory. Everything was wrong with it.

He tried more Atlanta pizza and responded with "condescending disgust." When he went home to New York, he began scouring the city for the best, the archetype, the ur-pizza.

He found it at Patsy's, a classic old-time joint in Harlem. What made this crust so good? He brought some home and baked it in his oven. He used some as a starter for his own batch, convinced that this step was necessary for great dough.

Varasano had his plate full with his software, a pro-ject for which he had raised $3 million in venture capital. But his mind kept wandering back, obsessively, to pizza. Surely, he could crack the code.


Geek god of pizza

To understand the Varasano mind and its approach to problem solving, it helps to know a couple of things:

One: At the age of 14, he set the U.S. Rubik's Cube record with a time of 24.67 seconds and then published "Jeff Conquers the Cube in 45 Seconds: And You Can Too!" This achievement was noted during an assembly of his freshman class at Yale.

Two: He is prone to saying things like, "I can watch two ducks fight over a piece of bread and go home and apply that. I see connections that other people can't."

Speaking of which, guests at Varasano's gathering this evening have to gently compete for the pizza slices as they come out a bit slower than usual.

His oven, which would much rather be baking a casserole at 350, is balking. Set to the clean cycle, its temperature climbs to 800 degrees. A tray of ice water in the cabinet above works to keep the oven's thermostat from shutting the party down. Varasano takes regular readings of the oven temperature with an infrared thermometer that looks like a ray gun; as soon as it's high enough, he can bake a 13-inch pie in just 90 seconds.

Varasano slips a foil coverlet over his pizza stone for a minute. "The stone's got to be cooler than the top because the top is radiated heat," he explains. The mysteries of heat conduction revealed themselves to him one night as he was cooking a steak, and it was a breakthrough for his pizza.

The pizzas emerge from the oven puffed with blisters, speckled with char and as light as clouds. His guests, collectively, swoon. They eat for free; their word-of-mouth will be priceless.


Taking his pie public

As people wait for the next pie, they mingle. One group compares pizzerias they've visited in Rome. Deborah Duchon, the food anthropologist familiar from the Food Network's "Good Eats," remarks, "I thought the flavor combinations were very interesting."

Indeed, along with his unique technique, Varasano has developed trademark recipes. One pie has ricotta, arugula and lemon; another holds dates, walnuts and rosemary. All are listed on prototype menus he passes out to the crowd.

Stokley Varasano's good friend and a partner in the pizza business directs guests to two laptops set up on pedestals. One presents the Web site in semi-digestible chunks. Another flashes fan mail from all over the world. "You come China, make pizza for profit," reads one.

Investors have approached Varasano about setting him up in the pizza business, but he and Stokley are planning on going it alone when they open this fall in the new Mezzo Atlanta building on Peachtree. Disagreements with partners, he claims, doomed his software business.

Isn't he nervous about the pressure of running and cooking in a restaurant?

"No," Varasano says. "Once I learn the brick oven, it won't be too different from what I do here."

Levine, who has tried all the best pizzas in America for "Pizza: Slice of Heaven," his definitive book on the subject, says the proof will be in the pie.

"Jeff thinks like an engineer," Levine says. "Things will be different when he's actually doing it in real time and not as a high-flying chemistry/physics experiment. If he can do it successfully on the fly, that's what will make him a great pie man."

DrakeRemoray 07-02-2008 02:06 PM

Re: This man needs help
 
I have seen this before and am glad to hear he will be moving into the restaurant business with a real oven. The guy has passion, you have to give him that!

Alfredo 07-02-2008 02:28 PM

Re: This man needs help
 
I first read about him here on FB. IIRC, James knows him. In today's New York Times "Dining & Wine" section, the Times picked up on the story :http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/02/di...tml?ref=dining

Line forms to the left :)

james 07-02-2008 02:55 PM

Re: This man needs help
 
You gotta love passion. Where would we be if we didn't have those passionate few. :-)

It's the 2:50AM part that gets me. I would be much more likely to still be up at 2:50AM than having just got up!

James


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