Lately, like many of us across the country I’ve been thinking about heat. Now, I’m no stranger to intense heat. I’ve been working in front of a pizza oven for over 40 years and I live in Las Vegas where, one day last week, the temperature topped out at 119 degrees. So, let’s just say heat is a big part of my life.
As pizza makers and bread bakers, we all know that along with time, temperature is one of the most important elements of our craft. From the very beginning of the pizza making process we agonize over water temperature, friction factors, and conditions during the various stages of fermentation. Next we start experimenting with proper temperature of our dough prior to extending it into crusts, which gives us another point we can debate endlessly. All of this is just a prologue to the main event -- oven temperature. For many pizza makers getting that oven hot enough is the Holy Grail in their personal pizza quest. Sure we all seek out great ingredients and closely watch the hand techniques of masters like Chris Bianco. If we are really serious, some of us will make the trip to Southern Italy so we can observe legendary pizza makers such as Antonio Starita work his magic on the marble table. We are diligent about replicating every detail, only to find that our efforts fall short. Often the explanation is, “I just couldn’t get my oven hot enough”. Most of us, amateur and professional alike, just can’t seem to capture that true moment of magic that seems to emerge so effortlessly from the oven of Paulie G’s in Brooklyn or Tony Gemignani’s great pizzeria in San Francisco.
So, how hot is hot enough? At the low end, some of the classic Chicago pizzerias set their ovens in the 450 degree range which gives them the flexibility to make both deep-dish and thin crust pies. For years most New York style pizzerias set their ovens at 525-575. Dominic Demarco, of Difara’s cranks his Bakers Pride ovens up as hot as they go, to somewhere around 600 degrees. Roman style pizza makers swear by electric ovens that are set at 700. The wood fire advocates shoot for 900 degrees, and the coal fire devotees swear that you must get your oven up over 1000 for a proper bake. Famously, some amateur pizza makers have disabled the safety mechanisms for the cleaning mode of their home ovens in the quest for more heat.
All of this ignores what should be an obvious truth: As with all things pizza related, there is more
going on than just the technical aspects when seeking a desired result. In his extraordinary book, The Bread Bakers Apprentice our own Peter Reinhart stated, “If making bread was simply clinical, bread would not have such a powerful influence on our lives”. I must add that this is particularly true of pizza as one of the world’s great collaborative foods.
This brings me to my real point. Last week I made a brief trip to New York City and visited 12 pizzerias in 18 hours. Many of these places are celebrated landmarks and several of these restaurants are owned by internationally famous pizza makers. More than one of them touted the temperature of their ovens as a marketing point. Interestingly, virtually none of them were running their ovens as hot as they advertised. In fact, one very well respected friend of mine admitted to me that he had recently improved his pizza by lowering the temperature of his oven by nearly 100 degrees. On this trip I experience nearly every major style of pizza and realized something that I think is very important: The enjoyment of a pizza has less to do with the heat of the oven and more to do with the warmth of the pizzeria experience. For a pizza or a pizzeria to approach greatness the entire experience must tell us something about the person or people who created it. This simple fact became obvious to me after I left a cavernous (and empty) pizzeria in Greenwich Village and walked into a tiny bustling place called Slice on Hudson Street. Slice offers health conscious New Yorkers a sustainable, socially conscious pizza option. It is certainly not anyones idea of a typical New York pizzeria, and Miki Agrawal, the young woman who created the place is not the typical New York pizzeria owner, but that’s not important. What makes Slice special is that it is a unique expression of the personality and values of the owner. Just as the spirit of Antonio Pero haunts Totonno’s in Coney Island, the essence of what Miki is all about permeates her pizzeria. Think about it -- nearly every pizzeria that we love tells us all we need to know about its founder. Every memorable pizza we have ever eaten speaks volumes about the person who made it.
Thin crust, Chicago style, VPN approved, none of that really matters to me. Any of these methods can provide a great or a dismal experience. I don’t care how hot your oven is, the real issue is how much warmth you have in your heart. When your pizza quest results in an expression of how you feel about the people you are cooking for you are on your way to pizza greatness. Sure we need to know the proper temperature to achieve a desired result. But as Peter said, “the mythic and the romantic” can truly bring us joy. In the end warmth is much more important than heat.