A Slice of Heaven: Chefs and Pizza

Cooking is easy. Pizza is hard. That's the prevailing sentiment among the many serious chefs across America who tackle pizza in their restaurants. What used to be the province of slice counters and "red sauce" Italian American restaurants has now become required eating at many of the seminal American restaurants in this country. From Alice Waters, Wolfgang Puck, and Nancy Silverton in California to Todd English and George Germon in New England, it seems you can't find a chef who's not crazy about pizza.

Read all Slice of Heaven excerpts on SliceHow did this come to be? Why would men and women who have spent years behind a stove mastering sautéing and braising and making sauces bother with something so simple and plebian as pizza? Waters became enamored with the idea of making pizza after a trip to Torino, Italy, in 1979. "I loved the elegant simplicity of the pizzas that came out of a wood-burning oven at this trattoria in Torino. When you eat pizza, you get the experience of eating warm bread topped by all these lovely little tastes." When she returned she installed a wood-burning oven at The Café at Chez Panisse. The wood-burning oven is another reason she and other chefs love the idea of making pizza. "When you get to see the fire, it connects to the experience of the hearth. Not to mention the incredible smell that goes with it. Plus, pizza is incredibly affordable and adaptable."

The "chef pizza" craze kicked into high gear in 1982, when Puck opened Spago. There, pizza chef Ed LaDou (now of Caioti Pizza Cafe) expanded the range of toppings to include barbecued chicken, merguez (lamb sausage), smoked salmon and crème fraîche, and Peking duck. According to LaDou, "The pizzas at Spago were initially expected to be a complement, almost the equivalent of appetizers, to the entrées and pastas that would showcase the artistry of Puck and his executive chef Mark Peel." Instead they became the signature dish of the restaurant. As Puck wrote in his book Pizza, Pasta, and More, "When the restaurant [the original Spago] finally opened, we could barely keep up: Pizza was the most frequently ordered item on the menu."

LaDou eventually developed 250 different pizzas for Spago. Pizza became critically important to Puck for another reason: When the kitchen was backed up, he would send out a pizza gratis to tide his ravenous customers over.

The same year that Spago opened, George Germon, a former professor at the Rhode Island School of Design turned chef-restaurateur, invented his now-famous grilled pizza at Al Forno in Providence. He began experimenting with soaking pizza dough in olive oil and then sttetching and grilling it. "I have always been mesmerized by fire. I love cooking on it, and I love watching it. Cooking over a live fire is a challenging thing, an event. We cook our pizzas three inches over the coals. Our grill generates an incredibly fierce heat. Right over the coals it's 1100°F" Germon's sparsely topped pizza is unique and absolutely wonderful. It's crisp, chewy, and just oily enough—a perfect confluence of tastes and textures. When I eat at Al Forno, I have to stop myself from ordering more than just a couple of pizzas and two or three of Germon's wife Johanne Killeen's made-to-order desserts, which are as mind-bogglingly good as Germon's pizzas.

For Germon, the decision to make pizza in his informal but very serious restaurant was a difficult one. As he told author Peter Reinhart in his pizza book American Pie, "I'm working it out, I guess. When I first told my dad we were opening a restaurant, he complained, 'Now you'll be just like any other Greek, making pizza.' I explained we weren't going to make pizza, but then a couple of years later we figured out a way to do these grilled pizzas, and you know, you have to take what life gives you and go with it."

In Boston ten years later, a pizza-obsessed former baseball catcher, Todd English, started making oddly shaped pizzas at his Charlestown restaurant Olives. Having grown up in southern Connecticut, English's life changed when he had his first clam pizza at Pepe's: "I love food that you can eat with your hands. And I'm fascinated by pizza." A playful, irreverent chef who is constantly pushing the envelope, English began making pizzas both fanciful and classic at Olives. Fig jam, Gorgonzola, prosciutto, and rosemary is a signature pizza at English's restaurant, Figs. A pie topped by carpaccio, arugula, Gorgonzola, and garlic aioli sounds silly but is delicious. Traditionalists can easily make do with a pepperoni, marinara, and mozzarella di bufala pizza or what English calls a Classica—shaved Parmigiano, Reggiano, and tomato.

So if all these supremely talented chefs are taking pizza so seriously, why is it so hard? It's because chefs like Waters, Germon, and English are not actually cooking in their restaurants most nights, so it is up to them to transmit their knowledge and passion to their cooks. At The Café at Chez Panisse, Al Forno, and Olives, pizza is just another station through which the cooks at these restaurants must rotate, and it's often the kitchen stepchild. Waters says, "You really need someone who's passionate and professional. It's not easy; you're dealing with a lot of unpredictable elements and variables like dough and a live fire. A lot of cooks say or at least think that making pizza is demeaning. They want to show me how they can really cook at a stove. It's about finding a person who has the right disposition for it."

One Chez Panisse cook, Charlie Hallowell, who has the passion and the fire has just opened Pizzaiolo in Oakland, California, with Waters's blessing and assistance. Meanwhile, the cooks keep cycling through the pizza station at The Café at Chez Panisse, and, as a result, the pizza there has its ups and downs. The toppings are always delicious, but the crust can be beautifully brown and blistered one day, wan and flat the next.

Germon says he tries to find cooks on his staff who have a natural affinity for grilling pizza. "Once I identify someone who gets it, I watch him or her carefully. I try to build pride and dignity into the pizza-making process. To make it work, the pizza cook has to make the station his or her own." His method is effective. The pizza cooks work incredibly hard making something that almost every table orders at Al Forno. As a result, the pizza is quite consistent at Al Forno.

What Waters at Chez Panisse and Germon at Al Forno started more than 20 years ago has now become a full-fledged trend. Many talented young chefs are mastering different aspects of pizza-making and making the medium their own.

Christophe Hille, a classically trained chef, went to Italy for six months before opening A16, where he makes very fine Neapolitan-style pizza. The late Vincent Scotto took his Al Forno pizza training and fashioned a thinner, crisper grilled pizza at Gonzo in New York City.

Andrew Feinberg and his wife, Franny, opened Franny's in Brooklyn with a simple desire to make first-rate pizza using great ingredients. Craig Stoll, chef-owner of Delfina, a fine trattoria in San Francisco, opened Pizzeria Delfina next door. And leading the chef-pizza charge is Phoenix's Chris Bianco, who, in his own poetic way, has shown all of us, chefs and pizza lovers alike, what pizza can be in the twenty-first century. Waters says the most exciting, uplifting thing she sees happening in food right now is chefs opening small places so that they can get back to cooking themselves. Many of those small places are turning out to be pizzerias.

In an unpublished manuscript, Ed LaDou wrote something about the pizza at Spago that best explains the relationship chefs have to their slices of heaven:

"There was something about the pizzas that just hit the right note at the right time. They were sophisticated without being pompous. They were friendly and familiar, yet interesting and creative. Chefs loved them as a respite from the intricacies of many of their own creations. Finally, the pizzas tapped into childhood associations we all have about pizza." Waters puts a more mystical spin on why chefs are attracted to pizza: "Pizza is an immediate kind of pleasure; its got chi, this life force, to it."