Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A life measured in pizza

Note: below is the first chapter of an upcoming e-book for home pizza bakers. As Rubber Pancakes fans, you’ll be the first to know when the book is available for download.

I love pizza. By that, I mean I love pizza.

There were a few years when the kids were little that things were typically insane. Work, school, sports, band rehearsals, music lessons, karate classes … the typical daily chaos of the young American family. And we ate pizza on average two nights a week.

After a few months of this, one day Beth apologized for the fact that we so often depended on the skills of the local pizza baker to supply the evening’s small slice of allotted table time.

I remember looking at her like she had two heads. “Are you kidding?” I asked. “I could eat pizza five nights a week!” She had nothing to worry about. It was no overstatement. That’s how much I love pizza.

Of course, in the real world, eating pizza five nights a week is not such a practical plan. It would be a quick trip to lost money and gained pounds. (But, how cool would it be?)

Oh, well. We can dream of a universe where pizza is less costly. Maybe some day, in a life after this one. But in our particular corner of the cosmos, we play by the rules. And pizza is an occasional treat, timed near gym workouts to pay the piper. Sigh.

Although I haven’t done the research, I expect most Americans see pizza as a commonplace, ubiquitous thing. It is, to a degree, especially if you live far from the East Coast. But for me, it’s more than that. It’s near to a religious experience. For starters, I’m Italian and I live in New Jersey. That gives me a huge advantage over much of the rest of the population. New Jersey might be about the best place on the planet to be a pizza addict. By proximity alone, we’re under the influence of two of the world’s greatest pizza towns: New York and Philadelphia. And both have hundreds of examples of really fine pizza.

At the risk of sounding like a snob with a superiority complex, I pity the folks in California and South Dakota and Iowa and – who knows where? All those places where “pizza” refers to a slab of dense, mushy bread topped by sugar-sweet sauce and overloaded with fat, salt and pasteurized processed cheese. The stuff that’s churned out by faceless Fortune-500 chain conglomerates with shareholders to reward.

If I had my way, the FDA would force those outfits to call their product what it is: pizza substitute.

Now I’m not saying you can’t enjoy pizza in places where it’s not truly understood. In fact, millions do. All over the map. But that’s the dirty little secret of the pizza-industrial complex. If all those unschooled millions knew what pizza is really supposed to taste like, the conglomerates would head into chapter 11 faster than you can say mozzarella.

But that’s a topic for another day.

I can’t reconstruct the day I ate my first pizza. It was probably before I learned to walk. But this, I can guarantee. It was really good pizza. Because 1) mass-produced pizza substitute didn’t exist back then, when dinosaurs roamed the earth. And 2) Once it appeared, Italian-Americans living in New Jersey won’t eat it. Ever. Under any circumstances. Period.

No, my first pizza was either one my dad stretched himself, topped with homemade spaghetti sauce and baked up in our own kitchen. Or it was a thin, crisp, perfectly balanced masterpiece of flavor nirvana, hand-tossed and baked in that magical little Dante’s inferno that was our neighborhood pizzeria’s oven.

So is it any wonder I am so particular about it?

Even under the most routine and commonplace circumstances, in my life, pizza was always special. A celebration. A full-blown riot of texture and flavor that makes your taste buds sing and gives you one more reason to thank God you were born human on planet Earth.

Especially at Grandma’s house. Oh, man. I could write volumes on how good my grandmother’s pizza was. I’ll save that for future chapter. Suffice to say, it was heaven on earth.

As my young brain developed, it was permanently suffused with pizza perfection, coming from every angle. So it was no surprise I jumped at the opportunity to learn to make it myself, both for fun and profit. I was a professional pizza baker before I had a driver’s license. Although my career has since shifted from pizza man to wordsmith, I still look back with wonder at those early years of exploration and adventure – learning how it was really done in the backroom and blazing stone ovens of that neighborhood pizza joint that employed me.

It was nothing short of black magic. There, I learned to harness the power of yeast. I mastered the unique skill of rolling a dough ball, just tight enough to make the perfect pie after a day of rest in cold storage. I watched my teachers, haggling for better quality cheese and tomatoes. And under their watchful eye, I practiced the black art of doctoring: tricks of the trade we employed to finesse industrial tomato products from their prison of pedestrian mediocrity.

We weren’t making gourmet pizza. There was no such thing, in those days. We were a bunch of young, adventurous guys, none higher than middle management. We had little or no say over what got delivered – those decisions were made over our heads. But we cared. We did everything possible to force a pretty good pizza into existence from crates of nondescript ingredients, delivered to the back door via tractor-trailer. Whether we had the authority, I’m not sure, but we made decisions about how to handle the stuff, once it came off the truck. And it’s the reason our pizza was just a little bit better than that of the guy across the street (and a million times better than the chain joints). It was a life lesson that stuck. Do your best with what you have, even if that means breaking the rules.

So began a life-long odyssey in search of another trick, technique or revelation towards a better way to make really good pizza. And with 30 years of knowledge and experimentation under my belt – I can make this statement, with confidence: if I could invite you over some night, you would find the pizza I make at home among the best you’ve ever had.

Thus begins our journey. Stick with me. In future chapters, we’ll explore together what separates good from great in the world of pizza baked at home. You’re in an enviable position. Whether you’ve never made pizza at home before or you’ve been at it for a while – I will help you make it amazing. The ingredients are not exotic. In all likelihood, everything you need is available at your local supermarket. That wasn’t always the case – but today, we live in a world of shopping diversity and that’s a boon to the home pizza maker.

Just like in the backroom of my childhood employer – it’s all in the decisions you make on how to handle your ingredients. And I’ll unlock the secrets for you, one step at a time, as we take the journey together.

To be continued ...