History, geography and ovens alone don't standardize pizza!

March 1, 2005

* 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. You can meet LaDou at the North America Pizza & Ice Cream Show, Feb. 27-28, in Columbus, Ohio. He will serve as one of four pizzaioli on the Pizza Makers Panel. 

A relatively new phenomenon is taking place on the culinary circuit. Food writers are increasingly checking out pizza and, in some cases, actually considering its merits.

But since many of the prominent writers are New York based, there is seemingly a bias toward the East Coast's understanding of "good pizza." With more than a little pomp and puffery, writers invariably invoke the name of Lombardi's, the first pizzeria in the United States, as a sort of

Ed LaDou, owner, Caioti Pizza Cafe.

standard by which to measure all pizzerias. It's that concept of a "standard" that I would like to address.

There seems to be a division between the East Coast and West Coast regarding pizza. Many New Yorkers scoff at the craziness of "gourmet" pizza, while West Coast foodies look upon the "pizza pie" of the East Coast as a quaint food headed toward extinction like the American hot dog. Wearing my well-worn mantle of pizza maverick, I step into the fray, loving all style of pizzas (and hot dogs too).

Regarding particular styles, there are good arguments to be made on all sides when it comes to any kind of pizza controversy. Rather than stand in any one corner, I have chosen to represent three basic styles in my pizzeria: Italian, New York and California.

I look at each style somewhat like this:

There is a square peg, a round peg, a star-shaped peg and a triangle-shaped peg, and a board with holes to accommodate them. Each peg represents a pizza style, and while they are all part of the same puzzle, the pieces are not interchangeable.

Food writers have had to recognize Chicago-style pizza in its own category for years because of its distinct differences from New York-style pizza. But where the pizza style waters become very muddied is when trying to parse the differences between Italian, New York and California styles.

In my opinion, the primary blame for this confusion centers on what type of oven is used to cook those pizzas. And it is here that a "pizza standard" seems to be unfairly imposed.

Feel the heat

Many have written almost romantically about coal-fired ovens used in a handful of New York pizzerias. It's as if their existence in this country is the result of some majestic spiritual transmission from "the old country," the home of some obscure fountain of all culinary good.

But let's be fair, they are incredible ovens which impart a quality to pizza that modern conventional ovens cannot. The heat is intense and the cooking time very short, and to bake properly under these conditions, a coal-fired pizza recipe must be unique.

But, not everyone loves coal-fired pizzas and their signature charred edges. So in short, the "standard" cannot begin and end at coal ovens alone.

Wood-fired ovens have characteristics — mainly their intense heat — that are similar to coal ovens. A key difference, however, is that in wood-fired ovens, pizzas are more directly exposed to the effects of flame. The unpredictable element of burning wood requires an added level of skill from the pizzaiolo, and he contends more immediately with issues of ash and the occasional coal or log rolling onto or near a pizza.

Many aficionados believe wood smoke actually flavors their pizzas, but I believe 98 percent of the public can't detect that influence. That's because a good wood fire will cook the pizza too quickly for anything but the subtlest transference of flavor.

A gas deck oven is different, as its heat is gentler and more evenly applied. In most cases you could cook a 10-item pizza with extra cheese all the way throughout without fear of burning it. No, they're not as sexy as wood-fired ovens, but they do the job in thousands of kitchens.

The conveyor oven is widely used in delivery and multi-unit operations because it requires a very low level of skill to operate. Many call them "goof-proof." But since most conveyor-baked pizzas are cooked on screens, the result is different than pizzas baked directly on a stone deck.

But though conveyor ovens require less skill, does that make the pizzas they bake of lesser quality? And should coal-fired fans regard conveyor oven users with disdain? (Given how food writers regale coal-fired baking, one might answer "yes" to the question.)

That's especially difficult to answer since the conveyor oven dominates the American pizza scene, and that influence has to be acknowledged when it comes to "standardizing" good pizza.

Perception and reality

Some food writers simply go too far when describing the virtues of coal- or wood-fired pizzas. In describing that experience, they stretch to the outer limits of their vocabularies hoping to establish their legitimacy as purveyors of food-fashion. They muse that a bubbled, charred crust is an ideal pizza, and that without those characteristics, it's somehow less than authentic.

The fact is all cooking and food appreciation is subjective. This enables us to embrace a diversity in dining that is not so common (unfortunately) in other areas of social intercourse. While I respect each person's right to determine their own preferences, I have an even greater respect for the nuances of craft and technique. These nuances can be measured and applied to all oven types when the baker truly knows what he's doing.

Quality is not determined by a popularity contest, but by discriminating insight. Extract convenience and value (which, like it or not, are primary considerations for the general public's pizza consumption) and one is left with quality of ingredients and skill of the baker.

Geography isn't the only measure

In my opinion, the East Coast pizza bias has less to do with the elevation or progression of the culinary craft and more to do with an attempt to hold the standard to a tradition established regionally. It's as if someone says, "Well, it has history, so therefore it's quality." But if this concept were widely believed, innovation would suffer because no one would try anything new.

The acceptance of such thinking puts the restaurant critic and food writer in a similar category as seeking to regulate and certify "authentic" pizza makers by a set of inflexible criteria and standards. Such a certification does not, in and of itself, guarantee a good pizza, however.

Similarly, a West Coast or gourmet pizza bias ignores the nobility and simple straightforward honesty of a good Neapolitan-American pizza (a New York style, basically). It overlooks the grace that comes from perfecting a craft over many years, and then maintaining that product for even more years to its own standard. Yes, West Coast chefs make novel choices in their pizza toppings, but doing so merely for the sake of novelty is a shallow statement that dishonors the true creative process.

Nevertheless, of late I have noticed a ray of light beaming above the pizza counter. More and more serious (and not-so-serious) food writers, like the New York Times' Ed Levine, are taking notice of pizza makers. Bakers and cookbook authors like Peter Rinehart, who have long maintained the soulful integrity of bread-craft, are suddenly welcoming pizza making into their understanding of great food. And chefs like Chris Bianco, the James Beard Award-winning chef-owner of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix, are finding refuge in the honesty of hand-crafting superb pizzas. Even Tony Gemignani, arguably more famous for his dough acrobatics than his well-received pizza at Pyzano's in Castro Valley, Calif., has drawn the spotlight to pizza by making his craft entertaining.

In many new and terrific ways, the bar is being raised in the pizza universe. And as we do that, we need to examine and reexamine the standards by which we judge, define and measure this humble but wonderful food.

Pizza is not a West Coast or East Coast thing, a coal-oven, wood-oven or gas-deck oven thing. It's now an American thing.

See related stories about Ed LaDou ...
* Who's Who: Ed LaDou
* Trendy toppings
* Pizza dough-throwing contests need less flash, more respect for the craft
* The rising artisan pizza movement

Topics: Commentary , Dough

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