Pizza in America: From cheap commodity to chefs’ obsession

Margherita pizza at Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana in Darnestown, Md. (Rey Lopez for The Washington Submit)

Throughout highschool, Tony Conte labored at a pizzeria beloved by locals in Hamden, Conn., the place the proprietor was wholly devoted to the craft of pie-making, not less than by the requirements of late-Eighties America. Regardless, Conte’s stint as a teenage prepare dinner at DiMatteo’s didn’t encourage him to comply with within the footsteps of numerous Italian People and open his personal pizzeria. He figured he’d been there, performed that. Nothing extra to study right here.

For a prepare dinner with any ambition within the Eighties and Nineteen Nineties, the purpose was to not open a pizza store, however to land a job in New York or another metropolis, perhaps at one of many marquee eating places that permit its French flag fly. True to kind, as soon as he graduated from culinary college, Conte made his mark at fine-dining institutions, together with Jean-Georges in New York Metropolis and the Oval Room in Washington, the place he racked up the celebrities.

However Conte abruptly reversed course within the mid-2010s. His profession change got here not lengthy after a number of conversations with Edan MacQuaid, a pizzaiolo who was consulting at a sister restaurant to the Oval Room. Conte had already began taking part in with a pasta extruder, which bought him reminiscing about his childhood and his father and grandparents, who had emigrated from Pontelatone, simply north of Naples, the universally acknowledged dwelling of pizza.

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Conte was hungry to study extra from MacQuaid, who was a really perfect trainer. MacQuaid realized find out how to work a wood-burning oven at Pizzeria Paradiso, a store off Washington’s Dupont Circle, the place in 1991 Ruth Gresser took the cooking strategies and concepts that she had absorbed from the legendary educator Madeleine Kamman and utilized them to pizza. In his talks with Conte, MacQuaid laid out all of the difficult-to-master processes for an artisanal pie — the time, the temperature, the flour, the hydration, the fermentation, all the pieces — to a well-decorated chef who thought he knew one thing about pizza.

The extra MacQuaid advised him, the extra Conte wished to know.

“Then he goes, ‘It sounds like you’re trying to open a pizza place,’” Conte remembers about his exchanges with MacQuaid. “I’m like, ‘I guess that’s probably it.’”

Conte’s Inferno Pizzeria Napoletana in Darnestown, Md., is the sort of place the place, after one chunk of the chef’s puffy and completely charred pies, you instantly grasp that pizza will be an expression of the chef’s artwork, as a lot as any entree on white china with tweezer-applied garnishes. Inferno is certainly one of dozens, perhaps lots of, of craft pizzerias which have helped reform America’s repute. Only a few brief many years in the past, pizza in america was kind of an institutional product, particularly in these elements of the nation with out entry to a store run by third-generation Italian People. For a lot of America, pizza was a commodity, maybe made with industrial flour, generic canned tomatoes, factory-made mozzarella and the identical eight toppings discovered in every single place, all baked by an adolescent nervous about Monday’s examination.

How America, and its cooks and cooks, turned obsessive about artisan pizza is an advanced story, one involving the rise of the web, meals tv and social media. However the odds are good that the stylish pizzeria in your neighborhood additionally owes a debt of gratitude, immediately or not directly, to a small handful of artisans who rethought pizza on this nation. Name it Six Levels of Chris Bianco. Or Anthony Mangieri. Or Peter Pastan. Or Ruth Gresser. Or Peppe Miele, the Naples native who served the primary licensed Neapolitan pizza in America — in 1992 at Antica Pizzeria in Los Angeles.

Bianco, the 61-year-old founding father of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix and Los Angeles, doesn’t consider himself because the godfather of craft pizza in america, even when he first began promoting pies in 1988 behind a specialty grocery retailer. That’s simply not how his mind works beneath that shock of gravity-defying grey hair: Bianco sees himself as a part of a protracted continuum of pizza-makers in America, starting within the late 1800s with Italian immigrants who introduced their cooking traditions with them.

Does Chicago pizza imply deep dish? Relies upon who you ask.

These immigrants didn’t at all times have entry to the freshest substances, Bianco notes, or perhaps they imported lots of the vital merchandise from the mom nation. By the point chains and meals producers entered the pizza-making enterprise within the Nineteen Fifties and Sixties, the standard had diminished to commodity-product ranges. Many People ate mass-produced frozen pizza baked in dwelling ovens, or they waited for pies to be delivered straight to the doorsteps, no questions requested.

Bianco didn’t essentially rethink pizza by returning to previous Neapolitan traditions. He turned as an alternative to sources resembling Connoisseur journal, Alice Waters and Jonathan Waxman at Chez Panisse, even Jean-Louis Palladin on the Watergate Resort. They have been all singing the identical tune: native substances, seasonal substances, classical strategies. Bianco included these concepts into his pizza. He not solely hunted for the best flours — just like the stone-milled varieties from Cairnspring Mill in Washington state or Central Milling in Utah — however he began his personal line of natural plum tomatoes, Bianco DiNapoli, grown in Northern California.

“I guess I was blessed to be conscious and look around and notice that there were people making change and making better food,” mentioned Bianco, a Bronx native who moved to Phoenix within the mid-Eighties. “I was lucky enough to have a little bit of a skill set.”

As Bianco jogged my memory, his philosophy has at all times been to “buy good things grown in good Earth from good people.” It’s a philosophy not overseas to high-end cooks and even to Italian dwelling cooks, however for pizzamakers in America within the late twentieth century? It was a seismic shift, and the James Beard Basis took early discover: Bianco gained a Beard Award for Finest Chef: Southwest in 2003, the primary pizzaiolo to take dwelling a regional chef medal.

When Bianco gained the award, “it was a moment that people were like, ‘Whoa, what’s going on here?’” mentioned Ed Levine, the founding father of Critical Eats, who wrote the guide, “Pizza: A Slice of Heaven.”

It wasn’t, nonetheless, a lot of a shock to Levine. “Chris has always been obsessed,” he mentioned. “If you visit Chris, or at least when I did, he wanted to take me to meet all the farmers that he worked with, or farmers would drop stuff off at the pizzeria’s back door.”

The pioneers of this pizzamaking period had each benefits and downsides, which might solely be understood from the vantage level of 2023. Gresser and Mangieri, the founder and pizzaiolo at Una Pizza Napoletana in Manhattan, say their pizza training could have began with journey to Italy, however it included journeys to the library, too, to hunt out books and magazines. The web, with its quick access to how-to movies, was not but accessible to assist with their mission.

The purpose was to discover a guide, Mangieri says, that had “an inkling of information that you could pull from and fill in the blanks yourself — and hope for the best.”

If Bianco, Gresser, Mangieri and others didn’t have the web to construct their base of pizza data, they ultimately had it to construct their reputations. Distinction this, Mangieri says, to Ed LaDou, the unique pizzamaker at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago in Los Angeles, or Michele Perrella, the pizzaiolo on the upstairs cafe at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, Calif., who each pushed pizza ahead within the Nineteen Seventies and Eighties. Neither man had listicles, Instagram and TikTok influencers to assist flip them into stars.

Meals tv, social media and the web have been capable of fetishize cooks’ pizza obsessions in a means that spoke to a brand new technology of cooks who may need by no means thought-about a life slinging pies, Mangieri says. “They are drawn to the excitement of the pizza business,” he mentioned. “It seems from the outside like something that’s got a lot of potential: It’s exciting and sexy. You’re working with fire.”

The affect these trailblazers had on a youthful technology was not at all times filtered by means of a third-party medium. Michael Friedman, the proprietor and chef behind All-Goal Pizzeria in Washington, remembers when he and enterprise accomplice Michael O’Malley have been sitting on the bar after service at their first restaurant, the Pink Hen. They have been reminiscing about their days working at Mon Ami Gabi in Bethesda, Md. On their nights off, they’d discover themselves at 2Amys, chef Peter Pastan’s temple to Neapolitan pizza within the District, simply two extra trade employee bees who buzzed across the pizzeria.

In a match of inspiration, Friedman turned to O’Malley and mentioned, “Wouldn’t it be crazy if we did pizza?’” the chef recalled. “A lightbulb went off. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, we have to do pizza!’”

It will take almost two years for Friedman and O’Malley to open their first All-Goal. Time was wanted for the companions to develop an idea, separate from those that had proven cooks and restaurateurs a path ahead within the pizza world. Friedman wished to open a store that paid tribute to his upbringing in New Jersey and New York.

“I was interested in bringing back the food of my youth — the restaurants and pizzerias and trattorias of my youth — and trying out deck-oven pizza,” Friedman mentioned. His wouldn’t be a duplicate of New York deck-oven pizza, however extra of a cheffed-up interpretation of the thin-style pies that, in contrast to Neapolitan rounds, are created from a dough that comes with each a fats and a sweetener. Friedman’s pizza begins with a cold-fermented dough constructed with ultrafine 00 flour — the sort used for Neapolitan pies — in addition to whole-wheat flour, extra-virgin olive oil and diastatic malt powder.

“Pizza and bread baking were never something that I thought I would really delve into, and it was a deep dive for me,” Friedman mentioned. “All of a sudden, you had a completely different craft that people started playing with. People started fermenting differently, and people started sourcing better. And that’s really what the Neapolitan movement did” in America.

The great thing about these pizza trendsetters is that they weren’t proselytizers. Some could have been following the foundations of Neapolitan pizza-making (as Pastan was at 2Amys for years) or they could have subscribed to the local-seasonal tenets of fine-dining cooks and educators. However they weren’t dogmatic. They have been open to affect.

“For me, I see this as discovery,” Bianco mentioned about pizza-making. “The minute I tell people about what they need to do, that’s not my place.”

Robbie Tutlewski, the chef and co-owner of Little Donna’s in Baltimore, ran the kitchens for Bianco’s group of eating places for years. His title was director of operations, Tutlewski says, however Bianco merely referred to him as “Robbie the rock.” A cooking college graduate from the Midwest, Tutlewski had little expertise with Bianco’s Neapolitan-inspired pizza. He had grown up with tavern pizza, a thin-and-crispy flatbread that’s typically minimize into squares, in and round Gary, Ind.

One of many truths that Tutlewski absorbed at Pizzeria Bianco was that no two pies have been ever alike. This fact mirrored the various variables, each human and environmental, that might have an effect on a pizza’s remaining taste, texture and look. But it surely mirrored the creator of the pizza, too. Discuss to anybody about Bianco, and so they’ll let you know how distinctive he’s.

“When I met him, he was the first chef that made feel like myself, like I could be myself in this industry,” Tutlewski mentioned. “He didn’t teach you to be an individual, but the guy himself was such an individual.”

When Tutlewski and his spouse, Kaleigh Schwalbe, opened Little Donna’s within the former Henninger’s Tavern, they adopted Bianco’s lead. Their place can be private, channeling each Tutlewski’s Japanese European heritage and his youth gobbling up tavern pies. The chef’s model of tavern pizza is particular person, too. It ditches the pie-like crust that Tutlewski remembers in favor of a crispy base constructed with three flours and baker’s yeast, the sort of leavening agent most well-liked by his mentor.

“It was too much of a gift to work with him to not do something” with pizza, Tutlewski mentioned about Bianco.

Some will let you know — Pastan particularly — that cooks have flocked to pizza lately principally as a result of it’s simply simpler than working in fine-dining — and doubtless extra worthwhile. I floated this idea by a number of different pioneers within the discipline. All of them disagreed.

“It is absolutely not easier. It’s different,” mentioned Gresser who had labored at white-tablecloth eating places early in her profession. It took Gresser extra time than she cares to confess to grasp her craft, and it continues to evolve.

“I would put up our pizzas today against the ones that came out of the oven on the day we opened, and the ones today would win,” she mentioned.

Mangieri says that, sure, from the surface, working a pizzeria can appear simpler to cooks, simply as making ice cream may appear simpler to him after a protracted day at a 900-degree wood-burning oven. However, Mangieri mentioned, “whether it’s making pizza or baking bread or making great ice cream. . . once you make the commitment to be into it and start to do that deep dive, you realize everything is the same. It’s all a nightmare.”

These preconceived notions about making pizza have a draw back, too, Mangieri says. Younger cooks — contemporary from culinary college and stuffed with themselves — don’t at all times perceive the devotion required to feed America distinctive pizza, day in and day trip.

“I am in front of the oven and I have made every dough ball for 30 years in our restaurant,” mentioned Mangieri. “There is nothing sexy or cool about that when you’re working to the point that you can’t see straight and your brain hurts and your face hurts.”

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