Three Life Lessons from Pizza
Note from Peter: Welcome back to guest columnist Joseph Calcagno, whose reflective stories about his own personal quest always bring me great joy. Here, he shares some of the valuable things that pizza has taught him. If any of you would like to add your own life lessons to this list, please write to me at Peter@pizzaquest.com and you too can be a guest columnist. The “quest” is a universal part of life, something we all share whether we articulate it or not, which is why Joseph’s reflections always are about more than just his own journey. Write to me if you’d like to share yours.
Three Life Lessons I’ve Learned from Being a Home Pizza Maker
by Joseph Calcagno
Did I just see that? A pizza with crispy fried duck, shaved cucumber, and sesame seeds. Sure did. There’s no distinct cultural profile of flavors here that I could easily identify. We can rule out Italian, for sure. However, it looks delicious. While the old timers may consider this heresy, pizza has evolved to parts unknown with passion, artistry and a morally sound culinary mission.
That curious spirit is an old friend and yet a perfect stranger. To understand and know it fully is as futile as chasing the wind. It sifts like flour through this old pizza soul and feeds me slices of life lessons.
Life Lesson #1 – Rules were made to be broken.
My naturally fermented aspirations and yearning for wild yeast as a home pizza baker came with a users manual. As the son and grandson of professional pizzaiolos there is a sacred faith rooted in tradition.
Born into a New York-style, pizza-by-the-slice shop, I defended this version of pizza as a virtue. I could not fathom the appeal of grocery aisle frozen pies or the stuffed crust craze of the ’90’s ushered in by the growing fast-food pizza chains. The commandments of pizza making were bestowed upon me at birth and I tried in earnest to emulate them in my home kitchen.
It would be far fetched to believe that a New York style pizzeria is breaking some of the rules and doing so with tremendous success. Yet, Lucali, in Brooklyn, owned by Mark Iacono, is one of the most famous pizzerias in the country today and they’ve done it by making their own rules.
A hand-stretched wet dough? No. They use a low-hydration dough, which makes hand stretching a challenge. The solution: each pie is stretched thin with a makeshift rolling pin – a wine bottle. Raw tomatoes? No. The sauce is cooked – 4 hours! After all, flavor takes time.
Their signature pie is the classic cheese pizza with fresh tomatoes, artisan cheeses and fresh basil. Pizza in its purest form. And it’s reached celebrity status.
So use your rolling pin, layer on the crispy duck or keep it original, on pizza or in life. The rules were made to be broken.
Life Lesson #2 – Practice doesn’t always make perfect, and that’s okay.
There’s a lot that goes into making pizza at home. Especially if you make your own dough (which to me, is the best part), the pizza making process starts some days in advance. Pizza dough poses certain unique challenges compared to other culinary ventures. The temperamental nature of dough has created a tit for tat relationship between bread and baker for centuries. You can follow the recipe word-for-word a thousand times and still end up with something different every time. There are seemingly endless dough methods and experiments that turn us into mad scientists. A change in temperature here or a dash of salt there might change everything. Surely we can yell “It’s alive!” as the dough rises, but it may very well be Frankenstein’s monster that comes out of the oven. Consistency is, and always will be, a challenge.
I’ve learned that practice does make better, but never perfect. Life is always going to throw challenges, changes, and variants into the grandiose recipe of life we try to follow.
Life Lesson #3 – Patience is a virtue
Again, flavor takes time. And the proof is in the – well — proofing!
Bread can be the nurturing mother or the gun slinging cowboy of the wild west. In order to understand and appreciate the magical and mystical journey of dough, patience is required.
There is no victory in taking shortcuts when it comes to making dough. It needs tender, loving, attentive care. The growing pains of fermentation will result in a superior, refined and mature dough but it truly is a transformative experience. Many will find this journey to be unnecessarily arduous. Some, however, will discover some of the greatest joy and sense of accomplishment they’ve ever felt or tasted.
We can try to knead, stretch, pull and shape life in anyway we desire. The end result – success or failure – isn’t always in our flour dusted hands.
I am eternally grateful and humbled by this pizza hobby of mine. There is a sweet serenity in feeding a sourdough starter one day for a house full of hungry guests the next. They both sprout from the same grain.
As I plan for springtime adventures and pizza quests ahead I’ll continue to break the rules, practice often and be patient. I will seek, explore and be inspired by the crispy duck topping and rolling pin wielding pizza makers of the world.
As T.S. Eliot once wrote, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
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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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