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Pizza Obsessives: Pete-zza of Pizzamaking.com, a Real Pizza Hero

At the end of each Pizza Obsessives Q&A, we ask the interviewee who he or she would like to see put in the hot seat next. The answer we seem to have gotten the most is Pete-zza from the DIY pizza site Pizzamaking.com. Thing is, he's a bit of an enigma — but we finally asked the right questions to elicit a great response. So, without further adieu, here's longtime Pizzamaking.com forum member Pizzablogger with the one-on-one. —The Mgmt.

Pete-zza Super.jpgInternational man of mystery? Secret rock star pizzaiolo? Just an ordinary guy who is a pizza obsessive, willing to help virtually anyone who needs it? A behind-the-scenes mad scientist somehow plugged into the pizza industry? Something else entirely? Just who is this guy?

Whatever the case may be, it seems that if you want to push your home pizzamaking to a higher level, you'll eventually find your way to Pizzamaking.com. And after spending even a short time on the forums, you're bound to run into Pete-zza — either while digesting information from previous threads or as a direct answer to whatever pizza perplexities you are struggling with.

While it is likely some of you have not heard of Pete-zza, rest assured that Peter is a bonafide home pizzamaking MVP. The number of people he has directly helped is large, and even after years on the site, he's still tirelessly ready to assist with concise, detailed explanations.

Back in 2005, the now popular Caputo "00" pizzeria flour was a relatively unknown flour in U.S. homes, but Peter was already exploring its unique characteristics through trial and error. There was recently a poll here about egg pizzas, but Peter was already experimenting with egg pizzas and writing about them six years ago. His trip to Di Fara back in 2005 resulted in one of the earliest detailed descriptions of the Di Fara recipe and process that I can remember. This is just the tip of the iceberg of information that Peter has helped to uncover and share with fellow members on the Pizzamaking.com forums.

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An anchovy topped pizza made with Caputo flour from 2006. [Photographs: Pete-zza]

I'm humbled to have captured a Q&A session with Peter, who has taught me as much about various aspects of pizzamaking as any person or any reference material I have encountered. I'm one of the many who owe a lot to him. I could go on and on here, but you get the point.

So enough with the rub and tug, let's get Peter in the hot seat!

How long have you been making pizzas at home now?

Actually, it hasn't been all that long. Over the years I did make pizzas at home from time to time, but the demands of work (I was a classic workaholic), plus a lot of travel and several job-related moves, prevented me from seriously tackling pizzamaking. It wasn't until about seven years ago that I started to study the subject of pizza seriously and to make pizzas at home on a regular basis.

You have made a variety of food products at home. What was it that sparked your interest in homemade pizza?

I have always been intrigued by the physics and biochemistry of dough. I thought it would be fun and interesting to see if I could wrap my mind around, and demystify the science part of, dough-making and use the knowledge gained to make better pizzas than those I had bought or made previously using the typical run of recipes from pizza cookbooks and magazine and newspaper articles. But if it weren't for the science part of the exercise, I don't think I would have embarked on making pizza at home. I wanted to eat good pizza, of course, but it was equally important that I learn something from my efforts.

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Yet another experiment. Ischia cultures fermented at different temperatures (75°F on left, 60°F on right).

While for many of us it's all about the end product and that we might confine ourselves to a specific pizza style, you seem motivated by the process itself and what can be learned from it. It's all about the why. What part of the process do you learn the most from? And is there anything that continue to surprise you?

I think it's fair to say that I'm far more passionate about the process than the end product. That will perhaps always be the case and will no doubt stop me from ever perfecting any single type of pizza. My end game has always been to make several different styles of pizzas well and to move freely among them and to enjoy myself without worrying about whether they are perfect. I try to make the best pizzas I can, but I'm satisfied with less-than-perfect pizzas. I will usually work at a given style until I am satisfied that I understand it and can replicate it and be able to tell others how to do the same. Then I am likely to move on to the next style.

Although I read a lot of technical material to increase my knowledge about pizzamaking, one of my best teachers is the dough itself. Doughs are living things that change and evolve with time. How we make the dough programs what it will do. I just watch, learn, and adjust. To me, the most surprising part of the process is how difficult it is to control the physical and biochemical processes to produce the outcomes you want. Even when I think I can predict the outcome of a given dough or pizza I make based on what I think I know, the dough sometimes has a mind of its own and can confound me. I accept this as part of the challenge and use the feedback to try to do better the next time.

You've mentioned that you "are always looking to the next pizza on my dance card and what I can learn from it." What's the next pizza on your dance card, and what do you hope to learn from it?

Since 2004, when I joined the pizzamaking.com forum, I have conducted so many different experiments in so many different areas, or helped many other members with their own experiments, that it is getting harder for me to find experiments that really excite me. As a result, my current dance card (to-do list) is populated mostly by pizzas that I want to tweak or by popular pizza recipes of other forum members that I want to try. There are a couple of things on the project side, however. One is to do more on making frozen pizza dough in a home environment, simply to learn more about the physics and chemistry of frozen doughs. I would also like to see if I can improve the thermodynamic performance of my standard, unmodified electric home oven to get better results.

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An earlier foray into New York–style pizza from 2004.

Is there any specific project that you have learned the most from?

There are actually several broad areas from which I learned a lot, in different ways. A lot of the fundamentals I learned from my work with the Lehmann NY-style over a period of several years and dozens of experiments as well as the experiments I conducted to make cold-fermented doughs that could last from five to more than 20 days of cold fermentation.

I also learned a lot about naturally and commercially leavened Neapolitan-style doughs from the experiments I conducted on that subject shortly after Marco Parente, an expert on Neapolitan doughs, joined the forum in early 2005 (see here and here).

Learning how to make long, room-temperature fermented doughs at different times of the year with changing room temperature environments also taught me a lot.

What part of the pizzamaking process comes easiest for you?

I would say creating, modifying, and deconstructing/reconstructing dough formulations and manipulating the math required to make all kinds of pizzas under different conditions and requirements (such as numbers and sizes of pizzas, crust thicknesses, using pre-ferments, etc.). I think I have also become adept at using, and helping other members use, the dough calculating tools at the pizzamaking.com forum. Also, because my experiences have cut across so many different types and styles of pizzas, I have been able to transfer knowledge and insights gained in one place to help me in another. I think that has made it easier for me to help others diagnose, correct, or avoid problems with their doughs and pizzas.

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Cracker crust pizza.

What part of the process is most challenging?

There are a couple areas. The first is trying to optimize the use of my modest home equipment to produce the best pizzas possible, given the limitations of that equipment. I have a basic KitchenAid mixer with a C-hook, a basic pizza stone, and a standard builder's grade home electric oven. The mixer and oven are more than 20 years old. I also try as much as possible to use regular supermarket flours, cheeses, and other ingredients from local sources, even though they may not be the best possible choices. In this respect, I think I am just like a lot of home pizzamakers trying to make a decent pizza using basic equipment and readily available ingredients.

The second area that presents some of the greatest challenges to me is reverse engineering and cloning pizza doughs and pizzas of others. It is very hard and tedious work and forces you to bring just about everything you know to the task, but I have found that the payback in terms of increased knowledge to be enormous and satisfying, much more than I ever imagined.

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One of many oven set-ups Peter has used.

You have responded to many questions from beginning or intermediate home pizzamakers looking to step up the quality of their pizzas. What advice would you offer to help them immediately improve their pies?

For those who don't have one, I would say get a decent digital scale, since there are now so many dough formulations on the forum that recite ingredients by weights and bakers' percentages. Using a quality digital scale to weigh flour and water will, in most cases, result in a more uniform and consistent product, and fairly quickly. If the individual is not interested in investing in a scale, I (and others) can still help the person but it takes more time and is a lot harder to do from behind a keyboard, especially with the large numbers of new, inexperienced members that join the forum seeking advice and help. So, for purely selfish reasons, I would prefer that members use scales. It's the last piece of pizza making gear that I myself would give up.

I also try to discourage new members from starting out with complicated dough making exercises, such as using starters and preferments, particularly if they have never used them before (as in making bread dough). I think the better course is to pick a good basic recipe and master it before moving on to more elegant strategies. As they learn, they should keep reading and learning more about the pizzamaking process.

What do you think are the most misunderstood aspects of making pizza?

At the most basic and general level, I would say the failure to understand and appreciate that dough is a living thing governed by the laws of chemistry and physics. In that context, I would single out the failure to understand the effects of yeast quantity and temperature on the fermentation process and overall dough performance, management, and longevity. Next would be the concept of hydration, both in respect of formula hydration and in relation to different types of flours. Once people understand these concepts and relationships and are able to incorporate them into their pizzamaking, their pizzas almost always improve rather markedly.

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Kraft Mac & Cheese and buffalo chicken pizza.

Which type of pre-ferment would you use to make pizza and why?

Having tried just about all types of pre-ferments, and having worked with other members with pre-ferments, my preference for pizza dough would be poolish. The reason is that the poolish works fast, because of its high hydration (100%), it produces many favorable byproducts of fermentation and signals when it is ready to be incorporated into the final dough by receding after peaking. A sponge behaves similarly, but the other forms of pre-ferment do not.

You have made both bread and pizzas over the years. What do you feel are the most noticeable differences, if any, between making the two products?

I think the major difference is the form factor. A pizza is flat, and bread is not (unless you are talking about flatbreads or pita and the like). Steam is also frequently used in making breads, but not particularly helpful with pizza (although some have tried). Many principles of bread making, such as autolyse; turns, stretch, and folds; multiple punch-downs; and using naturally or commercially leavened pre-ferments, can be used in pizza dough making, but these methods tend to be more time-consuming and require more attention than methods used to make the straight doughs that most pizza operators specialize in. The fermentation protocols for bread making will also often be different than for pizza dough.

As a pizza eater going out to a pizza joint, not as a pizzamaker, if you had to choose only one style of pizza to eat, what would it be and why?

One of the things I discovered when I made all of the different styles of pizza is that the more time I spent with them, the more I became attached to them. So, I can like just about any style of pizza. However, if push came to shove and I had to choose only one style of pizza to eat in a pizzeria, it would be a New York–style or, more precisely, a New York "street" or "slice" style as might be made by an independent or mom-and-pop operation. I like the large form factor, so I would perhaps select an 18-inch pizza.

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NY-style pizza.

Say I'm a beginning pizzamaker looking to improve my technique. I've just found pizzamaking.com. What are the most important posts I should read?

I would start by reading the forum's Pizza Glossary at the pizzamaking.com website. I would read it a few times. Then, I would study the indexing system used to index posts on the forum. That should allow beginners to get a lay of the land and, if they decide to post, enter their posts in the right/best places. Then, I would learn how to use the forum's advanced search feature. That will allow a person to find answers to many of their questions not already answered by the other sources. Using these simple tools saves a lot of time for everyone. It also makes my job as a moderator easier.

Outside of pizzamaking.com, what reference materials (books, URLs, etc.) do you feel should be in every pizzamaker's library?

For anyone willing to spend quality time on the forum, I would pick the content of the forum over any pizza cookbook that I own (I have over a dozen of them gathering dust) because I think that many of the dough recipes on the forum are better than what I have found in pizza cookbooks. For someone unwilling to spend time on the forum finding better recipes, I would suggest Peter Reinhart's book American Pie, mainly for an understanding of the different pizza styles, history, and basic dough preparation and management. The Correll Encyclopizza is also a good source of pizza information, but mainly for the commercial side. For those who are interested in using natural starters/pre-ferments in their pizza dough making, I would recommend Ed Wood's book Classic Sourdoughs.

The resources that I have found most useful aren't even pizza-related. They include just about anything written by Didier Rosada of Uptown Bakers (for example, these two articles) and the late Professor Raymond Calvel's book The Taste of Bread. I wouldn't buy that book for its pizza content. There is only one pizza recipe in the book, and the book costs around $100 the last time I looked.

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Peter's Caputo "00" deep dish pizza from 2006.

You've had the pleasure of talking with many persons in the pizzamaking industry, whether well-known pizzamakers or industry consultants. Have any left a particular impression on your pizzamaking process or on your way of thinking?

The major influence on my development was Tom Lehmann, of the American Institute of Baking. When I "found" Tom Lehmann, I learned that he had spent most of his career on the pizza side, was generally recognized as an expert on pizza, and he was one of the very few people who wrote regularly and authoritatively on the Internet about the science and technical aspects of pizza dough–making and management. Even to this day, there are few writers like Tom who regularly write on the technical and science aspects of pizzamaking.

The second major influence was November, a very talented member of the forum. He taught me to question conventional wisdom and not to post conclusions as fact without doing the research or experimentation to support the conclusions. He also opened my mind to scientific and technical aspects of dough that I would never had found on my own and which transformed the way that I would thereafter look at pizza dough (I have become more analytical). A final influence was Marco Parente because of his contributions to the forum on the authentic Neapolitan style. He set the stage for major advancement of that style on the forum.

It seems that more and more home pizzamakers are pondering opening up their own pizzerias and that a few pizzamaking.com members, such as Jeff Varasano and Peter Taylor, have made this leap. Do you have any insight into any one potentially overlooked area which may benefit such a person?

Although I regularly read posts entered by pizza professionals at the PMQ Think Tank forum, I am not particularly qualified to speak on the business side of pizzamaking. It just seems to me that there are many more ways to fail than to succeed, even with a superior product. The product, the location, the demographics, the business climate, the capitalization/financing, the staffing, and the front and back of the house business know-how apparently all have to be in place and well understood to succeed. We have had forum members who have succeeded with their pizza businesses but we have had some failures also, with a few more struggling because of the current state of the economy.

You use a standard kitchen oven, with maybe some firebricks placed inside of it, to cook your pizzas — no other "hacks." Do you have any aspirations to get a hotter oven?

No. I might at some point try a soapstone stone instead of my cordierite stone to do a better job with the New York style, particularly in the large sizes that I enjoy making (16-inch and 18-inch), and I may try to improve my current oven's performance in a user-friendly way, but that would be about it.

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Yet another of many oven set-ups Peter has experimented with.

What are some of your favorite retail pizzerias?

Since I make my own pizzas so often, I have not found much need to eat outside pizza. So I don't have any favorite retail pizzas.

What are your most memorable pizza-eating experiences?

Of the pizzas I have made, the most memorable ones were those that were based on using natural starters and pre-ferments and those based on the "geriatric" doughs (over 10 days old) I made. But even those weren't as good as those that Scott Riebling ("scott r" at pizzamaking.com) made for me in his Boston basement apartment a few years ago, using his rigged oven to defeat the clean cycle. He could have started a pizza business with those pizzas. They were that good.

Your go-to toppings combination?

As part of my extensive experimentation with the Lehmann NY style pizzas, I went through a lot of pepperoni. I did this mostly to keep variables at a minimum from one pizza to the next. As a result, I favor pepperoni on my pizzas. It also fits the New York "street" or "slice" style quite well. But I have tried all of the usual suspects as toppings. I even made a chicken-liver pizza, which might have become one of my favorites but for the fact that none of the supermarkets around me stock fresh chicken livers anymore. But I do like buffalo chicken, seafood (like clams, oysters, and salmon), eggs, and even pasta on my pizzas.

Who would you like to see interviewed next?

Scott Riebling. In my view, he is the quintessential pizza Renaissance man. He makes just about every type of pizza, he knows more about flours, tomatoes, and cheeses than anyone I know, he works as a consultant in the pizza industry, he is bursting with secrets that we all want to know, and he has eaten in just about every place that has a pizza sign above it. Plus he is a down-to-earth musician and knows a lot of cool people. He is one of the most respected members on the forum.

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An egg pizza From 2005.

We know that you are private, from Texas, tend to travel relatively regularly, have excellent deductive powers, are highly analytical and able to precisely describe and lay out your thoughts in detailed posts on pizzamaking.com. I won't even grill you about multiple specifics about who you are because I know that's pointless. But could you give us one small nugget about yourself which can at least keep us all guessing exactly who you are?

LOL. I guess I am an anachronism in many respects. However, I have always viewed what I write to be more important than who or what I am, with people being free to accept or reject what I write as they see fit, unencumbered by that personal information. There are some who think that I am famous and hiding that fact or that I am a current or former professional in the field. That is flattering but I can assure everyone that I am not famous nor have I ever done anything with pizza professionally. I am just a pizza hobbyist, nothing more.

Peter, many thanks for all of your selfless help and dedication to making a better pizza at home.

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