There are pizza makers and there are pizza game changers. Today's Pizza Obsessive, Andris Lagsdin, is in the latter camp. Thanks to his Baking Steel, you really are able to create the "crust you crave" at home. A recent Pizza Lab testing has more than a few of us replacing our stones with steel. So without further ado, let's get this pizza hero in the hot seat. —MS
What type of pizza do you prefer?
I am not partial to any particular style of pizza, although my family seems to gravitate towards NY-style. This past year I've spent a lot of time tweaking dough recipes, toppings and cooking methods to come up with the "Lagsdin Family Style".
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 remember thick crust, lots of sauce and cheese, cheese, cheese. My dad was working on a project in New Hampshire and my mom would load me, my brother and my sister into the car every weekend to head up to NH to be with my dad. My favorite stop on the way was Mario's in North Conway. At that time (about 36 years ago), Mario's had the best pizza I had ever tasted. I'm not sure they are still in business. It is on my bucket list to find out and go back for a slice someday. My tastes have definitely evolved since then—I tend to lean towards minimal ingredients these days with a crisp, light and airy crust.
What's your favorite topping or topping combination?
My favorite pie is the classic Margherita. There is something so sexy about the simpleness of it—it's what I crave. In terms of topping combinations, I tend to always go simple. To me, less is more. However, I've learned a lot this past year following "My Pie Monday." It's inspiring and exciting to see all the different pizzas each week. I could see myself getting a little more ambitious in terms of topping combinations going forward. Kenji's pie with the pickled peppers and pepperoni looks incredibly tasty and is definitely on my list!
Where do you go for pizza in your area?
Going out for pizza is a pretty rare occurrence in our household, mainly because we enjoy making it ourselves and also, a great pie is hard to come by in our immediate locale. One local spot worth a mention is Bia Bistro, known more for their Mediterranean dishes, however, the pizzas are always my menu item of choice. On those occasions when we do a take-out pizza, it usually comes from Whole Foods, as my youngest son has food allergies and that is the only local place that will accommodate our special requests. Before kids, our favorite place to grab pizza was Al Forno in Providence. Figs in Charlestown is always great and is where my love for pizza really started. I can always count on Regina's or Galleria Umberto in the North End for a great slice as well.
And speaking of Al Forno, which is famous for their grilled pizza, do you make grilled pizza yourself, or ever use the Steel on the grill? I know some Slice'rs who do.
Ah, I was hoping to avoid the grill question. I'm actually on "probation" from using our grill at home. The first time I tried to use the steel on our grill, I made a very rookie mistake. I put the steel on the grill, lit it up, closed the top and took my two boys out for a walk. About 5 minutes later, my wife noticed an obscene amount of smoke pouring out of the grill and into our house. I could see the thick black smoke a block away and knew immediately where it was coming from. I hightailed it home to find the grill and my steel engulfed in flames. My first reaction was to get the whole thing on video, until I got the evil eye from my wife and an extinguisher to the gut. I put out the flames and found my rookie mistake—I completely forgot to empty the grease trap underneath, before lighting the grill. I spent the weekend scrubbing out the residue and I've spent the last year trying to convince my wife to let me try it again. Thank goodness my parents live less than 5 minutes from my office, so I have used it on the grill, but I still need some practice.
Well you are bound to break some eggs when making an omelette. Which bring us to the meat of this interview. How long have you been making pizza, and when did the steel enter into the picture?
I've been making pizza's since I started with Todd English at Figs in the early 90's.
Whoa, now. I gotta interrupt. Are you saying you worked at Figs?
I worked under Todd English for just over 2.5 years in both the kitchen and on his management team.
Wow! We may have to come back to this... So, you were saying.
It's been a pretty casual passion of mine over the years, making pies mostly for my family and hosting pizza parties for my friends. I used to make my pizza's on the back of a metal sheet tray, then switched to a stone for what I thought would help make a better crust. I have had my share of broken stones. I brought the steel into the picture just this past year, after reading excerpts of Modernist Cuisine in a Wall Street Journal article. The article stated that the best way to replicate brick oven pizza at home, was with a steel plate—so I decided to give it a go.
A little over a year ago, I brought home a piece of steel for our oven. My wife looked at me like I had 2 heads and insisted she "wouldn't feed our kids anything I made off of that monstrosity." Well, I made a batch of dough (Figs Boston recipe) and cooked up the pies. She marveled at the browning of the crust and decided to give it a shot—best pizza she ever had at home.
Just so we have the full story, where did you come across your first steel?
The first steel I brought home was actually the base plate from a Caterpillar FlipPad assembly. I pulled it off the production line just before it was to be powder-coated. It was 9 X 17" X ¼ thick and was made for a Caterpillar backhoe. Needless to say, I didn't tell anyone I would be cooking pizza on the plate. My brother thought I was a little out of sorts that day. But it made some pretty good pizza! I've cleaned up the design of the steel since then, and ever since we've been making pizza at least once a week, sometimes more.
I see a nice Caterpillar transformation story emerging. Well we're all glad you took the plunge! What recipes do you use at home now?
Thanks to Slice, we've tried some amazing recipes. Kenji's NY-style dough is a regular "go-to" and probably my sons' favorite dough. Andrew Janjigian from Cook's Illustrated has a great dough recipe that is pretty popular at our house as well and the Seattle Food Geek's Champagne Pizza Dough is a favorite of my wife's. I think all are tremendous. My current "go-to" is a tweaked combination of all three.
Do you care to share your preferred brands for flour, tomatoes, and cheese?
I like the King Arthur brand flours; I generally use their bread flour. For most of my sauces, I use organic tomatoes from Bionaturae. Cheese—I like Trader Joe's whole milk low-moisture mozzarella, and I love baby fontina from Whole Foods.
And what would you say should NEVER go on a pizza?
Never is a pretty strong word. I can't think of any one ingredient that I feel that negatively about. I would be willing to try anything on a pie, as long as I knew the chef/person baking it was passionate about what they were putting out. If they had a good story/reason behind the ingredient, I would give them the benefit of the doubt and try it, before passing judgement.
Most unusual pizza you've ever eaten?
I don't usually stray too far from my favorite, Margherita. I'm of the mindset, "why mess with a good thing." Mark Bello recently introduced me to a Bacon and Egg pie that was absolutely delicious! Not too unusual for some people, but that's probably most unusual for me.
Don't sell yourself short! The cheeseburger pizza you made for My Pie Monday this week looked pretty un-Margherita like!
What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?
The farthest I can remember going specifically for pizza is probably Al Forno in Providence which is roughly 60 miles. With 2 young sons just starting to figure out the ins and outs of restaurant behavior, I don't like going any farther than our kitchen.
What do your family and/or friends think of your pizza madness?
I'd have to say my pizza madness has reached epic proportions this past year. It's not unusual for me to be up at the crack of dawn, experimenting with methods, or new recipes - which doesn't always go over that well with my wife when the aromas from the kitchen waft upstairs to wake the little ones. But all in all, I think they enjoy the madness. My wife is incredibly supportive and she is happy to see me doing something I feel so passionate about. My friends like receiving all the fruits of my labor - the pizzas!! I've become a very popular dinner guest, as long as I bring my steel and do the cooking.
Anything you'd like to get off your chest?
I received a lot of grief from fellow pizza-makers due to my "rolling-out" the dough on my kickstarter video. I have to admit, at the time of the video, I was nervous about the project at hand and felt that using the pin would give me the best results for video purposes. I do know how to hand-stretch the dough (though I am by no means a pro), and have been practicing ever since.
Oh, I almost forgot, I wanted to return to Figs. Todd English catches a lot of flak in Boston despite having paved the way for a real restaurant scene to take hold. Fig pizzas were some of the first really eye-opening pizzas I had back in the day, though made from a cookbook—not his restaurant. Who are some of your big pizza influences?
Todd was definitely my original inspiration. His passion for food and life were contagious! Everything that led to my love of pizza, I learned from him. While at Figs I also worked with Sara Jenkins who certainly taught me a thing or two about flavoring foods. But honestly, I've learned the most this past year. Since the Baking Steel™, I've been obsessed with all things pizza. Slice and all the great contributors and community members, Kenji (rockstar), Adam, atmast, Imwalkin, to name a few, have all been very inspirational. I've made a lot of great contacts and friends on this journey and I hope it continues for a long while.
I'm sure it will continue. You've made a pretty great contribution to the pizza making community, after all. Now: Who would *you* like to see interviewed next?
I love reading all the pizza obsessives. Everyone has a story to tell. Cornici1 was a big advocate during my kickstarter campaign—has he/she already been in the hot seat?
Cornici1, come out come out wherever you are! Looks like you have been tagged for an upcoming Pizza Obsessives interview. Thanks to you, Andris, for taking time to tell as all a little bit more about yourself. We certainly hope to see more of your pies and you around Slice!