Pizza Tournament Methodology Questions Answered
Now the winner of the Rachael Ray pizza madness tournament has been revealed by the powers that be at the magazine (we had been sworn to secrecy before this), we are free to answer some of the questions that have been raised by some loyal Slice community members.
I wish I could tell you that we used some incredibly detailed scientific method to seed the 64 pizzerias included in our nationwide bracket, but in fact we didn't. Our team—Adam and I and some trusted pizza associates in various regions of the country—scouted 64 pizzerias in 25 U.S. cities, applying a 100-point system. Then, like the NCAA tournament, we matched perceived high seeds with low seeds so that, like in the Big Dance, powerhouses didn't face each other in the early rounds. From there, we tasted, scored, and bracketed down. Is there a better way to do it? Perhaps, but in the end we thought this was as fair and equitable way to do it as any.
How Did We Deal with Comparing Pizzerias with Different Oven Fuel Sources?
One of the things I have learned in my years of serious pizza research is that in the end fuel source doesn't matter. One of the keys to making great pizza is to have an oven that can stay at a consistent temperature, beginning and end of story.
I have learned by interviewing many great pizzaioli that the fuel source itself doesn't matter all that much. I have had great pizza cooked in a 600°F gas oven, I have had great pizza cooked in a wood-burning oven that gets up to 900°F, and I have had great pizza cooked in a charcoal-burning oven that reaches a thousand degrees. It's the skill and artistry of the pie man that determines a pizza's greatness. So we just let the oven chips fall where they did in our brackets.
How Did We Go About Trying All 64 Pizzerias in the Draw?
Adam visited Seattle (twice), Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Washington, I visited Atlanta, Chicago, Philadelphia, Providence, and Boston for it. Together we visited many pizzerias in New Jersey, Connecticut, and New York. For a limited number of pizzerias in the draw we relied on pizza mules and FedEx. Having written the book on pizza, I have come to realize that you can tell a lot about a pizza even if it's been shipped, frozen, and reheated. Not everything, but a lot. Also, just to make sure we got this stuff right, we also had trusted food writer friends in the other cities file reports and fill out scorecards on the sent pizzas. Would we have liked to visit every pizzeria in the draw? Of course, but we just didn't have the travel budget for it. You can be sure we deliberated long and hard about every pizza we tasted via FedEx, and we certainly gave those pies the benefit of the doubt in judging them. So the one thing you can be sure of is that Adam and I tasted every pie in the draw.
Unlike the NCAA, which might have Arizona playing in the Midwest division, Connecticut in the West, Oklahoma State in the East, etc., we tried to hue as close to commonsense geographical boundaries as possible. The region that probably vexed people the most was the South/Southwest, which included Maryland. We considered placing Mid-Atlantic contenders in the Eastern Division but then realized they'd be facing some stiff competition from serious powerhouse players in the Pizza Belt, which starts in Philadelphia and runs through Trenton and the rest of New Jersey, extending throughout New York; Long Island; New Haven, Connecticut; and ending in Boston.
To balance the tourney somewhat, we looked at the historic Mason-Dixon Line and placed pizzerias below it in the South, even if these places may not feel very Southern by today's standards.
Pizzerias vs. Restaurants That Serve Great Pizza (A Crucial Criterion Serious Slice Lovers Should Know About)
When we began this process we realized that we had to set strict guidelines for what constitutes a pizzeria. We decided that only places that primarily served pizza were eligible for the tourney. That meant places like Al Forno in Providence, Rhode Island; Osteria in Philadelphia, and A16 in San Francisco were ineligible. And I have had great pizza in all three of those places. Osteria in particular was a revelation on my last trip to Philly. Mark Vetri's puffy but chewy Neapolitan-style pizza would have been a final four candidate if it weren't for the fact that he serves so much other seriously delicious food at Osteria.