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Pizza Obsessives: Mike Senese of 'Catch It Keep It'

Mike Senese is one of the hosts of the Science Channel's Catch It Keep It, where he's the "Engineer of Destruction." He puts his engineering chops to use coming up with how-to projects in support of his love of pizza. He's used to flamethrowers, so we figured he wouldn't mind a turn in the hot seat here. The Mgmt.

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[Photograph: Kate Webber]

Name: Mike Senese
Location: Los Angeles, formerly San Francisco
Website: mikesenese.com/DOIT; @msenese on Twitter

You got a lot of attention for your post on making a temporary DIY WFO. Did you participate in the construction? Did it inspire you to make your own temporary oven or to build a more permanent one?

That oven was part of a two-day pizza course that I took last year at Machine Project, a Los Angeles art/event/workshop group.

We built the oven collaboratively over the course of a few hours, following the lead of the instructor, Michael O'Malley. Its simplicity and effectiveness was completely energizing: Turns out you don't HAVE to spend months completely renovating your back yard if you want to experiment with wood-fired pizza ovens. Just stack a bunch of bricks together, bolt some angle iron around them to hold everything in place, and voilà: pizza oven!

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Of course, it doesn't have the elegance of a permanent, masterfully crafted WFO, but the pizzas it cooked were amazing, and we had it torn down and packed up by 4 p.m. The instructor actually brought all the supplies in that morning on his trailer, and brought them home that night. And, he gave me the jig for making the arch. I've been meaning to post the dimensions on my site—it's super simple.

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Over the holidays I was getting the materials together to build one at my parents' house and make pizzas for the family but was deterred by a small blizzard. We ended up grilling the pizzas on the barbecue instead.

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I still have make one of these temporary-style ones for them at some point. Most likely, I'll cement it together in a more permanent fashion. It's hard to find the time during visits to go all-out on a major build project.


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20100615-mpo-senese-pizza-peel.jpgYou also made a pizza peel, but folks were like, "That's too thick!" Did you ever try revising the how-to?

I posted a few pizza peel designs on that page, some of them are very rudimentary and yes, thick, but my favorite is the one by binkyswoodworking.com. His design has a smooth, gradual taper from both sides, starting at approximately 1/16 inch and ending at 1-inch thick by the handle. The nice thing about the continuous double taper is there is no serious transition to get caught on when placing or removing the pizza in the oven, and it allows you to maneuver around in a standard floor oven from a more natural standing position, rather than having to kneel on the kitchen floor to get the peel under the pizza.

Recently, though, I've gone back to primarily using my metal peel. I love to eat lunch at the kitchen counter at A16 and watch them make pizza, and they only use metal peels. After getting to use Jeff Krupman's fancy perforated peel, I drilled out my aluminum one this weekend to make a DIY replication. The idea is that it helps reduce burnt, bitter flour buildup under the pizza when you put it in the oven. Possibly even helps with lessening chances of pizza sticking. Results should be posted on my site by the end of the week.

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20100615-mpo-senese-stone-in-oven.jpgAs you don't have a WFO at home, what do you normally use to make your pizzas?

In my current house I have an older gas oven with a removable floor. By having the pizza stone placed on the rack, over direct flame, I'm able to get the stone up to 650ºF—much better than most current kitchen ovens, although still not as high as I'd ultimately like it to be.

I found I have to place the stone a couple spaces up the rack because the bottom was burning faster than the top would cook, but I've got it dialed in working pretty well now. The oven design is oddly narrow and deep so I have my stone placed sideways and toppings occasionally get lost in the back.

What's next from your mad pizza scientist lab?

My hero right now is Jeff Krupman, aka Pizzahacker [interviewed here on Slice in March 2010 —The Mgmt.]. His PizzaForge oven design is the epitome of DIY awesomeness. I've met up with him a few times; I spent an evening making pizza with him in SF and another couple nights building an oven with him in his back yard. I have a PizzaForge prototype at my place that I'm experimenting with, both for cooking and design-wise. I'm as excited about it as a kid who just discovered a box full of unopened baseball cards.

I'm also in the process of building some self-watering tomato containers. Last year's tomato plants were a total failure: I was able to make one pizza with the sauce I made from the one small batch of fruit that grew. I figure that one pizza cost me about $75.

What style of pizza do you normally do?

I'm in love with the Neapolitan pizza style, which is not really possible to get perfect in a home kitchen. But I try anyway.

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A marinara pizza with kalamata olives from A16 in San Francisco.

What's your favorite topping or topping combination to make?

My go-to pizza tends to be marinara. Sauce, garlic, basil. I like to add kalamata olives, too. Just simple, bold flavors that go well together. It's the pizza I always get at A16 (pictured above), and love to try to replicate. On my last NYC pizza expedition I stuck with marinaras as a way to have an even comparison between all the places.

Do you cook for friends/neighbors?

I LOVE to cook for friends and neighbors. My regular birthday routine involves making a big batch of dough, a huge bowl of sauce, and inviting all my pals over for a nonstop pizza party. I've done this the past four or five years and see no reason to stop. I can't think of a better way to celebrate than by cooking pizza for all my pals.

What do your friends and family think of your pizza madness?

Sometimes I forget that I'm a bit more pizza-obsessive than the normal person, but I think I've inspired a few other pals to get pretty involved in pizza making. It's fun to have friends to share the learning process with. I also get the "You should open a restaurant" line from friends. A lot. I don't think I will, but they're very encouraging.

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?

The first pizza that I'm cognitive of eating was Frankie's Firehouse in Enfield, Connecticut. I just checked and, yes, they're still around, been open since 1958. I don't have any recollection of what their pizza was like, but I remember loving it as a kid. In high school, college, and afterward I worked in a few pizzerias, delivery-style joints to family sit-down places. Those remain some of the most fun jobs I've had. But the moment when everything changed was in 2002, when I went to Naples, Italy, to visit family. I was directed to a pizzeria called Di Matteo on Via Tribunale. It's little more than a walk-up counter, but it changed the way I looked at everything involving pizza.

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A pizza from Pizzeria Bruno in San Diego, California.

Where do you go for pizza in your area (when you're not making your own)?

I'm still searching for a pizza joint in L.A. that makes an absolutely outstanding pie. Pizzeria Mozza is the best I've found so far, but the last few visits it seemed dry and overcooked. There's nothing truly Neapolitan in L.A. The one main place in town that does Neapolitan pizza is not that great. There are a few places I still need to try, I've heard Terroni and Pace and Caioti are good.

A new place opened in San Diego recently, Pizzeria Bruno Napoletano. I stumbled upon it almost accidentally, and was blown away. Peter Lutz, one of the owners, talked shop with me for an hour after my meal, let me go behind the counter to check out their oven (gorgeous) and show me around. Easily the best pizza I've found in southern California. Two hours from Los Angeles and worth the drive.

What's most important to you: crust, sauce, or cheese?

Right now I'm fixated on getting my dough perfect. I've got a nice starter in my fridge that has been producing good results, although I'd like to play with the Ischia yeast (sourdo.com) that a lot of people are into right now. My grandfather was born in Ischia, so I feel obligated to test it out.

This question makes me think about a possible "pick two" theory. If two of the three components are good, you've got a good pizza. Just one being good isn't sufficient. I just made this up right now, but it seems to might make sense.

What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?

Every horrible pizza I can imagine is inevitably made by someone into an amazing, gourmet creation later on. But I don't think you could make a good pizza with nacho cheese sauce. I dare someone to prove me wrong.

Weirdest pizza you've ever eaten?

I had "pizza" in Otavalo, Ecuador, that was literally ketchup on toast. I don't even know if that counts, but they INSISTED on calling it pizza.

What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?

The farthest was when I flew from Norway to Italy for a return trip to Di Matteo. It was August, and when I arrived to Naples I discovered that nearly every business in the city shuts down for vacation for the entire month. This led to me spending four unplanned weeks in Italy waiting for Di Matteo to reopen. I succeeded in finding a couple other great pizzerias. And at one point I got arrested by the police for riding a rented bicycle on the freeway.

If you have anything else you'd like to include, feel free to make up a question or questions to ask yourself!

Not sure of a question for this, but here's a fun timelapse video of me making pizza from a couple years ago:

Also, I'd love to introduce everyone to the awesomeness that is the "pizza strip"—a Rhode Island Italian bakery phenomenon. Dough is pressed into a low, large, rectangular pan and covered with a zesty tomato sauce, baked, and then cut into delicious strips approximately 3-by-6 inches. Served room temperature. They're cheap—a few years back I think I would get three for $2, or maybe even less, at a place near my grandmother's old house called Calvitto's on Park Avenue in Cranston, Rhode Island. I'd order them a dozen at a time, and usually eat most or all of them at once.

Anything else you'd like to get off your chest?

A couple years ago I decided to go vegan, to fight cholesterol (primarily due to the quantity of cheese pizza I was making and eating). Some of the best pizzas I had found in Italy were cheeseless, so the proposition of giving it up didn't scare me. But it often leads to a heavy interrogation when I tell people I'm crazy about pizza but no dairy. I try not to preach about things, but I'd love for people to stop thinking it's so strange. That said, yes, cheese is definitely delicious.

Now: Who would you like to see interviewed next?

I nominate Peter Lutz from Bruno Pizzeria San Diego or Charlie Hallowell from Pizzaiolo (Oakland)—both are knowledgeable and awesomely friendly guys who have some great pizza insight to share.

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