Say hello to Jimmy Coponi. He's the youngest pizza obsessive we've ever interviewed, but don't be fooled by his age. The 17-year-old fanatic is all about hyper-traditional Neapolitan pies and it's pretty damn clear that he's got the chops to back it up.
Name: Jimmy Coponi
Location: Colonia, NJ
First things first, what's your favorite kind of pizza? Neapolitan.
That's probably the most concise response we've ever had! Care to elaborate? Any crazy toppings you enjoy?
My favorite topping combination is a Neapolitan Pizza Margherita with water buffalo mozzarella and ingredients of the highest quality. Probably the only unusual topping I've ever had is pepperoni. I always get plain or Margherita pizze because, in my opinion, that's the only way for one to judge a pizzeria. If the Margherita at a pizzeria only has Fior di Latte, I generally have my second choice—a marinara—instead. I love tradition, and I feel like I should keep working to perfect the original pizza Margherita to show people how great the purest forms of pizza can be. As far as other toppings, I think it's a matter of personal preference. I do enjoy old Neapolitan pizza toppings such as lardo on the mast'nicola and garlic on the pizza marinara
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?
When I was very young, I ate pizza all the time from many different pizzerias, so I don't actually remember my first slice. I do remember the first slice that changed the way I thought about pizza. It was on a trip to Wildwood, NJ, a few years ago. After tasting all the pizza on the boardwalk in Wildwood, I liked the unique flavor of Mack's plain pie the best. We were staying in Wildwood for just a week, and I ate Macks for 7 days straight. The flavor became addictive, and when I got home I realized I couldn't go a day without eating pizza. In the days after eating Macks, I kept trying different types of pizza locally and discovered other great pizzerias. When my search led me to my first Neapolitan pizza, it was the best pie I'd ever tasted. That's when I became obsessed with it and realized that one day I wanted to make Neapolitan pizza and share it with the world in my own restaurant.
Now that's a dream we can get behind! It seems like you've become quite the pizza connoisseur. So, where do you go to find great pizza?
A Mano, Pizza-Town USA, Don Antonio, Kesté, Juliana's, Totonno's, 57 Napoli, Pizza Vita, Nomad, and Paulie Gee's are my top picks.
Sounds like you make the rounds! That's a great selection. Do you ever travel for pizza? What's the farthest you've traveled for a pie?
I've traveled from New Jersey to San Francisco just for pizza. I went there to see Anthony Mangieri because I always wanted to try his pizza. He left New York shortly before I became involved with Neapolitan pizza and I always heard people talking about how phenomenal his pizza was. They were right—in my experience, his pizza is definitely the best in America, and very possibly the world. I haven't been to Naples yet, but I'd love to experience the birthplace of pizza and see the ways in which it continues to influence the culture there. But Anthony is the person who inspired me to make pizza like I do now. I'm going back again next month. In my opinion, Anthony Mangieri is the greatest pizzaiolo of our time.
That's a pretty big endorsement. It sounds like you're poised to follow in his footsteps. Tell us some more about the pizza you've been making. When I'm making my pizza, I focus on one thing and one thing only: the Margherita pizza. If it weren't for the Margherita pizza, we would not have pizza as we know it in the United States today. I believe it has the best combination of toppings for a pizza. I've never tasted such elements of flavor in any other topping combination.
I make all my pizza at home in a Forno Bravo oven. I make an authentic, naturally leavened pizza napoletana with my own dough recipe. My dough is a two day process with no refrigeration. As you can see from my responses, I'm interested in making Neapolitan pizza the traditional way. I make my pizza with absolutely no short cuts. I feel it is my obligation to not cheat the best food the world has ever seen.
Wowzers, your very own Forno Bravo! What was the process like? Tell me everything.
I have a Forno Bravo Primavera oven, and the wood that I find works best is white birch. The white birch has a neutral flavor and burns efficiently. The oven was shipped by Forno Bravo in California. I cook naturally leavened 00 flour ciabatta bread with a 75% hydration dough. It is extremely light and airy, the same texture as my pizza. I bake my pies for a short time at a very high temperature so that the flavors in the bread and cheese are preserved. The average bake time for my pizza is about 60 seconds, and that's after heating up the oven for an hour. I make pizza about twice a week and usually have a gathering of family and friends on the weekends.
Speaking of which, what do you family and friends think of your pizza obsession?
My family and friends are very supportive. They are always anxious to have the pizza and to see how my pizza making gets better and better over time. They truly appreciate what I am trying to accomplish and they support me in my quest.
Do you think you've perfected your method, or is it a work in progress? Is there even such a thing as "perfect" pizza?
For me, and all pizzaioli who make their own pizza every day, it's a work in progress. My love for pizza has turned into a true obsession because I am constantly finding things that will bring me closer to making the best pizza that I can. I strive to make the pizza better and better each time. As soon as I think my pizza can't get any better, I discover something that proves me wrong. If you think you have perfected a method, that is the same thing as telling yourself there's no room for improvement. Some may think they have perfected a method, but you learn new things in baking every day. You might have a perfect pizza on any given day, but it can be even better the next day or much worse. I think Anthony Mangieri is the one who said, "expertise is a lifelong pursuit." I agree.
Have you worked or trained with any professional pizzaioli or are you entirely self-taught? What resources did you use when learning to make pizza?
I am entirely self-taught. Every time I went to a neapolitan pizzeria, I sat next to the oven, and I studied how they made the pizza. At home, I would go on youtube and watch pizzaioli make pizza in naples. On youtube I also saw interviews with pizzerias in naples, and they seemed to be similar to the ones in the United States. I started going to specialty markets and buying neapolitan ingredients so I could make pizza at home. I soon realized it was impossible to make pizza at 600 degrees, so I knew I had to get an oven. I knew I could have saved money by building an oven myself, but I wanted to practice making pizza in a professionally-made oven.
Anything you'd like to get off your chest?
I feel that there are two kinds of Neapolitan Pizza. Commercial Neapolitan is what they make in most of Naples and the rest of the world. A pizzeria with a big menu and wide selection of food items is called "Commercial Neapolitan." They use yeast and refrigeration, and not much thought or care is put into the product. I use the term "Elite Neapolitan" to refer to pizza that is naturally leavened, with no refrigeration used. Only the absolute highest quality ingredients are incorporated into this type of pizza. I consider this to be the true Neapolitan pizza. Very few pizzerias in the world make Neapolitan pizza at its absolute best.
I also believe that the only person that is able to make pizza as good as I am describing is someone who has practice for years and has experience. A pizzeria should have a name of a pizzaiolo to go along with it. If you have a true passion for pizza, you will be the only person making the pizza. I see many articles that talk about some guy who opened a pizzeria and had a "passion for pizza". This is what makes my blood boil. The word passion does not fit the pizza those guys make. Very few people have a true passion for pizza. I think I'm one of them.
Those are some strong words, and from the youngest person we've ever interviewed for Pizza Obsessives, no less. How old are you? Do you find that people have trouble taking you as seriously because of your age?
I'm 17, and I started making pizza when I was 15. I think people are surprised when they find out about my age but also excited to see someone with genuine passion for what they do. As far as I can tell, they're taking me seriously.
Onward and upward, Jimmy!