Pizza Obsessives: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt
You may already know J. Kenji Lopez-Alt from such hits as the skillet-broiler method, this awesome pizza sauce recipe, and a great New York–style pizza recipe. Get to know him a little better as we put him in the hot seat. —AK
What type of pizza do you prefer?
I like the traditional, reheated, fold-in-half, served-on-a-paper-plate, nothing-fancy-like-wood-or-coal, New York–street corner slice.
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?
My first memories of eating pizza were from one of two places (I can't remember which came first). The first was Pizza Town on Broadway up near Columbia. It doesn't exist anymore, but it was a typical New York slice joint that served regular pies, garlic knots (five for a dollar), and had a big Wings poster on the wall (that's the band, not chicken). Greasy, with a nice, well-charred crust.
The second was V&T Pizzeria in Morningside Heights. It's a full-pie, sit-down, red-sauce Italian joint, complete with plastic checked tablecloth and chicken Parm. I haven't been there in at least two decades, but if it hasn't changed (and it seems like the kind of place that would never change), then its pies are thick and greasy with a huge amount of cheese.
I still like slice joints, but I don't think I'd enjoy V&T anymore.
What's your favorite topping or topping combination?
I go plain all the way. It's the only way to really judge a pizza. If I do get toppings, it'll either be a clam pie (if I'm in New Haven), some sort of brassica (like the brussels sprouts at Motorino or the kale pie at Paulie Gee's, or occasionally a cured meat like pepperoni or soppressata. Only if the edges get crisp, though.
Where do you go for pizza in your area?
I live in central Harlem. There's really no good pizza within walking distance of my apartment, but my favorite New York–style slice in the city is from Sacco Pizza on Ninth Avenue and 54th Street. I've been going there since I was a little kid back when they used to have videogame machines in the back. I'd spend hours playing hooky from music school to play Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat.
They don't have video games there any more and the slices have slipped a bit, but it's still awesome. It used to be called Pat & Joe's, then changed to Dominic & Joe's, burned down, and rose from the ashes as Sacco. Their sauce is the best, and they've nailed the all-important sauce-cheese-crust ratio.
We know you make pizza at home. And many folks out there are probably familiar with your pizza recipes you've published here. But for noobies, can you point to some of your favorites?
I'll keep it short. Yes, I make pizza at home, in all sorts of manners. As for recipes? How about some of these.
Hey! How 'bout those! You've also worked in a pizzeria, right? Cambridge 1? For how long, and what'd you do?
Yeah, I worked at Cambridge 1 in Harvard Square (Cambridge, Massachusetts) for a few months. It was my first restaurant job out of college. We did grilled pizzas based on the Al Forno method. I thought making pizzas and working in a pizzeria was the awesomest thing in the world. I was basically the grill dude, so my job was everything from making dough and toppings in the morning to actually cooking the pies during service. Grilled pizza is a lot of fun—it's one of the most adrenaline-intense cooking jobs I've had. Juggling four pizzas at a time that each take a minute and half to cook with different toppings can be a challenge!
Any other professional pizzeria experience besides that?
When you develop your pizza recipes for Slice/SE, what type of audience do you have in mind?
I'm a pretty nerdy guy, but I always aim to make sure that both my recipe subjects and my writing have a certain level of mass appeal. Nothing turns me off more than when public conversations (in any field, not just pizza) become so technical that the average person can no longer follow the thread or engage in the conversation. What's the point of writing something that nobody but a handful of people are going to understand? I try hard to be inclusive of all pizza lovers out there, whether they are fellow nutso tweakers and tinkerers or just people who want to make a good pie every few months or so.
What's been the most challenging pizza recipe you've developed?
Well I'm still after the Holy Grail of pizza: the perfect at-home Neapolitan without having to build your own oven. So that recipe has been the most challenging, because it's not anywhere near perfect yet, and I'm constantly tweaking my method or trying out new approaches. It may never be possible, but that's OK. Trying to get there is just as fun anyway.
I think many folks reading this would agree. ... So, what one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?
One thing I've never liked on a pizza is uncured meat. So things like sliced chicken or rare steak just don't do it for me. On a pizza, the toppings should be considered flavorings for the crust. Uncured meats are just too substantial and bland to work well as pizza toppings. For the same reason, adding too many toppings really bothers me. When the toppings overwhelm the crust, you know you're headed into trouble.
Most unusual pizza you've ever eaten?
Uh... How about a leftover Halloween candy pie? It was truly horrid.
You've only got yourself to blame for that, buddy. ... OK, next: What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?
You know, I've made sushi pilgrimages, pho pilgrimages, Thai food pilgrimages, etc around the world, but I can't say that I've ever travelled extensively for pizza. I feel like it's one of those things that is so ubiquitous around the world that for me, it's almost always more interesting to simply look at what's around me and try and get the local take on pizza wherever I am.
That said, I did spend a day or two walking around Rome tasting pizza bianca. The best was at Al Forno in the Campo de Fiori, which, I'm sad to say (just because his ego doesn't need the padding), is also the one Jeffrey Steingarten writes extensively about in his Vogue article on Roman breads. Fortunately for us, the owner opened up Farinella in New York. If you get the pizza bianca fresh out of the oven, it's just as good as the one in Rome.
Anything you'd like to get off your chest?
I have a couple stray hairs that grow right in the center, but I don't think that's what you meant.
I was anticipating a smart-ass answer like that from you. ... Now: Who would you like to see interviewed next?
Hmm. I'll have to think on this one.
Lemme know when you have a nominee. In the meantime, thanks for playing, Kenji. You may now leave the hot seat.