Pizza Obsessives: Jim Gerhold (aka 'JimmyG')
Name: Jim Gerhold
Location: Lawrence, KS
What type of pizza do you prefer?
My favorite is a regular New York pizza pie. But I also enjoy a good Neapolitan pizza, or what I call a Sicilia style pizza: semolina or a semolina mix replacing the bread or 00 flour; a young and melt-able sheep's milk cheese replacing the mozzarella.
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?
The first slice I remember was when I was around the ages of four or five. My grandfather took me to a joint called Nick's Pizza located off 25A between Smithtown and St. James, NY. While I am certain I had eaten Nick's pizza before, this was the first time I got to ride along, order the pie, and bring it home to our family and friends. I am not sure why the experience thrilled me so much, but I remember that I was a proud young man walking in the door with that pie.
At the time, I thought Nick's was the greatest pizza in the world and rightfully so; the owner had been throwing pies and perfecting his craft at the same location since the 60s. The pizzas at Nick's were excellent even as I got older. About ten years ago the quality started going downhill. I was told they changed hands within the family or something; that's not always a good thing for pizza.
You hinted at being of Sicilian descent in this week's My Pie Monday. Is that so? Are there any Sicilian styles that need to take hold in the States that haven't yet?
Yes, I am of Sicilian decent. My mother's side of the family originates from a town northwest of the port city Catania called Paterno. I would spend a couple weeks over there each year when I was younger.
Most of my experience comes from eating, rather than watching Sicilian breads being made. I do think the flat breads and stuffed breads endemic to Sicily (e.g., sfincione, rianata, sciaciata and mpanata) have yet to be exploited by pizza makers here in the States (and I do mean exploited). Historically, most of the breads produced on the island were made with semolina. The sweet and nutty flavors coming from this grain are far superior to anything that can be mustered by white 00 flour, all-purpose, or bread flour. The flavor from the Rianata crust alone, which I made last week, blew my mind.
However, I see some of the reasons why this Sicilia style has not caught on. For one thing, Semolina is very difficult to work with, as I am finding out. It has a higher protein content then most other grains, making it difficult to kneed, and depending on who is milling the grain, consistency can be an issue. In addition, many of the traditional ingredients used for toppings or fillings do not appeal to many Americans. The use of anchovies, sardines, eggplant, cauliflower, raisins, fennel and sheep's milk cheeses are a little too foreign for most American palettes. Nonetheless, next time you are making pizza replace half the flour with semolina and the mozzerella with a young Pecorino cheese. Then tell me who make a more flavorful pie, Campania or Sicilia.
What's your favorite topping or topping combination?
It needs to be simple, three or less ingredients. If I had to choose, it would most likely be sausage and mushroom, but I am just as happy, if not more, with a regular cheese slice.
Where do you go for pizza in your area?
Sadly, my pizza adventures are limited to my home mostly. I hate to sound like a snob, but I really have not found a great pizza joint in my area. The Midwestern pizzas are a little too heavy and greasy for my pallet. In addition, when you learn how to throw a better pie at home than what is being produced by your run-of-the-mill pizzeria, eating out ,more often than not, becomes an exercise in disappointment.
We've had a good preview of your home pizza-making on My Pie Monday. How often do you make pizza, and what recipes and methods do you follow?
I make pizza at home about once a week. Most of the time I am just making pizza for the pleasure of eating pizza, or maybe trying out a new topping or reproducing an old favorite. The dough recipe I use is a fairly standard NY dough recipe, which I call my "control" (explanation to follow).
Sometimes though, a geekier side of me emerges. By day I masquerade as a Nutritional Scientist/Biological Anthropologist; therefore, from time to time, the need for a hypothesis-driven science experiment will emerge. Typically when I decide to conduct an experiment I will make two or three recipes at once—a "control" or a fail-proof recipe and an experimental to compare my manipulation(s) to. Then for my experiment, I may formulate a hypothesis that I want tested: e.g. that sugar content does not affect crust browning given a 2-day fermentation period. The control dough recipe for my NY style dough in a baker's percentage is approximately: 100% bread flour; 64% water; 1.8 % salt; 2% olive oil; 0.4% instant dry yeast; and no sugar (a largely unnecessary additive). From there I create two "experimental" doughs. To one dough I might add in 1% sugar and to another dough 4% sugar. This way I am able to deduce what affect sugar content has on flavor, texture and/or dough performance by comparing the experimental to the control. All of which helps me to learn a little more about the physical properties of each ingredient going into my crust and how they interact with each other.
For making pizza, all I have is a baking stone that I preheat for an hour in my gas oven at 550 F. I really haven't had many complaints with the method so I have never innovated it. I guess if I tried a new cooking method it would the cast-iron broiler method or cast-iron on a kettle grill; given I that could find a flat slab of cast-iron I could use my pizza peel on (here's hoping @dmc).
But like I said at above, I mostly make pizza for the sake of eating pizza.
Well, scientists can be real "control" freaks (ba dum dum). So what do you think should NEVER go on a pizza?
I don't place blame on any one topping alone. After all, the topping didn't choose to go on that pizza. In my view, the success or failure of any pizza lies with the person creating the pie. It comes down to choice, and whether someone knows how to execute their idea and how well they understand the products they are using. The exceptions being pineapple, corn, mayo, and barbecue sauce.
Um, I just imagined all those together and it wasn't pretty. Have you ever eaten a topping monster like that?
I let a friend of mine talk me into eating a sushi pizza once. I will never speak of that horror again.
It would definitely be disgusting either way, and sorry to make you go into more detail, but do you mean raw fish on pizza crust or a wheel of rice with fish toppings meant to resemble a pizza? I know it may be tough to conjure those memories, but I need to know more.
Okay Meredith, to satisfy your curiosity I will relive the horror. This bastardization of pizza occurred about five years ago at a conference I was attending in Toronto. The name of the restaurant escapes me, but it was a sushi restaurant. Somehow a friend of mine talked me into splitting a sushi pizza as an appetizer. The grossness of the experience is best summed up by emulating a Ruth Bourdain style limerick: Edgy sushi pizza; looming storm. Warm cheese oozing on my rice biscuit, melting sriracha mayo creaming my fingers, splash of soy. Ripe smelling raw tuna, hot stuff. Barf bag comforting my quivering lips. (Adapted from Ruth Reichl's July 8th Twitter feed.)
That's pretty dark, but I'm not really sorry I asked—especially since I got a limerick out of you! But I think it's best to bury that experience for good. Let's move along to a happier time. What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?
On purpose... just for pizza? That would be when I fly back to Long Island. I carry the phone number of my favorite pizzeria (Patio Pizza) in my cell phone just for the occasion. That way when I am exiting MacArthur Airport I can call them up, order my pie, and they will just have it out of the oven and ready to go for me as welcome back to NY.
Speaking of home, what do your friends and family think of your pizza madness?
They think it is great. I am always making too much so it turns into free pizza and BYOB night at Jim's house, who is going to turn that down?
Anything else you'd like to get off your chest?
That's a loaded question. I know I am going to catch hell for saying this but I do not like the idea of endless hybrid pizzas, for example: sushi pizza, curry pizza, Thai pizza, cheesesteak pizza, taco pizza, cheeseburger pizza, gluten-free pizza, etc. In my opinion people are getting too liberal with their definition of what constitutes pizza—the crust, the sauce, and the toppings. It detracts from the elegant simplicity of what a true pizza is meant to be. Take for example the cheeseburger pizza. I love both burgers and pizza, passionately. However, when they are combined, they're not nearly as good as the foods by themselves. The ingredients aren't to blame, it just takes separate cooking techniques to produce the distinct flavors and textures we associate with each. The almost predictable ending to this chimera is a pizza that fails to deliver on either front. That doesn't mean I am against someone trying to make it happen and I will gladly eat my words (and their pizza) if their endeavor succeeds.
Who would you like to see interviewed next?
I personally would like to see the Tom "The Dough Doctor" Lehmann interviewed. There has got to be a few good tips and interesting stories about the industry coming from him.
I think Slice is going to need to get a pizza celebrity interview column going soon and I'll put the Doc on the top of the list. Thanks for taking the time to tell us a little about yourself, Jim! Keep Slicing it up!