Apprentice contestant ready to trump NYs pizza scene
To meet Donald Trump’s business standards, you have to be pretty tough. Lenny “The Russian” Veltman learned this firsthand as a contestant on season five of “The Apprentice.”
Veltman is ready to take on something bigger than The Donald, however – having opened CHIPP Neapolitan Pizza in Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Coney Island neighborhood at the end of 2010 with ambitious plans for expansion.
The concept focuses on authentic Neapolitan pizza baked in a proprietary wood oven designed by Veltman himself.
The pies at CHIPP – an English translation of Cipollini onion – reflect the traditional characteristics of Neapolitan pizzas down to the exact diameter size.
Authentic Neapolitans, made with tomatoes and Mozzarella cheese, follow guidelines recognized by the Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (D.O.C.), a branch of the Italian government committed to preserving the quality and authenticity of foods and wines in certain regions.
Veltman follows the same techniques Neapolitan masters used, making him one of few in the Northeastern United States to be certified by the American branch of Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN), a non-profit founded to cultivate the culinary art of Neapolitan pizza making.
CHIPP’s pies adhere to VPN standards, including preparation in a wood-fired oven at 800 degrees for approximately 90 seconds; hand-kneaded dough; and no larger than 35 centimeters in diameter or one-third of a centimeter thick at the center.
CHIPP only offers individual pies and not slices. Selections range from a “Marinara” with Parmesan, capers, Cipollini onions, oregano and smoked salmon; to “The Chipp,” which features Mount Vezuvio tomatoes, parmesan, fresh basil and caramelized Cipollini onions; to the Margherita DOC, with San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di buffala, Grana Padano imported cheese and basil.
“The low sugar content and thick, juicy flesh of San Marzano tomatoes makes them ideal for use in pizza sauces. They are grown in the volcanic soil of San Marzano, Italy, and the soil is believed to act as a filter for water impurities, producing a lower-acidity, brighter-flavored tomato,” Veltman said.
The namesake onions are small in size, are available throughout the winter and represent the symbol of authenticity for Neapolitan pizza.
In total, CHIPP currently offers 14 pies with the traditional red marinara sauce base and five “Bianco” or white pizzas. Guests can also build their own, with more than 30 topping choices. Pizza prices range from $8.50 to $15.75. Salads, beer and wine are also available.
Authenticity means the perfect oven
It’s the three bona fide variations of Neapolitan pizza that take the spotlight on CHIPP’s menu, including Marinara, Margherita and Magherita. CHIPP follows guidelines for each, a process that took quite some time to perfect.
“We spent over a year sourcing the ingredients, developing the dough, crust, the oven and every element associated with making the finest authentic Neapolitan pizza in record time,” Veltman said.
In other words, the oven had to be hot and fast. Veltman couldn’t find a vendor to match his vision, so he built his own. It took a little more than a year to create the oak wood-fired equipment, which heats pies at 800 degrees Fahrenheit.
“This allows us to produce a perfect pizza in 90 seconds – one with a light crisp crust and fresh ingredients,” Veltman said.
Speed was of the utmost importance for the oven. In a city with a glut of pizzerias, Veltman was looking for advantages that gave CHIPP an upper hand.
“Despite the great contenders in New York, there are a surprising amount of bad practices, including flawed ovens and using scrap wood instead of oak. These details factor into the final product,” he said. Also, “anyone who has ever been to famous New York pizzerias can tell you the wait time is insane. In order to evolve the pizza concept into something that worked for a quick-service, national chain, it was critical to speed up cooking time.”
As CHIPP moves forward with its expansion plans of 10 units in three years, every restaurant will be equipped with the speedy oven, which will help provide better service for lunch and dinner rushes.
Current markets being considered for expansion include Manhattan and Boston, as well as near the campuses of Rutgers and Princeton universities. CHIPP will initially tap into the college-aged demographic, always a strong consumer base for pizza.
“College students understand good pizza and it’s always in great demand (near campuses),” Veltman said. “Ultimately there would be three to four CHIPP locations in each market, with a total investment of $2.5 million (not including marketing and advertising), with each project generating $1.5 million in the next three years.”
Beyond that, Veltman’s goal is simply to spread the Neapolitan concept to the masses.
“Right now, quality pizza is associated with foodie snobs and trendy neighborhoods,” he said. “There is no reason authentic, world class, Neapolitan pizza shouldn’t be available to every neighborhood.”
What do you think about this concept? Will authentic Neapolitan pizza win over the college crowd?
Alicia Kelso / Alicia has been a professional journalist for 15 years. Her work with FastCasual.com, QSRweb.com and PizzaMarketplace.com has been featured in publications around the world, including NPR, Good Morning America, Voice of Russia radio, Consumerist.com and Franchise Asia magazine.