The rising artisan pizza movement

 
Dec. 8, 2004

When author Peter Reinhart set out to find the perfect pizza for his book, "American Pie," he uncovered some unexpected treasures. Sure, visits to great Italian pizzerias were part of his two-year search, as were stops at U.S. pizza temples like Lombardi's, John's Pizzeria and Frank Pepe's.

But surprisingly, he found other spots of keen interest along the way: Luisa's Brick Oven Pizzeria (Charlotte, N.C.), Scholls Public House (Scholls, Ore.) and Pizzeria Bianco (Phoenix). It didn't take long, Reinhart said, to recognize the similarities between those and a bare handful of others in the U.S.: All were single-unit operations with wood-fired brick ovens, where the owners not only made the dough (often by hand) but baked the pizzas themselves, nearly every day.

Plus, the pizza was extraordinary.

Those pizza makers' dedication to their craft and its Neapolitan roots reminded him of the artisan baking and craft beer movements begun in the early 1980s. In both cases, people had learned — either via international travel or study — bakers and brewers beyond America's shores were producing bread and beer superior to anything most Yanks had ever tasted.

"What I realized is that same thing was beginning to happen in pizza," said Reinhart, chef on assignment

The characteristic charred cornicione of an artisan crust.

for Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, one of the nation's top culinary schools. In the book, he dubbed the nascent trend "the artisan pizza renaissance." "Webster's Dictionary" defines artisan as "a person skilled in an applied art; a craftsperson." Reinhart extends that to pizza makers who are obsessed foremost with dough, followed by the sourcing and preparation of the finest toppings available.

"It's the skill of the baker who's drawing flavor out of the wheat through understanding proper fermentation, which is where it all begins," said Reinhart, who, along with his wife, owned and operated an artisan bakery. "An artisan dough is a trickier dough because it's wetter, a little fussy and needs gentle handling. You just can't give it to a high school kid and say, 'Make a pizza.' It's too delicate for that."

Tacky doughs yield a wholly unique pizza, he said, when baked within the scorching confines or a wood- or coal-fired brick oven. A scant 2 minutes to 3 minutes within the inferno is all that's needed to produce a thin, crispy crust with a puffy "cornicione" or edge. "When you bite it, the dough will snap on the outside, but have this wonderfully fluffy texture on the inside that dissolves into cream inside your mouth," he added.

Those same sensations triggered Ron Molinaro's obsession to produce the perfect pizza. While living in New York in 1990, he scoured the city looking for the ultimate pie. He stumbled onto it at Patsy's, then located under the Manhattan side of the Brooklyn Bridge.

"Once

Peter Reinhart, culinary instructor and author of "American Pie."

I tasted that, it inspired me to pursue it to its origin in Naples," said Molinaro, who found what he claimed to be the best pizza anywhere at that city's Da Michele. "There's only two menu items: pizza Margherita or pizza marinara (without cheese). And I'm telling you, you'll have the most difficult time choosing what to eat."

Molinaro spent time with Da Michele's staff learning about its dough and ingredient choices, and then brought those experiences back to his hometown of Pittsburgh, where he opened Il Pizzaiolo eight years ago. His dough is made daily, allowed to ferment at least 12 hours at 65 F, and portioned an hour or two before using. At a cost of $10 per pound, he imports real buffalo mozzarella from Naples and his fior di latte comes from New York. His 12-inch pizzas start at $14 and increase with added toppings.

If you want a pizza at Scholls Public House, prepare to wait at least 20 minutes. Co-owner Brian Spangler is the only one making it, which can take awhile when a perfectionist's hands are in the dough. A former artisan baker, Spangler's desire to pursue pizza grew out of his dissatisfaction with common offerings.

"I didn't want to give another dollar to anyone again for mediocre pizza," said Spangler, whose shop is in Scholls, Ore. "I was already a baker, so I knew how to make dough, and I knew how to make brick ovens."

Spangler makes his dough by hand over a 24-hour period. It is so hydrated that "you can tap the dough at one end and a ripple will go through it." Handling requires gentle folding, rather than rough kneading.

"To me, 99 percent of great pizza is the dough," he said. "You can put great ingredients on cardboard, but it's not going to taste good. Great pizza comes from properly fermented dough (and) from proper oven management."

Like Spangler, Ed LaDou used to make dough by hand at Caioti Pizza Café in Studio City, Calif. — until his back gave out. Doing it by hand is the best way, he said, but at some point, practicality has to be considered.

"It's back-breaking work; I had two herniated discs from that," said LaDou, who is credited by many as the creator of California-style pizza. "It was a great experiment, but I had to say to myself, 'Let's be

start quoteYou can get the most creative, expensive toppings in the world, but if you put those together on a mediocre crust, the customer will say, 'Oh, that pizza was very interesting,'" he said. "But they will not say, 'That was so good, I can't wait to come back.'end quote

-- Peter Reinhart,
Author of "American Pie."

practical here: Do you think the customers noticed when you quit making it by hand?' The answer was no."

But that doesn't mean he lets his mixer alone dictate the final texture of his dough. "The things that are transmitted through touch are as important as watching. So the people I train to make dough are taught to stop the machine and touch the dough. It's got to be just right, and that takes practice."

Molinaro agreed, saying he couldn't keep up with demand at Il Pizzaiolo and continue making dough by hand.

"I definitely support the idea of people who make it by hand ... because you're going to get a more open crumb," he said. "But if you know what you're doing, you can still mix it gently and it'll be fine."

The pizzaiolo

Artisan pizza makers tend to be birds of a feather: intensely passionate about their trade, their craft and their unique vision of superior pizza.

Interestingly, however, they don't appear to be tortured artists who view their pizzas as the end-all, be-all. Rather they see other dedicated pizzaioli's works as manifestations of their uniqueness. To them, pizza is only a medium to be manipulated to reflect the best the artist can produce, said Chris Bianco, owner of Pizzeria Bianco.

Should anyone sit in the "great pizza" judge's seat, it arguably could be Bianco. In 2000, his small restaurant received a Zagat rating of 29 out of a possible 30 points, and in 2003 he became the first American pizzaiolo to win a coveted James Beard Award, an honor given to the nation's top chefs. Reinhart regularly calls him the "poster boy for the artisan pizza renaissance."

Such praise is flattering, he said, but not life changing because making fantastic pizza is his life's calling, something he'd do regardless of whether anyone was watching.

"Pizza's something I do, so I love to ask other people, 'What do you do?'" said Bianco in a 2003 interview. "If you're a grill man, then grill something better. If you barbecue, then elevate that. For me, this is about being the best I can be at just this."

But while even the best artisan pizza maker's efforts may yield the praise of critics, paying customers don't always "get it," Molinaro said. Only a fraction of his pizzeria's patrons really understand the high standard he's striving for.

"Twenty-five percent are genuine epicureans who cook at home, travel and truly love food," Molinaro said. "Fifty-percent don't know much about food, but they know our pizza's better than next door. Then 25 percent are just plain lost and they probably aren't coming back."

To protect both his pizza vision and his products' integrity, Molinaro limited the number of pizza toppings and their combinations at Il Pizzaiolo. The danger, he said, was customers mixing and matching too many diverse ingredients that wouldn't work as a whole.

"They want these five toppings and think that pizza is going to be the most spectacular thing ever, but all they're going to get is garbage," he said. "I could not take responsibility for their lack of understanding of what I'm trying to do here, so about a year ago I limited what you could put on some of the pizzas."

The "build your own" mentality comon to the American pizza experience doesn't translate well to an artisan pizzeria, said Reinhart, mostly because, as Molinaro pointed out, undue emphasis falls on toppings when the crust is the star of the show.

"You can get the most creative, expensive toppings in the world, but if you put those together on a mediocre crust, the customer will say, 'Oh, that pizza was very interesting,'" Reinhart said. "But they

Bianco Pizzeria's Chris Bianco received the James Beard Award in 2003.

will not say, 'That was so good, I can't wait to come back.' When you make a pizza on a great crust, suddenly you've got the makings of something memorable. That's what artisans do."

Small, but significant

While at present, the artisan pizza movement is miniscule, Reinhart said one need only reflect on the explosive growth of U.S. microbreweries to see its potential impact on the American culinary scene. Two decades ago it was a challenge to find craft breweries in many major metropolitan areas, but since they've penetrated not only top-tier markets, but many minor ones as well.

Just as the growth of artisan breweries and bakers came on the heels of customer education, so will follow artisan pizzerias, he said.

"If you raise the palate education of consumers, it challenges all the companies to raise the quality of their products," he said. "There's always room in any community for anyone doing quality work."

Caioti's LaDou hopes artisan pizza making will spread through the nation's community of fine-dining chefs, as it started to do in the '80s.

"There was so much promise for pizza on the horizon then, when people were making pizza because it was getting notoriety," said LaDou, who was Spago's pizza maker when that restaurant made its early-'80s splash. "Since then, chefs and restaurateurs have wanted to distance themselves from it because of what's happened to pizza at many chains."

Rising stars like Bianco and other pizza makers whose work he's tasted have him encouraged, though. "What's going on with Chris is probably the brightest bit of news in a long time. There probably wouldn't be an artisan movement without him."


Topics: Dough , Pizza Toppings


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