On Pizza

Jeff Varasano is a native New Yorker whose work in the tech industry brought him to Atlanta in the early 2000s. Because Atlanta had no pizza remotely as good as that turned out by even mediocre New York slice joints much less top-end pizzerias like Patsy’s in Harlem or Sally’s in New Haven, Varasano dedicated himself to replicating  Patsy’s classic New York pie.

He also took us on his journey by way of an extremely detailed website www.varasanos.com.  Ultimately Varasano declared victory in his quest to equal Patsy’s pizza.  But rather than quit while he was on top, in 2009 he opened his own restaurant in Buckhead and is now franchising with a vengeance.  Like Varasano, I am a pizzaphile who has spent years trying to recreate the extraordinary pizza found only in New York and New Haven.  Here are some ways my experiences compare to Varasano’s:

1.   Discipline – Varasano is far more disciplined in the kitchen than I am.  For example, from the beginning of his quest, he timed how long each pie took to bake while noting as well the wetness of the dough, the temperature of the oven, and whether the cheese was grated, cut into slices, or placed in chunks on the pie.  Varasano also weighs his ingredients, whereas I use much less reliable measuring cups.  This discipline explains his success as a restaurateur I believe.  His description of getting his restaurants off the ground is that of an extremely detail-oriented person determined to understand and control every aspect of his business.

But, I don’t believe such a high degree of discipline is essential to making a great pizza.  Once you get the proper feel – wetness, stickiness, stretchiness, puffiness, – of the dough down, you can make it over and over as you’ll know by feel when you have the right balance of flour and water.  Too dry, add water.  Too wet, add flour.  Not stretchy enough, keep kneading.

2. Crust – Varasano rightly focuses on the dough as the crucial aspect.  Nothing is as difficult to get right or as necessary to a great pizza.  Heck you can make a great pizza without sauce or without cheese but good luck making one without crust. Varasano extols the use of a sourdough starter as the primary leavening agent but he also admits to adding a little yeast to ensure a light puffy crust.  He also insists that only a super-hot oven – 800 degrees or hotter – will result in the perfect char.

Another factor that Varasano deems crucial is aging the dough.  After kneading, the dough does not develop a rich complex flavor until it’s aged for at least a few days in the refrigerator, Varasano writes.  Varasano also urges pizza makers not to stint on salt.  Without sufficient salt, he says, the dough will be bland.

Finally, he argues that not all sourdoughs are created equal.  Superior sourdough leads to the most flavorful crust.  Before opening Varasano’s, he went so far as to collect sourdough starter from Patsy’s in Manhattan and Johnny’s in Mount Vernon, NY, which he says now makes the best pizza anywhere except perhaps his own restaurant.

I have been baking sourdough bread for many years and have found that if I use enough starter, I don’t need to add any yeast to get a reliably puffy crust.  On occasion, I have added yeast as Varasano does and it certainly supercharges the dough to rise more.  But I have not found it necessary as long as the dough has aged for at least 24 hours in the refrigerator.

Regarding cooking temperature, my kitchen oven like most non-commercial ones only goes up to 550 Fahrenheit and there’s no question that the crust is best if it cooks when the oven is at its hottest.  This occurs after I’ve preheated it for about 30-45 minutes at top temperature.   If I preheat too long, the internal temperature at the top of the oven where the thermometer is reaches 550 and the heating element turns off and the temperature of thepizza stone drops somewhat.

I have never baked a pizza at the extreme heat that Varasano recommends.  My guess is my pizza would be that much better if I used a professional pizza oven set at 800.  Still, I can get the recommended char – black spots on the bottom of the crust and on top where it’s puffiest – in my oven and my pies now cook in about 3 – 4 minutes which according to Varasano is a short enough cooking time.  Pizzerias in Naples cook their small thin-crust pies in only 90 seconds but sublime pizzas issue from the coal oven at Sally’s in New Haven after baking for 7 minutes.

Varasano is absolutely right when he says the pizza dough improves with age in the refrigerator.  Generally, I prepare about a week’s worth of pizza dough in advance.  The most flavorful crust is on days 5-7 with pizza on each of the first 5 days noticeably better than the previous one.

Varasano is also right when he discusses the importance of salt.  Like most home cooks, I tend to use much less salt than professionals do.  There’s a reason the pros use salt.  It adds flavor.  The thing is you have to be really careful not to add too much salt.  Too little and there’s no flavor.  Too much and the dough’s inedible.  Varasano recommends 1 tablespoon for every pound of flour.  That’s about right, although I’ve gone over that amount to try to get more flavorful dough which leads me to my next point.

I think Varasano must be right when he talks about the importance of good sourdough.  Mine is very clean tasting but I fear it doesn’t add quite enough flavor either as my crust still isn’t as tasty as top New York/New Haven pizza even after a week of aging.  Maybe, I need to stand on Wooster Street in New Haven for a few hours holding a flour and water poolish to allow the yeast spores emanating from Sally’s and Pepe’s pizza ovens to settle on it (I’m only half joking).

3. Sauce and cheese – Neither is quite as important as the crust but good sauce and cheese together are nearly as critical as great crust.  Varasano recommends a raw tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella cheese only.  I’ve struggled with both.  For the sauce, I’ve tried plain whole San Marzano tomatoes out of the can, a prepared sauce, a raw sauce with raw garlic and spices, and even Rao’s pre-cooked sauce.  The Rao’s wasn’t too bad darn it.  As Varasano says, the best is relatively smooth raw tomato sauce made with canned San Marzanos, fresh grated garlic, oregano, a dash of salt, and ground pepper.  Again though I fear I’m missing something as my sauce, like my dough, tastes bright and clean without any off-putting flavors but isn’t quite as toothsome as the finest pizzeria pizza.

Cheese is tough.  Varasano makes his own fresh mozzarella and it’s the only cheese he uses on his pies. But the quality of fresh mozzarella is variable.  Supermarkets now sell sliced BelGioso semi-fresh mozzarella in a plastic sealed package.  It’s very consistent and not bad with sliced tomatoes and some olive oil.  But I’ve found it’s far too flavorless for pizza.  Truly fresh mozzarella balls are better but again I haven’t found them to be as flavorful as I would like.

The classic New York street corner pie is made with Grande Wisconsin aged dry mozzarella.  It’s very tasty.  It melts to a tell-tale yellow color exuding a significant amount of grease.  There’s an Italian deli about 10 miles from my house that sells it but I’m not wild about that style, although I like it.  Next time, I see Grande I’ll buy some and try it.  Currently, I’m using full-fat dry Trader Joe’s mozzarella along with provolone.  This is the best combination I’ve found in terms of taste and meltability.  The provolone adds some complexity.  Cheddar also works great.

Interestingly, Varasano’s favorite pizzeria (besides his own), Johnny’s, makes its pizza with dried mozzarella.  The best pizza I’ve ever eaten was at Sally’s Apizza in New Haven which also uses dried mozzarella on some pies.  But Sally’s also makes a tomato sauce pie without cheese except for a dusting of parmesan which is quite extraordinary.

4. Toppings – When Varasano contends that toppings distract from the crust, sauce, and cheese, he is of course right.  Still, he purveys pizzas with lots of different toppings because people like them.  Personally, I like my pizza with one or at most two of the following: meatballs, spinach, sausage, mushrooms, and onions.  Since my pizza isn’t yet quite as flavorful as the best in New York and Connecticut, I’ve found good toppings make a big difference.

What I’ve learned from Varasano is the wisdom of applying them sparingly.  Rather than layering on mushrooms and spinach, I now dab them on the pie so they don’t fully obscure the cheese and sauce.  This results in a more pizza-y pizza.

5. New York and New Haven reign supreme – All of Varasano’s tier one pizzerias are either in or just outside New York City or in New Haven, CT.  This finding jibes perfectly with my own.  Although I have eaten at many purportedly great pizzerias that weren’t located within 10 miles of I-95 between the Holland Tunnel and the I-91 exit in New Haven, none of them served pizza as good as what I’ve feasted on at Patsy’s and John’s in Manhattan, Sal’s in Mamaroneck, or Demery’s (sadly closed now), Sally’s, and Yorkside Pizza in New  Haven.

Admittedly Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles came close the first time I ate there back in 2007.  Still good in 2012, it was a notch below the New York/Connecticut joints.  Otherwise, I’ve tried the most highly rated pizza restaurants in San Francisco, DC, and Boston.  They’re inferior by an order of magnitude.  I keep baking and my pizza is, if I do say so myself, pretty darn good.  But if you want the best America has to offer, your best bet is to spend a few days in the Big Apple and then hop on a Metro-North train at Grand Central bound for the Elm City.

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