Guest Bloggers
The Pizza Guy
Brad English

The Pizza Guy, or is he the "Other Pizza Guy? Let me explain.

I found myself driving through the desert thinking a lot about pizza.  Having thoughts of pizza dance around my head wasn't out of the ordinary, but you don't often connect pizza with the desert.  I was cruising east at about 5 miles per hour over the speed limit to avoid being taken down by one of the open highways finest on my way from LA toward the big Pizza Expo that is held in Las Vegas once a year.  I was going to finally meet John Arena, who often writes on our site.  What had me so excited was that he had expressed to Peter that he wanted to make some pizza with me.  So, as I drove my mind wandered through the possibilities of this new experience. 

John is more than a pizza chain owner.  He is a pizza encyclopedia who walks the walk and talks the talk.  He is a pizza guy from Brooklyn who struck out to find his slice of the American Dream when the opportunity to buy a small pizzeria in Las Vegas came up.  I love his story!  He and his cousin sold everything they had to come up with the down payment for the business and, through a moving service, shuttled a car out to Los Angeles for someone.  On their way, they dropped off their possessions in Vegas. After delivering the car to LA the next day, they returned to Vegas on a Greyhound bus.  A few weeks later, when they opened their pizzeria, the two of them had less than $100 between them. 

Here's my favorite part: As their business grew he and his cousin started noticing folks saying "Hey, there's The Pizza Guy, and the Other Pizza Guy."  I can't remember if John is THE Pizza Guy, or the OTHER Pizza Guy, but he is definitely our Pizza Guy!

Today he is opening his sixth Metro Pizza in Las Vegas.  Talk about a Pizza Quest!  You can see why I was excited to meet John, eat his pizza, and be shown the ropes of his hometown event - The Pizza Expo.

True to form, John was my ambassador and tour guide for the Expo.  We walked the floor, meeting people I knew from a year of operating this site but had never met in person, and ran into a number of friendly faces.  I was there to spread the word and look for potential sponsorship interest in our site as well as just connecting with the industry of pizza. The convention hall was filled with ingredient companies (Flour, Cheese, Tomato, Meats, Toppings), oven manufacturers, pizza box makers,  and all the little things that you need to operate a pizzeria, or restaurant.  It was also filled with hot ovens pushing out tons of delicious pizzas, calzones, panini and all sorts of other "samples".

After my first day, where I met a host of characters, including Scott Wiener of Scott's Pizza Tours in NYC, John invited us out to one of his Metro Pizzerias for dinner.  I was full from testing and tasting pizza all day, but I was really excited to get out to one of John's pizzerias and see what he does.  It looked like we wouldn't have time to make pizzas together on this  trip, but I was happy to go and just take in the atmosphere. 

John started cranking and the food just kept coming.  First came the fried garlic knots.  Then came these delicious meatball sliders made on the same garlic knots, but not fried.  Stop the presses!  I loved these!!  I would be in trouble if this were my local pizzeria.  Next came a giant, massive, Sicilian Pizza.  It was done perfectly.  The crust was thick and light.  It was moist and crispy and juicy.  I had stepped behind the counter to talk to John and snap some photos.  I didn't think about it then, but he was in performance mode.  He was delivering his pizzas to some pretty insane pizza lovers at the table where about ten of us sat awaiting the next course.  He checked the crust on this Sicilian over and over, pulling it out, looking at the bottom and sliding it back in.  He wanted to get the timing just right, and he did.

Earlier in the day, as we walked the floor of the Expo, we ran across a few booths doing fried pizza crusts, and fried paninis.  John talked to me about how this was the new craze.  I had just had my first fried dough in NYC at the new Don Antonio by Starita and thought it was definitely interesting.  John explained that back "in the day," Italian immigrants would set up on the street and make deep fried calzones.  They had a sidewalk business that consisted of a pot of oil and a burner and would serve up amazing calzones right off the street.  So, this led to John's next treat, which I don't think was on the menu.  He made us up some traditional deep fried street calzones.  Watching this Pizza Guy make his food is like watching a master artist mixing his paints to create the exact colors he sees in his mind.  John was set up on a prep table in the middle of the restaurant, but I could see he was not only here in this space, but also somewhere back in time, connecting to his ancestors.  He comes from a long line of family members that worked in and around the pizza business.  You can see that his heart is connected to his past, their shared experience, and also the present, where he is truly fulfilled sharing his soul through his pizzeria.


The deep fried calzones were amazing.


Out came another pizza.  It's called the Seafood Fra Diavalo.  Did I start the presses again?  If so, stop them again.  You will be seeing this baby being recreated by yours truly on these pages soon enough.  It was really good and it was also interesting.  Then, out came a tomato pie with roasted red and green peppers, tomato sauce, olive oil and oregano.

Let's just restart the presses tomorrow. 

My favorite moments of the night were still about to happen.  John finally finished making and delivering platters of pizzas and appetizers and came out and sat down.  We were all talking and laughing and he looks at me and says, "What's this?!" while pointing to my plate, which was now full of left over pieces of everything I had been eating.  I looked down over my bloated belly and smiled, thinking how good everything was and how full I was.  He then said, "Great!  Brad English doesn't like my pizza!"  I laughed and realized he was kidding, but then I started to explain that I was stuffing every bite I could into my mouth but, after a day of eating pizza and now a night of it, I had finally reached my limit.  I assured him that Brad English did indeed love his pizza.

The punchline of this piece of the story is that when I was back in my hotel room and called my wife, I relayed this part of the story.  She started laughing hysterically.  She said, "You're THE Brad English?  You're named now?!! Hahahaha". 

Metro Pizza bills itself as a family-style pizzeria.  They are that and more.  There's a huge wall-sized map of the United States with famous pizzerias marked on the map.  John is such a pizza fanatic that he will give you a free dinner if you take a photo of yourself in front of a pizzeria in another city and give him the photo to post on the wall.  Talk about a pizza guy on his own pizza quest.  What a great way to build a family.

Thanks John for the great pizza and the personal pizza tour throughout my days at the Pizza Expo. 

Brad English - Yet Another Pizza Guy.

 
A Tale of Two Flours
Stan Ginsberg

Note from Peter: Our friend Stan Ginsberg and, as of last week, now an IACP award winning author of the wonderful book, Inside the Jewish Bakery, started a small mail order specialty flour company called New York Bakers, to meet the need for those of you who have been searching for hard to find, high quality brands. You can read more about Stan in the Contributor Profiles section. We welcome him now as our newest Guest Columnist, as he tells us a little bit of his own quest to decide which Italian pizza flour he likes best. As you will see, it's not always clear cut. And, for those of you who are bread bakers or want to learn about the history and inside stories of some of America's most famous Jewish bakeries, I highly recommend his book, written with co-author Norman Berg.


When I started The New York Bakers (www.nybakers.com) a little over 2½ years ago, my goal was to offer home bakers the broadest range of non-bleached, non-bromated professional flours I could find. I didn't know what I was in for since there are dozens of professional flours out there. However, I soon earned that despite all the brands, most commercial flours are variations of four main classes: high-gluten (14% protein), bread (12½%), pastry (9½%) and cake flour (8%). I also discovered that the vast majority are produced by a handful of mega-millers –- think General Mills, ConAgra, and Cargill -- and also a number of mid-tier mills like Bay State, and Pendleton Flour Mills. And then there are the small mills, like Heartland and Central Milling, that produce premium flours for artisan bakers. And of course, King Arthur Flour, who contracts with reliable small mills to package to their specifications.

But one category that I really wanted to make available was imported Italian Tipo 00 pizza flour and, of course, the flour I wanted was Caputo, which everything I read described as the ultimate pizza flour, straight from Naples, the epicenter of the Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) universe. So out I went to locate a distributor. I found one in LA (despite our name, we're in San Diego) –- actually it was a bit south of LA proper, in Vernon, which is completely industrial -- no one actually lives there. So I phoned them and talked to one of their sales folks, who said, "Yeah, no problem. We have the Caputo, so come on over and pick it up."

So into my car I went for the 2-hour (optimistically) trek on the SoCal freeways up to Vernon. I have to admit, I was really excited. After all, everything I'd read told me that Caputo was the Holy Grail of pizza flours. So imagine my shock and disappointment when the warehouse guy comes back with several red, white and blue bags that said "Pivetti" where "Caputo" should have been.

"No worries," said the sales guy when I went back to the office to talk to him. "They're virtually identical. Besides, we have lots of customers who love the Pivetti."  What was I to do? I took the Pivetti, drove back down to San Diego and changed my product lineup to read "Pivetti."

Then I did some research and learned that the Pivetti mill, which has been owned and operated by the same family for over 130 years, is in Modena, in northern Italy, well away from Bella Napoli. It’s a city best known for its balsamic vinegar, sausage-stuffed pig feet called zampone (not to be confused with the hockey ice machine), and native son Luciano Pavarotti. "Drat," I thought to myself, "what do those northern Italians know about pizza?"

Of course, I hadn't tried the stuff yet – in fact, I'd never used any authentic Tipo 00 flour – so I proceeded to do so. I used the classic formula for VPN, which was 58% water, 2% salt, 0.3% fresh yeast, no bulk fermentation, and cold retardation of the dough balls of 12-18 hours.
Well, I was blown away. I had been using high-gluten flour, mainly General Mills All Trumps, at 75% hydration and with 5% olive oil, for my pizza doughs, and constantly found myself struggling with tearing. The Pivetti was pure pleasure, even at that low hydration level. The gluten was well-developed, but the most extensible I'd ever worked with; when I stretched it, it stayed stretched, and I could get a 16-inch pizza out of 10oz/280g of dough. I could literally read a newspaper through that crust. So I was a happy camper.

But I couldn't stop thinking about the Caputo. One of my customers in Arizona found a distributor there and started using the stuff. She told me that it was more elastic than the Pivetti, and held its shape better. I was tantalized, like the kid at a store window filled with imagined candy.
Finally, a couple of months ago, my supplier told me that he had the real-deal Caputo in stock and would I be interested. I think I broke the speed limit on my way back up to LA, loaded up the car with several bags of Caputo, plus a couple of Pivetti, and tore back home so I could try out my new found treasure.

It wasn't what I expected. Where the Pivetti was white and fine, the Caputo was more yellow and had what felt like a slightly coarser grind. Where I expected the same degree of extensibility, I found instead greater elasticity, comparable to a mild bread flour like General Mills Harvest King (12% protein) or King Arthur Bread Flour (12.7%). The Caputo formed beautiful round crusts, with a well-defined edge, but the gluten was really evident.

Here's how they compared in my test bake:
Raw flour: The Pivetti flour is a very pale yellow, nearly white, with a very fine grain. The Caputo has a somewhat coarser grain (although still fine, since 00 refers to the grain size and not protein/ash content), and a definite beige/ yellow brown color.
Mixing: The Caputo is definitely thirstier than the Pivetti. At 58% hydration, the Caputo formed a much stiffer dough -- to the point where my Kitchen Aid Pro was laboring on the dough hook. Not so with the Pivetti, which produced a smooth, fairly slack dough.
Benching: I rested both doughs for 20 minutes before dividing it into 280g boules and put each into a lightly oiled plastic sandwich bag.  The dough then went into my wine cooler for 10 hours.  The Pivetti dough increased in size more than the Caputo and was slightly softer to the touch.
Throwing the pizza: Both doughs rested at room temp for 2 hours.  My technique was the same for both doughs: cutting the sandwich bag away so as not to disturb the dough, flouring both sides and using my fingertips to stretch the middle, then shaping the pizza by putting the rim over my knuckles and stretching it to about 16" in diameter -- thin enough to see light through the center.  I then put the dough onto a floured peel, dressed the pizza and baked at 550F for about 6 minutes.
Both doughs were quite extensible, the Pivetti more so because its protein content is clearly lower than the Caputo, which almost felt rubbery and very firm. That said, both doughs threw very nicely, with a nod in the direction of the Caputo for ease of forming a more uniform circle.
The crust: The Caputo crust was denser, chewier and more flavorful than the Pivetti, which sprang nicely in the oven, leaving big air pockets in the rim.  Both crusts were thin and crisp, and biting off a piece of the Caputo pie took more effort than the Pivetti. At the same time, the Caputo didn't seem to hold up under the weight of the toppings as well as the Pivetti, so there was more sag when we picked up the slices. That said, both crusts had distinctive personalities and were excellent in their own way,
Verdict: If you like a chewy crust, not unlike good American pizza (emphasis on good), the Caputo wins hands down. My family and I prefer a crisper, less chewy crust, and the unanimous winner in my house was Pivetti.

Final Note from Peter: What do you think? Anyone have your own opinions of these two or other Italian flours? We'd love for you to comment. This could get us into "Coke or Pepsi?" territory....Meanwhile, check out Stan's full selection of flours at his website, including Central Mills newest blends.

 
Pizzeria Crawl on Bleecker Part 3
Brad English

I was having an interesting night. I haven't always been comfortable just going out alone and sitting in a restaurant while surrounded by people who were out together enjoying a social experience.  I don't remember when that changed exactly, but I do remember how it became that much more of a comfortable thing while I was working in New York.  I realized that I liked it in a way because, in this city there is so much going on and it would be a shame to not go experience it all just because you were there alone.

I just had two great pizza experiences in a row, in the span of a couple of hours, and had only walked a couple of blocks.  John's Pizzeria was a throwback to a classic New York style pizza that

 
Pizzeria Crawl on Bleecker Part 2
Brad English

Note from Peter: This is Part Two of Brad's recent personal pizza quest in New York City on Bleecker St in Greenwich Village. Following the lead of guest columnist John Arena's dictum that this was the best pizza neighborhood in the country, Brad had quite an interesting adventure and shares it with us here. If you haven't seen Part One, scroll down the page and begin there -- this new posting picks up from where he left off.

As I walked down Bleecker Street in the light rain, I felt satisfied.  I had just had a storybook first pizza at the famous John's Pizzeria.  I would love to have sat there longer, perhaps ordering another beer and continuing to eat more pizza.  I could have easily turned and walked uptown, dropped under the city streets back into the subway that would take me to my hotel.  But, I had a plan.  I was heading down Bleecker Street on my mini pizza quest (or as I used to term it, a Pizzeria Crawl).

I walked down the street and looked over as I passed a bustling Keste Pizzeria and almost couldn't believe I was walking right by it!  As many of you know, this place has been at the top of my list since I first experienced it.  But, I was inspired by John Arena's article and decided that I wanted to seek out something new this night.  Not far down the block I came to Pizza Roma.  I had forgotten about it being Valentine's Day, but I remembered when I saw Pizzeria Roma.  There were hearts on the window, and even a heart shaped pizza on the inside window display.  This place feels more like a small neighborhood bistro, or cafe, and this one was celebrating holiday!

I thought I would stop in at this point and just try a slice and keep walking down the street.  My plan for the night was to hit John's, Roma and Joe's.  I had a hard time cutting my John's trip

 
Pizzeria Crawl on Bleecker Part 1
Brad English

John Arena recently wrote a Guest Column here on Pizza Quest about one of the best areas in the country to go on a pizza tasting tour, or to engage in a personal pizza quest in one single neighborhood.  He doesn't claim that this is the "best" place to go, lest he start a pizza turf war.  Rather, he defines Greenwich Village, NY as a special place that will deliver some of the best and certainly some of the most diverse and interesting pizzerias in one neighborhood that you will find.  I happened to have been headed back to New York the very same week that we published John's article.  I knew I wouldn't have much free time, but then again, I don't need much of a window to seek out a good slice of pizza while in New York.  I always try my best to find something new, as well as to stop in at some of my other favorite places.  In a city this large the list is always growing - especially, when you only get to come in for a visit a couple times a year. 

John had connected me with Scott Weiner of Scott's Pizza Tours.  We tried to figure out a time to get together, but our schedule's weren't lining up.  When my first moment to escape for some "me time" came I targeted Bleecker Street in the Village, where I could practically crawl to hit some of the top pizzerias in the city in short order.  My hotel had a subway stop only steps from the lobby door.  The #1 train took me to within a block or two of John's of Bleecker where I decided to start.  I had always wanted to go there, but my visits to Bleecker had thus far always taken me straight to Keste (if you've been to Keste, you'll know why I kept returning!).  But, tonight I was following John Arena's lead and was going to try a couple new places that he spoke about.  For a winter's night in New York, it was quite pleasant.  There was a light rain just starting that felt like a little mist as the tiny drops began to hit my face while I walked down the street. 

I got to John's and took a few pictures outside and could see through the windows that the place had a simple charm to it that had been worn in over time.  You quickly see just how worn in it is as you notice the carved wooden booths that so many customers, over so many years, have chosen to "decorate."  I looked over the menu and the long list of pizzas.  These are just starting points, or suggestions.  The menu encourages that you build your pie from scratch.  Each suggestion starts with Cheese, then Tomato Sauce and it goes from there.  A few things popped out at me right away: Anchovies, Sausage and Mushrooms.  It was as if these ingredients came off the page at me from different lines.  I didn't find that exact combination, but stopped looking much beyond my realization that this was the pizza I wanted.

I ordered a beer, a simple salad, my pizza and waited.  As a pizza quester this place, on this night, was perfect.  The pizzeria is old, worn, comfortable in a cozy sort of way and just oozes what a New York Pizzeria is meant to be.  It was raining outside, which always makes being inside just a little better.  It's like that difference between reading a book on your couch, or watching a movie when it's raining outside.  The room was busy.  There were a few larger groups, some smaller ones and some couples gathered around the tables in various configurations just talking, eating pizza and enjoying their night out.  I forgot it was Valentine's day here. It felt like any night in what would otherwise be a small neighborhood pizzeria in any city or small town across the world.  

My pizza came and looked terrific.  It said New York to me.  It was the classic New York style pizza that called back to my childhood memories of what defined what pizza was and should be.  This isn't what I would call street slice pizza that I also loved so much.  The coal fired crust separates it there.  But, it was that simple New York Pizza that so many west coast pizzerias just couldn't seem to reproduce for so many years.  You find a decent one, or a good one once in a while, but it's not the same.  Maybe it is the water?  Or, maybe it's an East Coast/West Coast thing?  This could be an interesting Quest series to tackle some day.

My Pizza...

I rarely get to have anchovies on a pizza at home because my family isn't "down" with the concept.  I'll hide a little in here and there, and sometimes get away with it if I chop them up really fine and sneak them into the sauce below the melted cheese, but that's not really a good idea. When they figure it out, it's bad news!  So, these anchovies were that much better!  This pizza had a perfect balance of ingredients: cheese, tomato sauce, anchovies, sausage and mushrooms.  I can't fail to mention the delicious coal fired crust again!  My pizza was a great example of how the simplest ingredients, combined in balance, can create a truly satisfying meal.

I am not here to review Johns.  I didn't speak to anyone about their ovens, or find anything else out about the place.  I was here to experience it.  I grew up in New Jersey and my pizza benchmark is based on this kind of pizza.  This is the city and the style of pizza that laid the foundation of what would later become this more formal quest.  At some point I remembered I was on a little Greenwich Village pizza crawl here and stopped short of eating the whole pie to save room for then next stop.  Let me tell you, that was tough! Johns on Bleeker St. lived up to it's reputation.  I would love to come back and explore the full range of this place some more in the future.

Next stop -- Pizza Roma....

 
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

 

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