Pizza Obsessives »

Slice interviews with folks who are mad about pizza.

Pizza Obsessives: Michael "Imwalkin" Rolli

You know him better as Imwalkin, a regular contributor to My Pie Monday with over 2 dozen submissions! Come along as we get better acquainted with the DIY pizza man, Mr. Michael Rolli, through a little Pizza Obsessives Q&A.—MS

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Name: Michael Rolli
Location: Leeds, AL near Birmingham
Occupation: Had a 40 plus year career with Dupont, now retired
URL(s): seriouseats.com/Imwalkin

What type of pizza do you prefer?

Homemade—any style—but my personal favorite is tomato pie.

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 totally buy into The Theory. My first was tomato pie made in my grandmother's house. It was kind of a cross between what Hawk Krall wants to call "Philly Tomato Pie" and "grandma" style. I say "kind of like" because the sauce was like tomato pie, but the dough itself was not pillowy, but very thin, except on the edges, with that cracker like texture of pies in Italy. We sometimes had fresh anchovies chopped up into the sauce, but there were no "toppings" other than the lightest dusting of aged Pecorino. This is still my favorite pie to make and to eat! My taste in pizza has certainly broadened over my lifetime. I had the opportunity to travel to all 50 states and 23 countries during my career providing exposure to a huge variety of styles and quality.

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A look at one of Imwalkin's tomato pies.

It sounds like you might have pizza in your blood. Where was your grandmother from?

Yes, we are Italian. My grandmother was from Teramo in the region of Abruzzo.

What's your favorite topping or topping combination?

My very, very favorite is none, a la tomato pie, but I also really enjoy Italian sausage and onion over a mix of fior di latte and aged dry mozzarella, and quattro formaggio made with fior di latte, talleggio, shaved Pecorino and Parmigiano Reggiano. But then my wife and I have really started to enjoy versions of Chris Bianco's "Rosa". Our favorite is with Humboldt Fog goat cheese, red onion, Aleppo pepper, rosemary and pistachios. And I forgot pepperoni (either Boars Head or Vermont Smoke) with pickled peppers over aged dry mozzarella. I blame that one on Kenji all the way. I never even really liked pepperoni, but I started reading his blogs and seeing photos with those damn peppers, and next thing you know all this pepperoni found it's way into my house (where it is not even allowed)! Picking your favorite pizza is like someone asking you "which would you like, this one or that?". I always want to answer "yes".

Ha. Me too! Where do you go for pizza in your area?

My kitchen.

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A pepper pie.

Is that because there is a dearth of restaurant pizza in Birmingham that could rival your own pies?

Actually there are a couple of decent places now for pizza in Birmingham. Area 41 Pizza in the suburb of Mt. Laruel has very good NY Style, and Bottega in downtown has decent pies from their WFO. Making your own is so much more satisfying!

That segues nicely into our next question. What are your go-to pizza recipes and methods?

Most of the time I make Kenji's NY dough, except I use Caputo 00 red bag, because I have to bake in electric ovens. Sometimes I make a Neopolitan-American dough I've used for about 30 years, but only when I'm baking on the gas grill. That's also the dough I use for tomato pie.

You started making pizza over 30 years ago!? You've got more than a few notches in your peel. How did you get started making pizza?

It was self-defense! Traveling and moving around the country, I rarely could find good pizza, or any Italian food, remotely like what we had at home. So I decided to make my own.

What or who has been the greatest resource in your pizza making?

My grandmother remains my greatest inspiration for all things food related. When I first started making dough for tomato pie, a friend whose family ran an Italian bakery was a huge help in understanding how good dough should feel. About 15 years ago, we started to see pizza specific articles in major food magazines. Then authors, including SE's own Ed Levine (yes, I bought the book), came out with entire books about pizza. This is when I began to realize that making Ny style or Neapolitan-American at home was possible. Today, we can find tons of information on the internet. I especially enjoy SE and Slice because of the diversity in the blogs and the passion of the community. The willingness of community members to share their successes (and failures) is a huge help to anyone starting out.

You mentioned earlier that making your own pizza is more satisfying. Why is that?

For three reasons; first, because of the joy of doing something you love. I completely lose myself in the process and it frees me from everything else that may be going on. Secondly, because I can control the quality of what goes into what my family will eat. Also, because I have some health related food restrictions. And finally, the satisfaction of seeing others enjoy the food you prepare.

What equipment do you use to make your pizza?

To make dough I use only a mixing bowl, a dough whisk, and my hands. To bake I use 1/4 inch Baking Steel, 5/8 inch Cordelite stone, or 3/8 inch Emile Henry stone, or Lodge cast Iron. I bake indoors in electric wall oven without convection. Outdoors, I use a gas grill.

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Gas grill set-up for Baking Steel.

What do your family and/or friends think of your pizza madness?

They probably just think it's another facet of my quirky persona to endure, unless there's fresh hot pies to be had, then they love it!

And what would you say should NEVER go on a pizza?

Mayo! It should never go on anything so as never to pass my lips. I would prefer it not cross into my eyesight.

Even though I like mayo, I have to agree with you that it should not go on pizza. Most unusual pizza you've ever eaten?

The most unusual pizza I tried to eat and couldn't was in the Narita International airport outside Tokyo. It had many, many toppings; none of which you ever expect to see on pizza: carrots, nori (seaweed), sliced hard boiled eggs, octopus, sea urchin, red bean paste (instead of tomato sauce), mayo (because they don't eat cheese and they thought something white was needed) and a host of other unseemly items. This one won "the worst pizza ever award"; in fact that award has been retired.

OH NO! Not the dreaded mayo!That's a world away in terms of the tomato pie you love. What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?

About 3200 miles, from San Diego to Philadelphia, riding in the backseat of an F-4 Phantom fighter jet. It was a birthday surprise for me from my fellow Marines following a long convalescence. We hauled 12 cases of Coors beer, which was not available outside the West at that time, to Philadelphia in exchange for 25 loaded pizzas. The pizzas were wrapped in space blankets for the rocket ride back to San Diego. On arrival, we re-heated the pies in the gas ovens at the Naval Hospital and then took them around to all the wounded Marines. That was the first pizza I had eaten in about a year and a half—and it was sweet!!

I gotta know where pizza worthy of a F-4 Phantom ride resides.

The pizzas came from Wilmington, DE, where I grew up, but I think don't think those places are still around.

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I use this handy rack to stage dough rising, finished pies, pans waiting, etc.

That's too bad. Anything you'd like to get off your chest?

I choose to see this question as I get three wishes:

I wish more people would realize how easy it is to cook, how inexpensive it can be, and how much healthier it is. That goes triple for pizza!

I wish Slice would help people realize the above through stories about home cooks and their techniques

I wish more blogs were as useful and entertaining as Serious Eats.

Here here! One more wish: Who would *you* like to see interviewed next?

Andris, the guy from Baking Steel. Not to promote his project, but he bakes his own pies and seems an interesting character that I'd like to know more about.

Oh, that would make an interesting interview. I like your thinkin'. Thanks so much for taking a turn in the hot seat. It has been great to learn more about you and your love for pizza. Can't wait to see what comes off your steel next!

About the author: Meredith Smith is the Slice editor. You can follow her on Twitter: @mertsmith.

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