By Steve Coomes
Artisan pizza, such as this Mozzarella and tomato pizza from Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza , is enjoying a renaissance.
(Nov. 10, 2009) As American bakers got serious about Old World breads in the 1970s, customers who tasted them quickly turned away from the downy, soft slices shelved at home. Same for beer about a decade later: As craft brewers reintroduced drinkers to nearly forgotten darker, richer styles, thin lagers never looked paler or tasted blander.
Now a similar renaissance is happening with pizza. Though still recognized by the majority as a disc of crust, sauce and cheese delivered to the door, a growing number of consumers are catching on to pies born of long-fermented dough, hand-made cheeses and rustic toppings baked in fire-breathing 900-degree ovens.
Artisan pizza's new cache has even given life to a cognoscenti keen to discover the next great pie and claim it as "the best." As former New York Times restaurant critic Frank Bruni wrote in July, artisan pizza "isn't just loved, and it isnít just devoured. Itís scrutinized and fetishized, with a [Sarah] Palin-esque power to polarize."
Peter Reinhart envisioned as much 10 years ago and penned that prediction in his book, "American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza."
"The growth you're seeing in all these places confirms it," said Reinhart, chef on assignment at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., and a consulting partner in Pie Town, an artisan pizzeria there. "It has kind of arrived at that popcorn stage, where these pizzerias are starting to explode everywhere."
Even noted tall toques have turned to twirling the humble pie. David Meyers, a Los Angeles chef known for his avant garde cuisine at Sona, opened Pizzeria Ortica in Costa Mesa, Calif. Well-known restaurateurs Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali partnered to open Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles four years ago. And in a seemingly more natural transition, Sullivan Street Bakery's Jim Lahey moved to the savory side by opening Co. in Manhattan.
While a small body of American "pizzaioli" ó thatís Italian for multiple pizza makers ó have been at it for years and are gaining deserved recognition, their ranks haven't grown much. There are about 69,000 pizzerias in the United States, but sources estimate the number of truly artisan pizzerias is likely closer to 200.
When legends like Dominic DeMarco of DiFara's in Brooklyn, N.Y., won't let anyone else make their pizzas, slow growth is understandable. Meanwhile, Chris Bianco frequently rejects offers to franchise his pizzeria, the James Beard Award-winning Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, where customers regularly wait two hours for a table. Another lone pizzaiolo, Anthony Mangieri, opened Una Pizza Napoletana in Manhattan five years ago to rave reviews from local press ó and then sold the shop to pursue a new venture, reportedly in San Francisco.
By contrast, Mathieu Palombino is modestly more growth minded, opening up Motorino in Brooklyn last year, then scooping up and re-badging Una Pizza Napoletana this year. A classically trained chef, the French-born Palombino moved to the United States intending to open a white-tablecloth restaurant, but he was changed by the lure of artisan pizza.
"I wanted to do something top notch, but something very simple," said Palombino. "Pizza became that for me. Ö Here it's too often left to mediocrity and made for just a pure profit business. I wanted to do something more."
Alon Shaya, chef and partner at Domenica in New Orleans, shares Palombino's "philosophy when it comes to cooking, and especially pizza: make it as simple as possible and do it right, with the best-quality ingredients you can get."
Another classically trained chef, Shaya took a leave from his post at Besh Steakhouse in New Orleans and spent eight months and his life's savings eating, drinking and cooking his way through Italy. When he returned last April, he and restaurateur-chef John Besh partnered to create Domenica, which opened in September. The restaurant has an Italian-built wood-fired pizza oven with a stone deck rotated by a motor.
"It's an art, learning to balance time and temperature and cook at that oven," he said. "I've never stood back and said, 'We've got it, the perfect formula for making pizza.' "
Though Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza has grown to 20 units, even chief operating officer Bill Leahy admits the task of baking pizza by an 850-degree coal fire is like cooking in the gut of a dragon.
"It takes time to train people to maintain that oven," said Leahy, an Outback Steakhouse veteran. "If they've had experience and have mastered the paddle, I've seen them get it in a week. Others who don't have that take longer."
That Anthony's has grown to 20 units makes it a bit of an anomaly in the craft pizza world, where recipes often are closely guarded and "being at the oven, the only guy there day and night" is a point of pride, said Tony Gemignani. "In Italy, that's the pizzaiolo: the one making the pizzas, overseeing the dough and taking care of the fire day and night."
Despite Gemignani's fondness for the Italian masters ó he's certified by Italy's Vera Pizza Napoletana to teach Neapolitan pizza making at his International School of Pizza in San Francisco ó he's training others to bake at his newly opened artisan pizzeria, Tony's Pizza Napoletana, next to the school. Tony's makes five types of Italian and American pizza dough and cooks them in four different ovens, which are fueled by wood or electricity, to produce the very thin authentic Neapolitan, the slightly thick and chewy Sicilian and the well-known New York styles. Such work requires the help of others and a great deal of training by Gemignani and partner Bruno di Fabio.
"I wanted to train them to the point that the customer couldn't tell the difference between my pizza and that of someone who works under me," he said. Learning to make dough properly is just as difficult, he added. "You've really got to watch it and manage it. It takes a ton of experience because it's not easy."
Palombino agreed that training others is essential and added that the more skilled pizzaioli there are in the trade, the greater chance for growth ó even of chain expansion ó of artisan pizzerias.
"I don't believe in the idea of making every pizza myself, because there's always someone else to teach the craft to," he said. "Once you train someone and they catch it, they're excellent, and they don't know how to make a bad pizza. Some of their pizzas I've tasted are even better than mine!"
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