Most of you have probably read Brad English’s superb coverage of this years Pizza Expo. The Expo is certainly the premier event for pizza pros and is, quite simply, the “must see” event for anyone who is serious about a career in pizza. With that being said, this year I overheard something that at once disturbed me and got me thinking about where pizza is headed. While standing at the entrance to Expo on the first morning I overheard two executives from one of the "Big Three" chains chatting about their product. One of them asked: “ How do you like the new Original Recipe Dough?” The other replied without a trace of irony “Oh, I like it much better than the old Original Recipe Dough”
Well, this may sound funny at first but to old school pizza makers it’s really kind of sad and here’s why: You could tell that neither of these guys had any sense of pride in what they sell. For them pizza was just a product. Next year they may be selling shoes.
So here is the thing: before we were business men, or restaurateurs, or executives, or chefs, or celebrities we called ourselves Pie Men. I don’t mean that to be sexist, there just weren’t many women making pizzas in the old days. We were Pie Men and we earned the right to be a part of that group by standing in front of a hot oven for 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, year after year. We told the world who we were by staying true to the craft that was gifted to us by those who came before. Everything that a Pie Man wanted to say was communicated through the pie. That’s why every classic pizzeria is named after the founding Pie Man. In a famous interview, Genarro Lombardi patted his coal fired oven and stated, “This is what made me a man.” No one had a certificate, no one had won any medals, we didn’t insist on being called “Chef” or any other title. In fact no self respecting Pie Man would be caught dead wearing a chefs coat. Joe Timpone the great Pie Man at Santarpios in Boston famously wore a brown paper bag for a hat while he tended the oven in an undershirt. Most Pie Men probably didn’t own a pair of shoes that weren’t caked with flour.
To have your peers refer to you as a “good Pie Man” was the ultimate compliment. Sure we were competitors, but there was a code of honor that can only be understood by people who are connected through a common struggle. To become a Pie Man was hard work, forged through a long and sometimes painful apprenticeship. Words like “artisan” “authentic” “certified” or the collection of high sounding initials that we now attach to products and methods would mean nothing to a Pie Man. For a Pie Man only two things were important, does it taste good and am I proud of it? The two chain guys discussing their “Original Recipe” dough that was probably created by a focus group in a lab would most likely be thrown onto the street if they ventured into Totonno’s 50 years ago.
So are there any Pie Men left out there? Yes, and some great Pie Women too. You can find them if you search hard enough. I promise you, it’s worth the effort. Al Santillo, in Elizabeth New Jersey, is a Pie Man; so is Lou Abatte in New Haven. These kind of people usually live near or above their pizzeria. They’re covered in flour. They have old burn stripes on their arms. They look very tired, but you will see something else too…Pride.