Cary and Lillian Steiner are the duo behind the pizza site Passion-4-Pizza. Their enthusiasm for the crusty, saucy, cheesy stuff is downright infectious. They've been on my list of potential Pizza Obsessives Q&As for a while. So without further ado, let's convert potential to actual. —The Mgmt.
Names: Cary and Lillian Steiner
Location: New Hyde Park, New York
What type of pizza do you prefer?
CARY: I prefer excellent pizza. Man, that sounds snotty, doesn't it? What I mean is—like music or literature, it's the player, not the game. If there's a master in front of the oven, it can be a Margherita, New York, Sicilian, whatever. When in doubt, my "default" slice is a New York slice.
When we go to a new place, I like to try their basic pizza, whatever it is.
LILLIAN: The real deal in its various forms: really good dough, tomatoes, and mozzarella with basil, garlic or both if called for. Coal or wood-fired oven pizzas have really won me over.
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?
LILLIAN: I absolutely agree with that statement. My first childhood pizza experience was in our home kitchen in New Hyde Park. My Grandma Antoinette made the most delicious pizza, which influenced the way I looked at pizza for a long time. There's more on this topic on our Pizza Passion page, passion-4-pizza.com/pizza-passion.html.
When I was a little older, my Uncle Lou made us pizza in his backyard pizza oven, and while the flavor varied from the pan pizza that I knew and loved, I remembered really liking the taste. I guess that prepared me for what was to come later : ). It wasn't until we started researching and writing for our pizza site that we were exposed to so much that was happening in the world of pizza! It was all very exciting.
Tasting my first coal-fired pizza (more about this below) was truly a delight. It took me by surprise, as I had never really liked burnt or charred anything growing up—I was one of those kids who had to scrape every burnt crumb off a slice of well-done toast. So yes, my taste for what I consider great pizza has altered over time.
CARY: My first slice was from a little place on Livonia Avenue in Brooklyn. It's long gone—we're talking about 50 years ago and the neighborhood has changed significantly. I remember the taste and texture, though, and always will.
There's definitely been an evolution in my taste in pizza. I confess to being indiscriminate in my youth—although in Brooklyn back in the day, you could throw a rock in almost any direction and hit a good pizzeria. Over time, I've gotten pickier. Now that Lil and I have been doing passion-4-pizza for some time, my taste is becoming more refined and I'm much more of a pizza snob than ever. Still, the PCT (Pizza Cognition Theory) holds: When it tastes like old-school thin-crust Brooklyn pizza, I'm home.
What's your favorite topping or topping combination?
LILLIAN: The standard. See above. I love fresh mozzarella when it's made well (not tough and chewy!) and the tomatoes a little on the sweet side. If I had to pick one topping other than the usual, it would probably be sautéed onions.
CARY: Given a choice, just the cheese, sauce, and basil, maybe some garlic. I can eat most toppings, although I don't like pepperoni, which I see as something used to cover up a bad pizza. Having said that, Chris Bianco's Rosa is a most amazing thing, and the egg-and-bacon-marmalade pizza at Paulie Gee's is transcendental.
Where do you go for pizza in your area?
LILLIAN: We happen to live five minutes away from Umberto's, and their "Grandma's" is incredible, so that's the fallback when we're not sure where else to go. Maybe because I started out loving pan pizza, this pizza really appeals to me.
CARY: The original Umberto's on Jericho Turnpike, that is, not King Umberto's, Prince Umberto's (both good, but not the best), or the "Umberto's Of New Hyde Park" knock-offs. Umberto's makes great Sicilian—and, yes, the best grandma pizza. They invented it, you know.
Do you make pizza at home? If so, how? What recipes do you use?
CARY: Lillian and I make pizza together. We use our home oven with two stones—one under the pizza and one above. I'm still nowhere near as good at working the dough as Lil is, so she does most of the kneading, and I shape and dress the pizzas and work the peel. We use a few dough recipes—and I've begun experimenting with blends of flour and fermentation time.
LILLIAN: Usually I assemble ingredients and participate a lot in the dough-making. He usually takes over from there. Recipes—so far, we've used Peter Reinhart, a little from Albert Grande, and lately some Tony Gemignani mixed in.
What's most important to you: crust, sauce, or cheese?
CARY: Crust, no question. I agree with the pizzaiolos who say if the dough is good, it almost doesn't matter what you put on it—and if the dough is bad, it almost doesn't matter what you put on it.
LILLIAN: That's a tough one, but I'd have to say the dough is the most important to me. I'm a bread lover, so the crust has to be good. Although with that said, we've gone to some really bad pizza places in our travels, and even decent dough cannot save a pizza with Chef Boyardee–level sauce!
Anything you'd like to get off your chest?
CARY: Probably, but nothing to do with pizza!
LILLIAN: At first I was intrigued and amused at the whole "pizza culture" or subculture that has come about, but honestly, some people are a bit extreme in their views and perhaps are losing sight of the basic bottom line—that we're all just enjoying our pizza!
What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?
LILLIAN: Obviously, I grew up as a pizza purist, so it took me quite some time (yes, years!) to even accept that other toppings belonged on a pizza. To this day, if I mention a particular topping that I like to my dad, I get an incredulous look. While I've grown to like various toppings, a trip to Straw Hat Pizza in California in the mid '80s sent my head spinning. They offered a pineapple-and-ham pie, and for me that was just too much. Isn't there a line somewhere where you say this can't still be pizza? Prosciutto I can see, but pineapple and American ham? I don't get it.
CARY: Insects. Or that crumbly sausage-bits stuff some places use.
Weirdest pizza you've ever eaten?
CARY: On the weird and wonderful side, that egg-and-bacon-marmalade pizza at Paulie Gee's I referred to above. On the just plain weird side—we were enjoying a buffet dinner in India some years ago. It was Christmas Eve and I suppose our hosts wanted to help our group of Americans feel at home so there was a variety of "American" dishes. I picked up an hors d'oeuvre–size triangle of naan bread topped with paneer and a tomato chutney. I popped it in my mouth and was about to say, "What the heck is this?" when I realized it was supposed to be pizza!
LILLIAN: While I tend to avoid pizza with toppings that seem a little weird, one or two pizzas I've had in the Midwest or Pennsylvania for instance, seem slightly weird to me, but I guess it's just what people are used to eating. I feel sad that people think that that is real pizza.
What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?
CARY: Farthest specifically for pizza? Charlotte, North Carolina (from Long Island), for Peter Reinhart's pizza class—688 miles.
LILLIAN: While maybe we set a record to get Cary to Peter Reinhart's pizza class. After that, it was probably the 40-plus miles we drove from Ann Arbor to get to Tomatoes Apizza in Farmington Hills, Michigan.
What about when we all went to Nomad in Hopewell, New Jersey? That was easily more than 40 miles! ... Let's see, next question: If you could go to any pizzeria in the world tonight, where would it be?
CARY: One I'd never been to? I'd like to taste the pizza at Pizzeria Brandi in Naples, where the Margherita was invented. For a return visit? Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix.
What is your favorite pizza?
LILLIAN: Actually, there are two: For tomatoes and mozzarella, Totonno's in Brooklyn is my hands-down favorite pizza nowadays. Yum! What truly amazes me is that my other favorite is Chris Bianco's Rosa pizza. Yeah, evolution has occurred: I can now embrace what really is a creative and masterful blend of ingredients. Wow. Excellent crust at both places.
Who would you like to see interviewed next?
LILLIAN: It would be great if Peter Reinhart was up next.
CARY: I was going to say Albert Grande of Pizza Therapy, but you snuck him in there already.
Wow. Thanks for playing, Cary and Lillian. This was fun. I'll have to look for more pizza duos for another twofer interview! Hasta la pizza!