This week we're getting Kenny Dunn from Rome into the Slice hot seat. Let's get to know this Philly native turned Rome tour guide a little better with the hard hitting questions. —MS
What type of pizza do you prefer?
After moving from Philly to NYC in 1999 and tasting Joe's Pizza right off Bleecker I was convinced that no other pizza would ever taste that good. Joe's was my gold standard for what a pizza should taste like. Then in 2008 on a hot, summer evening I walked into Di Matteo in Naples and my world-view was shattered. The Margherita I ate that night was so much better than anything I had ever tasted. All those glorious, late nights at Joe's Pizza were suddenly faded memories. Don't get me wrong when I am back in NYC I love heading to all my old pizza joints but I hope my last pie on earth comes out of an oven in Naples preferably the one at Di Matteo.
The Pizza Cognition Theory states that "the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes ... becomes, for him, pizza." Do you remember your first slice? Where was it from, is the place still around, and if so, does it hold up? On that note, has your taste in pizza evolved over time?
Growing up outside of Philadelphia, my first slice was at Nick's Pizza, one of several strip center pizza joints in the area that I'm proud to say is still serving up pizza to little leaguers from the neighborhood today. When I first tasted pizza, for some reason I decided that it was better without the cheese, so I started this strange ritual of peeling it all off before eating it. Well nobody wants to hang out with the weird kid that takes the cheese off the pizza, so I was picked on at all the birthday parties (it was obligatory to serve pizza at every single birthday party) not only by the other kids, but also by their mothers. Other parents began to question the kind of household I was being raised in that would encourage such behavior. In hindsight I should have mocked them all for not knowing about the locally loved Tomato Pie, but sadly neither did I at seven years old. In the last years of elementary school I began to broaden my horizons—that included leaving the cheese on the pizza—a habit that fortunately has stuck. Today I really love all genres of pizza,including returning to my roots and ordering a slice at Nick's and peeling off the thick layer of cheese just for old times' sake.
Speaking of ways you like to modify your pizza, what's your favorite topping or topping combination?
Kind of depends on the style of the pie. Locally in Rome, my topping of choice on thin crust Roman style pizza is mushrooms with proscuitto. Here, only fresh mushrooms are used, which is why I love this combo so much. If the pizzerias began using canned mushrooms instead, I would find a new favorite topping.
Those that caught your first post might have an insight into this next one, but where do you go for pizza in your area?
In my neighborhood Testaccio in Rome there are two places where I eat at all the time. One is Pizzeria da Remo which makes cracker-thin, charred, Roman-style pizza—arguably the best in the city. The other is 00100 Pizza for pizza by the slice featuring some wicked combinations like the Greenwich.
Since you own a food tour company, is pizza included on the tours?
Sadly, the answer is no which has everything to do with store hours and location and nothing to do with my feeling about pizza. For the next tour route Pizza is a must!
Do you make pizza at home? If so, how? What recipes do you use?
Most of my DIY pizza making occurred in Hawaii while living illegally in a tent in a state park called Kalalau on the island of Kauai. Some local outlaws there taught me how to bake pies on an open fire in between two, stacked 16-inch cast iron pans—with one covering the other. To emulate the convection effect they would leave only the hot coals underneath the lower pan and light a small fire on top of the upper pan thus creating a difference in temperature. To make the pizza we would allow the dough to rise in buckets for at least 24 hours. The sauce was made from scratch with fresh tomatoes, garlic, onions and basil, and on occasion avocados were used to add creaminess (milk or cream was not available for obvious reasons). Mozzarella never was around so we would top the pies with provolone, munster, and sometimes cheddar. The whole thing would usually cook to perfection in less than 25 minutes, but getting the temperature right was always the trickiest part.
As for making pizza in a traditional oven, I have yet to enter into that, but I am happy to say it has for the third consecutive year topped my new year's resolution list.
What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?
To me it comes down to the kind of pizza your topping. Here in Rome, there is a place that I love that does a Mexican pizza with black beans and onions. I don't have a problem with beans on pizza necessarily, but there are basic principles of physics that need to respected when constructing a pizza, especially when it's super thin Roman style. Sadly, their crust cannot support the weight and ooze of the beans and so it turns into just a soggy mess. For me it depends more on the construction of the pie than on the individual kind of topping.
So would that also count as the weirdest pizza you've encountered?
In Colombia I once had a pie with plantains and onions. I wouldn't say it was my favorite, but I was thrilled to add it to my un-published, un-written pizza memoir.
Wow! Hawaii, Colombia, Rome—you're a pizza globe trotter. What's the farthest you've travelled for the express purpose of eating pizza?
The farthest I have traveled to just eat pizza and then drive back home was from Rome to Di Matteo in Naples which was about 5 hours round trip and worth every minute.
What do your family and/or friends think of your pizza madness?
Depends on whom you ask. My wife is as happy as I am eating pizza on a daily basis, especially since we moved form DC to Rome (the marriage would have lasted less than a year had that not been the case). Many of my friends share the same passion I do for eating good pizza, but my parents seem to think all this pizza talk is a bit "excessive". My pizza eating habits have been haunting them my entire life.
Ok, your turn. What question would you ask you?
Having lived in Hawaii are you a fan of the Hawaiian Pizza?
As a matter of fact I am. Something about that sweet and salty combination gets me every time. The Hawaiian pizza is the runaway favorite pie in Colombia, so I kind of grew to appreciate it while I was living there. Strangely, in Hawaii I don't remember ever eating or making a pizza with ham or even Spam and pineapple. That could be an interesting story to investigate—whether there is actually Hawaiian Pizza in Hawaii? If so who invented it? And why the hell is it so popular in Colombia???
Anything you'd like to get off your chest?
My most Zen pizza moment would have been on my first night in NYC. Empty apartment- no furniture, no stereo, no refrigerator, no computer, and no television. I am sitting alone out on my fire escape holding two white, paper plates on top of each one is a perfectly triangular, plain slice from Joe's Pizza. This was life stripped down to its bare essentials. I believe some also call that nirvana.
Who would *you* like to see interviewed next?
John Tacconelli from the Tacconelli's in Port Richmond in Philadelphia. It was my first taste of a white pie with spinach from Tacconelli's that got me over my early cheese issues and saved me from a lifetime of bullying. Getting inside the mind of one of Philly's greatest pizzaioli would be a fascinating read.
Hey, nice call! Tacconelli's is in need of some coverage around here. Thanks for sitting in the hot seat, Kenny! I think I can speak for everyone when I say wer are definitely looking forward to more Roman pizza insights from you.