The spread of 'faux-primitive' pizza

June 5, 2006

Ed LaDou is the owner of Caioti Pizza Café in Studio City, Calif. As the first pizza maker at Wolfgang Puck's celebrated Spago restaurant, LaDou is widely regarded as the founder of gourmet pizza. He later authored California Pizza Kitchen's original menu. 

An interesting phenomenon has developed over the last few years regarding the craft of pizza. In a very specific way, it is what I call a reverse elitism. The pens and voices of a number of chefs, writers and critics, as well as self-appointed "experts" are telling us what defines a good pizza. In their view, the following criteria apply:

1. The pizza must be burnt to some degree.

2. The pizza be slightly misshapen.

3. The pizza toppings must be applied irregularly.

4. The toppings themselves must be applied sparingly.

5. The pizza must be cooked in a wood-fired or coal-fired oven.

These criteria are misconceptions served to us by culinary elite who, for the most part, are unwilling to recognize any deviation from their own biases. Chefs and journalists of all celebrity are quick to jump aboard any position that affords the most visibility and exposure to their own projects. The result is the romanticizing of what had historically been a more pedestrian and at-ease food. Now pizza is destined to suffer under the dread air-kiss embrace of the fashionable.

Pizza truly is a most perfect and honest food, which leads me to ask, "Why all this? Why now?" Let's examine the five criteria I have outlined above (with a rational un-biased eye, of course).

* In my opinion, the first three reflect sloppiness in the cooking and handling process and technique.

* The fourth reflects the miserliness of those whose bottom line determines the quality of their product.

* The fifth reflects an almost religious adherence to an obsolete technology, an unwillingness to change.

Regarding criteria 1 and 5: Anyone can burn a pizza; it's really quite easy to do. So why do charred crusts earn such praise? Pizzas of the past were burned not for the sake of quality, rather pizza makers used hotter ovens to serve more pizzas quicker (pizza is the first fast food, after all), and those super-hot ovens were challenging to operate. I also believe pizza makers of the past could not or would not provide the attention required to prevent their pizzas from burning.

There was a very straightforward and obvious economic basis for this: greed. But along the way we were fed the totally absurd line of bull that burning a pizza makes it taste better. You gotta love the audacity and cajones of pizza makers who've repeated this message. I suggest readers test the absurdity of such a statement by trying to compile a list of foods that are improved by burning.

Still, I am not astounded that critics continue to wax poetic over charred pizza crust. Most critics jumped on the charred crust wagon with a collective effort so as to distinguish the superiority of their palates over that of the regular old pizza fanatic, who, heaven forbid, likes golden-browned, not blackened, pizza crust.

I'll admit that an appreciation for slightly burnt dough is the subjective right of any pizza consumer, but please don't try and convince me it is a measurement of a pizza maker's skill or a pizza's quality.

Is wood that good?

To me, wood-burning ovens are like old cars. I like them both, but owning either is a pursuit of the affluent. Wood ovens are expensive to purchase, difficult to install, environmentally unfriendly and difficult to operate. (And if you look closely, most of the so-called wood-burning ovens have gas jets underneath ornamental logs). Of course, a wood-burning oven can make a wonderful pizza, but in addition to the pizzaioli's skill, it takes our second criteria, great dough, to accomplish this.

There are many pizza cookbook authors who can't even stretch pizza dough to an even roundness, and those who are unwilling to master such a basic technique should not attempt to convince us irregularly shaped dough is intentional. It simply means they are unwilling to invest the time or energy in developing a skill that is fundamental to the craft of pizza making.

Experienced pizza makers know, however, that irregularly shaped dough indicates an inconsistent skin, i.e., thin, weak areas and thick, bready areas. Thin areas won't support toppings because they typically bend or tear, and the thick areas will often rise so high that the sauce, cheese and toppings slide toward the middle of the pizza or off it altogether.

This "wing-it" mentality of pizza making pays no attention to the mastery of the craft. Frankly, I can't think of another area of culinary craft where this is accepted to the point of encouragement.

This defect—some would call it a measure of quality—is tied directly to the third and fourth critical criteria: irregular application of toppings. When pizza toppings are applied irregularly it's because the pizza maker is in a hurry, doesn't know any better, doesn't care, or has had the wool pulled over his eyes.

A good pizza is consistent from beginning to end; one slice tastes like others. When we order a barbecued chicken pizza, we want chicken on each slice and not just on some. If a pizza is cut into eight slices, how can one rationalize putting seven pieces of shrimp on it? A pizza is only as good as the sum of its parts. Yeah, I know that sound pretentious, but dig it. Each slice should be as good as the last.

I am sure by now that anyone who has read this far into my little diatribe may already guess what I have to say about the fourth criteria: the sparing application of toppings.

The Europeans have a tradition of light-handed pizzas that serves their cultures well. But here in America, pizzeria owners who do this—dare I say it?—are just cheap. Yes, I said it.

The Italians and Europeans have constructed and continue to construct pizzas based upon a long tradition of style consistent with their geographical regions. They seemingly adhere to standards that long ago lost their sense and cause. Like the historical ruins that showcase those countries' cultures, their pizzas represent an ideal born at one time out of an agricultural and sociological necessity. Natural resources were spread thin, and their pizzas reflected that.

Today, however, instead of approaching food adventurously and progressively, they apply their considerable talents to maintaining tradition for what we are being told is quality's sake. Part of me respects that, as I find many culinary traditions to be sublime. Let's face it, why fix what isn't broken?

But they do have choices. They can make pizzas sparse and sell them cheaply, or make them right and sell them for more. But don't make them sparse and sell them expensively for the privilege of eating something "authentic." Pardon the rural parlance, but that dog don't hunt.

For a number of years, high-profile

start quoteStudying pizza's history and understanding what authentic, Old World pizza tastes like is a laudable pursuit. But to say that because one made it like it was a century ago does not ensure it's better. Such a statement champions the primitive over the progressive.end quote

— Ed LaDou, Owner, chef, Caioti Pizza Cafe

chefs have delved indirectly into pizza making by adding them to their menus. A problem arises, though, when the cooks charged with making don't have a clue as to what they are doing. The chef has decided what toppings go on the pizza, and that is the end of it. The result is—and you guessed it—the dreaded burned crust and irregular toppings. That some food journalists point to this as a standard of excellence rather than citing what it is, an irregularity of craft, amazes me.

But when there are big bucks to be made, and a name chef's reputation is behind it, you don't have to cultivate the craft and you don't need experienced pizza makers. Food writers tell readers such pizzas are inspired, that such works are edible free-form art.


The faux-primitive pizza

The notions of "less is more" and "flawed is fancy" have led to the development of what I call the "faux-primitive pizza." Hoping to recreate the crude dough, tomatoes, cheese and basil pizza pie Rafael Esposito's presented Princess Margherita 110 years ago, some pizza makers apparently believe the old way is better. The problem is such a pursuit fails to ask the question: "Is it really better, or do we think it's better just because it's old?"

Studying pizza's history and understanding what authentic, Old World pizza tastes like is a laudable pursuit. But to say that because one made it like it was a century ago does not ensure it's better. Such a statement champions the primitive over the progressive.

The good news is there is a growing number of cooking professionals who respect the essentials of great cooking: craft, technique and flavor. Often such cooks look a bit like the greasy-haired pizzaioli of the '40s and '50s, perhaps with some fashionable skin ink and a piercing or two. The difference is between those of today and those of yesterday is the former often carry a diploma from a prestigious culinary academy. They're also aggressive and ambitious, and that combination always pushes the envelope of creativity and enterprise to new levels. That excites me.

It's my sincere hope this new breed of chef will recognize pizza for what it is: an incredibly versatile, magical, popular and delicious culinary craft. I hope they won't fall into the trap set by the culinary elite that insists on paying homage to the primitive exclusive of the progressive. (In my mind, both can share the same stage because each has value.) It's my wish they will understand that food evolves—and everyone reading this should be thankful pizza has evolved—and not feel motivated to inject flaws into the craft in the hope of replicating some preconceived idea of authenticity.

Topics: Dough , Operations Management , Pizza Toppings

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