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Pizza Obsessives: Craig Lindberg and His Neapolitan Garage

Editor's note: Check out a My Pie Monday or two and chances are TXCraig1 will stick out in your mind for his pro level pies, and even more so if you catch a reference to his Acunto oven outfitted garage. Longtime member of the pizzamaking.com forum Pizzablogger scratches below the surface in this in-depth interview with the Texas pie fanatic.

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You'd be happy too having one of these in your garage! [Photographs: Craig Lindberg]

The sound and vibration through the seat feels good—you've just had some aftermarket parts for your sports car installed, dialed everything in and buffed the car to a high shine. The car breathes with newfound muscle as you point it towards the road and head over to your friend's house. Upon arriving you give a beep, gun the gas for a second, and yell for your buddy to come outside.

Suddenly you hear the creak and scrape of your friend's garage door as it separates from the concrete floor. As the garage door opens, the elegant lines and beauty of a Ferrari 599GTB Fiorano is revealed sitting inside of the garage. You know your girl is a beauty in her own right, but you can only look into the garage, stunned. Holy. Shit.

For a pizza fanatic, this is the reality of Craig Lindberg's house. Standing seductively in Craig's garage is a commercial grade, traditional low domed, wood-fired Acunto Classico 5 Italian brick pizza oven...a literal object of desire.

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Understated elegance of a cheese pizza.

A core member of the pizzamaking.com forums, Craig has been tirelessly pushing the limits of his pizza making since modifying his BBQ grill a couple of years ago and making pizzas on that which were already beyond what many are doing. Then came the Acunto.

After a pizza odyssey involving two broken forklifts, a forklift sunk in the wet ground of Craig's yard, having to remove part of the garage to fit the oven inside, and other hi-jinx, the two ton oven was in place. A mammoth vent tube was installed, the Acunto sprang to life and home pizza making has never been the same.

However, an oven is just an oven. The growing "Craig's Neapolitan Garage" thread is a testament to the passion and commitment to excellence Lindberg puts into every pie making session. This is as serious as it gets in the home pizza making world, so let's get the man in the hot seat already!

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"This pie was otherwordly". Parmigiano-Reggiano, mozzarella, and shrimp par-cooked in bacon fat. Post-bake: Lea & Perrins worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, Shiner Bock, salt, red and black pepper, oregano, thyme, rosemary and garlic.

Name: Craig Lindberg
Location: Houston, TX
Oven: Mario Acunto Classico 5

What kind of pizzas did you grow up eating?

I don't remember eating much pizza growing up and what we did eat certainly wasn't Neapolitan or anything close. Only two names from my youth stick out in my mind—Shakey's, which I remember being my parent's favorite, and Pizza Hut, which I remember because my mom would go on about how much she hated their sausage. Up until about four years ago, a pepperoni pizza from Dominos was my favorite pizza.

What initially inspired you to make pizza at home?

I remember making pizza a long time ago with a recipe out of a Julia Child's cookbook, The Way to Cook, of all places, but it was just in the ordinary course of business.

Pizza didn't become a passion until about four years ago. A friend (who, incidentally, is now involved in the pizza business in NYC) had a wood fired oven (WFO) built into the kitchen of his home in Connecticut. I've always loved to cook and the kitchen is my favorite room in the house, so I of course told him that I'd like to see it. Sometime later he invited me and some others over to make pizza, and long story short, it changed my life. We made New York-Neapolitan style pies and his passion for pizza was contagious. That is the night I became a pizza obsessive. There were four of us invited to that dinner—two of us now have wood fired ovens.

October 25, 2010: FOR SALE- Brand New Neapolitan Wood Fired Oven

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The oven for sale post on the pizzamaking.com forums that started it all. Click to make larger

Recount to us how you initially found out about the Acunto Classico 5 oven that was "just sitting there rusting away in a warehouse".

I saw it posted at Pizzamaking.com in the Pizza Equipment for Sale section and it was literally rusting away in a warehouse. After I went to check it out, I told the seller if I didn't buy it, he needed to get someone out there to clean it up before real damage was done.

It was kind of ironic. I just poured a new patio in my back yard and had heavily reinforced an area to build an oven. I was only days away from ordering fire bricks when I saw her for sale. It took almost three months to negotiate a deal with the seller. Also ironic is that the place I planned to build the oven is about the only place on the patio I could not get the Acunto on because of a vertical support in the way, so she went into the garage. I'm happy she ended up there. She belongs there, not outside.

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Bringing home the oven, removing part of the garage to make her fit and the first curing fire. Click to make larger

After the adventure of getting the oven to your house and into the garage, what was the biggest cooking adjustment you had to make transitioning from your BBQ grill to the Acunto?

It was actually a lot easier than I expected. I credit that to the design and construction of the oven more than any particular skill on my part. It heats up and maintains heat so evenly, it is amazing. I did a lot of watching and turning the pie in the BBQ, so working the Acunto was not that different. Granted, I'm not baking multiple pies simultaneously, which I'm sure would employ a learning curve. The only real transition was the speed at which things happen with bake times going from 2:30 or so to under 60 seconds in some cases.

How often are you making pizzas in the Acunto and about how many pizzas are you now making in a session?

I bake almost every week. I generally make dough Thursday night and bake on Saturday evening. The minimum number I ever bake is six. Eight is probably most common. The most I've done is 22.

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Pepperoni and jalapeño pizzas cooked in the Acunto. Pie on the left from 10/15/2011. Pie on the right from 10/30/2011. Click to make larger

How long did it take for you to get a handle on how much wood and what size of a fuel pile (wood and embers) works best in your oven?

My fire now is not much different from the first fire and ember pile I ever built in her; just a little hotter. I thought it would take a lot more time to figure it out. I guess I just got lucky.

The oven is big (47" diameter) and well insulated. I can build a big ember pile—the coals probably cover the leftmost 25% or so of the floor (it would completely fill a 24" oven) and stack about 6" high with burning wood on top of that—and I still have a ton of room to work. With all that room, I can decrease the radiant heat by moving the pie away from the fire, giving me some additional control when needed.

Generally though, I bake just slightly off center away from the fire. With a fire this big, the heat is very even all the way across and so long as I keep a burning log or two on top, there is very little variation in temperature. This makes baking easier. I'd guess a precise fire is much more critical in smaller and less well insulated ovens. About the only other thing I've changed from the first time is that I warm her up a little longer now (about three and a half to four hours).

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"Sure, I could buy it, but cutting and splitting it myself brings me that much closer to being one with the pie. Each stick is perfect. No rot, and exactly the size and length I want. And the vanilla smell when splitting the oak is just heaven".

What is your preferred bake time?

I was expecting 90 seconds to be the magic number, as some of the best pies I've eaten in restaurants timed in about there. However, I've had most of my best results at 55-65 seconds—probably because I've spent most of my time running at 900F+ temps since getting the oven. Baking a pie in under 60 seconds is pretty exciting. Our guests, many of whom have never eaten a Neapolitan pie, get quite a kick out of it too. That being said, I made some of my best pies ever last night at about the 90 second mark.

What is the most noticeable difference to you between the 55-60 second pizzas and a 90 second pizza?

There is a little more crispness in the outer shell of the crust on a 90 second pie and the inner part is a little dryer—not "dry" by any stretch of the imagination, but noticeably different from a 60 second pie. On a 60 second pie, there is less cooking and evaporation of the sauce during the bake. I might describe the flavors of the 60 second pie as fresher or more primal, but I don't think that does it justice. It's just different.

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"I target 875-925F on the deck and I don't bake unless there are flames rolling across the dome"

Was there any one aspect that you improved upon to get your dough where you want it, or was it an overall better intuition for the entire process?

The main factor was changing flour from King Arthur All Purpose flour (KAAP) to Caputo 00 Pizzeria flour. With the more intense heat of the WFO, I really didn't have a choice when it came to moving to an unmalted flour. KAAP worked great in my grill, but Caputo works better in every imaginable way. Beyond that, I think it is just comes with experience—knowing what to look for as the dough develops and how it feels when it is ready. I don't think I could describe it. You'd have to stand next to me and see and feel it.

Even then, what works for me might not be optimal for someone else...there are so many variables.

My advice to anyone using extended fermentation would be to err on the side of underworking the dough. I've also found that by working my dough less initially, I can make my dough balls a lot tighter and still have a super relaxed dough.

I couldn't agree more Craig. You have been utilizing minute amounts of wild yeast starter, short-mixing, stretch and folds, and extended fermentations for a couple of years now. Are you comfortable with your mixing and fermentation regimen, or do you still have some experimentation in mind? If so, what are you working on?

I'm in a happy place when it comes to mixing and fermentation for my pies, and I've settled in on 60% hydration.

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Why do you prefer 60% as opposed to another hydration ratio?

I don't know why 60% is better. It must have something to do with the flour and the heat. With KAAP in my grill, 62% was the magic number. Since moving to Caputo and the wood fired oven, I've tried various levels between 59% and 64%. 60% yields the best results for me and has worked well consistently. It seems like some of the other folks with WFOs at pizzamking.com are also running around 60%. I plan to experiment more in the 58-60% range, but I don't know when I'll get around to it.

Also, my dough balls practically open themselves and the flavor is just incredible. I never was any good at that fancy Neapolitan stretch and slap and flip technique of opening dough balls. The good news is that with my current dough, you don't need it.

You have preferred Cento Italian (non-D.O.P.) tomatoes for a while now. What other tomatoes have you tried and what do you like about the Cento Italian tomatoes?

The Cento Italian are still my favorites and I use them about 95% of the time. To me, they have a deep, yet still fresh and lively, tomato flavor and they are consistently good from can to can. Others I've tried and like are Strianese San Marzano DOP and the DeCecco San Marzano DOP (I don't think they make the DeCecco anymore). Here in Houston, unless you're making BBQ or Mexican food, you pretty much have to take what you can get. Luckily the Cento is pretty widely available.

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Got tender crumb and hole structure?

You have visited some of the top tier places like Una Pizza Napoletana (East Village), Kesté, and Motorino. What qualities in your pizzas have you strived for that differentiate yours in some way to better mirror your personal tastes?

I've been fortunate in that my job takes me to NYC, San Francisco, and other places giving me the opportunity to try many of the top names. For almost as long as I've been serious about pizza, I've had the benefit of knowing what a great pie tastes like. The value of that can't be understated. Every time I go, I try to find at least one thing I like and use it to make my pies better. I owe these guys a lot.

Craig, from following your workflow and pizzas for a while now, I would imagine your pies are at the same level as some of the places you have visited. Sorry to put you in a tough spot, but this is the hot seat after all. Am I far off the mark?

The places you mention all bake incredible pies and I understand what I do at home is not the same as what they do in their high-volume businesses. That being said, I love my pizza and would not hesitate to go head-to-head with any of them on a few pies. But then again, I've also been known to hunt wild hogs with throwing knives...

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Do the Motorino. Craig's Brussels sprouts pizza immediately before and after bake. Click to make larger and get the full effect.

What qualities are you looking for in your pizzas when trying to make that "perfect" pie?

I find the Margherita to be the biggest challenge and it's my favorite pie for that reason. Fortunately, it's also my favorite pie to eat. A Margherita is the great equalizer—the one pie you can really compare from place to place. More than any other pie, perfection requires precise balance and unlike most every other pie, there is no hiding errors or shortcomings under a sea of highly flavored toppings.

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Stunning consistency of quality. Click to get the full effect.

My vision of the perfect pie is a very special Margherita which I've never made nor seen or tasted for that matter. Elements of this pie would include:

Balance: To me, the Margherita is the quintessential feminine pie. No rough edges, no pretenses, and no show of strength to cover weakness or lack of confidence. She is just beauty, poise, and grace; all manifestations of her perfect balance.

Crust: The cornice has a paper-thin outer shell and the texture inside is light, like a cloud with big and small bubbles whose walls are made out of hundreds of tiny-tiny little bubbles. You definitely know it is pizza and not bread. The crust has some bite, yet chews almost without resistance; it almost melts in your mouth and it digests easily.

The flavor of the crust is not "sour", but you taste flavors and experience aromas beyond what regular yeast can deliver. It's an experience that can not be created by yeast from the supermarket no matter how long you let the poor dough suffer in your refrigerator.

The bottom shows scattered spots of charring, but is not burned. The cornicione sports a pronounced leoparding or a more even and gentle charring. Either way, the key is that it adds flavor and visual excitement without dominating any of the other elements. Perfect charring is a fine line, but it is an absolutely essential part of the overall depth and balance of flavor. It is perhaps the most difficult element to master, as it involves so many variables from formula, to fermentation, to temperature, to oven skills.

Toppings: The sauce is such that the acid from the tomatoes balances against the richness of the cheese, but it also has a sweetness that balances not only the acid, but also the umami flavors of the tomato, the salt and the slight bitterness of the caramelization in the crust.

I prefer the basil applied before the bake so that the flavor infuses with the sauce. I also prefer a little more basil than you often get. One leaf is not balance. For me, basil is about both flavor and color.

The cheese should be torn by hand so that the rough edges melt and incorporate seamlessly into the sauce. The cheese should be sized such that the heat in the pie finishes melting it only at the very moment the pie is served.

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The placement of the toppings is also important not only for visual appeal, but also for variety of taste. I want a Margherita where I get some bites with sauce, cheese and basil, some bites with only sauce and cheese, some bites with only sauce, some bites with only sauce and basil and so on. This gives the pie a certain come hither playfulness. What fun is it if every bite tastes the same?

There is not a single element that is irrelevant or can be left to chance, and there are so many elements which must be right simultaneously, that achieving perfection approaches impossibility.

It is easy to get started, but it could take years or even a lifetime to master. This is what I love about Neapolitan pizza. It is a large part of what drives my passion. Every time I finish baking, I can't wait until the next time so that I can incorporate what I just learned.

Amen brother! I've been shouting out against julienned basil on pizzas for years. Craig, are you tasting a smokiness in the char that is distinctly more "smoky" than your grill results or is it just a different type of bitterness?

I don't think the burning wood in either the grill or the wood fired oven imparts a noticeable amount of smoke flavor. There just isn't enough time and at those temperatures I think the combustion is so complete that there are probably no flavor compounds left. There is no smoke coming out of the oven other than maybe when you first put a new log on the coals.

Done properly, there is no bitterness in the char. It's very much like making a black roux for gumbo (equally difficult and both have to be right or your gumbo or pizza isn't); when it is right, the flavor is incomparable—deep and rich, but not bitter and an essential element of either dish. The difference between perfect and burned is a pretty fine line...it's almost binary.

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Sardines! Click to make larger

How concerned are you with how "authentic" or "traditional" your pizzas are...would you be interested in the view a person from Naples or an organization like the AVPN may have about your pizzas?

I think my Margherita is going to be pretty close to authentic because there really is no arguing that they got it right and there is little need to change anything (I do make my pies a little bigger than spec). Do I care what they or anyone else thinks about the authenticity my pies however? Not in the slightest. To be fair, I would never claim them as such either. I just want my pies to be the way I want them to be. Hopefully others agree with my taste.

What is the one aspect of pizza making you are trying to improve the most?

All of them. Something about every pie I make disappoints me and it's not usually the same thing from one pie to the next. There are so many elements; you can't just focus on one. If I had to pick one to name, I'd say getting the char on the cornicione just the way I want it. I think it is the most difficult to master.

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Other than a Margherita, Craig's favorite toppings combination is "probably mozzarella di bufala, brown mushrooms, Parmigiano-Reggiano and black pepper with a drizzle of truffle oil after the bake". Click to make bigger

What is the most enjoyable part of the pizza making process for you?

By and large the whole process is relaxing for me now (it has not always been that way). Saturday afternoon, I open a bottle of wine, prep the toppings, hang out with my boys, build the fire, pull a chair up to the oven and drink more wine by the fire as the oven comes alive. I also love to cook for other people and share the experience. If four things go better together than pizza, fire, friends, and wine, I don't know what they are.

Any wine recommendations that you enjoy pairing with particular pizzas?

Drink what you like. For me, great pizza doesn't need anything from wine to be a perfect food. The wine only needs to add enjoyment to the experience. Don't force yourself into what someone else likes or thinks matches well. That will probably distract from the pie.

Do you ever entertain making pizzas for a living?

Yes.

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Click to make larger

Oh!? Are you still in the imagining phase or have you taken further steps like constructing a business plan or looking for potential investors?

I pretty much know what the concept would be (or will be) and as far as the theme or the décor, it probably would not be a garage, but I have not ruled that out entirely. I don't think there is anything else quite like what I'm imagining. If there is, I haven't seen it. Heck, that almost sounds like I've decided to do it. I haven't. I know right where it needs to be located too, but I haven't written a business plan or done much of anything else for that matter.

Who would you like to see interviewed next?

Where to start? Omid (Pizza Napoletana), Larry (thezaman), Matthew and John (JConk007) over at pizzamaking.com or you.

Ha! I've been ducking the hot seat for quite a while now...too many others more worthy I need to interview still, but thanks Craig. Finally, are you still planning to tile your oven? Any ideas on what colors?

I don't know. We've gotten pretty comfortable with each other the way we are. I'm not much of one for dressing up. Heck, I usually don't wear shoes when I bake (despite several warnings to the contrary). How can I ask her to get all dressed up if I don't? Sometimes, however, I think she might like a nice new dress to show off. It's not out of the question. I think she likes earth tones, but we haven't discussed it much.

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The tiled Mario Acunto pizza oven at Forcella in Brooklyn

Thanks so much Craig for your time and we look forward to seeing more of your pizzas on My Pie Monday—and maybe even one day at your own pizzeria!

Catch additional questions and answers from this interview, including Craig's Reverse Engineering Una Pizza Napoletana project and specific wine recommendations at pizzamaking.com

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