"So with all that as a background, here is my question. Is the original Lombardi/Patsy/Totanno approach the ultimate expression of artisan pizza making you are referring to? Or do we have to take another step back in time all the way to Naples?"
You have no idea how timely your quote is. I am currently writing the intro feature for PMQ about artisan pizza: what it is, what it is not and who is doing it; it is time to officially define it as a movement. In 2007 I will be writing a regular column for them devoted entirely to artisan pizza subjects. This piece that I'm working on is important because it will be the first major article written about artisan pizza in a trade journal--and probably anywhere else. The term has been kicked around, but no one has, as of yet, tackled defining it.
I have been kicking the term around since 1991 when I became a member of the Bread Bakers Guild of America and a devotee of artisan bread techniques. It was my dream for pizza makers to embrace the artisan approach to pizza and really take their craft and passion to the highest level. Slowly, that's been happening, partially as a result of the influence of the artisan bread movement and culinary movements such as Slow Food and the growing demand for hand-produced, sustainable, organic, locally procuced and grown ingredients. Plus a few additional culinary influences.
I'm sure we will be discussing all of this in detail over time, but briefly, I will explain what I mean by artisan pizza. I've noticed that on this site there are a number of camps on pizza--and that is very typical of pizza lovers and makers--it's what makes pizza a global passion. However, in my universe, and I do mean unisverse, there are many different ways to approach this subject. For example, I bristle at someone telling me that only greatness can be had from a pizza made in Naples in New York City or New Haven or anywhere else. I believe that great pizza can be made by anyone--anywhere--who has the skill , the passion and the desire to create the best pizza they possibly can. There certainly are styles and methods to be observed: for example if one wishes to make a VPN style pizza, certain proceedures, ingredients and equipment would become necessary. As soon as some one strays from that methodology, it becomes a variation--or something else: Neapolitanesque--in the manner of Naples. The old master style of NY pizza such as the Lombardi formula is not generally practised in pizzerias in NYC--only a few hold outs still do it (even if they don't do it as well).
Then there are the Chris Biancos, Una Pizza Napoletana's and others out there who are putting their own destinctive touch to their pizza from numerous influences.
Personally, as a pizza maker who has specialized in these techniques for over 30 years, my methodology and formul keep on evolving as well. The pizza that I produce now surpasses what I learned from my masters by a long shot. I'm not bragging about this, but in chosing the artisan approach, I am continually questioning my ingredients and methods. I am continually fine-tuning my pizza--like an artist does to artwork. The difference between me and my mentors, is that they only knew how to do one thing--which they did exceedingly well, but they were never driven to understand what they werer doing or to attempt to take it to new heights. For them, it always was and always would be.
In those days, procucts were for the most part, pure. Most everything was made by hand and flour milled in small batches, so they didn't have to think about the choice. However, as pizza progressed into the 50's, choices were made, and the pizza changed--to a lesser extent for the masters, but for the rest, it changed significantly. At first, I only wanted to return to the exact ways of the old formula--and I did attain that goal back in the early 80's, but it wasn't enough. When I became exposed to artisan bread, I had my epiphany. (I used to be an artist, so I tend to make art analogies, so please forgive me.) But when you first study art, you create works that have all of the influences off your favorite artists--the same is for pizza. However, you do not become a mature artist until you find your own style--your own voice. That is what happened to me, and that is when I surpassed my mentors and developed my own mature style.
So what does this have to do with artisan pizza? Everything, it's not the style, but the substance that makes an artisan pizzaiolo. Here are some of the ground rules I will be discussing in the article: to satisfy "artisan" the pizza must be hand formed and hand stretched--no presses, sheeters or dough rounders. Mixers are acceptable, but the dough management off the mixer must be by hand. The ingredients must be pure, no additives, arificial ingredients, extenders or conditioners. Dough management is based on traditional methods of direct mix, or indirect mix, natural yeasts, starters, preferments etc. Tomatoes can be any high quality tomato: what to look for? Fresh-pak and no citric acid--San Marzano only? No, that is a matter of taste and the type of pizza you wish to produce. Look for locally produced and grown sustainable, organic--whenever possible and support local artisans who are hand-producing their cheese, sausage, salumi etc. Time is when the pizza is properly baked and not looking at it with a production stop watch as most commercial operators do.
Artisan pizza is not for every one, but it is a growing movement. Most certainly all of you on this site are already artisan pizza makers.
Sorry if this sounds stilted but it's a big, big subject and I'm in the middle of trying to get it down on paper.
Let the discussion begin...