Guest Bloggers
Learning From the Ancients
John Arena

As students of pizza we spend a lot of time trying to uncover the “secrets” of past masters. We are constantly trying to reach back into antiquity with the assumption that there was a “golden age of pizza” and that it is our duty to resurrect these honored traditions. To a certain extent there may be some truth in that belief. But let’s not ignore the possibility that some of our longing for a so called “true” or Vera Pizza may not be as justified as we hope.  I am referring specifically to the ingredients that we select.

Modern modes of transportation have made the world a smaller place It is now much easier to access the ingredients that we assume are being used in Italy. Coupled with that assumption is the belief that ingredients from Italy are of the highest quality and will produce the best pizza. Certainly in many cases the food products of Italy are outstanding, but let’s take a closer look:

We have all used or heard about the celebrated “00” Flour of Campania.  It is usually very good and, for certain applications, it is the right choice for pizza; but don’t make the mistake of

 
The Best Pizza Neighborhood?
John Arena

Answering The Big Question

We are all very lucky that the quest for pizza excellence involves some really interesting and (usually) very tasty field research. In fact, although I grew up in a pizzeria I didn’t really start to understand my craft until I began traveling, observing and, most importantly, eating pizzas around the country and around the world. Those journeys, over more than 40 years of pizza obsession, have not only resulted in memorable food experiences,  they have also been the catalyst for some of my most valued relationships. including a treasured friendship with Jonathon Goldsmith of Chicago’s Spaccanapoli. So, as a fairly well traveled pizza lover, the question I am most often asked is, “Which city has the best pizza?” This is a question that can turn the most timid soul into a valiant defender of civic pride. It is also, in my opinion, the exact WRONG question for an aspiring pizza maker or a motivated pizza veteran to be asking. Let’s face it, taste is subjective and in the modern era just about every city can contain some hidden gems along with a collection of pretenders and old timers resting on their laurels. For me a visit to a place like Home Slice in Austin Texas, with all of its quirky charm, can be as exciting as a trip to one of the venerable pizzerias of Naples.

 

So, let’s put aside the question of “Best” which we know can never really be settled and focus on a more relevant question for those of us looking to make better pizzas. What is the best city to visit if you want to improve your pizza knowledge and experience and even your own skill? The answer to that question can not only provide an interesting destination, it will save you a fortune in international travel and put you on a path to inspired pizza making.

While the world is full of great pizza cities, there is one place that offers a glimpse of our art -- past, present and future. In fact, it is not even a city but a particular neighborhood. In one small enclave within just a 10 minute walk you can experience an evolutionary timeline of pizza making. That place is… Greenwich Village in New York City. OK, I can hear the groans going out from Boston to Phoenix, but remember I am not making a judgment about who has the best pizza. I am simply stating that Greenwich Village is the best place to visit for a one-stop pizza education. Sure Wooster St. in New Haven is the home to several great pizzerias, but they are all doing essentially the same thing. Chicago has, in recent years, developed some real pizza diversity but you would have to travel all over the city to visit them. For shear pizza concentration there is no single place on earth that compares to “the Village”.

Start out at Keste, where they are making traditional Neapolitan pizza that would bring tears to Queen Margherita’s eyes. Roberto Capporuccio’s skill will inspire you with some of the best renditions of the classics and some modern variations that are bringing new life to pizza making in Italy. Step across the street and you are at John’s, the landmark coal oven pizzeria that is a time capsule of the days before cheap slices and a million places named Ray’s became synonymous with New York style pizza. Places like John’s and Arturo’s, another coal-fired place a few blocks away on Houston St., will give you an idea of how pizza started to evolve when it got to America.

If you want to see how the very same thing happened as pizza traveled from Naples to Rome, simply step back across the street to Pizza Roma and experience the wide variety of creative pizza toppings that have taken the Eternal City by storm at places such as Pizzarium. Pizza Roma will verify that culinary self- expression is as common in Italy as it is here. Now walk a few blocks to Joe’s for a great rendition of the classic NY pizza slice. This is terrific example of the post World War Two street slice that is most often associated with New York style pizza. Enjoy their thin crust pizza and, while you are there, grab a slice of “Sicilian” pizza, the thick, square-pan pizza that most closely resembles “housewives” pizza in Italy. If you want to see the pie that inspired that style, walk a few blocks over to Ben’s on the corner of Thompson and Spring St. and order a slice of the “Palermo”. This is one of the true pizzas of Sicily, no mozzarella, just a thick sauce heavy with sweet onions (in the old country they also dissolve some anchovy in the sauce), rich with olive oil and topped with grated cheese and bread-crumbs. In Sicily they call this sfincione, a regional variation that could be considered the grand-mother of pan pizza. Still hungry? Catch a sample of modern international pizza at Slice on Hudson St. where Miki Agrawal is putting a new spin on pizza with healthy pies inspired by her Indian/Japanese heritage.
The whole trip will take one afternoon, give you new insights, fill you up, and save you a fortune in plane fare. More importantly, field trips like this will reinvigorate your personal pizza quest and inspire your own contributions to our craft.

*Pictures courtesy of Scott Wiener of Scott's Pizza Tours.

http://www.scottspizzatours.com/

 
Bread as Ferment for Social Change
Michael Hanson

Recently I was asked to talk about bread and baking to a group of Transition Town activists here in the UK. It got me thinking about the importance of bread in creating and shaping  society and community.  I had much to say, the difficulty was in what to leave out.  I came up with the title, “Bread as a Ferment for Social Change.”  I believe Jesus would have known exactly what it meant. Just as Jesus threw the money lenders out of the temple he would probably through modern bread out too. With “Occupy” demonstrations springing up all over the world in response to the crisis in global capitalism/materialism I feel that the simple act of companionship needs consideration.

For over seven thousand years bread has been the staff of life in Europe and the Near East, the staple food of our ancestors. The domestication of grain in the fertile crescent heralded the transformation from nomadic to semi –urban pastoralist society. When disparate groups came together to form small villages,  then large towns (the first of which is widely agreed to be Chatal Hayuk in Turkey), the new communities needed organizing. Farming was easy and agricultural laboring was the natural way to be. On the societal and ceremonial level the new urban rulers needed to create larger and larger communal forms of worship in order to keep control.
This is when I believe our ancestors expanded and developed the ancient forms of fertility/Goddess worship practiced throughout the ancient world. Instead of honoring and sacrificing to a pagan God/Goddess they came up with ceremony and ritual based on grain and bread.

So it is only a small leap -- five thousand years or so -- to Jesus’s brand of bread worship. In the West we have largely accepted the modern Christian idea of ceremonially honoring bread through partaking of the “blessed” sacramental host. In the Near East both Islam and Judaism also have deep respect for grain and bread. In my view grain built community, and bread ordered it. Hence bread has become deeply embreaded (sic) in our psyche and symbology.  Bread, dough, and crust are  “seen” as pecuniary compensation;  so in our current economic, political, and societal crisis it seems very apposite that bread is once again being taken seriously.  The Roman Empire declined when its wheat basket around the Medditerrean was lost, creating bread inflation and social unrest in Rome.  Let them eat bread.  Give us this day our daily bread.  As more citizens near “bread line,” the queue for free food grows longer. How long before the Christian church starts to hand out panis benedictus to the poor?

The good news is that people are beginning to wake up, to sense the change. They no longer want to buy  plastic wrapped industrialized pap that ne’r a human hand has touched; through self empowerment and action they are “baking it for themselves.” They want to eat a holier bread made in an honest way; some want to earn an honest crust through baking at home. We should welcome the rise of the home baker.  Eating good bread is a symbol of how you respect yourself and the earth; baking bread is a metaphor for  one's desire to change the way one lives, and in my opinion the simplest, surest, and safest place to start to make that change. The more that people wake up and bake the better. Symbolically  they are throwing off the chains of the Walmartopoly. I just hope that the Occupy Wall Street protestors are not having to make do with gifts of out of date supermarket factory pap, but are  getting the chance to eat real food and bread.
Bread is as good for community today as it’s always been. Companionship is literally the breaking and sharing and eating  of bread with your community. Now, more than ever before, we should be baking and sharing. Jesus may or may not have fed the five thousand with his bread, but the  seeds of ideas certainly did feed their bodies and minds.

Any campaign or movement that encourages people to eat or bake good bread should  be congratulated and supported. Here in the UK we have a burgeoning Real Bread Campaign. In America I understand you too are having a renaissance in real, or artisanal, bread.  Perhaps in two thousand years time  our descendants may even measure time as BAB (Before Artisan Bread) and AAB (After Artisan Bread). Now that would be a legacy.

Pizza Quest Members: Your comments are welcome.

 
Two Secret Ingredients of Great Pizza
John Arena

If you are reading this it is safe to say that you are a pizza fanatic. You have traveled to hundreds of pizzerias and possibly even picked through some trash barrels in search of the keys to the mythological “perfect pie”. You have spent hours debating the merits of different types of ovens, flour, cheese and tomatoes. Over time what becomes painfully clear is that there are no universal rules, standards or agreed upon recipes for what defines a great pizza.  Of course it is human nature to try to find order in the chaos, so there must be something that is common to all of the truly extraordinary pies, right? Well, it turns out that there is. Truly amazing, life changing, mind blowing pizzas, have two things in common, two ingredients that are available anywhere, but are only truly used and understood by a handful of pizza makers and pizza aficionados.

So, for the first time anywhere, the two top secret ingredients common to every great pizza are: Wabi and Sabi. Wait! Don’t rush out to the local Whole Foods to pick up these items. As they say in the infomercials, “Wabi and Sabi are not available in any store.”  That’s because they are not tangible ingredients, but they are, in my opinion, the crucial elements that can be found in any truly great artistic expression including the pizza you will find at places like Una Pizza Napoletana in San Francisco and Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn.

Wabi and Sabi are Japanese words that can be defined as “understated elegance and finding beauty in the impermanent”. This is the reason that we are drawn to the simple pizza bianca at Volpetti in Rome. It is also the reason why you can find 50 people waiting in line in front of Frank Pepe’s on Wooster St. in New Haven. The irregular blisters on the crust of a pizza at Spacca Napoli in Chicago, and the simple choice of organic toppings at Slice in New York -- that’s Wabi and Sabi. But of course there is more to it than that.

The real key to including Wabi and Sabi in your pizza recipe and in your life can be found in the completion of the definition: “Things that resonate with the spirit of the makers hand.”
Think about it, whether we are talking about the tomato pies of DeLorenzo’s in Trenton or the amazing creations of Al Santillo at Santillo’s in Elizabeth NJ, the one thing that every pizza we love has in common is that they are a pure expression of the person who made them. Sure the big chains have consistency and uniformity but none of them achieve greatness. Keep it simple. Let every ingredient shine. Most of all, allow your pizza to show your own hands. This generous sharing of self will allow people to connect to the gifts you offer them. When your pizza tells the world everything they need to know about you, you are on your way to being a legendary pizza maker.

 
A swing through Eataly
Brad English

New York City is a world unto itself.  It's a relatively small island filled with a lot of everything from everywhere.  You can find almost anything you can imagine in this city.  What I find most interesting is that you can be here by yourself and not be lonely.  And, on the opposite side of the coin, you can be surrounded by literally thousands of people and be left alone.    

I have often imagined that when we start our official Pizza Quest tour here in NY we may never finish.  It would be like a black hole, or a Twilight Zone episode where Peter takes us into the city to one pizzeria after the other and we wake up one day to realize we're now stuck in a perpetual pizza quest - tasting our way through the city and surrounding boroughs.  If we ever got to the end of our journey there, we would probably have to start it all over. I have heard that the Golden Gate Bridge is never finished being painted.  It's so large, that when the crews make their way across the bridge painting it, and finally reach the other side and "finish" - they have to start the process over again at the beginning. 

There's even another, perhaps more sinister obstacle we would face on our trip through New York.  We may never get to that imaginary "End" of our search for that perfect pizza in the first place.  We will surely face this manipulative demon day in and day out.  We will run smack into a never ending supply of quest-worthy "detours" that would inevitably become quests on their own.  Trust me!  We went to Cayucos, CA and couldn't get out of there without numerous side trips, taco quests, cookie connections and that town only has about 137 people!

One day, we'll get to NYC with our quest crew.  I'll just have to inform my family and prepare them to move there with me.

So, what's the big deal here Brad?  Why all this talk of the BIG APPLE?  Are you beginning a quest there?  No, not yet.  But Eataly caused me to realize just how all consuming and compelling New York City can be.

EATALY.

Mario Batali, Lidia Bastianich and her son Joe have put together a concept that may only be possible in this city.  I finally had a chance to drop in and wander around this new venture of theirs.  It's hard to believe.  It's decadent, but yet it's about simple things - quality ingredients, good food, and a celebration of gathering and eating.  When I visited it in the summer of 2011, and our economy was not looking it's shiny best.  In a way, it struck me as hard to balance reality and this over the top expression of a gourmet food market.  But this is NYC.  You have to realize just how many people are here.  That justifies a different reality that allows Eataly to exist.  Where you may be lucky enough to find a great butcher, fish monger, a fine cheese shop, or bakery in cities and towns everywhere, it's something special when they happen to all be in the same location.  This happens organically on occasion, as one good restaurant becomes successful, it draws another, and another and you begin to have a great neighborhood, village, farmers market, or gathering place.  We really do gather around food either in our cities and towns, or at our dinner tables or breakfast nooks. 

Eataly is that neighborhood where all these unique, quality artisan vendors come to sell their goods.  It is like what Anthony Strong, of Pizzeria Delfina, so proudly proclaimed in one of our early webisodes about his Castro neighborhood in San Francisco.  It had become known as "The Gastro" because of the gathering of so many dedicated food purveyors, restaurants, bakeries who had settled in and it become a place to go to eat, graze, shop, or just get together.  In a city like NYC there are certainly many great neighborhoods with all of these elements, but at Eataly, they have taken the concept and brought it into one place, under one roof.  The space feels like a remodeled old rail station, or warehouse.  It's clean, bright, and has high enough ceilings to make it feel open, but not too cavernous. I could even say I found it cozy at the same time.  The city is like that as well.  It's gigantic, but you find coziness in the smaller parts, the nooks and crannies - the neighborhoods.  Eataly's design also lends to a sense of discovery as you wander through the space, turning corners, and uncovering what else there is to find.  

I have one lament though.  As a visitor swinging through NY, you can't take advantage of a big part of the experience, which is access to so many amazing - quality ingredients to take home and cook with!  But, you can browse, sit, eat, taste, sample and drink within this great public gathering space.  I don't think you can even appreciate what Eataly is until you've had the chance to experience it all, eating in but also taking the food/ingredients to go.  It is a great place to visit, but perhaps a greater lifestyle type of place.  I read one review saying how someone was frustrated eating in what was essentially a public market.  This was exactly the aspect that I loved so much about it.  I was there alone, but I felt part of the shared experience. 

We all know it's one of life's gifts to sit in a quiet little restaurant with a candle on the table and enjoy the ambiance along with some great food.  There's definitely a time for that.  And, there's a time for Eataly -- a time to celebrate a gathering of ingredients, foods, artisans, and friends in a very open and sharing way.  You can't help but be excited in here.  I would love to rent an apartment in the city sometime just to be able to swing by here to pick up some of these amazing ingredients to take home and make a meal with.  In all likelihood, that may well result in a taste or two of some fine wine or other small plates along the way.

So, what did I eat in there?  Well, this is Pizza Quest, right?  So, I had to try the pizza, of course!  I really wanted to have some fish, but, well you know with the Pizza Quest thing, I didn't feel there was much of a choice.  I could have played off the whole fish taco thing, but I figured the best place for my Eataly journey to end that day would be the pizzeria "La Pizza".  But, as you can see from the photos of the fish store, that's a place I'll definitely be back to explore when I can do it justice.

I had the Messesse Pizza.  It had a nice fresh tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, spicy salumi, and a little fresh basil to top it off.  Their pizza, as they advise you, is made very thin and is meant to be eaten with a fork from the middle outward to the crust - a traditional Napoletana style pizza. The pizza was balanced, bright and delicious.  The crust was very thin in the middle and had a nice chew to it out near the cornicione.  I was very happy!  I will be back. 

I live in California.  I realize that my Eataly Quest may take some time to complete.  And, I realize that it may be much like my dream of our Pizza Quest in NYC - a never ending journey - which is great because that is what life is all about and I think it's exactly what Mario and the gang were striving for.

 
Sssshhhhhhh....It's a Secret
John Arena

Lately I’ve been thinking about New Orleans. The Crescent City has a huge Sicilian heritage yet it has never been known as a great pizza city. We will explore why at a later date because right now let’s think about something New Orleans is famous for and how it relates to pizza -- music.

Back in the early 1900’s there was a legendary jazz musician named Freddie Keppard. People who heard Freddie play claimed he was the best cornetist in history, yet today most people have never heard of him, and here’s why: Freddie Keppard was always afraid that some young musician would steal his secrets. He became so paranoid that he would play with his hands covered by a handkerchief so rivals wouldn’t see what he was doing. He went so far as to refuse to record his music fearing that it would reveal too much to his competitors. The result is that Freddie Keppard is now just a footnote in musical history, his talents reduced to nothing more than legend and speculation. On the other hand just about everyone knows of Louis Armstrong, another New Orleans jazz great who generously shared his talent with the world, mentoring scores of musicians, sharing his gifts and becoming one of the most beloved figures in musical history.

We have all heard tales of legendary pizza makers who seem to have some mystical ability. In the history of pizza there have been a small number of pizza alchemists who are able to take the most basic ingredients and turn them into something greater than the sum of its par -- a perfect pizza. Like all mythology, the implication is that these people possess some secret technique or ingredient, or perhaps a piece of equipment, some holy grail of knowledge shared by only a select few. The veil of secrecy goes back to pre-Roman days, when guilds and societies were formed to insure job security. In ancient Roman times bread baking was considered so crucial that if you were born in to a baking family you were required by law to continue that trade. My Dad once told me that 80 year old Italian bakers in New York in the 1930’s would jealously guard their recipe books from their co-workers fearing that some youngster would steal a secret and force them into retirement. I remember pizzaiolo’s removing the temperature knobs from ovens to hide their chosen baking temperature from “pizza spies”. To this day I know pizza makers who carefully shred the labels from tomato cans before discarding them. The folly of this is that most of these folks are baking at the same temperature, using the same tomatoes, and generally following the same procedures. At the very least they have more in common than they can imagine and they would realize that if they ever bothered to speak with one another.

Besides the fact that all of this secrecy has created a culture of distrust among professional pizza makers there is another problem. Every once in a while someone does come up with a true insight or improvement. My feeling is that if we don’t generously share knowledge something very important could be lost. Look at it this way: who has brought more lasting joy to the world, Freddie Keppard or Louis Armstrong?

 

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