A Hamburger Today

Pizza Obsessives: Andrew Janjigian, Slice Contributor

If you've followed some of the Boston coverage on Slice, then you are probably familiar with Andrew Janjigian. Or you may know him by his kickass NY pizza recipe that he developed for Cook's Illustrated. Get to know him a little better as he takes his turn in the hot seat.—MS

20110608-pizza-obsessives-janjigian-oven.jpg

Andrew manning his cob oven on its maiden firing.

Name: Andrew Janjigian
Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts
Occupation: Associate Editor, Cook's Illustrated Magazine
URL(s): Blog, blog.dikaryon.org; seriouseats.com/dikaryon; Twitter @dikaryon

Andrew, let's get down to business. What type of pizza do you prefer?

The good kind. By which I mean any style of pizza is fine with me, so long as it is well-prepared. The problem isn't bad styles of pizza, it's badly prepared pizza. I have to assume that there is someone out there somewhere who makes a superlative Chicago-, Greek-, or bar-style pie, I just haven't eaten it yet myself. I find it hard to believe that any style of pizza could have gotten established if there wasn't a tasty version of it out there somewhere.

That said, if I had a device that could teleport myself anywhere in an instant, I'd have it preset for Frank Pepe's in New Haven. I've been serious about pizza for a long, long time, but it wasn't until I ate at Pepe's for the first time (about 10 years ago, I think), that I had my head blown open for real. It was right after that that my pizza obsession really dug in for good.

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?

Having grown up in the Boston 'burbs, that's an easy one: Greek pizza, from a place called "Soko's". It still exists, but under another name and different ownership. Compared to what I like nowadays, I'd want to say that it was terrible, but the fact is, I ate it up then like it was as good as pizza gets. Which is just further proof that even mediocre pizza is still pizza and therefore still enjoyable. What's more memorable about that place than the pizza—which was about average as far as Greek pies go—was Soko himself, who was a serious grump. When you'd call in your order, he'd answer the phone with nothing more than a single, curt word, uttered like an accusation: "Pizza."

For those that aren't familiar with it, Greek pizza is baked in a pan with a considerable amount of oil both in and underneath the dough, which gives it a crisp, nearly fried undercarriage. This method of making pizza has potential—it is, after all, not dissimilar to how many focacce are prepared—but for some reason, in practice, it tends to come out stiff as a board. I think that most places, for ease of handling, must not use a high enough dough hydration. Having more water in the dough would allow the bottom to crisp up without the interior drying out to a lifeless foam. I'm hoping someone here in the Boston area knows of a place that makes a really good Greek pizza, because I'd love to review one for Slice someday.

Oh, I've got a list of parlors for you to mine for Greek gold. Next question: What's your favorite topping or topping combination?

My tastes in toppings tend to be fairly conservative. I'm a baker first and foremost, and I think of pizza as a subcategory of bread. Toppings need to support the flavor and texture of the crust -- if you don't apply them thoughtfully and sparingly, you can easily veer into open-faced sandwich territory. When I make pizza at home, I usually alternate between simple tomato & cheese pies and slightly more elaborate ones. Those tend to follow what I call the pizza "rule of three": something salty (cured pork of various kinds, anchovies, sausage, etc.), something sharp, like pickled vegetables (I'm big into Paulie Gee-style pickled red onions these days) or hot peppers, and something bright and fresh, like greens (cooked or raw) or fresh herbs. More than three things just befuddles the palate.

20110608-pizza-obsessives-janjigian-pizza.jpg

Mushroom confit, arugula, and white sauce.

One of my favorite new topping discoveries/inventions is wild mushroom confit, where you slow-cook mushrooms, garlic cloves, and herbs in duck fat or olive oil. I'm a serious mushroom-head (I even grow my own), but I've always hated most "mushroom" pizzas, since they invariably use canned or fresh white button mushrooms, which I find insipid. Mushroom confit, on the other hand, can be made with whatever mushrooms you want (my last batch was a combination of morels, shiitakes, and oysters) and tastes like candy. I make it up in large batches and keep jars of it on hand in the freezer.

Where do you go for pizza in Boston?

When I eat pizza out, it's usually at the next place I'm going to write up. Boston is a pretty good restaurant town, but it still has a long way to go, pizza-wise. And I can make a better pizza in my indoor or wood-fired oven than most of the places that are near me. (That has more to do with the lack of good restaurant pizza in the area than it is a boast about my own skills as a pieman.)

That said, I really, really like the square slices at Galleria Umberto in Boston's North End (which I'll be re-reviewing for Slice soon). I only wish the lines were shorter and they stayed open later.

20110608-pizza-obsessives-janjigian-outside.jpg

I have to agree that you make the best pizza that I've had in town. Frankly, your modesty is unwarranted. Most people are probably even familiar with your recipes. But, for those who aren't, tell us a little more about your home pizza-making.

I make pizza at least a couple times a month. Pizza was the very first thing I learned to cook as a kid, and is unquestionably the food that launched my cooking career. Even twenty-odd years later, I'm still sorting out my recipes. If I'm making thin-crust pies indoors, I tend to use the 3-day cold-fermented recipe I developed for Cook's Illustrated, with a few secret tweaks that aren't in the magazine version (cough, cough, Sir Lancelot flour). I'm still tweaking the recipe I use in my outdoor wood-fired cob oven, but it's basically a variation of the Cook's recipe using Caputo 00 pizzeria flour, which gives a more tender crust than bread flours do at such high temperatures.

I, for one, am a fan of the Cook's recipe. Do you have any new recipes in the works?

Right now I'm working on a series of recipes for a workshop I'm teaching this summer at The Kneading Conference in Maine, entitled "Pizza Dough Deconstructed". I'm going to demo a few different styles that will hopefully give students a basic understanding of the principles underlying various dough styles, such as Neapolitan, New York-style, and some version of a Sicilian pie.

Wow, it's great to hear that you are spreading the pizza knowledge around. Are you going to tell them what should never go on a pizza?

Far be it from me to say what someone else should or shouldn't put on their pizzas; to each his own, I say. Except for white mushrooms. Yuck.

Weirdest pizza you've ever eaten?

Honestly, I can't think of anything particularly unusual. As I said, I'm pretty conservative about toppings, so even if I had come across something odd on a menu, I'd have steered clear of it.

What is the farthest you've traveled for pizza?

So far, cross-country (a "motherland"-style trip to Italy is long overdue). Aside from regular trips to NYC (where I used to live) to try new joints or revisit old faves, I've never travelled specifically to eat pizza, but whenever I am traveling, I make sure to scope out the pizza possibilities it might present. I once engineered a long layover in Los Angeles on the way home from Hawaii to eat at Mozza.

20110608-pizza-obsessives-AJ-cheeseboard.jpg

Anything you would like to get off your chest?
Yes, actually. Since I started writing reviews for Slice, I've gained enormous respect for people who make pizza for a living, and come to recognize that doing so well is not as easy as it looks from the outside. Sure, anyone can make good pizza, and some of us can make pretty damned good pizza some of the time, but putting out "perfect" pies day in day out isn't just difficult, it's nearly impossible. The stars have to be aligned just so: the state of the dough, the intensity of the fire, the efficiency and skill level of the pieman, and so on. It's no wonder that at many of the most highly regarded pizza joints—Di Fara, Pizzeria Bianco, Una Pizza Napoletana—only one person makes each and every pie they put out, just to minimize the number of variables at play. And even those guys don't get it right every time.

My point is that great pizza is extremely hard to do well, consistently, and we pizza lovers would do well to cut the guy behind the peel a little slack when assessing the quality of his pies. That's how I try approach the restaurants I review, looking for the positive aspects of the pizza before I dissect its flaws. I'm as disappointed as the next guy by a less than satisfying pizza, but I'm more inclined to give a place the benefit of the doubt—everyone has bad days, or bad pies—and go back another time before I dismiss it outright.

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

Are you kidding? They love it, since they get to tag along with me when I'm out on assignment, or when they get invited over for pies at my place.


Who would you like to see interviewed next?

Paul Giannone, a.k.a. Paulie Gee. A few months back I had the privilege of sitting down with him to talk shop over a few of his pies and a beer, and I was really impressed. Not just by the quality of his wonderful pies, but by the man himself, who seemed genuinely happy to share his wisdom with a fellow pizza maker, even an amateur like me. I subsequently read that Chris Bianco had encouraged Paulie to "pay it forward" when someone came to him for advice or support. It was clear from our conversation that he had taken that advice to heart. I have a feeling he'd be happy to share his wisdom with everyone here at Slice, and I know I'd like to hear more from the man.

Thanks for sitting in the hot seat, Andrew! Looking forward to more pizza insights from you, both in the kitchen and out on the street.

Printed from http://slice.seriouseats.com/archives/2011/06/pizza-obsessives-andrew-janjigian.html

© Serious Eats