Pizza Obsessives: Pizzablogger, Raw and (Mostly) Uncensoredhttp://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2012/05/pizza-obsessives-pizzablogger-raw-and-mostly-uncensored.html
Due to size constraints, there was a bunch of good stuff that didn't make it into the final article. Here it is. Enjoy.(This is not a reprint of the interview, only the additional material. Go to Slice at the link above for the full interview.)When and how did you first “discover” pizza? Was your path to pizza obsessivness gradual or did you have an epiphany one day? (This is Kelly’s full answer to the question. Only the second half his answer was posted at Slice).
It’s been a gradual journey with lots of kindling being laid out over the years to help fuel a relatively recent dousing with lighter fluid and sparking a conflagration of sorts.
My Dad coached the town’s little league football and baseball teams when I was younger. After a big victory he would sometimes take the team out for pizza -- usually at Shakey’s Pizza Pub or Three Brothers Pizzeria in Beltway Plaza (PG Cownee bitches!). A special occasion would merit a trip to the original Ledo’s in Adelphi, Maryland. I used to think those places were the greatest…the fond memories of those trips will always linger, but I have long come to the realization that the pizza at those joints is just so-so when I taste them now.
As I got older, the first time I can remember eating a piece of pizza that I took notice of was somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan in 1989. It was early in the day on New Year’s Eve, I didn’t have any plans and I called up a girl I liked at work to see if she wanted to drive to NYC and see the ball drop. It was as good an idea as any. We got lost coming into NYC and I finally parked a little south and west of Times Square, close to the East River. On the way to Times Square we stopped in a random place and got a couple of slices. It was the typical no-nonsense slice joint with only a handful of toppings listed. I recall that the slices were crispy, thinner and much better than any similar styled pizza I had eaten before. It was really good and we both housed our slices. We made it to Times Square, froze our asses off for a couple of hours, saw the ball drop, got sticky from all the champagne being sprayed in the air, got lost trying to get out of the city and, exhausted, finally stumbled into a random hotel in New Jersey where the first thing the broad at the desk asked me was “how many hours”. Classy. It was a great New Year’s Eve and pizza was a part of it.
My first crap the pants moment was in 1993 or so when I was working in the Uptown Bakery on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, DC. Next door was Vace’s Italian Delicatessen. They still make a decent slice—a tad too sweet, but a decent slice. One day a person at the counter and I talked about pizza and he told me about how I needed to try Patsy’s in Harlem, NYC. Later on that year I went to NYC and made it to Patsy’s. We got a whole pizza and it was one of those moments where you realize a seemingly simple food item can be an object of desire if made well. That was when the seed was planted, but it remained largely dormant for years.
After that, I ate pizzas out and about in DC from time to time, with Pizza Paradiso being the earliest wood-fired pizza joint I can remember visiting back in the mid-90’s when I lived in DC. Over time I ate at places like 2Amys, Tocanelli’s in Philadelphia, etc., but I was not one of those people that knew a lot about pizza. This was also before broadband, YouTube and blogs really came to the fore and just blew open the available knowledge base on a particular topic for the average person.
The %$# storm was stirred by the June 30, 2008 edition of Wine Spectator: Great American Pizza. Having homebrewed in the very early nineties and long being a fan of craft made items like beer, coffee, bread and wine, the passion of the pizza makers that article brought to life really struck a chord in me. Not long after seeing that Wine Spectator article my wife and I rented a friend’s apartment in Manhattan for a week and made a point to visit a few pizzerias, including Una Pizza Napoletana. That UPN trip really blew my mind—not only the best pizza I had ever eaten, but one of the better meals I could remember. It was so moving I convinced my parents to drive to NYC with us just to eat at UPN and come home. About nine and a half hours in the car just to spend one hour eating pizzas and we all loved it. My Dad still says he can taste that crust in his mouth. He is now as much a pizza fanatic as I am.
From there I quickly kind of went berserk. The blog, the backyard tasting at Paulie Gee’s house, the Pieman’s Craft in 2009 and multiple trips to NYC to eat a lot of pizza and so on from there. And here I am today, an over opinionated gas bag and foul mouthed pot stirrer.The PG backyard tastings must have been a blast. What did you get out of them other than a great friendship? Did they influence the way you look at or bake pizza overall?
If there was any previous doubt, it definitely solidified my desire to have a wood fired oven one day. It was the first time I had ever been that close to a WFO and to be able to peer inside and really see multiple bakes from that viewpoint was fascinating (I nearly melted my video camera putting it practically in the mouth).
I'm not sure how much it influenced the way I looked at or baked pizza...the influence was more from a deepening of appreciation for pizza culture. And it was the first time I had heard Paulie's often cited mantra of having "pizza theater" being a critical part of the atmospheric component of a pizza joint. Having first heard Paulie's thoughts on that topic, and then being with him shortly afterwards on my first trips to both Lucali and Roberta's, probably the two greatest influences on his pizzeria, really reinforced that vision.
Paul and Mary Ann are so easy to get along with. Great people. And in mid-summer, with the surrounding trees and woodland and the tiny stream running along the property out front, their house is like a retreat. That was a magical evening....my wife and I still talk about it.What is the single most important element of a pizza in that style?
Balance….true for any style.Mike Royko said “Hating the Yankees is as American as pizza pie” Is pizza American?
No. And yes. It obviously was not invented in America, but it’s been adopted the world over and new styles unique to various countries, including America, have grown from it. Like pizzas oldest variants, other countries can lay claim to the first “proto-automobiles”, but the mass produced cars we think of today are an American creation. But does an Italian passionate about a Ferrari or a classic like the Fiat Cinquecento or Alfa Romeo Spider think of the auto as American or simply how great Italian automobiles are?By the way, is it pizza or pie?
Take your pick.It’s often said that pizza making is an art. In this light, how would you characterize pizza today? A lost art? Neoclassicism? Romanticism? Or maybe modern art?
It’s both art and science. Quite frankly, I don’t care about what type of art it could be classified as…as
long as it’s good, I’m in clover.Where do you see pizza heading over the next 5 years or so?
While the pizza style in vogue during a particular period may change, it would be a mistake not to realize that the trend in more well made pizzas will not stop….the cat’s already out of the bag. Too many people are trying really good pizza for the first time and are not going to stop desiring it. Pizza is actually late to this party.
Still, the chain type pizzerias will always dominate the market. Like beer, I reckon the “craft made” pizza segment will never grow to more than 10% of the total market share, if that. But that’s a bite that won’t go unnoticed. Dominos putting out “Artisan” pizza is proof positive the big boys have taken notice.
From a style standpoint it’s harder to say. In 2011 and young 2012 combined, there have been more pizzerias obtaining the VPN certification in America than in the preceding 20 years. I don’t see the Neapolitan trend stopping anytime soon, but there may be a shakeout of sorts in areas with a heavier saturation of Neapolitan pizzerias, either due to bad ownership, poor product, overpriced food or any number of reasons.
I sincerely hope there will be some return of quality to the neighborhood corner pizza joint serving NY-Style pizzas, which is desperately needed. In my opinion, no old school style is in a sadder state of affairs than NY-Style pizza. Every town needs a place like Best Pizza, New Park or Pizza Town.How would you rate your knowledge of NY pizza?
Moderate. I’ve eaten at a lot of pizza joints in NYC, more than many New Yorkers, even some NYC pizza enthusiasts, I would imagine. I’ve read and have in my possession many old newspaper and magazine articles about pizza in New York since the turn of the 20th century. But nothing can beat living there and being on the street to get the pulse of what is happening in real time. Someone like Slice Harvester or Scott Weiner knows a lot about NY Pizza. My knowledge from 200 miles away will always be lagging.What are your top 10 places in the US?
I really am mostly East Coast in experience and have no basis to even judge on a national scale….and I can’t stand lists. You would be better able to make a more informed national list than I would.What is the most overrated place?
Lombardi’s. Period.What are the most important elements of great pizza? Are they the same for homemade and restaurant pizza? (This is Kelly’s full answer to the question. Only the first half his answer was posted at Slice).
They are the same for both. Balance is key, but attention to the crust is of paramount importance. For styles like NY-Style and Neapolitan, the crust is the only part of a pie that gets to define itself in the absence of the other ingredients….once you eat all the other stuff, the end crust is all that remains. You should want to scarf the end crust because it is delicious and has a nice texture (it’s often the first bite I take). For me, pizza bones are one of the saddest sights in pizzadom.
You could argue the commercial joint has more to expect from it because they have the better equipment, spend more time making pizza than most home pizza makers and are charging us money to eat it, but the edge rests squarely with the home pizza maker. We get to experiment more, have no constraints with regards to food costs, time constraints, making drastic changes to our process if needed, etc. The very best pizzas in this country are being made in homes like yours Craig, not in commercial establishments.How would you define the term “pizza snob?”
Someone who thinks they know it all and no longer keep an open mind to learning something new. What is your favorite part of the dining out pizza experience?
Sharing a commonly loved food with other people and not having to do any of the work.What are your other favorite foods? Are you as passionate about any other food?
Too many! I am not overly knowledgeable about all of them, but I seek out and and really enjoy eating Indian, Mediterranean (Italian, Spain, Greek, Lebanese, etc), Ethiopian, Thai, Sushi, Mexican, etc.
I love spices….not solely spicy hot, but the interplay of various spices. I love to make fresh pasta. I’ve yet to wade into the Indian pool at home, which I want to do. Another thing I cannot do and it really pisses me off is make a stellar bowl of guacamole like my wife can. But I make a damned good margherita or paloma to go with her guacamole, so we’re a good team. What is your favorite hobby other than those pizza-related?
Reading and riding roller coasters are two of a few that come to mind.What are the things a pizza operator needs to get right every time?
Consistency. Whatever the finished quality level of the product, it should fall within a reasonable window of consistency. Depending on how often a place makes pizza dough, I get that a dough can be different from the beginning of service to the end of service. An oven likely will cook a bit differently during a particularly busy period at the pizzeria, etc. So I expect some variation in pies from one visit to the next in a commercial joint, but that variation should be relatively tight.
It just boggles my mind how so many pizzerias can vary from decent to poor from visit to visit. There are many factors involved in this, but I believe having someone invested into the process is critical to have on hand. What elements do you see in common across the best places?
The owner is on the premises, if not making the pizzas, nearly every day…..and that owner is a knowledgeable and curious pizza enthusiast.What are the most common mistakes made by the professionals?
First, as I stated in my Iggies interview on Slice and in other places multiple times, as a home pizza maker I have not made the mistake of thinking I am some hotshot that knows more than a commercial pizza operator. Many of us have relatively little idea what is involved with working at a busy pizzeria. That being said….
Measurements by volume: I’ve seen more than one pizza place which measures their formula ingredients with everything from sauce pots to drink pitchers to a certain sized Styrofoam soda cup. So right from the get-go your measurements are going to be different from one day to the next, especially if more than one person measures ingredients from time to time. This plays a hand in the consistency issues found at too many pizza joints.
Short-Fermentations: One of the hallmarks of flavorless pizza. Brick Oven Pizza in Baltimore mentioned on Diner’s Drive Throughs and Dives that they mix their dough 10 times a day. Saying something like that is like hanging a sign on your joint saying “Enthusiasts Need Not Visit”. And the crust there has always had all of the flavor you would expect from such a practice, without the quality of top side ingredients to help rescue it.
A pizzeria does not need to employ a Roberto like regimen of up to around 72 or so hour ambient temperature fermentations. But the difference between a simple overnight rise and one of just a couple of hours is a big one.
Oven Temperatures and Long Bakes: Particularly for NY-Style pizzerias, not turning up the damned thermostat on their deck ovens. Long-bakes are absolutely repulsive. Seven, eight and lots of 10+ minute bakes have been timed on my stopwatch….leather-like, dried out, cottony, dreadful pizzas. If you are running a NY-Style pizzeria cooking pizzas under 500°F, WTF are you thinking about (and 600 to 650 would be a better mark to shoot for)? You’re a phony pizzeria.
One of the pizza operators that has been gracious to share information with me over the years mentioned he has someone come check and, if needed, calibrate the thermostat on his deck oven to make sure the oven is performing consistently. That’s the kind of attention I’m talking about.
Enthusiast-Owner-Operator: The biggest mistake is not having a knowledgeable enthusiast operating the pizzeria. If you have a business owner who is focused solely on profits, gets their information on pizza making from an outfit like NAPICS and then has high school kids making the pizzas…well you might be selling a lot of pizza and making money, but you’re almost assuredly selling a bunky product. Still, when people will line up to order mediocre or even bad pizza, you can understand why many owners have cut corners and costs. Is there anything you routinely see in pizzerias that you think is dead wrong?
10+ minute bakes for non-pan style pizzas. It happens all over the place.Is the leoparding at Neapolitan places getting to be over the top?
In some instances yes, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder.More and more places are pulling their own mozzarella. Is anything gained by this?
If you are serving it as an app while still a little warm with some olive oil drizzled over it and some freshly cracked black pepper…yes!
From a pizza perspective, unless it is done because the joint is in an area where good mootzarell can’t be sourced easily, I’m not so sure. It depends on how good the finished cheese is.
Personally speaking, I would do a blind taste test where my own house pulled mootz, a fior-di-latte from an outfit like Grande, something like Crave Brothers and an imported fior-di-latte from Italy are all set out in front of me. If by touching, feeling, tasting and then seeing how it melts during a bake does not delineate my own pulled mootz as the preferred choice in such a blind tasting, then why take the time to do it? Would it be for the advertising aspect?
That’s the kind of thing I think any pizzeria should do before making such a decision about any contrived choice. Challenge yourself to find the answer!How important is the passion of the pizzaiolo? Is there any substitute?
They are closely related, but pride may be the more important trait. Passion can sometimes wax and wane. When a pizzamaker’s passion may be in a bit of a dip, an operator who has real pride still won’t let his product get lackluster.I recently read that a restaurant in Atlanta calls out on its menu the things it won’t do, such as slice the pizza or alter the toppings because of strict adherence to AVPN requirements. Do you think some places are starting to take themselves too seriously?
Yes. I get what Double Zero is saying and I personally feel that a pizza maker not wanting to alter his topping combinations to keep his vision of the pizza intact is not a bad thing. But the attitude is a little much at times.Can a top tier place maintain quality and consistency with more than one location?
That’s tough. It depends on how much travelling to each location the owner does. At the end of the day, is there anyone at the pizzeria the owner can trust as much as himself to keep standards high and maintain quality? If not, then the owner has to travel a lot between various locations….the real prospect that the owner could walk into the location at any given moment would be crucial. How long have you been a vegetarian? Why did you decide to adopt that lifestyle?
Nearly six years. Thanksgiving 2006. I cooked the bird for the second year in a row. Brined in sea salt water for 24 hours, mixed freshly chopped sage into Plugra butter and then smeared it between the meat and the skin, more plugra smeared on the skin with cracked black pepper, the cavity stuffed with an orange, lemon and an entire bunch of rosemary and thyme to keep the bird moist and flavorful and into the pan rested on a bed of carrots and celery. I also use the broiler technique…..pulling the foil and letting the bird sit under the raging broiler for about 8 to 10 minutes to develop a deep caramelization and crunch on the skin. I can cook a pretty killer bird for Thanksgiving.
My wife has not had any meat for close to 20 years now and had a lot of books on the topic. She never prodded me or pressured me and even would cook meat for me from time to time. I had just finished a book in the summer of 2006 and out of curiosity started reading her books on the topic. There was a good portion of rubbish in the books, but some of it struck me. I have a habit of trying to find the source material from book footnotes and started reading some of that. After a few months of persistent reading from both sides of the argument, it just struck me that I simply cannot eat this way anymore…..and I’m not one of those people that did it primarily because of the treatment to animals. I did it for me.
That being said, I ate meat in October 2011. Paulie and I were in Philadelphia at Stephen Starr’s Beer Garden, it was getting late and I was ravenous and needed to drive back to Baltimore soon. I ordered the faux meat sausage and they were out. I just said f..k it and got the bratwurst. It was okay, but it was greasy and not the best choice for a meat binge. And I’m sure my toilet was like, dude, how much more of an effing workout are you going to give me today?Other than the obvious, how does being meat free affect the way you approach pizza at home? When eating out?
It doesn’t affect me at all when I make pizza myself. Here are the pizzas I am making. You can either eat them or not. When eating out most places offer a few pizzas I can eat and I usually prefer a basic pizza anyways, even when I was eating meat.Herman Cain, the former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, said “A manly man don’t want [pizza] piled high with vegetables! He would call that a sissy pizza.” How would you respond to him?
I’d laugh.Is pizza the perfect food to bring a vegetarian and an unabashed carnivore like me together?
Definitely.I can only think of one other vegetarian active on pizzamaking.com. Does this surprise you?
No. What are your favorite vegetarian toppings/combinations that others may not have thought of trying?
I’m pretty simple and many of the toppings combinations I like were copped from other people and places.
One of my favorite pizzas to make I have named the Starita Limon in honor of Antonio Starita’s lemon pizza made at his first one-night appearance at Keste a couple of years ago. Smoked mozzarella, sea salt, olive oil, marjoram, thinly sliced lemon (with the rind on) and Mike’s Hot Honey. The heat of the bake releases some of the juice from the lemon, which leaks all over the pizza. The lemon really brightens things up…..it’s a great pizza to add in the middle of a multi-pizza home tasting when your taste buds might need a little kick in the crotch to wake back up.Do you ever use any of the faux-meat items as toppings?
No. None of them available where I live are very good for pizza. For the most part the whole pre-packaged faux meat thing is baloney. I may occasionally put some faux Italian sausage in an onion and tomato sauce for pasta, but that’s about it.Prosciutto, sausage, smoked pepperoni, guanciale… do you ever feel like you are missing out on great pie by skipping the meat? Seriously, how can you survive without Brussels sprouts and pancetta pizza in your life?
I’ve eaten a lot of types of meat, from Cinghiale in the hills of Chianti to lamb testicles on Persian New Year’s (Nowruz)and liked them all very much. But truth be told, I rarely miss eating meat. I’ll eat it again, but the circumstance would have to be right….like going out with you and killing a wild boar with something like a bow and arrow or being in an old Italian grandmother’s house for dinner while in Italy to eat a meal she has worked for hours on. Can you fully and fairly evaluate a pizza place if you can only try a subset of their pies?
Of course. Give me a cheese pizza or give me a margherita. If you can’t put out a quality regular pie, then why put expensive stuff on it? The truth is right there in the plain pie.What do you get from pizza at home that you do not get from eating out?
I get to experience the process….even if it turns out to be a debacle from time to time.How often do you make pizza?
Up until two weeks ago, in the last two years I have made pizza about 15-20 times. Granted, some of those have been 10-16 pie sessions, but many reading this make pizza far more often than I do. And those gaps between sessions allow rust to accumulate.Tell me about Ruby… “Not Neapolitan. Not gourmet. Just pizza?”
I had a serious creative cockblock with a name. A beloved dog of mine died and I used her name as part of my “pizzeria”.
The description is because so many people are quick to reach for a style compartment to place a pizza into. It’s this style or that style and such. In Baltimore, a lot of places either mention themselves as being gourmet or magazines will say in a review that a place is gourmet. Like, really, what’s so friggen’ gourmet about it?
My pies are not gourmet and that would be an insult to me to call it so. It’s is a big pet peeve of mine. To this day, I have never been served a great, memorable pizza from a joint that describes itself as gourmet. Bullocks.
And while my rounds are definitely inspired by Neapolitan pizzas, they in no way could be deemed as “Neapolitan”. It’s just pizza…..put it in your mouth and eat it.I remember you saying you had a pretty small back yard. Any plans to move to a place where you would have room for a WFO?
Yes. My wife has already given me the green light to build a WFO when we move to a place with more of a yard. I’m looking forward to building it myself….and a pretty big oven at that. I constantly wonder what it would be like to have an oven that puts out a nice, hot, even heat with a refractory chamber that maintains all that heat. With some time and a good oven I think I could make some good pizzas.I think most folks are familiar with your knowledge of pizza, but probably less know about your extensive knowledge of wine. Tell us a little about your interest in wine. ? (This is Kelly’s full answer to the question. Only the first half his answer was posted at Slice).
I’m not sure how extensive it is, but my interest in wine is like many things. I wasn’t just interested in drinking it, which is the best part, but in learning how it is made and the impact different regions have on grapes. That led me into reading a lot on the topic, studying and then out of curiosity to improve my knowledge sitting for the first exam of the Court of Master Sommeliers, which I passed. I was one class away from being a Certified Sommelier, but I don’t drink enough to be ready for it.
I sat next to two people from Blackberry Farm at the course and they were pretty intense. We blind sampled a lot of wines in class and I struggled to correctly be the first to identify a Rioja once, but these guys were guessing more of them correctly than not….not just the grape and region as you would expect, but several times the grower and year. f..k! I knew I was way out of my league, but that was a fun experience.All things being equal, do you grab a beer or a glass of wine with a pizza? Is your answer different eating at home vs. eating out?
It’s probably equal. When I’m out with a group I tend to have wine. If it is a smaller group or just me, I’ll often get a beer….or water. At home it’s also about 50-50.If you had to give up wine or pizza, which would it be?
Wine….there would still be beer and liquor! Without pizza there ain’t no more pizza.What are your plans for [pizzablogger.org] going forward?
I have a few ideas percolating that I have not had time to delve into, but I don’t know is part of the equation as well. How did you initially get hooked up with Slice?
Adam noted my interview with Joe Edwardsen from Joe Squared and linked to it. (Interview With A Coal Firer I believe is the title).Has blogging opened up doors for you? Got you special treatment?
Yes, it got me to Paulie’s backyard for a tasting in July, 2009 that I will never forget.
But other than a free tee-shirt from Iggies they gave me without me asking and a nice sampling of some of the rums at Joe Squared offered to me , I have not once asked for or taken items and I have never once been comped for any place I have blogged about. I have gotten a free pizza at three places…but my relationship with those owners has moved beyond blogger-owner into genuine friendships--and for that reason I will never blog about them as I’m far too biased.Your photography and photo editing talents are well regarded. How did you develop your skills?
My skill set behind a lens is really rudimentary at best.
I have a lot of photos I cannot use because I failed to get a good shot onto the memory card. Entire pizzeria trips with nary a photo I would feel comfortable posting on-line. I need to take a few photography classes.
I try to look at pizza and food photos from people I think take a good shot like Robyn Lee and Nick Solares on Slice and especially Jennifer Galatioto at Morta Di Fame for some inspiration on angles, lighting and apertures that work well with pizza and then try to incorporate that into my own shots.What software do you use? Are there any tricks or methods that you think everyone should know?
A now hopelessly old copy of Photoshop Elements Version 4.
I don’t take too many shots, but I just try to find some type of a base, be it a water glass, stack of books… something…to get my camera steady as it struggles even in moderate light. I then bracket a half exposure each way and click. I get lucky and get a workable shot from time to time and it is pretty clean because the camera is still.
As an aside, I’m no photo whiz, but some of the pictures people put up on blogs, etc….my god. Look, any asshole can pull out a smart phone, take a quick--almost surreptitious, blurry and/or poorly exposed shot, spend zero time color correcting and editing it and post it to their blog or to places like Twitter, Urbanspoon, etc. For the casual eater I understand that. But for a blogger? Just lazy.
I see so many food blogs with pictures that make the food look like %$#, which makes the blog look like %$#. You have to realize that some people will be highly influenced by pictures. And whether you like a place or not, it does represent some sacrifice of time and money by the owners and people working there -- at least make some effort to put a decent photo up. Spend some time learning about post-processing software to help your photos. Not everyone has a knack for composition (I don’t), but at least try to get the color and lighting corrected as best you can…ideally on the shot itself or via post-processing. And buy a #*%$ semi-decent camera. Even a mid-grade point and shoot runs laps around most smart phones. High horsed rant off.Anything else you want to get off your chest?
For one summer at least, leave the powdered or liquid margarita mix exactly where it belongs…on the shelf along with the orange juice. None of that belongs in a margarita and that’s not an opinion, that’s a fact.And there you have it.