Undercover Pizza Lover Part I: Working the Line at a Family Pizzeria in Las Vegas
Editor's note: Some of you may know Scott Wiener from his NYC-based pizza tour company, Scott's Pizza Tours. Or, if you're a regular Slice reader, you're probably familiar with his monthly column, Scott's Pizza Chronicles. In this new mini-series, Undercover PIzza Lover, we'll follow Scott as he he goes behind-the-scenes of the pizza industry and crosses over to the other side of the counter to earn his pizza-making chops in a mom-and-pop pie shop, a major US pizza chain, and a New York corner slice shop.
Walking behind the counter at a pizzeria always seems a bit dangerous. This is where the action happens and customers certainly have no business getting in the way. But for one glorious three-day span I wasn't a customer; a white chef's coat scored me access to the inner sanctum of a busy family pizzeria in Henderson, NV. I was there to experience the realities of working the make line (and hopefully not give anybody food poisoning).
Metro Pizza is consistently given top honors in the local press as well as a recent Food Network Magazine credit as having the best pie in Nevada (photo #28). Metro Pizza stands as a shrine to all American pizzerias, with a huge map on the wall indicating the country's most significant pizzerias. They'll even give you a $25 credit if you bring in a photo of yourself standing in front of one of the mapped locations! This is the perfect place to start my journey behind-the-scenes of the pizza industry.
My first day began with a test: I was given a piece of dough and asked to open it into a skin. Much to my relief, the dough was about the size I'm used to working with at home. I did what I could to delicately coax the dough into a usable shape but apparently it wasn't enough. The result was too small and uneven to be sold to a customer, so I was shown the house method for stretching.
At Metro, they begin by forming a ring of indentation about 1 cm from the dough's outer edge, followed by gentle pressing from the center toward the newly formed barrier. Next came a few back-and-forths between the hands to warm and extend the diameter, followed by a slight stretch over the back of the hands to finish the job.The result was an even thickness and an untouched border.
Of course there's more than one way to open dough, but I wanted to forget any prior approaches and start from scratch to get the full Metro experience, so I stuck with the prescribed method for all the doughs I stretched during my short tenure. Oddly enough, this wasn't so much the case with the other employees. As my shifts progressed, it became apparent that everyone had their own twist on the method. I suppose they've become comfortable enough with the dough to modify their approach depending on texture and temperature. Still, it's amazing how consistent these pies came out even with so much technique variation.
I started on a Saturday night, not exactly the best night to take things slowly. John Arena, one of Metro's founders and my personal pizza guide through this experience, set up a table behind the make line and both of us spent the night opening doughs for the pizzaiolo. While not your average Saturday night on vacation in Las Vegas, I honestly had no desire to be anywhere else. The orders came in like crazy and it seemed like we were constantly pushing out dough skins for the entire 3+ hour rush.
My biggest challenge was handling different size doughs. I make small pies at home so I had never even handled a piece larger than 6 ounces and these suckers, which we were opening to around 18, were almost double that size. My home oven isn't even that big.
I got the hang after a while, but it's pretty intense to see order tickets piling up knowing this dough needed to be stretched quickly and correctly. Although I could feel myself improving, I wasn't exactly consistent. It made me respect these guys and gals in the back even more for being able to execute over and over every single night. Even the motions of repetition were a physical challenge. The tiny joints in my fingers ached after about an hour and I kept feeling inadvertent twitches, which don't exactly help the process. By the end of the night I had stretched about 200 dough skins and not a single pie was sent back. Success? More like relief.
Day two began with more dough work, but this time I was assigned to the scaling/rounding bench. Again, my home pizza making sessions prepared me little for this scale of work. I'm used to making, at most, a dozen balls of dough in a single session, so rounding a few hundred was a completely new dimension.
Again, we started with a lesson. Over the course of my time at Metro, I balled dough with several different people, and once again everyone had their own method. Each new dough-balling partner would show me "the right way" to do it, each of which featured a different time-saving routine. What struck me most about this task was its soothing repetitive nature. I almost wanted to stick to the dough corner all day long, but nights bring in crowds and I was upgraded to the line on Sunday night.
My final job was the one I looked forward to the least. I spent two nights topping pies. Before taking this job, I always thought of topping application as the least critical step of all. In my mind, topping a pizza is just adding decorations and not even close to the high skill required to handle dough. I was completely wrong. If stretching and rounding are relaxing repetitive motions, topping is the opposite. I'm used to taking all the time I need to apply toppings at home, but there is no time to be precious with mushroom and pepperoni placement when the orders are piling up. It was really hard to remember what toppings go on each signature pizza, so I sadly crashed and burned a few times by putting pepperoni one the entire Gotham pizza when the customer only wanted it on half. Tears fell and pizzas were remade, but hungry customers were completely oblivious to the drama behind the curtain.
After topping a pie, it was my job to get it into the oven and file the order ticket. The oven tender would let me know in which of the four ovens my pie belonged based on physical space and how recently the space was made available. This Metro location uses a brick-lined oven from Marsal and Sons, which baked quite evenly and required only a turn or two to achieve an even color. I somehow managed to get a tiny burn on my hand and I wore it like a badge of honor.
My time at Metro Pizza was mind-expanding to say the least. I now have a much deeper appreciation for the seemingly smaller tasks, like adding toppings or balling dough. Huge thanks to John and Sam at Metro Pizza as well as the entire crew that put up with me as I completed my first assignment as the Undercover Pizza Lover. Next time I'll be in a completely different position at a completely different pizzeria back in New York.
About the author: Scott Wiener runs tours of significant NYC pizzerias with an emphasis on the history, science, technology, economics and deliciousness. You can sign up for a tour at scottspizzatours.com or follow his pizza explorations on Twitter via @scottspizzatour