Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about three inspirational pizza makers. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I often call them the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of pizza. They are three men who couldn’t be more different in their contributions to the world of pizza, but together create, represent, and inspire all that we should be in our quest to serve pizza that is both delicious and meaningful.
In the beginning, there was Anthony Mangieri, or at least someone very much like him. I’m not talking about some dubious pizza pedigree that goes back to 19th century Naples. What Anthony does is more rooted in ancient Rome or perhaps even Egypt. Walk the ruins of Pompeii and you will see bread ovens and marble work tables that could have been the prototype for Anthony’s pizzeria. This is food at its most elemental, 3 or 4 simple ingredients, natural leavening, fire, and the hands of a gifted and uncompromising artist who serves as a conduit between nature and man. Anthony’s pizza is as primal as it gets. Take away the mozzarella and tomatoes, add some garum and it is possible that Mangieri’s ancestors were baking these pies for hungry citizens on the day that Pompeii was buried. You won’t find a diploma or certificate of authenticity in Anthony Mangieri’s pizzeria. What he is doing with pizza pre-dates those organizations by thousands of years. Certainly there have been many innovations and additions to our craft, but everything leads back to the original elements, and no one is more dedicated or consumed by this than Anthony Mangieri. With Anthony, you either get it or you don’t. There is no place to hide, and where you stand when you experience his pizza reveals everything about you. The latest incarnation of his Una Pizza Napoletana can be found in San Francisco (much easier to get to than Pompeii).
If you don’t believe in miracles I suggest a visit to a quiet corner in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. There you will find Spacca Napoli, a piece of Naples somehow transported to the Windy City. More importantly, you will find Jonathan Goldsmith. If Anthony Mangieri represents what came before, clearly Jonathon exemplifies the heart of what the Italian pizza experience has become. Genetically, Jonathan is not an Italian pizza maker. He did not discover his true nature and calling until adulthood. Yet, he embodies everything that a pizzaiolo should be. Dedicated and knowledgeable, a gracious host, a generous teacher, and a self sacrificing steward to his staff and community. Jonathon had the belief and resolve to bring his message of authentic Neapolitan pizza to a city with a long standing pizza tradition of its own. He has been embraced by thousands of loyal supporters, including expatriate Italians who find Spacca to be a comforting reminder of home. His pizza and his beautiful restaurant continue to evolve, but always reflect a simple message, that a neighborhood pizzeria can be a place where people gather to restore both body and soul. In short Jon is the pizza maker that I wish I had both the talent and courage to be.
What would a religious metaphor be without a journey into the desert? As every pizza enthusiast knows, Chris Bianco is at the forefront of America’s pizza renaissance. It’s important
to examine how he lit the flame of inspiration for so many pizza makers to begin their own journey. What Chris Bianco does in his Phoenix pizzeria is not constricted by rigid interpretations of tradition or the guidelines of self appointed governing bodies. He has instead chosen to represent the spirit of pizza making and finds it not in the details, but in the ideal.
Although clearly informed by tradition, at Pizzeria Bianco he is not recreating or replicating anything. He is following his own inner voice. While for Anthony or Jonathon, true pizza can only be expressed by using the ingredients, methods and equipment of Campangnia, Chris has in some ways moved beyond that idea. In his view, to honor those who came before you must seek what they sought. Rather than import ingredients, he does what an Italian pizza maker would do, build a relationship with local artisan producers. If the Neapolitans are using indigenous ingredients then the spirit of his pizza is to do the same. Arizona grown pistachios anyone?
In my opinion there is something even more important about what he does. Chris has told me that he sees his pizzeria as a place that can serve as an inspiration to his guests, a place that is completely dedicated to one small thing and it can, possibly, hopefully, inspire people to bring that commitment to their own lives. He stated that people come to Pizzeria Bianco “armed” with their own expectations of what a pizza should be. It is his mission to disarm them and by extension, “Perhaps disarm the world”. Wow! A pretty serious goal from a guy who humbly describes himself as “Just a pizza man”
And there you have it, if not the alpha and omega of pizza, certainly a trinity of pizza makers who together represent all that we could and should be if we are serious about our craft. Let me know if you can think of others who have turned pizza into an act of creative self-expression.