Lately I’ve been thinking about pizza and the industrial revolution. Ok, I know we think of pizza making as a craft or even an art form, but let’s face it; before the recent artisan pizza renaissance the state of pizza was in pretty sorry shape. So how did something that was an expression of individuality in the hands of a great pizza maker like Antonio Pero (founder of Totonno’s) become a mass produced commodity, and more importantly how do we prevent that from happening again?
Well, I think the answer lies in practice, or more specifically, understanding the difference between practice and repetition. From early childhood we are told that “practice makes perfect”. We are led
to believe that by repeating an action over and over again we will improve and eventually perfect a particular skill. The entire industrial revolution was based on the idea that the development of artisanal skill was inefficient. The idea was that the creation of any product could be reduced to a series of motions, performed on an assembly line by workers who learned and repeated only one step in the process, thus maximizing speed and reducing the need for highly skilled --and well paid-- craftsmen.
The result, in regard to pizza, was what I think of as the tyranny of consistency. We began to see uniformity as a virtue. We reached a point where we valued consistency over the occasional stroke of brilliance. The extension of this idea is that by simply repeating an action, such as assembling a pizza, anyone could become an expert. Heck, we even developed contests to crown people who could do it the fastest or in the most uniform manner. Well, guess what? None of those “champions” are going to be remembered 50 years from now. Antonio Pero never won a pizza making contest in his life. Dominic Demarco, of DiFara Pizzeria (Brooklyn) is not the most consistent pizza maker in the world. Frank Pepe didn’t have a certificate of authenticity hanging by his oven.
I’m sure there are lots of pizza makers who have made more pizzas than these men, but here’s the truth; PRACTICE DOES NOT MAKE PERFECT! Perfect practice makes perfect. By perfect practice I mean understanding that repetition is not enough. We all know people who have been making pizza for years and are stuck in a rut. We also know artisans like Jonathan Goldsmith of Spaccanapoli (Chicago) who are relative newcomers and are creating inspired pies. The great ones understand that practice is a combination of repetition and single minded focus on improvement every time you create a pizza. They know that to truly grow as a pizzaiolo every pizza that you make should be in some ways different from the last because it is an expression of all that you have experienced up to that precise moment. They also understand that the constant and unflinching quest for improvement means that they will also have to allow themselves the occasional failure or misstep.
It is this conscious struggle that moves us all forward on our various pizza quests. In the end, you may find that the journey was at least as interesting as the destination. At the very least, I think you will discover that consistency is an overrated virtue when it stifles the passion that can occasionally produce a rare moment of perfection.