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Guest Column: Pizza Crust — What Happened?

Written By John Arena
Monday, 05 March 2018 Guest Columns

I know, I know–we are living in the Golden Age of Pizza. The very best exponents of our craft, Tony Gemignani, Anthony Falco, and of course Chris Bianco are turning out pizzas of unsurpassed quality. In fact, I’ve long maintained that today’s amateur pizzaiolo knows as much or more about the science of pizza making than many pro’s did in the past. Big improvements in technique, formulas, dough science and equipment have pushed the possibilities of pizza to a new level of excellence. To be honest I’m simply NOT one of those, “…in the good old days” types. Except for one big area…the bake.

I’ve been mostly silent about this critical component of pizza making for too long. The fact is the last few generations of pizza eaters and pizza makers have gone astray for reasons that I will explain.

Observe the famous pizzeria John’s on Bleecker St. in New York’s Greenwich Village. There’s a reason that their sign proudly proclaims “NO Slices.” It’s really simple: a made to order pizza is assembled and baked differently than a pizza that is going to sit on a tray and be reheated. When an experienced pizza maker prepares a “to order” pizza, the balance of sauce to cheese ratio is applied with the knowledge that the pizza will be consumed right from the oven. In addition the pizza is cooked to perfection with a deep mahogany colored finish accentuated by black blisters that, as kids, my cousins and I would fight over at the pizzeria. These dark spots and crispy bubbles of flavor offered complexity and contributed depth to the finished pie that was so irresistible we risked scalding the roof of our mouths to wolf down a slice.

Enter the “Slice Pie”. In the late 50’s and early 60’s, especially after the N.Y World’s Fair, slice joints took over the pizza scene. Lifestyle combined with high rents saw the demise of classic sit down pizzerias. The result was that pizza itself changed. The “New York pizza” started to get lighter in color, more pale gold than rich brown. Pizzas were now baked with “shelf life” in mind. Slices were often reheated. A pizza that is intended to be reheated is typically under-cooked so that it doesn’t dry up if it’s not purchased immediately. Over time this pale pizza, sitting in the window of a pizzeria, became the standard. The look of the under cooked pie became the norm even for a whole pizza made to order. By the 1970’s pizzas started to get bigger to give the consumer the feeling of better value. Size matters. Where a large pizza in NY had once been a 16 inch pie, that standard grew to 18 then 20 and even 22 inches. As the pizzas expanded, so did the variety. By the mid 80’s pizzerias were compelled to offer 10 or more different varieties of pizza by the slice. More variety meant the possibility of slower product turnover and the pizzas were baked even less. The fact is, the minute a pizza hits the counter it starts to die. So an entire generation of pizza eaters grew up eating these sad, pale pizzas that were crafted to be resuscitated. Now don’t get me wrong; I love a well-made re-heated slice as much as anyone. But I think we’ve gone too far. The image of a lightly baked, unblemished pizza reinforced by that Wonder Bread looking stuff churned out by chain pizzerias has given some consumers an irrational fear of the solid, beautifully blistered char that was once a signature of hand-crafted pizza.

When the great Neapolitan pizza makers like Roberto Caporuscio and Giulio Adriani hit our shores with their wood fired leopard-spotted crusts, more progressive pizza aficionados jumped on board because many folks hadn’t seen that type of bake before. American artisan pizza makers embraced and even started to push the envelope and the notion of char. Inspired by artisan bread bakers like Jim Lahey of the Sullivan St. Bakery, some pizza makers are returning to the darker, fully developed bake.

The challenge is getting guests to embrace the wonders of a beautiful blistered crust and getting everything just right. Not enough heat and the pizza must stay in the oven too long to develop color. This results in a brittle, tough crust. Too much heat and the spots develop but the interior of the pizza is gummy and the pie is limp. Getting the right balance is a combination of formula, ingredients, technique and equipment. On the rare occasion that it all comes together the perfectly baked pizza is a thing of unsurpassed beauty. That, my friends, is the quest.

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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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