Interview with Leo Spizzirri, “The greatest guy you never knew”
Note from Peter: I finally met Leo Spizzirri for the first time at the recent International Pizza Expo, after years of hearing about this pizza genius who always, I was told, works “behind the scenes.” At the Expo, Leo presented a number of demo’s for Forno Bravo, showing how to create more than just pizza in a wood-fired oven. Each demo started with about 5 people in the audience (after all, there are dozens of demo’s and classes happening simultaneously in the massive Las Vegas Convention Center), but by the time he finished it seemed as if everyone in the building was drawn into his orbit, dying to try the various food creations he seemed to effortlessly bang out. We hung out a little and I even got to tape a segment with him (for future viewing), but I was especially thrilled when Leo agreed to an interview for Pizza Quest, and even more thrilled with the depth of his responses, as you will see. Passion like his must come from a deep well of life experience and influences. I’ll say no more, but let Leo lay it out for you. I think this interview will nourish you all in ways that transcend our shared love for pizza. Enjoy!!
PQ (Peter): Leo, I was really impressed with your demos at the Pizza Expo. Can you tell us a little about your own journey, especially as you’ve grown your reputation in the pizza world?
Leo: From an early age, my life seemed to revolve around the kitchen and the kitchen table. As a first generation Italian/American, I learned the ways of my Italian culture and heritage from my parents, grandparents, and extended family who all immigrated to the United States from Calabria, Italy. My family was from the central part of Calabria, a providence called Cosenza, where they were basically poor farmers who grew grain and vegetables, raised livestock like chickens and pigs, and kept cows and goats for milk. For as long as I could remember, I would hear stories about how only the best of what was produced on their land would be used to sell for income and whatever was left over was what the family would consume. These lessons really taught me the art of making something from nothing.
My mother and grandmother were my greatest teachers and played the most important roll in molding me for the career path that I would eventually choose. My father and uncle would often tease me as a kid to get out of the kitchen and come work in the garden. We lived in Chicago and were surrounded by other Italian families who had also immigrated to the United States. It was totally normal in our neighborhood for everyone to have a giant garden in the backyard, my dad even raised rabbits and kept a few chickens behind the garage that we were never supposed to speak of with anyone…as if they couldn’t hear a rooster singing at the crack of dawn every morning!
My father also played an important role in molding me. The Calabrese people are known for many things besides their love for hot peppers and spicy food. They are known as some of the best salumi makers in the world. We made our own sopressata, capacola, and sausage every year. I can’t remember a year where we didn’t make any. My dad taught me how to trim my first pork butt and then how to grind the meat, mix it with salt and spices, and then stuff the meat into casings to make these unbelievable specialties that he would cure in a special room in our basement (that he kept locked). This was also the same room where he would store the homemade wine and canned tomato sauce. Again, nothing was ever wasted and we made enough to last the whole year. For the longest time I grew up wanting to be a butcher and not a baker. Even while I was in high school, I worked for a grocery store chain that set me up for the internship program to become a union meat cutter. It wasn’t until the early 90’s that the chain closed and the meat cutters union stopped accepting new apprentices. That’s when I started really digging into what baking was all about.
It was around 2005 when I was formally introduced to a real loaf of artisan bread. I had spent years making pizzas but I can remember the first time that I saw a long wooden peel with about a dozen French baguettes being pulled from an oven. That aroma was forever embedded in my brain. The bakery was a small mom and pop shop on Taylor Street in the Little Italy neighborhood of Chicago. I know it sounds crazy that my first baguette would come from an Italian bakery but this place was the real deal. They had been around for forever and were a landmark on the street. The thing that surprised me the most was, as I stood quietly watching the oven area in a shop full of customers, the baker pointed at me and waved me over. As I walked up to the counter, he waved me over to the oven. I can never forget the flour on the ground and the humidity in the room. In Sicilian dialect, he asked me if I wanted a warm loaf. I think I mumbled yes, but was so focused on the oven and the bread still inside. He put the bread down and opened the oven door so I could take a look. I asked him how he knew when the bread was done, because I didn’t see any timers or clocks. He sucked his teeth and said, “You just know!” He took a baguette and cracked it in half then pushed it towards me. It was still warm. That was probably the turning point in my career when I went from just being a pizza guy who went to work each day to make some money, to someone who now wanted to learn the way that this guy did, probably 50 years before.
I remember leaving and walking to my car. As cliche as it might sound, Taylor Street seemed different, like I had been transported to another time and place. The chaos of my “work” somehow became part of my life. The baker who gave me that bread showed me something that nobody else in that shop really cared about. He probably saw hundreds of people a week who would walk through the door just to buy bread and then leave but, maybe, it was just my attention to what he was doing that made me stand out in that crowded shop. I think about that all the time, that guy noticed me, not watching him particularly, but what he was doing. That’s really what inspired me from that moment on. If in a brief second that baker could notice me in a crowded room watching, how many people had I not been paying attention to who were watching me while I was working? It really changed the way I worked and the way I presented myself at work. I talked differently, even dressed differently. I wasn’t working to make a paycheck anymore; from that point on I was feeding people. I’m actually choking up right now because I don’t think there’s any greater sense of pride as when you see someone’s face who has just enjoyed something that you created with your hands.
I get compliments from people all the time, and I actually get a bit embarrassed and bashful when it happens. I hear people tell me that I have passion for what I do. The passion is more about the people, now, than the work itself. Maybe I think of it as paying something forward to another kid in a crowded room watching me for the first time. My evolution in the pizza industry has really been about that. I don’t keep my knowledge as a secret anymore, I love sharing it with anyone who is interested in listening. At the end of the day, I feel that’s what it’s really all about — who can I inspire to take what I have done and push it to the next level for the future generations after I’m gone.
Peter: Where do you think your ideas come from? What is the fount or source of your creativity? And, along that line, who are some of your culinary and pizza heroes?
Leo: I love this question and it often comes up as the topic of conversation when I am speaking to groups. As a little kid, like around 4 or 5 years old, my mom had a small hair salon in the basement of our 3-flat building. My parents and grandparents owned the building and we lived in the middle unit and basement. The top floor was rented out. Whenever my mother would have “clients,” usually little old ladies from the neighborhood getting their weekly wash and sets done, she would put me in front of the television. These were the days before cable TV so there weren’t many channels that would get good reception in the basement on a small black and white TV with rabbit ears. One of the channels that came in very clear was PBS. I can remember watching Julia Child all the time. I sometimes would remember things that I saw Julia doing and then see them in real time when my mom and grandma were in the kitchen. Julia’s style of French cooking had a lot of similarities to the ways of our southern Italian cooking. Years later, Julia teamed up with the great Jacques Pepin. Still to this day, Jacques Pepin is one of my culinary heroes.
My ideas are mostly based on old techniques that have been forgotten or no longer trendy. I like simplicity. I think that too many ingredients add confusion to the palate and don’t always translate well. I was very fortunate to have studied under Graziano Bertuzzo, who is the head master at the Scuola Italian Pizzaioli in Carole, Italy. Graziano was the first person who took the time to show me his style and allowed me to take notes and ask questions. I think he took a liking to me because I was able to speak to him in Italian, but he knew that I was a born and raised American. I was first introduced to Graziano by Tony Gemignani. I can remember being in one of Tony’s first Italian pizza classes before he started the International School of Pizza, but more on Tony later! Graziano showed me things that I had never seen done with pizza before. Even though I had made pizzas all my life, he was the first person to show me what a biga was. That really changed the game for me. Learning the art of creating and maintaining starters took my pizzas in a whole new direction. I don’t think I made pizzas the same anymore after that. As my relationship with Tony Gemignani grew, he also gave me a ton of information that also would change the way I made pizzas. Both Graziano and Tony showed me why selecting the right ingredient was more important than just taking the first thing that was available. Graziano worked with the best ingredients and I soon noticed that Tony was even more meticulous when it came to sourcing ingredients. I can remember thinking, “If these guys spent this much time selecting a specific flour for a specific pizza, then why was everyone around me content with using one type of flour for everything?” It was a blessing and a curse. It was a blessing because they opened my eyes to things that I had never seen before, but it was a curse because now I was venturing off on a path that not many around me were aware of or even cared about. This was 2007/2008. Imagine me talking to people locally who had done things the same way over and over again but were too stubborn to listen. I was often criticized for not knowing what I was talking about or even being arrogant. My circle soon became smaller. It was guys like Graziano and Tony that would listen to my frustrations and turn them into something positive. I can remember Tony on many occasions telling me to keep my mouth shut and keep doing what I was doing. He told me that he had occasionally encountered similar problems as he was learning years before. I studied those guys, watching everything they did. Once I would see them do something, I would write notes on top of notes, peeling back the layers until I could figure out the basis for their particular ideas.
There were a couple things that I learned from watching those two. The biggest one was that I couldn’t find them ever using more than 5 ingredients on a pizza, especially Graziano. Not counting the sauce or cheese, they weren’t over-topping their pizzas. Everything they added was a complement to the crust. My previous work was all about the build of the pizza itself, all the toppings. The crust was always just a platform for the toppings. After spending time with them and learning their techniques, my style changed drastically, like overnight. I was now fermenting doughs for 48-72 hours. I was sourcing ingredients locally and by season. What started out as opening a can of ground tomatoes and adding a ton of seasonings into it soon turned into actually figuring out how tomatoes were grown and packed, then finally taking a whole peeled tomato and making my own sauce from it with a food mill.
Over the past few years there have also been others that I have grown to respect for their love and knowledge of what they do. One guy that I constantly stalk is John Gutekanst of Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio. John is a member of Tony G’s World Pizza Champions team and I spent many years traveling to Italy with John and the team to compete in the World Pizza Championships, at that time, in Salsomaggiore, Italy. John has an amazing knowledge of baking and ingredients from all around the world. He can one day be found talking about French baguettes or epi’s and then, the very next day, be taking about Turkish Pide bread. I love that about John and I often find myself bouncing around experimenting in my test kitchen based on things that I watched him do. At the end of the day, I would say that I am never content with what I know. Even if I made something a hundred times, I am always looking for ways to improve it. John has showed me a lot when it comes to grains used in dough for both pizzas and bread. He uses sprouted grains a lot and even finds ways to tie in more exotic grains like Kamut and Kernza. These different grains remind me of another influencer who has molded my style into what it is today.
Back in the day when I was finding out that pizza dough really was a variation of good bread dough, there was one person that I could read up on and find all the knowledge that I needed to fill the gaps, that person was Mr. Peter Reinhart!
Peter: Gosh… really?
Leo: I spent so much time with my nose buried in your books. No matter if I was researching your thoughts on sourdough or sprouted grains, I always found some little nugget buried in one of those books that sparked something that I wanted to experiment with on my own. I can say that I easily watched your TED Talk on bread a hundred times. I can remember watching it the first time all the way through and then realizing at the end that I should have taken notes! Talk about opening the doors to a whole new world! It was around the same time that I was absorbing all this Peter Reinhart knowledge that I was approached by Chicago artisan bread baking legend Rich Labriola. Rich was the one who literally told me, “You might be a great pizza maker, but until you learn how to make bread, you’re not shit!” That line has stuck with me throughout my career. I love mixing dough by hand and caring for the process as much as the product. I think a lot of the new guys that I train have that same passion for process. I can remember as a kid making dough and using a tomato can to measure water and one-eyeing salt in a coffee cup. In those days, it didn’t matter and that was really the culture of the times. If I would have told someone back then that I wanted to use a thermometer to check the water temperature before adding it into the dough, I probably would have been laughed out the back door. Rich Labriola took me under his wing and gave me my first big bakery job. He made me promise to never tell anyone what I already knew and to just go to work and absorb as much knowledge about making artisan bread as I could. It wasn’t long after that I was running my first large scale bread manufacturing line and practicing that skills that I had learned along the way. Soon, he promoted me to a production manager and that’s when my career really evolved. After a few years of bakery work with Rich, I could honestly agree with his comment to me, I really didn’t know shit! The skills that I learned studying dough rheology really gave me the keys to the city when it came to pizza dough. The more pizza dough that I made, the more I was able to identify reactions and corrective actions. I think this is now the biggest source and basis for all my ideas and creativity.
Peter: Leo, how do you envision your work as a resource to the food community, and as a facilitator in helping others unlock their creativity and success?
Leo: I never really thought of myself as a teacher or really good at what I do. I consider myself rough around the edges. I came up at a time when most of the cooks around me were either ex-cons or drug addicts who couldn’t find work anywhere else. As I became more serious about my career, I still found myself shoulder to shoulder with these guys but now was aware of why I showed up to work everyday. I think it was because of the simple upbringing that my family taught me, I was able to appreciate what I had and was also able to show compassion for what these guys didn’t have. Throughout my career I worked for people from all walks of life and from all different skill levels. I worked for a lot of people who had no problem at all telling another person their short comings or why they felt that they were below them. As I began to take more of a leadership role throughout the years, I could always remember certain situations that I felt were not quite right or unjust. As people now approach me for advice or help, I never feel that I am above or better than anyone. I really go out of my way to listen to what someone is asking before jumping at a response. Sometimes, if I ask the right questions, I can actually get the person asking for my advice to answer their own questions. I love being able to get someone to think about the big picture instead on just focusing on the answer. This is the type of learning that sparks creativity.
If I make myself approachable and people are not intimidated to open up to me, I can then talk about my experiences and how I learned to do something. I didn’t go to culinary school, we couldn’t afford it. All my knowledge came from sweating it out on the line and pushing myself to learn what I needed to continue to move forward. I really feel that someone who wants to learn will do whatever it takes to do so. It doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, if you have the drive to do something you’ll get it done.
When I make videos for my website or blog about different topics for my various sponsors, I try to simplify the topics to their most basic form. My goal is to have the suburban housewives of the world who are searching the internet for a recipe to be able to click on any of my content and be able to learn something that’s on the same level as the guy who has studied for years in the same field as me. I have had so many of my pizza buddies that might have seen something that I shared and then ask me if I would mind if they used it. I think that I have just started to scratch the surface on where Ask Leo Pizza is headed. When it comes to sharing my knowledge, my view is simple, just ask and I’ll tell you everything I know. If my answer inspires someone to actually take the time to try it on their own, then I feel that I’ve done my job. My biggest pleasure is when someone comes to me with a problem or an idea and actually comes back and says that they tried what I suggested. It’s often at that time that I can then give them another idea to go back and try. I feel that I am the most successful when I can take the complexity of a situation or problem and break it down to small, easy to swallow pieces. It’s guiding people in those small steps that gets them to figure out why something works or doesn’t work.
I’ve always said that I’m just a little guy trying to support the pizza industry. The business was here before me and will definitely be here after I’m gone. To me, now it’s about what I’m leaving behind for the next person to use and pick up where I left off.
Peter: Do you have a special passion for fire cooking? I ask this because your demos at Pizza Expo, in the Forno Bravo WFO, were so creative.
Leo: Tim Cole, who is the COO for Forno Bravo WFO once gave me a description of his residential ovens and the people that were buying them. He referred to wood-fired cooking as primal; people cooking with fire, outdoors, to feed their family. I’ve been working with wood ovens for a very long time and cooking in them came naturally to me.
Throughout my life, I’ve traveled back to Calabria, Italy and it’s very typical for every house to have a hearth in their kitchen. I can always remember someone having something cooking or roasting in that hearth. There was no science to it. It was fire without a knob to turn to make the flame go up or down. I love that! Besides actually having to put some work and thought into what you are preparing when you cook with wood or coals, there’s also the flavors that are developed from cooking in this manner. Food is more exciting and dynamic when prepared in this way. The flavor of the smoke, or taste of the char, really brings the food to life. People also have a different appreciation and satisfaction when they know that something was cooked like this. My goal is to try and make entire meals in a wood oven.
My DVR is full of cooking shows and I’m constantly looking for interesting ideas that I think could translate well in a hearth or WFO. In my test kitchen back in Chicago, I have a Forno Bravo commercial wood oven, a Cuppone electric deck Italian pizza oven, and a Whirlpool residential gas stove that could be found in any home throughout America. As I test different ideas for various projects, at some point, it always ends up in my Forno Bravo. Some people will say that they have a hard enough time making a turkey in their home oven for Thanksgiving, my thing is showing them how to pull it off in their home oven, but then show them how to do it in a wood oven. And that’s not the end of it, I’ve made mussels in an olive oil can inside my wood oven, I’ve made chicken cacciatore inside a terra cotta pot in my wood oven, and I can’t even begin to tell you the number of bread loaves that I’ve made in one. I think the pleasure for me is hearing the logs crackle, the smell of the smoke, and the time you have thinking about what’s happening. Its an experience, I’m making whatever I’m cooking an event. There’s never a shortage of people wanting to come and hang out while I’m cooking in that wood oven. I think the same thing happens to guys who barbecue. Those guys will smoke a piece of meat for 12-18 hours, low and slow, all the while tending to the fire to make sure it’s just right. There’s a respect that happens for whatever you’re cooking as well as for your equipment. There’s no other way that I can put it. It’s like an extension of yourself in a form that dates back thousands of years…it’s primal, what’s not to love?
PQ: Could you share, say, 3 or 4 of your top tips with our readers for how to create great flavors and add to their menus, whether for restaurants or at home, with or without wood-fire?
Leo: Keep it simple. Let each ingredient shine yet compliment each other. Finding this balance is the key to creating anything great.
Experiment and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Some of my greatest successes started out as a mistake.
Taste for seasoning and adjust! You’ll be amazed what a little salt and pepper can do to any dish.
Fresh and seasonal ingredients taste better than canned, boxed, or jarred. Try using fresh produce and herbs when possible.
PQ: How can our readers get in touch with you if they have any questions or want to engage your services — or if they just want to taste your food?
Leo: When I developed www.askleopizza.com, I wanted to be able to give my visitors a way reach out to me if they had a question. After all, what good is having something called Ask Leo Pizza if people couldn’t ask me about pizza! We added a button on each page of my site that will allow someone to click and ask me a question in real time. It’s like sending me an instant message that goes right to my iPhone. I love how the questions have evolved too. What started out as people asking me simple pizza questions has now turned into people asking me for restaurant advice, menu development, and even for my favorite restaurants to dine at. I’m having a lot of fun and its amazing to have worked with people from all over the world.
My colleagues have a saying that I like: “Leo’s the greatest guy you never knew!” In my day-to-day work, I am the dough specialist for a high-speed pizza manufacturer in Chicago. I work with many of the major frozen pizza brands throughout the United States and Canada to develop new products that eventually go to market. If you’ve eaten a frozen pizza over the last three years, chances are that you’ve eaten something that I’ve created. I’ve also consulted in the restaurant industry for the past 10 years. I’ve worked with restaurant owners all over the U.S. to develop their pizza dough formulas as well as assist in their startups, all the way to the point of launch. I keep my client list confidential for obvious reasons, but you’d amazed at the restaurants and chefs that have reached out to me over the years for help. It has truly been a blessing to be able to take the knowledge that I’ve gained from almost 30 years of work and apply it to something that people can use and build upon. I like to think of it as helping develop the talent that will be the future of the pizza and restaurant industry.
PQ: Thanks so much, Leo, and keep up the great work! I look forward to hearing about your future projects and success, and to working with you in the future, especially at various events throughout the year, like Pizza Expo.
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Pizza Quest Info
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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