That's When I Reach for My Thermometer

Fire it up: Grimaldi's, whose oven is pictured above, is one of the few New York City pizzerias using coal as a fuel. Though some amazing pizzas have come from regular gas-fired ovens, a coal oven is capable of producing a crust like no other.

Books_Steingarten_ItMustHav.jpgMy dear pizza pupils, it's been a while since we've given you a reading assignment. Lucky for you, the required material on our syllabus does not require you to take a test, and it's actually fun to read—especially this particular selection.

Recently, while conducting web-assisted research on coal-oven pizza, we ran across an electronic version of a favorite Jeffrey Steingarten column, "Perfection Pizza," which appears in his book It Must Have Been Something I Ate. We've mentioned this essay in our "Bookshelf" section, and we're pleased to be able to link you to it. From beginning to end, this is a thoroughly entertaining and educational story about the storied coal ovens of New York City and one man's quest to reproduce their effects at home. Here's how the piece opens:

The dull grey, snub-nosed gun wavered in my trembling hand. The laser sight projected a blazing red dot onto my prey. I held my breath and squeezed the trigger. Ah! It was even worse than I feared!

My gun is exceedingly cool. It is a Raynger ST 8 non-contact thermometer made by Raytek of Santa Cruz, California. From several feet away, you point it at anything you wish and pull the trigger, and it instantly tells you the temperature of that thing within a tenth of a degree. My gun goes up to 1,000 degrees F! Sure, it cost way too much. Yes, I should have used the money to upgrade my footwear instead, or have a makeover. But everyone turns green with envy when I demonstrate my ST 8, especially men and boys.

I have been going around New York City, taking the temperature of the best commercial pizza ovens ...

[continue reading, courtesy of the Observer. The first part of this story is written by the Observer's reporter; Steingarten's essay begins at the subhead that reads "My quest for the perfect pizza."]

If this piece whets your appetite for Steingarten's prose, you can buy his books from Amazon.

For even further reading on coal-fired pizza ovens, visit this page of the eGullet NYC Pizza Survey bulletin board. The talk there is some of the most knowledgeable we've read, with members discussing how frequently the different pizzerias stoke the coals in their ovens and how that schedule affects crust crispness.

Either one of these reads is truly fascinating. Taken together, they really put into perspective how much of an art pizza-making is. And that's something to think about next time you're tempted to grab a slice from a pizzeria that has no respect for the craft it practices.

Further Reading

An eGullet Q&A with Jeffrey Steingarten.
Waitrose Food Illustrated on Steingarten.
Harvard magazine on Steingarten.
Gothamist's take on the man.

Comments can take up to a minute to appear - please be patient!

Previewing your comment: