Guest Bloggers
Keste - Mini Quest Part 3
Brad English

Dave Wilson and I set out about 7-8 hours earlier on a mini pizza quest, where we started at Di Fara Pizza and were now just leaving Roberta's -- both in Brooklyn, NY.  You can read about these stops in Part I and Part II of this series.  Links:  Part I, Part II

 

As we staggered out of Roberta's for the second time that night, after running into the god of pizza fanatics - New York's own Scott Weiner -- we walked in silence.  And we walked in the dark.  But the area, which had at first seemed formidable and perhaps even dangerous, now seemed like a friendlier place -- a cool, artsy neighborhood.  We both wore smiles, but our eyes must have been a bit more realistic, perhaps betraying our satisfaction as we began to really consider if we could continue on with this madness of a mini-quest that had become a big "P and Q" Pizza Quest.

 

We dropped down into the subway to head back to Manhattan.

 

I broke the silence.  "Keste?"  Were we going to make it in time? Dave struggled, but I knew his answer.  His slight hesitation and doubt suddenly brought me back to life.  I realized again what we had set out to do, what we must do, what we were going to do.  Dave had never been to Keste.  He knew what his answer was though he made a veiled attempt at pretending we could cut this quest short.  Scott had reinforced us with his recommendations and stories of Roberto's pizzas at Keste.  I had told Dave numerous times about his crust that was unparalleled.

 

"Keste!" Dave agreed.  We didn't have to eat a lot.  Right?  Of course not.  We were not hungry, we were on a mission.

 

Wherever we got off the subway we ended up having to walk quite a bit to get over to Bleecker Street where Keste sits.  I think that probably saved us, or at least emptied our guts a wee bit.  It was a beautiful night out in New York City and even though we had been eating epic pizza all day, we were headed to yet more epic pizza.  What else were we to do, go sulk in our hotel rooms?  I don't think so.  The walk was good.  It helped the mind, the eyes and, for sure, the stomach all get themselves back in line to finish this task, this journey.

 

It was pretty late by the time we got to Keste.  To my surprise there were a few tables still available.  We sat down and saw Roberto Coporuscio, who recognized me from visiting a few times before, as well as when I stopped by his new place, Don Antonio by Starita.  We chatted a bit and I got back to telling Dave about Roberto's crust.  I remember the first time I had it.  I was staying at a hotel and brought back a couple of slices and when I walked in the room, I couldn't stop myself from opening the box of leftovers and pulling another slice to see if what I was remembering was true.  It was.  The crust is as good as, and probably better than any I've had. It's soft with a slight crispness and is almost as good an hour later, out of the box at room temperature.

 

Prosciutto and Arugula

This is always one of my favorite pizzas.  The balance of a great prosciutto like this, with hints of salty soft ham-iness, along with the cool, peppery bright arugula is hard to beat.  I've devoured this pie here before.  Tonight we picked away.  It was really good, but by this point we were tasting the pizza more than eating it!  There was just no room in our pizza processing facilities left!  It felt like we were committing a crime leaving so much pizza untouched, but this was for the cause and we were on a mission.  The mission was slowly coming to an end and our bodies were waking us up to the reality of survival now!

 

Pizza Del Pappa

Oh, then the second pizza arrived. Scott Weiner had insisted we order the Pizza Del Papa.  Another sip of a beer, and the show went on!  Our eyes and mouths and slouching postures were all lining up now!  The pizza was, of course, delicious and brought us back to life.  The smoked buffalo mozzarella was a nice touch under the soft red and yellow peppers, zucchini, and it balanced well with the butternut squash cream!  I love playing with the concept of sauces. Nothing beats tomato sauce, actually, but then again when something works it works.

We left more pizza on the plate than one would ever consider if they had come for dinner.  Dave said it was as good, or better than Scott and I had described.  It was well worth the journey, and we left satisfied, on many levels, because of the extra effort that elevated the whole night into mythic epicness!

On this mini-pizza quest I discovered that three small pizzerias in New York and Brooklyn could take me on a journey through time and space in a way I never thought possible.  At Di Fara's it felt like everything was frozen in a time long gone by.  The experience was like stepping back into the exact same space but in a different era, the sixties.  At Roberta's time was affected, but in a different way.  Roberta's was like stepping over into a time and space warp where we experienced being in Brooklyn, Portland and the TV show Portlandia all at the same time.  At Keste there was a whole different experience.  Keste is perhaps timeless.  It is both old and new.  You can taste history and the future at the same time.

Interesting…

Life is good when you can come up with a crazy plan for the day and just let go and let it happen. As our small "p" pizza quest came to an end, I realized what our big picture Pizza Quest was all about again.  It's about the chase.  It's about exploring and being open to finding what life will bring you, celebrating the passions of others and enjoying their gifts and sharing yours.  It's about finding that ever elusive something called quality.  Our search here on Pizza Quest for the perfect pizza is really just an excuse to discover something new about ourselves and our friends, but also about discovering all the possibilities that life has to offer.

Postscript: Keste translated means "This is it!"  Well, this is surely it for this pizza quest journey...unless you want to know about how well I slept that night.

Like a baby with a pacifier!!!

 

 

 
Are You Ready to Turn Pro? Part 5
John Arena

Note from Peter: If you'd like to read all five of John's columns on this subject you can go to the Guest Columns section instead of scrolling down the home page. There, you will find them all in one place. Either way, please do read them; it could make all the difference between success and failure. And even if you're not thinking of opening a place, this is great, universal wisdom, applicable in any venture.

Well, so far we have explored some of the demands of opening a pizzeria so now it is time to ask yourself something that could change your life.  Here is the easy part. What type of pizzeria do you want to open? Everyone has a vision of their ideal place, so I bet the answer popped into your mind immediately.  Now it gets tough. Here is the big question: Why? Why do you want to build that particular type of pizzeria?

You see, in the modern era, something very interesting has happened, something that has never occurred in the world of pizza before: choice. In the not too distant “old days” virtually every factor that shaped one’s pizzeria was predetermined by their environment. Equipment? The Neapolitans made wood oven pizza because they had 2,000 years of experience building those ovens. Service style?  Pizza by the slice developed in New York because of fast paced foot traffic. Ingredients?  Sausage was the pizza topping of choice in Chicago because they processed a lot of pork in the Windy City. In modern times many of those limitations have been lifted.  You can now make a conscious choice about what you want to serve, how it will be prepared and how you will serve it. That’s good, right? Not exactly, because with freedom comes the responsibility of due diligence.

Here is an example: A few months ago I was contacted by a restaurant group that needed a consultant to develop a deep dish pizza concept. I turned them down and here is why: Their location was in an office park that would require multiple table turns with 80% of sales at lunch time. Deep dish pizza has a long bake time and people tend to eat lighter at lunch. On top of that, they were in a city that is usually hot and humid, which is not the perfect place to eat a cheese and meat laden pie. Why did they choose deep dish for their concept? Because the CEO had visited Chicago and loved that pizza and they reasoned, “We will have the only deep dish pizza in the area.”

Sound familiar? Each of us has had similar thoughts when we find a special place on our personal pizza quest. “Wow! This is amazing. I can bring this pizza to my home town and make a fortune.”  The honest truth is, maybe you can and maybe you can’t. You see, there may be some good reasons why a certain type of pizza isn’t available in your area. Sure, a high traffic urban location with a food savvy population can support many different pizza styles. Tony Gemignani has proven that this is true with his fantastic multi-style pizzeria in San Francisco. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that because you like something it will be successful. It is all about the right fit. If it is in your heart to make a certain type of pizza it is absolutely crucial that you are brutally honest when you evaluate your proposed trading area.

So it all comes down to choice. To be successful you must either choose a certain pizza style because you honestly feel it is right for the location, or, you must choose a location that is right for your style. Sure, passion is important. Having a unique high quality product is important. But those factors alone are not enough to guarantee success. Remember, as you transition from accomplished amateur to pizza professional you must continually evaluate not only what you want to make but also what your guests want to buy. That is the major difference between cooking for your friends and family and staying in business.

In the next segment we will take a look at the things you must consider when shaping your pizza concept.

 
The Baking Steel
Andris Lagsdin

Note from Peter:  We've been writing about this new Baking Steel for a couple of months, so I asked its creator, Andris Lagsdin, to tell us more about it in his own words. I love his inspirational story, one that exemplifies what Pizza Quest is all about, and am thrilled to be able to share it with you now. Enjoy!

Although for my day job, I work for a family-owned manufacturing company, Stoughton Steel, outside the office I'm pretty passionate about food -- pizza in particular.  I've been making pizza's since I started with Todd English at Figs in the early 90's.  It's been a pretty casual obsession of mine over the years, making pies mostly for my family and hosting pizza parties for my friends.  I used to make my pizza's on the back of a metal sheet tray, then switched to a stone for what I thought would help make a better crust.  I brought the steel into the picture just this past year, after reading excerpts of Modernist Cuisine in a Wall Street Journal article.  Steel and pizza -- are you kidding me?  Of course I was intrigued by the idea.  Having more than 15 years experience working in the steel industry and also a strong culinary background, I had been looking for a way to marry the two for quite a long while. And so my journey began.  

The WSJ article stated that the best way to replicate brick oven pizza at home was with a steel plate, so I decided to give it a go.  I found an extra piece of steel in my shop and cleaned it up to take home.  I have to admit that the first steel was a bit of a monstrosity and my wife looked at me like I had two heads when I told her what I planned to do with it.  She insisted she wouldn't subject herself or our two kids to anything I made off of that "hunk of steel."  Well I went for it anyway, made a batch of dough and baked up the pies.  We all marveled at the browning of the crust.  There were no leftovers that night. I knew then that I was on to something.  

After a couple of months of fine-tuning, we decided we were ready to see how other people felt about baking pizza on steel.  Being that our customer base was the construction industry, we needed a

 
On Pizza and Beer
Brad English

Note from Brad:

I was reading Part 4 of John Arena's "Are You Ready to Turn Pro" series on our site and noticed an interesting comment from one of our readers, Kevin Szot.  Well, truth be told, it was interesting in that the commenter owned a micro-brewery in Chile and loves to make pizza!  I checked out his site and realized that he didn't just love making pizza, but had really thought things through, even dedicating a section of his website to gourmet pairings featuring pizza. So, intrigued, I wrote to him.  After trading a few emails with Kevin, he sent us some additional thoughts on pizza and beer, which we are sharing with you below.

Peter and I think this is an interesting piece about two of our favorite subjects, especially in light of the great beer and cheese info contained in the recent Basta webisode we posted.  I am hoping to drag Kevin into another kind of beer and pizza collaboration, where the two of us do some recipe pairings over the internet in the coming months -- maybe even featuring his beers.  Stay tuned and, in the meantime, enjoy this very informative Guest Column.  Thank you Kevin! (Note, Kevin's website and e-address for Szot Microbrewery Chile are:

- www.szot.cl  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

 

Introduction

Although we’re in the beer business (we own a microbrewery located near Santiago, Chile), we are also “homebrew” pizza fanatics.  My wife is a bread and cookie baker, so we have a bakery quality oven at home, plus we had an outside “barrel oven” (http://www.szot.cl/hornobarro.html) which we just destroyed to make way for a refractory brick pizza oven (work-in-progress).  Our home kitchen has even been approved by the local health authorities for commercial baking.  There is a bit of overlap between our beer and pizza since, in most of our doughs, we use beer where the recipe would normally call for water.  We also use a small percentage of freshly ground malted barley grains (either pilsen malt or crystal/caramel) in our dough.  We have tried the use of spent grains (leftovers from the beer making process) like some have recommend in the beer press, but these have already had most of their complex sugars, enzymes and flavor removed by the brewing “mash” process. We find it’s much better to use a small quantity of new ground fresh malt and just send the spent grains off to the cows. It’s easy to grind the dry barley malt in a home coffee grinder.  Barley adds a nice touch, plus has enzymes which probably have some effect on breaking down the starches in the wheat during the rise, but you have to be careful – too much barley makes the dough too sticky.  We tend to make our dough on the morning of “pizza night” or even the night before, to allow a nice rise or two.  In Chile we do not have the selection of flours that you have in the States, so we tend to use 50% common white bakers flour and 50% fresh ground whole wheat (no specifications).  We have no qualms about throwing in small quantities of other grains or seeds (sunflower, etc.)

We are inspired by Italian pizza styles, but do not try to replicate them.  We do have locally made cow, goat and sheep cheeses.  There are no local blue-cheeses in Chile, though imported cheeses are easily available in supermarkets where the “gourmet” selection is actually quite good. Chile has a tradition of accompanying food with sauces, one of which is “pebre”.  Similar in concept to Mexican “pico de gallo” this can be made with big chunks of tomato, onion, cilantro, garlic, oil and vinegar (like a salad), or chopped up more finely, or even made almost liquid (like a sauce).  Nice topping, especially cold on top of a hot pizza right-out-of the oven. We start with simple “Margherita” type pizzas, then move up to more flavorful toppings as the night progresses.  “Empanadas” are big in Chile, the local way of making a beef and onion filling for them also makes a nice Chilean-style topping. We invite friends to bring their own special toppings (we give hints, like octopus, wild boar, imported cheeses etc.) and ask them to make their own pizzas (we do the dough and oven work).  That said, our favorite family pizza has a Thai inspired topping made of chicken sauteed with onion, then mixed with a peanut butter sauce cut with olive oil, and ample fresh-cut ginger, a bit of either mozzarella or blue

 
Roberta's - Mini Quest Part 2
Brad English

Note: For a recap, scroll down the homepage past the halfway point, to read about Dave's and my visit to Di Faro's, which is Part One of our NYC Mini-Quest:

Dave and I had to force ourselves to stop eating pizza at Di Fara's.  This was no easy task.  You're sitting there in front of what is a "perfect" pizza in a "perfect" place and you have to stop eating so that you can eat more somewhere else.  We had a plan though, so we put the brakes on in order to make this a quest and not just lunch.

We left Brooklyn to get to Brooklyn.  As I mentioned, there was just no getting a cab from Di Fara. We walked around looking for about 20-30 minutes.  So, we jumped back on the train and headed back to Manhattan to grab a train to come back out to Brooklyn to hit Roberta's for our second stop on our mini pizza quest.  Perhaps there should be a Pizza Quest train line put in that better connects some of New York's best pizzerias?  Am I the first to come up with this?  There is one pizza maniac that comes to mind who has made a living making these connections, but more on that later.

It really is too bad we didn't have Peter, Jeff and the rest of the crew with us.  We were having a ball.  Di Fara's left us completely satisfied -- and, in reality, a little too satisfied.  We had started out with a plan to taste the pizza at Di Fara, but as it ended up, it became more of us eating the pizza.  I'm sure you can imagine.  When we left we couldn't just leave the rest of it there or, God forbid, throw it away!  So, with our foil-wrapped leftovers we moved on.

 

Another train ride, a change of lines in Manhattan and we were headed back to Brooklyn.  We popped up from under the streets not far from Roberta's and into what seemed like a set from the film The Warriors at first. Robertas is in an old warehouse district neighborhood called Bushwick,  that had seen better days, but is coming back with a young artist scene moving in and transforming this into a trendy neighborhood. I was telling Dave what Peter told me before we came to NYC.  He said Roberta's was like walking into the TV show Portlandia.  He didn't say it was like visiting Portland.  His point was far more metaphorical. There was a coming transformation from the "real" world to the two dimensional surreal world of Portlandia.  If you haven't seen it, you should.  My favorite episode is when the main character discovers Portland and describes it to a friend in LA as if it's a place you must enter through a portal in time!  Our first steps onto the street and I was starting to see what he meant.  When we turned the corner and almost walked right by Roberta's it again made more sense.

Here we were.  There's a sign that says Roberta's right there.  The exterior of the building looks more like a set from Gotham City with graffiti all over it and a sign that almost seems like they are hiding it.  It was time to go in, but we still had our leftover pizza from Di Fara's that we had hoped to give to someone along the way, but never ran into anyone who seemed interested.  We couldn't bring our Di Fara's into Roberta's!  So, we left it on a mailbox, hoping someone would pick it up.  We found out later that night that someone did indeed pick it up and our offering did not go to waste, but I'm getting a little ahead of myself here.

Having spent plenty of time in Portland, we had another laugh about Peter's description as we took our seat at one of the picnic tables inside.  (We love Portland, by the way.  We have some serious questing to do up there eventually.)  We all want a great place to sit and have a beer a great pizza and maybe, more importantly, just hang out with friends.  Roberta's is that place.  They are getting rave reviews about their pizza and food, but I think a major aspect of this place's success (being fairly off the beaten path), is it's qualities as a place where you can come and spend some time.  It doesn't feel like home -- it feels like Portlandia -- but it has a certain comfort factor as if you've come into this special place and found a hidden secret.  It feels local and full of regulars.  It was Saturday afternoon and it was busy and continued to get more busy.

Our first order of business after all this travel was to order a couple of beers.  When you're in Portland, I mean Brooklyn, do as they do.  We then ordered a couple of pies to "try" -- you know, we were there to do some tasting now in the second part of our three part mini pizza quest.  We chose the "Bee Sting" with Tomato, Mozz, Sopressata, chili, basil, honey, and another with Tomato, Mozz, Speck, and a sunny side up egg.  I think that was a special.

Delicious!  The dough is terrific and their ingredients balanced.  I loved the touch of honey on our Bee Sting and if there's an egg on a pizza on the menu, I'm going to order it.  It was "done to a turn!"  Two more beers.  Too much pizza now.  Did we have a third Beer?  I don't think so.  We were drunk -- pizza drunk!  We thought we may have gone too far and ended our quest a little early.  How could we make it back to Manhattan and get to Keste and order more pizza after all of this?!

It was time to go.  We managed to leave some pizza on the platters.  As we were walking out the door, I was looking back over my shoulder to grab a last look at the place.  We were, after all, about to leave Portlandia and step through the front door and back to our three dimensional selves.  I hadn't left yet and didn't want to leave the memories behind.  As I turned I heard a voice I recognized.  We passed each other but my back was turned.  I had only met this voice a few weeks ago, but it had to be him.

"Scott?"

It was!  The Scott Wiener of New York's -- Scott's Pizza Tours (www.scottspizzatours.com) had just walked in as we were walking out.  He's the pizza maniac I mentioned above.  I met Scott in Las Vegas at the Pizza Expo and had traded emails here and there.  If I'm a pizza nut, he is the tree.  He's off the charts pizza crazy.  Well, I turned Dave around and we went back to Portlandia to have another beer with Scott and his friends.  I think we may have had two.  Dave was ready to go get his camera and come back and start filming as Scott regaled us with Pizza lore. I think our favorite part was how he wrestled with having a slice of our left overs.  You see, he has a pizza slice log on his phone to track how many slices he eats in a week.  He gives pizza tours daily (Scott's Pizza Tours) after all, and without that log he would not be able to walk!  He took the slice anyway even though he was already over his weekly slice limit! Not only that, where is he hanging out in his free time?  Roberta's -- love it!!

 

 

This should have ended here.  We enjoyed another beer and some good conversation with Scott and his friends in the outside bar of Roberta's.  This should be part 2 and 3 of our mini pizza quest.  We started hours ago and had been eating great pizza and now had a few drinks in us.

 

 

 

 

 

It wasn't.  We said our good byes and walked a little slower out the door this time heading back to the city to visit Keste Pizzeria on Bleecker Street.  Dave hadn't been and this looked like our only chance.  As we left we saw that our offering of Di Fara slices still sat on the mail box.  We smiled and walked down the street thinking back on the two pizza stops we made in the last few hours.  We felt like time had stopped in Di Fara's Pizza World and we transcended space and time visiting Roberta's world.

This had been quite a day already.

But, it wasn't over.  In fact, it wouldn't really be over for some time, not until after we got back from our next stop - Keste Pizzeria.  I was just getting to my hotel room and I got a text.  It turns out that our offering had finally found it's proper home! See final photo, below -- ahh, Portlandia....

 

 

 

 
Are You Ready to Turn Pro, Part 4
John Arena

Note from Peter: We've had great response to this series by John Arena, which has been a true reality check for all of us. For those who haven't seen the previous three installments, or who may want to review them, they are all still here on the homepage (scroll down a bit), and also in the Guest Columns section. Thank you so much, John, for sharing your lifetime worth of experience!


Before we move on to the fun stuff, let’s take a look at just a bit more pizza math. Remember that in our hypothetical pizzeria we determined that we needed to make $2100 per day to succeed.  That doesn’t sound hard does it? Well, here’s the tricky part. The bulk of your sales are going to be concentrated in a 3-4 hour span. You will take in 75% of your money between 11:30 AM and 1 PM and from 6 PM to 8:30PM. That works out to about $400 per hour. Let’s say that you are making artisanal pizzas that sell for $13 each on average. You will have to make 30 pizzas every hour during peak times to get to $400 per hour. That means a pizza will have to go in to and come out of the oven every 2 minutes for 4 solid hours. This is why I stress the need for speed.
I know we have all heard the stories about old school pizza makers who were famous for making their customers wait, limited the numbers of pies they made each day, and would throw anyone who complained into the street.

Sorry folks, those days are over and here’s why: Many of the legendary pizza makers used old math to run their businesses. Now, I’m not suggesting that anyone does these things today, but here’s the way it used to work. First off most of the immigrants from Southern Italy came here to escape feudal conditions at home. Let’s just say that they had a healthy distrust of the government. They ran cash only businesses. Many of these places employed only family members or friends from the old country. This meant they paid little or no taxes and had no insurance costs. They paid their vendors out of pocket and kept two sets of books, or none at all. Their restaurants were built with no permits or plans, and most of their equipment was scavenged from the neighborhood or brought from their home kitchens.

You may be thinking, “How much difference could that possibly make?” Well, here is a small example: If sales tax in your area is 8% and you take in $500,000 but only declare $250,000 you are holding back $20,000 tax-free that goes right to your pocket. Many if not most, old time pizzerias worked that way, enabling owners to keep their prices down and still make a healthy profit: DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT!!!

Let’s say you have your kids working for you “under the table.”  You pay no payroll taxes, workman's comp, overtime, or social security. You didn’t pay an architect and engineer to design your pizzeria. You are using non-commercial grade equipment that is cheaper to purchase. All of this sub-rosa activity is going to save you some money and enable you to sell your products for less than the legitimate operators, but, you won’t be able to sleep at night and you will get caught.
First off, in the modern era, 70% of your sales will be debit or credit cards that leave an electronic trail a mile wide. Your guests don’t carry cash anymore so you will lose them if you don’t accept cards. Second, your suppliers use easily audited invoices, the government can track your purchases and they know how that translates into sales. Third, Uncle Sam doesn’t trust restaurants; you will get audited at some point and it is simple to place an auditor in your restaurant to track sales for a day. They will then multiply that by the number of days you are open and assume that is your annual sales. Guess what? They will pick the busiest day of the week and calculate your back taxes based on that number. If you can’t pay, they will lock your doors, auction off your equipment, and you will owe them the balance. You will lose everything and could even go to jail.

There are many other ways that old time operators made the math work for them, not the least of which is that they overcame obstacles with an unbelievable work ethic. They often sacrificed to buy the buildings they were located in and their descendants are benefiting from to this day. In addition these landmark places paid off their investment decades ago so their financial picture is quite different from what yours will be. They rarely upgrade their facilities and invest little more than what it takes to keep the equipment running each year.

Of course there are still some artisans who seem to be uncompromising and are held up as role models of what we would like our lives as pizza entrepreneurs to be. So, let me make this clear: YOU ARE NOT DOM DEMARCO! The truth is even Dom DeMarco wasn’t Dom DeMarco for the first 40 years that he was in business. Until Dom was discovered by some powerhouse food journalists, DiFara’s was a simple neighborhood pizzeria and Dom was no more famous or highly regarded than any number of hard working Brooklyn pizza guys who labored in anonymity banging out great pies all day long. After decades of back breaking work Dom has finally reached a point where his talent is recognized. The plain truth is that, unlike DiFara’s, you will not be able to charge $5 for a slice of cheese pizza and that makes all of the difference in the world. At that price an 18-inch cheese pie is bringing in $40! With a food cost that is probably around 12% and, doing much of the work himself, Dom and a few others like him are not subject to the same economic realities that you will face as a start up operator.

Now that we have some of the basic mathematical realities out of the way we can begin to explore the development of your pizzeria. But that will be in the next installment.

 

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