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Building a Pizzeria: Shaping the Menu

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One of the most fun aspects of building a pizzeria... eating pizza! [Photographs: Caleb Schiff]

Over the last few weeks, I've discussed the origins of my pizzeria, Pizzicletta, the local community feeding the dream, and the Stefano Ferrara wood-fired oven that will be center stage in the space. For this post, I want to discuss the process of developing the menu and the inspiration behind it.

When you come to Pizzicletta, you'll soon realize that through the menu, the space and decor, and even the seating arrangement, I am striving for simplicity. I am a strong believer in the concept that "less is more" when if comes to food. Simplicity and focus is part of the Italian culinary tradition, and it's a great business strategy because it keeps overhead low. And it takes some pressure off of me (the self-taught baker) by having a limited list of ingredients to prepare, equipment to maintain, and at the end of the night, dishes to wash.

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Pies from: Oi Mari in Matera, Italy (left), Bianco's in Phoenix (right), and Roberta's in Brooklyn (bottom).

I also believe that some of the best restaurants are those that do one thing and do it well. Unfortunately, Flagstaff's restaurant scene is plagued by restaurants with encyclopedic menus, offering food that is just so-so. Don't get me wrong, there are a few good restaurants in this town, but they are awash in sea of mediocrity. I want to raise the bar.

To borrow a phrase from Paulie Gee, a trailblazer for the home-taught baker like me, "pizza is good ingredients on good bread." No fuss. No muss. Simple and good. I couldn't agree more and I've embraced this concept with my menu. When I visited Paulie last summer, he welcomed me in a few hours before he opened to ask him questions about opening my own place. Following a great conversation with loads of advice, Paulie made me some amazing pies. By the end of it, I could hardly get out of my seat... and then he presents me with his dessert pie topped with limoncello. How could I say no? So, I loosened my belt.

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On the road and hungry for inspiration in Italy.

Paulie wasn't my only inspiration for pizza. My night at his place was one of many great nights I spent in NYC researching Neapolitan pizzerias. I was happy to join Adam Kuban at Motorino, and visit Co., Roberta's, Veloce, and others. I did the same in San Francisco a few months earlier. There, I met Sharon Ardiana of Gialina and the recently opened Ragazza, ate pies at Pizzaiolo, A16, Pizza Politana and Delfina, and made a visit to Chad Robertson at Tartine Bread.

As most of you now know, I live in Arizona and make frequent trips to have pies from one of the founding fathers of US Neapolitan pizzas, Chris Bianco. I've also ventured across the pond to Italy twice, where I visited the Caputo Molino Flour mill, Da Michele, Starita, and Sorbillo in Naples and ate at many other pizzerias from the thousands of great, unknown hole-in-the-wall's throughout the country. Whew...it's a good thing I'm an avid runner and cyclist. Just recalling these trips remind me of the appetite such great pizza creates.

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Off to have a tasting with Franca and Franco, the owners and vintners of Podere Ciona.

As you can imagine, there is no better place in the world to have a ravenous appetite than in Italy, and traveling by bike insures that my stomach will never let me down. Such food inspired me and kept me going. The warmth of the Italian people also fed my soul. Italians have a soft spot for cyclists, and I was often encouraged by many bambini cheering on "le bici!!" And wherever I visited, I was invited to share a meal, a glass of wine, and discuss my travels and food. These were the cultural experiences and inspiration I was looking for. They put me in touch with what food and wine means to Italians, the importance of regional cuisine, and the story behind these national treasures. These are the stories I bring to Pizzicletta.

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Olive oil tasting at the Sesti Estate, south of Montalcino. The olive oil on the left was harvested the day before while the one on the right was from last year's harvest.

And inspiration often comes at unexpected times and ways. After enjoying countless numbers of pies and liters of wine along my 1200 mile ride through the country's southern reaches, I boarded my American Airlines flight back from Italy last November and was served...pizza! The ready-to-fly, circular sponge of processed dough, cheese, and sauce was inedible. I nearly fell out of my seat laughing and it might have disproved my general belief that "even bad pizza is good." However inedible, that small circle of dough reaffirmed a deep feeling I've had about most pizza in America and in Flagstaff: we can do better. The airborne pizza delivery was quite timely.

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The final pizza of my Italy trip. Thank you American Airlines for inspiring me to do better!

Creating the menu is really about matching these inspirations from my travels with something of my own. Then, testing out those combinations and concepts with my guests. My travels also give me inspiration for the name of my pies. So, every night I print my menu and ask for input. I have nearly a hundred of these menus with comments from others or notes of my own. I'm using local and seasonal ingredients where possible, developing pies that combine both sweet and savory flavors, and retaining some of the classic, Neapolitan pies.

My menu will be one page, include a rotating salad, no more than a handful of pizzas, a simple gelato that I learned to make in Italy. There will be local beer, and wine from the vineyards I visited during my travels. I'll cook everything in the wood-fired oven, so there is no need for a stove, a grill, a hood, or a fryer.

That's it. It's simple. It's operationally lean. It emphasizes the quality, not the processing. So when my dough begins to rise here in Flagstaff, I hope to be raising some eyebrows, and ultimately, show my community what pizza was always meant to be.

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