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Friday, September 28, 2012

Ask the PIzzaiolo: How Much Difference Does the Pizzaiolo Make?

Ever order the same pizza from the same pizzeria on two different occasions, and one's good, and the other sucks? A lot of us have, and we've wondered, why? Same ingredients, same oven, same place - how can the pizzas come out so much different?
I recently got an email from a reader asking my opinion about why that phenomenon occurs. Specifically, he noticed that on certain days of the week (typically the days the shop owner was there) the pizza was very good. On other days, the crust was gummy, oily ... not good.
So how and why did that happen? How could one person make such a noticeable difference?
I had some theories, but in all honesty I had to admit that it would be better to turn to an expert - somebody who makes pizza for a living.
So I've asked a couple of local pizzaioli that basic question - how much difference does the individual pizzaiolo make? As long as you're working with the same basic setup, procedure, and ingredients, is the human element really that important in making pizza?
"Of course." That was the answer I got from Joe Staffieri of Joe's Brooklyn Pizza, who started out making pizza in his shop's namesake borough decades ago. Making pizza, he said, "is an art form," and can't be reduced to a simple formula. There are many nuances to making a good pizza, though few customers will ever be aware of them - unless they're done badly. This is my analogy, but think of it like an NFL game - if the refs do their job right, you don't notice the officiating at all. It's only when they get it wrong that they get noticed.
So what are some of those subtle elements that make the difference between a good and a bad pizza? Well, as Joe explained, there's a direct proportion between the freshness of the ingredients and the degree of skill required to turn them into a good pie. The reason is simple - the more you start from scratch, the more opportunities there are to get something wrong along the way. Anybody who's wondered why their spaghetti sauce or chicken soup never tastes as good as their mom's or their grandma's will know what I mean.
The specific ways to screw up a pizza are almost too numerous to mention. Every step of the process has its pitfalls. Was the sauce overcooked? Is it watery? Did it burn? Did the dough rise enough, or too much? Was it properly stretched to a uniform thickness? Were the toppings applied in the right proportions? How carefully was the pizza monitored once it went in the oven? Was it turned while baking, to avoid uneven cooking from hot spots in the oven?
Some of those same issues were mentioned, with a slightly different twist, by Tony Proietti of 2 Ton Tony's. Tony, who comes from a long line of Rochester pizzamakers, described making pizza - pizza dough, in particular - not as an art form but as a "science experiment." It's easy to understand why, as pizza dough, like most bread dough, includes yeast, a living organism. Yeast may be a relatively simply life form, but its workings can be mysterious and not entirely predictable. Any given batch of dough is subject to many factors, including the potency of the yeast, the ambient temperature and humidity, the length of the rise, and the way in which it's physically handled.
Tony also suggested that there may be a subconscious element at work as well, on the part of the customer. It's entirely possible that a customer may have a certain comfort level when he or she sees the owner behind the counter that's missing when it's a young employee making the pizza. Maybe the customer tends to cut the owner a little more slack, and scrutinizes the novice's pizza more closely. To go back to my NFL analogy, this season's replacement refs may have made more than their share of bad calls, but they were undoubtedly put under more of a microscope than the regular refs.
That said, Tony did acknowledge that the presence of an owner can make a noticeable difference in the final product. With more of a personal, emotional and financial stake in the business, an owner will typically tend to take more care in making a pizza, and to be more aware of and sensitive to the little things that can make a difference in the final product. An employee may look at pizzamaking as just a job, not a craft to which he or she is dedicated.
So does all that mean that you should only order a pizza when the owner is on the premises? Well, it's not quite that simple. Sure, if the owner is around, that's probably a good thing - like going to a restaurant on the night when the head chef is on duty - but the converse is not necessarily true. If you find that the pizza from your local pizzeria is consistently subpar on certain days, then try somewhere else on those days (and speak to the owner about it!). But it's certainly possible to get good pizza made by ordinary employees.
The key is good training, and a dedicated staff. Joe expressed some disdain for pizzerias that overly rely on inexperienced employees with minimal training, and he stressed that he's personally trained his entire staff, who clearly know what they're doing, and do it well. Tony expressed a similar sentiment when he told me, "Come work here for a week and you'll see" how much goes into making good pizza. "You have to have good people that you've trained and worked with."
Some places try to avoid the whole issue by taking skill out of the equation entirely, going with premade crusts, premeasured ingredients and conveyor ovens that require little or no human intervention until the pie is done. I'm not saying you can't produce a good pizza that way, but the best pizzas I've had have come from places where the pizzaiolo has more hands-on control over the entire process, start to finish.
Finally, even an accomplished pizzaiolo will make mistakes from time to time, and a good one knows when to start over. No good pizzeria should let a substandard pie go out the door.
In short, there's no substitute for - no shortcuts around - good training and experience, and for care and attention to detail. Pizzamaking is part art, part science, and for the best pizzaioli, it's a lifelong learning process. When I asked Joe Staffieri how long it takes to master the craft, his answer was, "I've been doing this since I was 13 and I don't know if I've mastered it yet."

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