Oh man, does the Del Popolo pizza truck stand out in the crowd of food trucks flooding San Francisco streets these days! One wall of this giant shipping-container-on-wheels is built completely of windows, so you can look inside as Jon Darsky cooks pizzas in a massive wood-fired oven. With the way the black frames of the windows contrast the white corrugated interior of the truck, the rig feels as much a design statement as a food delivery system.
When we caught up with Darsky and his truck, parked in an empty lot as he balled dough for the next day's service, it became clear that this striking vehicle seems to embody the mind behind it. Like his truck, Darsky could be just a little brash and forward, but also thoughtful and willing to intellectualize about pizza-craft. It made for some very good conversation.
The Complications of Building a Pizza Truck
Prior to the launch of Del Popolo, we last saw Darsky slinging pies at Flour + Water. He left in early 2010, initially with the intention of starting a bricks and mortar restaurant. "I just couldn't find the place," he told us. "Maybe I gave up too soon and I could have found something after all, but this idea (for the truck) came to mind."
Darsky had always had the intention of cooking Neapolitan-style pizzas in a wood-fired oven that could hit extremely high temperatures, and he didn't compromise this vision when he decided on a mobile operation. He ultimately chose a 5000-pound Stefano Ferrara oven for the Del Popolo truck. "I have to say, I'm not sure it's the best idea. It's a great oven, but it's a pain in the ass," Darsky told us.
Unlike most of the food trucks out there, which have been repurposed, Darsky needed a fully-customized rig to accommodate the weight of that beast of an oven. As we talked about it, Darsky began to list the obstacles that he and engineer Michael Hyde faced in designing the vehicle:
"How do you put a big oven in a truck? How do you keep that from breaking? These windows are really, really big. How do you keep them from breaking when you're driving on the road? How do you have the service level be eye-level with the customers? How do you take pizza out of the oven and get it down there to the server?"
Ultimately—from a massive reinforcement underneath the oven, to a set of stairs between the oven level and the service level, to a pizza "tree" where Darsky could slide piping hot pies so the woman at the register could grab them—all of these problems were solved. The 28000-pound Del Popolo truck is street legal, even if it can take a long time to get from zero to 60. Actually, once it gets up to speed, Darsky says it does quite well on the highway. It can feel a bit rougher driving on city streets because of the need to stop and start all that bulk, and because the truck seems to feel every divot on the less-than-perfect San Francisco roadways.
In case you're not impressed with this tale of perseverance, let us add that the Stefano Ferrara oven that Darsky ultimately installed in his truck wasn't actually his first purchase. He initially bought an Acunto oven, only to discover that the oven didn't have all of the certifications required to ride on board his truck. In a neat little twist, that first oven got purchased by prominent Slice'r TXCraig1, while Darsky moved on to his current set-up.
So, yeah, Darsky faced some bumps in the road on the way to building his epic pizza truck. "This is so complicated that going into the restaurant business would be pretty freaking easy," Darsky noted as he told us his story.
Pizza for the People
On his current menu, Darsky charges ten dollars for a Margherita. He could probably charge more, but Darsky explains that this price fits with what he sees as his mission as a pizzaiolo. "I want it to be pizza for everybody," he says. This is why he has named the truck Del Popolo, Italian for of the people.
"The name, Del Popolo, that's not just glib," Darsky told us. "I want to go out and make relatively affordable pizza and serve it to a lot of people, people who wouldn't otherwise have it. That's sort of my philosophy on the whole thing."
His beliefs about this means he can have strong opinions about the other pizza operations out there. "In my humble opinion, Mangieri does it wrong," Darsky told us, talking about Anthony Mangieri, local uber-pizzaiolo at the esteemed Una Pizza Napoletana. "Not in the quality of the product, because the product is great. They're wonderful. But in the way that he limits it and makes it something that only certain people can afford. I'd be embarrassed. I mean, $25 for a pizza on a Saturday night, that's exactly the opposite of what I want to do.... That's the thing about Mangieri, he's so good, but so many people are missing out on it."
He expressed equal frustration with chain pizza at the other end of the spectrum. "What I would love to do is put all those people out of business," Darsky said. "It's not good stuff. It's not quality." And, just in case you think that Slice didn't have to take its lumps as well, Darsky explained, "I get bummed out with Slice when it covers the bullsh-t [chain] pizza."
Darsky went on to explain that he would love to play a small part in moving American tastes away from mass-produced chain pizza, and he hopes that the ten-dollar price-point for a Margherita might be able to help achieve that.
However, when asked if he sees himself as taking on the role of "elevating" pizza, Darsky makes a distinction. "I think the chains downgraded it. In fact, I would say that I'm not elevating it, I'm just continuing the appropriate direction. If the Neapolitans started it, and it was already at a high level, our American pizza places, we all downgraded it."
What Comes out of the Oven
Darsky sets a high standard for his Neapolitan-style pizza, though he doesn't put on airs about his skills with a pizza peel. "I've been making pizza for four years, so I'm not trying to sit here and say I'm a master, because I sure as hell am not." Still, though he feels he can improve his consistency, he says he has eaten pizzas out of the Del Popolo oven that come pretty close to his ideal.
Darsky particularly prizes a tender crust. When asked to describe his archetypal pizza, he told us: "Light in the crust, with a little layer of crispiness to it. It shouldn't be too chewy. You should be able to eat a whole pie and your jaw shouldn't be sore."
In Darsky's case, he also makes his pizzas with an eye towards the fact that he serves them in a to-go setting. "I'm trying to get a pie that's not too wet at the middle," he explains. "I can't do that because people are going back to their office with them."
On Ingredient Orthodoxy
Though Darksy's end-product is absolutely Neapolitan in inspiration (Neapolitan primer here), he's not doctrinaire about how he achieves these results. In fact, he dismisses the idea that his pizzas must strictly adhere to a set list of specific ingredients. "I think there are some people in the pizza business who use Italian stuff for some level of authenticity. I think there's no reason to do that," says Darsky.
He hasn't always been this way. Thinking back on his early days as a pizza guy, he described, "As you go along in the process you become less and less orthodox about it. At some point, I told my brother, 'You can't have any more than three pieces of basil on a pizza!' I don't know where I got that. To this day he'll tease me about it. It was so silly."
So, though Italian "00" flour may be the unquestioned leader amongst Neapolitan pizza cognoscenti, Darsky doesn't use it. He admits that the stuff produces a good, consistent result, but explains that he doesn't like the idea that much of the product for Italian flour is actually grown right here at home. "All that wheat is grown in the US or Canada and it's shipped to Italy, they mill it, and they send it back here," he says. Instead of using flour that has made this long plane trip, Darsky mixes a combination of three flours that he buys from Central Milling in Utah.
Nor does Darsky use the prototypical Neapolitan pizza tomato, the San Marzano. In fact, he says he doesn't understand the adulation that gets heaped upon San Marzano tomatoes, as he feels there are many other tomatoes that are just as good. However, unlike his choice to use all-American flour, Darsky does use some Italian tomatoes, calling them distinctly different from what you can get on these shores. "I combine some Italian ones that are more acidic and less sweet with some American ones that are sweeter and I think it comes out perfectly," he says.
In the meantime, there is also the issue of cost. Darsky buys his Italian tomatoes from Danicoop, who also sell a line of San Marzanos that he estimates cost four times as much as the fruit he uses. "It's just not viable. Anyone who's charging ten to thirteen for a Margherita can't use that tomato and make money," Darsky says.
When it comes to oven temperature, also a major tenet of Neapolitan-style pies, Darsky clearly endorses cooking at high temperatures, but finds himself less caught up in specifics. Asked how hot his oven burns, he told us he had no idea. "It's really hot!" he said.
A reading off the oven floor during our interview returned a temperature of 820-degrees—several hours after service had ended, with only a slowly dying fire left inside. Darsky said his pies had cooked in around 50-seconds that day during lunch.
No matter the ingredients, the pies we saw come out of the oven had the striking, leopard-spotted appearance that fans of Neapolitan-style pizza prize. They look good enough that we figure you'll be able to tear your eyes away from that epic truck to give the pizzas a try.
About the author: David Kover is a San Francisco-based freelance writer and food enthusiast. He occasionally gets his tweet on as @pizzakover.