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Pizza Obsessives: Lance Roberts

Slice'r Lance Roberts has never let wide expanses of territory come between him and a good pie. You might have seen a report or two to that effect. He's a regular Pizza Bedouin. Sliceland is just the place for a roving pie man like Lance to hang his hat (and you're sure to have seen him around these parts—always sure to put in his two cents). Let's get to know him a little better when he takes a trip to the hot seat. —MS

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[Photograph: Abe Forman-Greenwald]

Name: Lance Roberts
Location: Los Angeles

What type of pizza do you prefer?

Neapolitan, followed by whatever Nancy Silverton's pizza is classified as, and then probably New York style. But I took a pizza trip to Chicago last year (curated by Slice's own Daniel Zemans) and it's hard to argue with anything I had there, either. I guess it depends on which city I'm in.

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?

I had the fortune (misfortune?) of growing up a block away from the very first Little Caesars in the country, so Pizza! Pizza! is the only thing I remember eating as a child. I'm not going to defend it because I don't think it was ever anything more than a cheese delivery system, but I will say that Caesars was a very different pizza back then. The current monstrosity is at least four de-generations away from the original. (Side note: I'd love to see a Slice article charting the evolution and recipe changes at the big chains.)

When I got into high school and started looking for a job, Little Caesars wouldn't hire 15-year-olds so I betrayed owner Mike Illitch and went to work at the  Toarmina's Pizza across the street. The amount of days where I'd have pizza for breakfast, lunch, and dinner would probably disgust you, but it was fun to try out new flavor combinations and techniques to nail down what I really liked.

When I moved to Los Angeles, I went to literally a hundred different places hoping to find a truly great pizza, but this was way before Mozza hit the scene so it was rough going. All those stories you hear about Los Angeles being a pizza desert were true. Then in 2008 I found my pizza lord and savior, Chris Bianco, and my pizza cognition was born again. After that I started traveling all over the country for pizza, but the first Margherita I had from Pizzeria Bianco is still the pie I judge all others by.

That's a pretty moving journey. So do you ever get toppings or are you all Margherita all the time?

For me there's nothing better than a great Margherita. Adam Kuban wrote a passionate argument against it, but I still believe that flaws can be covered up with great toppings and clever flavor combinations. The Margherita lays a Pizzaiolo bare. If they can make something special with just tomato, cheese and basil, it's safe to assume they know their stuff.

With that said, once I get a baseline on a place, I'll run through the menu. But my favorite stand alone topping is probably sausage and my favorite combination is the Rosa at Pizzeria Bianco (red onion, pistachios, rosemary and Parmagiano Reggiano). Big surprise, huh?

Hey, when you've found the best... When you can't spare the 12-14 hours for pizza, where do you go in LA?

Even though I slagged Mozza off three years ago on this very site I'm there pretty much every week. They opened up right around my Bianco conversion, so I chalk it up to naivety and religious fervor. Mozza's great.

For slices I hit up Vito's and occasionally Joe's. And though I wrote about how much I liked Stella Rossa, Sotto is my new favorite in the city. The Pizzaiolo there, Zach Pollack, really knows his stuff.

Do you make pizza at home? If so, how? What recipes do you use?

I try. I really try. I went though Peter Reinhart's book American Pie and tried a bunch of different recipes out with varied success. Then I went over Kenji's New York and Neapolitan recipes with the food processor and actually had some good results. But I'm back to the stand mixer now. It's definitely harder to get right, but if I ever want to follow my dream like Caleb Schiff or Paulie Gee or Noel Brohner (aka SkyHighGluten), I'm going to need a recipe that works with a mixer.

What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?

Pineapple is the devil's fruit and it should not be allowed in the same room as a pizza. But you're free to enjoy anything else on your pie.

Most unusual pizza you've ever eaten?

This is where I fail. I really can't think of anything that crazy. Or maybe pizzaiolos around the country have just raised the bar for creativity so high that we're now in a world where anything goes. Now that I think about it, if you had told me ten years ago I'd be eating kale or pistachios on pizza and enjoying it, we would have had words.

Wait, does Pizza Hut still make that weird apple cinnamon dessert pizza? If so, they need to be stopped.

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This is the life changing pizza from Bianco. The best one ever.

What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?

It depends on how you quantify it. In terms of distance traveled, 2500 miles. We did a couple Adam Kuban-sanctioned pizza tours in New York where we literally just ran all over Brooklyn and Manhattan for a couple days, checking all the big guns like Motorino and Di Fara off the list.

In terms of actual time spent traveling, I've done the 6.5 hour drive to Phoenix and San Francisco a bunch of times. A week ago we drove to Pizzeria Bianco, ate, and then got back in the car and drove another two hours to Flagstaff so we could try Pizzicletta. That seemed crazy at the time, but then I remembered that we once drove to Bianco and back in the same day. It was something like a 16-hour round trip for one meal. In hindsight that sounds disturbing.

When I finally make it to Italy it will NOT be pretty.

You are an inspiration. (Pssst, Slice'rs check back tomorrow for the deets on Lance's Bianco/Pizzicletta adventure.) What do your family and/or friends think of your pizza madness? Do they humor your pizza pilgrimages?

They're all used to it by now. The illness was discovered at a very early age so at this point we've all given up on a cure. But the psychotic level of insanity definitely wouldn't be possible without my wife, Dana. The fact that she'll travel to these amazing cultural meccas like New York or San Francisco...only to spend the entire weekend rushing around to different pizzerias... that's love.

One strange byproduct to the trips is that they've kind of created a bit of a monster. For some bizarre reason Dana generally prefers to eat "healthy," so when she does get a pizza, it's usually at one of the best places in the country. Because of this, her expectations for a pie are completely out of whack. I know Slice'rs have high standards, but she's probably the toughest judge of pizza that I know.

This is the part of the interview where I get lazy and let you make up your own question. And your question is: How big a role do you think dining experience plays in your enjoyment of pizza?

It's not a big deal for your average pizzeria, but when you get into the big leagues I don't think you can understate how important experience can be. And by experience I don't mean service, I'm talking about the narrative of a place. Who's making the pies and, more importantly, why?

I don't think Anthony Mangieri is a legend just because his pies are incredible*. I think he's a legend because of his story. He's this dedicated, passionate, uncompromising guy who's chosen pizza as a way to expresses himself and he makes every pie himself. Knowing that history, and more importantly, being able to actually watch him make the very pie you're eating...that has to have an effect on your brain, and in turn your taste buds. When you know the narrative, a pizza can become more than a great meal, it can become something you remember the rest of your life.

I need to be clear, it's not fame I'm talking about. I didn't know much about Emilia's in Berkeley until I walked in and saw it was just one guy making these amazing Neapolitan/NY hybrid pies in a kitchen the size of a shoebox. But I immediately understood that I was getting someone's authentic and unique expression of pizza. In that case I didn't need to know the story because it was right in front of me.

I honestly can't tell you what I'd think of a pizza from a place I love like Di Fara's if a driver just showed up with a pie in a delivery bag. Maybe It would taste the same and maybe it would be merely good (there's no way it could be bad). But here's what I do know. When Dom DeMarco, a man who's been making pizza for nearly 50 years, snips fresh basil onto a pie he just made and hands me a slice...it literally tastes like the greatest thing in the world. There may be factors other than the food that make it taste so good, but I'm in heaven nonetheless.

Is that fair to a "regular" place like Keste** that serves amazing pizza but doesn't necessarily have a big myth to it yet? Probably not. And while the notion of a person devoting their whole life to pizza is a incredibly romantic to me, I know it's a hell of a lot a lot to ask of a Pizzaiolo. But pizzas with a story are the ones I love the most and those are the experiences I'll travel just about anywhere for.

*if I was unclear in anyway, let me assure you that Anthony Mangieri's pizzas are indeed incredible
**yes, I understand the absurdity of calling Keste "regular," that was kind of the point

Anything you'd like to get off your chest?

I think I pretty much just took care of that. But I really, really hope the pizza bubble doesn't burst. I know New York and San Francisco are saturated with new places, but we're just getting started in L.A

Now: Who would *you* like to see interviewed next?

Is it even possible that Daniel Zemans hasn't done this yet? I didn't see him in the archives and I'd love to know his story. He seems as passionate about pizza as you can get. There's every chance that you're going to drop a link to his interview at the end of this and make me look like an idiot, but I don't care. I'm sticking with Dan.

I've got no links, Lance. It looks like that sly dog Daniel has been giving us the slip for some time. You hear that, Zemans? Your number is up. Thanks for helping out with that, Lance, and for taking the time to tell us a little bit more about yourself. It's been real. And that photo at the top is my new favorite.

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