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Pizza Obsessives: Pizzablogger, Raw and (Mostly) Uncensored
If you've spent any time here at Slice, you've probably read some of this guy's work and seen his comments. Some of them might have even caused you to pause, raise an eyebrow, or maybe shake your head in disbelief. So who is the guy who writes this stuff??? It's high time we find out; Pizzablogger has resisted his turn in the hot seat for far too long.—Craig Lindberg
Over the past year or so, I've gotten to know him a little bit, and I'm proud to call him a friend. Somehow, I managed to leverage that friendship and twist his arm to open up a little, so without further delay, here it is—the long awaited Pizzablogger interview. You might want to send the children out of the room for this one.
I'll dispense with the niceties and dive right in. When and how did you first "discover" pizza? Was your path to pizza obsessivness gradual, or did you have an epiphany one day?
It's been a gradual journey with lots of kindling being laid out over the years to help fuel a relatively recent dousing with lighter fluid and sparking a conflagration of sorts.
My first crap-the-pants moment was in 1993 or so when I was working in the Uptown Bakery on Connecticut Avenue in Cleveland Park, DC. Next door was Vace's Italian Delicatessen. They still make a decent slice—a tad too sweet, but a decent slice. One day a person at the counter and I talked about pizza and he told me about how I needed to try Patsy's in Harlem, NYC. Later on that year I went to NYC and made it to Patsy's. We got a whole pizza and it was one of those moments where you realize a seemingly simple food item can be an object of desire if made well. That was when the seed was planted, but it remained largely dormant for years.
After that, I ate pizzas out and about in DC from time to time, with Pizza Paradiso being the earliest wood-fired pizza joint I can remember visiting back in the mid-90's when I lived in DC. Over time I ate at places like 2Amys, Tocanelli's in Philadelphia, etc, but I was not one of those people that knew a lot about pizza. This was also before broadband, YouTube and blogs really came to the fore and just blew open the available knowledge base on a particular topic for the average person.
The shitstorm was stirred by the June 30, 2008 edition of Wine Spectator: Great American Pizza. Having homebrewed in the very early nineties and long being a fan of craft made items like beer, coffee, bread, and wine, the passion of the pizza makers that article brought to life really struck a chord in me. Not long after seeing that Wine Spectator article my wife and I rented a friend's apartment in Manhattan for a week and made a point to visit a few pizzerias, including Una Pizza Napoletana. That UPN trip really blew my mind—not only the best pizza I had ever eaten, but one of the better meals I could remember. It was so moving, I convinced my parents to drive to NYC with us just to eat at UPN and come home. About nine and a half hours in the car just to spend one hour eating pizzas and we all loved it. My Dad still says he can taste that crust in his mouth. He is now as much a pizza fanatic as I am.
From there, I quickly kind of went berserk. The blog, the backyard tasting at Paulie Gee's house, the Pieman's Craft in 2009, and multiple trips to NYC to eat a lot of pizza and so on from there. And here I am today, an over opinionated gasbag and foul-mouthed pot stirrer.
That mouth of yours is legendary. Is it really you?
It's not me in general. Most people will tell you I am a very nice person and it would be a big mistake to think I am a pessimist. I'm a huge optimist.... just one who is definitely opinionated about things I am passionate about, both in person and online. And you just can't please everyone all of the time. They are my opinions... not any more or less valid than anyone else's opinion. My fault is that sometimes I just need to shut my trap instead of saying whatever is on my mind.
You've hinted at working at a bakery. Give us some history on your bread making. Did Pizza flow from it?
It was before pizza, but I'm not sure pizza flowed from it per se. But I did learn an appreciation for working with dough. I was not on the floor of the bakery for very long and ended up spending more time in the offices, being the purchaser for a time. But something about feeling, working with, and seeing the dough making process was something I really enjoyed, and I often went down to the floor to catch-up with the crew in action.
I think about those days when making dough for bread or pizza at home... when the ciabatta came fresh out of the oven, there was nothing like a summer day when the crew would take a break out back, stuff a hot loaf full of Plugra butter and pull down a few cold sips from a beer. A wonderful time.
Like beer and wine, I like virtually any style made really well. At the end of the day, "Napply-Don" inspired pies and square pizzas are my favorite types to eat.
When you speak to old timers that grew up in the borough of Kings (Brooklyn), they don't say "Knee-ah-pahl-ah-tun", the accent and way it comes out is "Napply-Don." Long winded way to say Neapolitan is my favorite style.
If you could hop on a plane right now and go anywhere, where would you go for that Napply-Don pie?
Put Napoli and San Francisco on a wheel and spin it. I'd be happy either way. For a single pizzeria, it would be to go to Japan and meet Akinari Makishima ("Pizzaiolo Pasquale") and shake his hand.
Unfortunately I don't have a jet for you; what if I stuck a slice of low-grade chain pizza in front of you instead, would you eat it?
No. I would rather drink witch hazel.
So, what is the best pie you ever ate?
Una Pizza Napoletana. My preferences have shifted a little and that crust is perhaps a tad too bready for me now, but when I had it, that pizza was like hitting a one outer on the river with all the chips in the middle.
What pie do you regret even having laid eyes on?
I ruefully regret laying eyes on the four pizzas I bought on four separate occasions from the Frank Pepe's location in the Mohegan Sun Casino in Connecticut. All four of them ended up mostly uneaten and in the trashcan or given away. I kept buying a pie there because I kept thinking it can't be that bad. Well it was... and I might as well have thrown $70 into the trash after wiping my arsehole with it.
When trying a pizza, are you like Paul Giamatti's character Miles in the movie Sideways, or are you more ad hoc in your approach?
I was totally like Giamatti in the past... tearing open the crust to see the crumb, smelling the inside of the crumb, etc. One night it struck me how absurd that was. Now I enjoy myself much more.
I can totally see you with your nose buried in the cornicione, telling me it smells like the "back of a fucking L.A. school bus" as I just shovel it down and say "tastes pretty good to me." Sticking with the Sideways references, I know you're not eating any fucking chain pizza, but seriously, is pizza ever just food?
At the end of the day, it is just food. But I'll never forget Jim Lahey calling Dominos a comestible. What a perfect word, which describes my thoughts on food in general. Look, I don't expect every meal I eat to be like a BJ at all, but I don't really understand the mentality of I'm gonna shove whatever shit is in front of me into my piehole because "I need to get full." And I'm not talking about spending a lot of money either.
Let's switch gears a little. What led you to start pizzablogger.org initially? To shut it down? And to recently restart it after declaring "good riddance" to it last year?
I had eaten at a bunch of local pizzerias and got tired of reading all of the glowing reviews in magazines about how good or great all of them were. I did not have a mission to bash pizzerias, but I had been to many of them and thought they were simply nowhere near as good as the reviews often cited. It's like there is an unwritten rule that you can never say anything bad about a local business. Shouldn't it just be an honest review? And the actual facts stated in the articles were too often just not correct.
So I started the blog on April 15, 2009 and had a strong first year, struggled with how ridiculous the notion of a pizza blog was for the next year, and last summer I finally just said screw it. And because I am a jackass and did not back up all of that 2009 to mid-2011 blog information, I lost it all when my hard drive crashed.
The reviews I put up were what really made me frustrated. One of the benchmarks of pizzerias in general is consistency. For that reason, I think all the one-off reviews you see on the internet suck. It would not be bad if it was mentioned prominently that the review was based on a one-off, but most do not. I think every review should list how many visits the write-up was based on.
Too many people write too many reviews just to add content to their blog. But my opinion is if your goal is to have your blog be seen as a trusted resource, a review (I really like Adam Lindsley's use of the term "Impressions" on his site) should be based on multiple visits and be a living review with updates from subsequent visits added. Maybe I think about this shit too much, but it would have taken me years to get a really good string of reviews of Baltimore area pizzerias that I was comfortable with on-line. I've been to nearly every pizzeria in Baltimore City and definitely have my opinions on them, but that does not make me qualified to open my fucking mouth about them if I've only been to each joint once or twice. That's how I began to feel at least... so that was a reason I pulled the plug.
The other issue that tugged at me was the possibility that I may sell pizzas in one form or another in Baltimore in the future. If that ain't a conflict of interest, I don't know what is. But I stated that clearly on my blog when I started it back up in January of 2012.
I'm still trying to reason why I resuscitated it on a part-time basis.
You may go pro??? Are we breaking some news here? Hold on—we'll get back to that later. First, tell us what have you learned from pizzablogging that you probably would not have otherwise learned?
How much total horse dung is involved with some socialites and social media bloggers. While dining out, I've seen firsthand people comp'd foods, items, etc. and then as I checked my phone seeing them immediately posting glowing reviews and photos to Twitter, blogs, etc. (even at places where the food really is not that good). They put their faces out, announce who they are and really get the silver spoon treatment from the moment they walk in. When you may be fearful of biting the hand that feeds you, how much honesty is there in any review? You're just a whore.
So what you do differently from other pizza/food critics?
From a blogging perspective, I actually make a concerted effort to fact check. I've used voice recorders, notes, phone calls, multiple trips, bugging pizza makers with follow up questions, etc. Do I make mistakes? You bet your ass I do, but there have not been many. For Christ's sake, at least make an effort to get it correct. I learned in the beginning that you can rarely take another person's or blog's word for it... go to the source and vet it for yourself if you are going to put something on the internet.
What has surprised you the most when talking to pizza restaurateurs?
In Baltimore, as a group, how little they know about the history of pizza or of the process of making good pizza. I'm far from an expert, but when talking with pizza makers and/or owners it is often shocking how little they know about the pizza scene in just their area, let alone the country. It's the difference between an enthusiast owner and a businessman owner.
The better pizzeria owners in Baltimore can tell you who the players are, and in their spare time go search out pizza places both in and out-of-town. It's the same everywhere. "Better knowledgeable and enthusiastic owner-operators, better pizza." That's the true slogan.
Guess I should call you Papa Pizzablogger from now on. So Papa, what are your thoughts on certifications such as VPN?
I think the certification itself has a healthy dose of bullshit built into it. Really, you have people with limited pizza making experience paying money to take a two week class and then setting up their restaurant to get the certification, pay the money and then obtain it? Sure, the pizzas have to be tasted and approved beforehand, but in some instances the after-the-fact policing of VPN joints is lacking.
And I get tired of the better-than-thou bullocks that sometimes gets bandied about by some (not all) VPN joints. Too many places advertise and promote the fact that "We're VPN" instead of focusing on "We make great fucking pizza!" The two are not synonymous.
At the same time I realize the VPN is an important organization. Perhaps maybe more so now than ever. We have already seen, and will continue to see, pizzerias trying to capitalize on the popularity of wood-fired pizzerias and authentic Italian pizze. It's important to have an organization set some minimal standards and be a resource to what construes authentic Neapolitan pizza.
Tell us about "great fucking pizza." What are the most important elements? Are they the same for homemade and restaurant pizza?
They are the same for both. Balance is key, but attention to the crust is of paramount importance. For styles like NY-Style and Neapolitan, the crust is the only part of a pie that gets to define itself in the absence of the other ingredients... once you eat all the other stuff, the end crust is all that remains. You should want to scarf the end crust because it is delicious and has a nice texture (it's often the first bite I take). For me, pizza bones are one of the saddest sights in pizzadom.
Let's talk about homemade pizza now. You eat a lot of pizza out, what inspires you to make pizza at home?
While I am certainly no master on the topic, I really like the fact that the dough is a living thing all the way until the inside of the dough reaches 130°F. Something about the feel of the dough during different stages of the process is very zen-like for me. There is some kind of a dance going on that I don't always understand, but I've come to realize a good pizza maker can be a lot like a good wine maker. Your job is maybe more about being a steward and letting the finished product express itself more so than working so hard to put your own stamp on the product.
Where are you with your personal pizza making? Besides the occasional nuclear meltdown, what have been your biggest challenges?
Craig, I've re-lapsed into struggling to make the pizza round for crying out loud!
For a while, I've had very little time for pizza making, so having time to really get a particular formula and process nailed down is a big challenge. Particularly because when I do have time, it is not a consistent schedule so I have to wing it with regards to salt and yeast amounts. I've got some of the know-how and desire needed to make a really good pizza, but I simply have not been able to put in the make-table time to deserve being able to consistently make great pizza.
The other great challenge is my cooking environment. With limited time, a lot of it has been spent trying to get my oven dialed in. With not enough time to devote to getting my oven set-up more consistent and not enough time to make pizzas... well it adds up to kinda blah pizza-ing at times.
I can hear Ian MacKaye on Sob Story saying "boo-fucking-hoo" right now. Enough of the self-pity session.
No shit. I thought I was going to have to slap you there for a second. Tell us something surprising about your dough.
I don't know. It does like to proof next to the radio while the Ramones Rocket to Russia is playing.
Besides serenading their dough, what would you recommend that a newbie do to jump start his home pizza making?
Get out and try great pizza if you have some nearby or have the wherewithal to travel for some. Having a benchmark of excellent pizza is important to serve as a signpost for your pizza making progress. Become a member of pizzamaking.com and please go buy a scale.
Where are the most important places to focus if someone wants to take their game to the next level?
The crust. The bake. The crust.
I think I hear Bill Clinton saying "It's the crust, stupid." What have you learned from observing and talking to the pros that you have been able to successfully employ at home?
More of a mental thing... to try and relax a little and to realize that even the most skilled pizza makers mention that even they sometimes don't know why the dough may be off from time to time. Learning that has helped tremendously. I've broken more than one item in frustration over a pizza disaster at home before. Now I'm able to laugh about it.
We know you know pizza, but few folks know about your extensive knowledge of wine. Tell us a little about your interest in wine.
I'm not sure how extensive it is, but my interest in wine is like many things. I wasn't just interested in drinking it, which is the best part, but in learning how it is made and the impact different regions have on grapes. That led me into reading a lot on the topic, studying and then out of curiosity to improve my knowledge sitting for the first exam of the Court of Master Sommeliers, which I passed. I was one class away from being a Certified Sommelier, but I don't drink enough to be ready for it.
I'll pick up your slack. Heck, I'm into my second bottle as we speak. We might need to call this "My Drunk Interview" if we don't finish up soon. So, what are you drinking right now?
Too much beer and limoncello! Like beer, my tastes in wine run all over the map, from whites to reds of various styles and countries. But more often than not I always drink a little more Chianti Classicos, Rhônes (both white and red), and Mosel Rieslings than others. But if I could afford it, I would not argue with being sentenced to drink good Red Burgundy or Chateauneuf du Pape for the rest of my life.
You taught me how to make limoncello—it's your fault I drink too much of it too. How about your go-to pizza wines? What should I be drinking?
So many good wines. But Chianti Classico, Gragnano, Sardinian Cannonau, and Aglianico are favorite choices of mine. You really summed it up best already...drink what you like!
I know you don't want to, but I said we'd get back to this. Lots of folks want to know if you are considering a pizza career. A good friend of yours who has a pretty popular place in Greenpoint wanted me to ask you when you plan to open up a place in Baltimore?
Maybe you should ask him.
I should ask Paulie if you are considering a pizza career? You have to do better than that.
Well, since we've looked at a couple of spaces in Baltimore together, he may be able to answer this question as well as I could.
The neighborhood I'm clocked in on is one of my favorites in Charm City and it needs a good pizzeria. A space with a lot of character is just waiting to become the neighborhood pizza joint and the owner seems excited about our idea as well. Nothing has been set in stone and nothing signed yet, so there is still a lot of work to do. At the same time the initial groundwork has been laid. If the stars align, by this time next year a Stefano Ferrara oven may be wooing pizza goers with her fiery dance in Baltimore.
Time will tell and that's all I'm saying for now.
I think we may have just broken some news here. I'm guessing folks might have a few more questions about this, but I'll leave that for the comments. We've covered a lot of ground here today, so all things considered, what about pizza gives you the most joy and happiness?
Sharing pizzas with friends, family and other pizza enthusiasts. Pizza is a table leveler....it's at a price point that is accessible to most people and most people, regardless of financial means, enjoy eating it. It's a great way to bring people of multiple demographics to the same table and just relax without too much pretense.
Very well put. Enough about you; what does Mrs. Pizzablogger think of your obsession? Is baby Pizzablogger eating pizza yet?
Burned out 1000%, but she is a soldier. Baby Pizzablogger has nibbled on my crust a few times and wants more when it's given to him. So I got that going for me.
I completely understand how important an understanding wife is to a pizza obsessive. Thanks again, Kelly for the generous amount of time you've given for this interview. I'd ask who you'd like to see interviewed next, but since you'll be the one doing it, who do you plan to interview next?
I know those guys pretty well; that might be almost as tough as squeezing an interview out of you.
Peek even deeper into Pizzablogger's head—additional questions and answers from this interview can be found at Pizzamaking.com.