Interview with Liz Barrett
Note from Peter: Liz Barrett is the Editor at Large for PMQ Pizza Magazine, one of the world’s major sources of all things having to do with pizza. Her new book just came out and Liz agreed to answer a few questions for us. I wanted to post some of the photos from the book, including its great cover shot, but our technical problems are preventing that for now, so I suggest you link over to her website and Facebook page to see more or, better yet, buy the book, which is chock full of American pizza history, folk-lore, and guest interviews with many pizza luminaries (including one by me). Enjoy!
–Tell us about your new book, “Pizza: A Slice of American History,” and about that fabulous cover shot.
I was approached by Voyageur Press to write the book, and I happily accepted the challenge. We tossed around a couple of ideas for the book but landed on one that would tell the history behind the different pizza styles that exist across America as well as the ingredients used in each. The book is written for anyone who loves pizza—which should be just about everyone. At the same time, the book honors those in the industry who have dedicated their lives to crafting the pizzas we’ve all grown up with, no matter where we live. The cover shot was chosen by the book’s cover designer, Diana Boger. It’s a 50’s-style pizzeria located on Catalina Island in Avalon, California. Oddly enough, right before the book was released, my sister Shannah went to Catalina Island and posed in front of the pizzeria, not knowing it was on the cover of my book. Talk about a small world!
–What has it been like being a writer and editor for a major pizza magazine? What are some of the most unusual stories you’ve covered and who are some of your favorite pizza heroes?
Well, being able to write about something you’ve loved your entire life is a true blessing. Folks always ask me if I get tired of eating pizza, and honestly, I can’t imagine ever getting tired of it. I consider pizza a blank slate; you can have it so many different ways, how could it ever get boring? The pizza industry is full of interesting characters, which also makes it fun. I learned early on that every pizzeria has the BEST pizza, and that the debates about pizza can get as heated as a political debate, so make sure there are no sharp objects around if you’re going to disagree with someone about where the best slices are. As far as pizza heroes, I think that anyone who is brave enough to embark on their own pizzeria business, putting out a delicious product and quality customer service, is a hero in my eyes. There are too many to list here.
–You’ve seen about every kind of pizza that has been or can be made. What, in your opinion, are the keys to crafting a great pizza?
At the risk of sounding “cheesy,” it really does have to do with the love that goes into a pizza. And when I say love, I mean the human touch. When I see a pizzaiolo behind the counter who is kneading the pizza dough, carefully applying the tomato sauce, and meticulously applying toppings, that pizza tastes exponentially better than a pizza that goes through a pizza press and an automatic topping machine. This isn’t to say that those other pizzas are bad, they’re just different.
For folks who are interested in competing on the U.S. (or any) Pizza Team, what are the things judges look for when determining who makes the team? In terms of the pizza itself, how much is about the crust and how much about the toppings?
There’s an acrobatic and a culinary division of the U.S. Pizza Team. For those competing in the culinary trials, the pizzas are judged on taste, appearance, and commercial viability. When I was running the competitions, I usually advised competitors not to overthink their pizza, and just keep it simple. When you’re working in a competition environment, using ovens you aren’t used to, with fluctuating temperatures, you don’t want to worry about a loaded pie not cooking all the way through. From my experience, one of the main reasons pizzas received low scores was because they were not cooked thoroughly enough, and the majority of pizzas that won, were topped with simple ingredients.
–Everyone has a favorite pizzeria, or maybe a few, so we know this is a subjective, debatable question, but can you tell us about five or six of the best pizzas or pizzerias you’ve ever experienced, and what makes them so?
I agree that this is a subjective question, which is why I usually don’t answer it. My tastes are always changing, since I’m always discovering new and wonderful pizzas and pizzerias. With that said, I have certain pizzerias that I revisit when I’m traveling….some of which include, but are not limited to: Keste, Motorino, Grimaldi’s, and John’s in New York; Spacca Napoli and Coalfire in Chicago; Varasano’s in Atlanta; Sally’s in New Haven, CT; and I’m sure I’m leaving out some great ones, which is why I avoid that question. Luckily enough, I have an award-winning pizzeria, which I adore, just 30 minutes from my house, called TriBecca Allie Café, in Sardis, MS. I like it so much that I even had my wedding reception there this past July. After all, everyone loves pizza!
–What do you see ahead as the most important new trends in the world of pizza?
We’ve seen more and more general restaurants adding pizzas to the menu in the form of flatbreads and personal-size pizzas; it allows consumers to enjoy pizza in more places, but also takes away from the traditional pizzeria experience. Additionally, the build-your-own (fast casual) pizza craze has taken off, with restaurants such as 800 Degrees and Top That! Pizza offering a Subway-esque way for customers to build their own pizzas. And, while I don’t consider it a trend, online ordering continues to grow and advance, with options to order via the press of a button on your smartphone, something that was unheard of just a few years ago.
–Finally, how can our readers get your book and access your web site and travel schedule if they want to get their book signed?
The book is available in bookstores and at all of the online booksellers. I’ve set up a page on my website with more information about the book, signings, and a link to the Facebook page at: www.writtenbyliz.com.
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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.
...and other books by Peter Reinhart, available on Amazon.com