Guest Column: Attack of the 9-Ton Pizza
“We few, we happy few, we band of brothers”- Henry V
Over a year ago I was asked to join a group of elite pizza makers in an effort to break the Guinness World Record for the longest pizza in the world. The existing mark was set at 6,082 ft.
My first thought was “How hard could it be?” After all, I’ve been making pizza for nearly 50 years and I make hundreds of pizzas every day. This is just one pizza, right? Most importantly I would be doing it with Tony Gemignani and Giulio Adriani. The men I consider to be the best pizza makers in the world.
Well here is the big reveal: Breaking a record like this is not just about cooking. It’s a feat of engineering, logistics and more than anything else, sheer willpower.
Our goal was to build a 7,000 foot long pizza that conformed to the very demanding “California Health District” codes. This means that from the time the sauce and cheese was applied we had just 4 hours to bake, cut, box and serve a pizza that was nearly a mile and a half long. The major challenge was that it was not possible to complete the dough baking process in under 12 hours. Our solution was to bake the pizza in two stages. Stage 1 was a par-bake of the crust for 12 hours. Stage 2 was application of the sauce and cheese which would start the 4 hour clock running, followed by a mad dash second pass of the overhead oven to melt the cheese. We estimated the second phase would take 2 hours giving us 2 hours to serve the pizza. Plenty of time right?
So, here’s one of the first things we learned: 7,000 feet of pizza is much farther than 7,000 regular feet. This was not a casual walk around the neighborhood. It was more like the Bataan Death March of Pizza Making. First off, we had calculated that we would need about 125 pizza makers plus 100 volunteer helpers. We ended up with only about 75. The solution was no breaks for anyone. From opening bell at 8 PM Friday night to final slice at 4:30 PM Saturday afternoon we slogged on. Forming dough, joining the pieces together, covering the completed section with plastic wrap and then uncovering it so the 6,000 pound motorized oven could pass over the whole impossibly long mass and cook it without tearing or burning it. Then, adding sauce and cheese and repeating the entire process. All of this was accomplished by an exhausted crew in the California sun at Fontana Speedway, a venue not exactly designed for cooking. On the positive side we had tremendous support from our sponsors. Fash Asvadi of Italforni had designed and built an ingenious oven or, more accurately, 3 stone-belted conveyor ovens joined together on a motorized steel chassis that looked like a prop from Road Warriors. Elmer Ovando had to control this 40 ft. long monster and he did it with no breaks from beginning to end. Phillipe Levasseur literally sacrificed himself to the Gods of Fire by repeatedly sticking his hands into the 1,000 degree ovens to clear any obstructions. Orlando Foods not only supplied Caputo Flour and Ciao Tomato Sauce, owners Carlo Orlando and Fred Mortati manned the cook line all day and night while Chris Suplicki directed traffic and solved problems on the fly. Jimmy DeSisto and Harrison Billig of Venice Bakery took on the massive responsibility of producing over 17,000 pounds of pizza dough over the course of 4 days and still found the energy to stand on the line making the pizza.
I won’t deny that it was a little scary to attempt this record with just 75 pizza makers but they were 75 of the best, hardest working, most dedicated pizza folks ever assembled in America. How’s this for a partial line up of pizza champions? Roberto Caporuscio (Keste) Laura Meyer (Tony’s Napoletana) Gino Rago ( Pannino’s) Tony Troiano (JB Albertos) Michele D’Amelio (A Mano) and Ali Haider (786 Degrees). Most importantly there were no egos in the group. Everyone was there to achieve the goal together. There was never a thought about individual self promotion.
We were working with teammates who had traveled from all over the country, so training consisted of a brief orientation right before we proceeded to the venue. By 8PM Friday night we were in full swing joining the 36”x 22” dough sections together and working at top speed while Mario Vollera had the daunting task of feeding the dough through the oven (a job that he kept at for 16+ hours). And that’s where the major challenge came. Because of the race track venue, the pizza was not laid out in a straight line. In several places the pizza had some pretty sharp curves. Now, it’s no problem to curve dough but getting a massive oven on a steel frame to curve with it is another story. Mario had to keep the whole thing flowing non-stop and, while the ovens performed flawlessly, the moving chassis was not cooperating. But then Tony Gemignani came up with a unique solution. In the event that the pizza got damaged, separated, or burned Tony was standing by with patches of dough that were laid in, docked,and finished with a blow torch. And that is what saved us. At the completion of the first bake I walked down the nearly 7,000 feet of pizza and was shocked to see that time and the California sun had conspired to dry out, crack and tear the dough in hundreds of places. One thousand yards behind me I could see the entire exhausted team working furiously to finish the pizza within the time limit. I made the long, sad trek back to tell them that we should consider shutting down. But as I approached I saw something incredible. Giulio was in the zone, pushing everyone to keep going and there was Tony, blow torch in one hand, dough docker in the other, a mad gleam in his eyes and his unstoppable assistant Laura Meyer at his side working harder than I’ve ever seen anyone work before. There was no way the pizza beast was going to win today.
So here is the secret of achieving a world record: Surround yourself with incredible people. When the pizza was tearing, our skin was blistering, the equipment was malfunctioning, and just about everything was headed in the wrong direction, Giulio Adriani and Tony Gemignani absolutely refused to quit. They planted their heels, dug in, and inspired 75 pizza makers to give more than they knew that they had to give. The result- 6,333 feet. Not quite the original goal but enough to set a new world record. Never again or, as Giulio would say, “Last Angeles”…until the next time….
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Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.
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