Pizza Obsessives

Slice interviews with folks who are mad about pizza.

Pizza Obsessives: Eric Leath

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Today we're chatting with Pizza Obsessive Eric Leath. A lover of the slice since childhood, Eric has been making and eating pies his whole life. You might recognize him from his fantastic submissions to My Pie Monday, or perhaps thanks to his recent Slice contributions, where he skillfully investigates the burgeoning pizza scene across the South. Here's what he's got to say!

Name: Eric Leath
Location: Pensacola, FL
Occupation: Freelance Writer

First, I'm curious—how did you get started as a contributor to Slice?

Writing about food in general was sort of accidental. I was spending most of my time honing my pizza-skills; when I wasn't working on building my oven, I was traveling for pizza, or slowly trying every local place that I could find.

I had been taking notes on pizzeria experiences for several years, but during a trip to Rome and Naples in 2012, I began documenting everything in a very detailed way, and found it incredibly fulfilling. The habit stuck, and shedding light on pizzas in the South seemed like a worthy undertaking. I'm thrilled the folks at Slice gave me the opportunity, especially right now, when there's a lot of new talent popping up in places like New Orleans.

Well, we're certainly glad to have you. So the number one basic question: what's your absolute favorite style of pizza?

Easily New Haven apizza, with a New York-style slice as a close second. But there are a few others that I'd be really excited to try again. A few Chicago-style thin crust and Staten Island-style pizzas come to mind. Thin and crisp is always a plus, but almost any style that's heartfelt can turn my head.

A really good pie is a really good pie, no matter the style? Since we're talking favorites, how do you feel about Sam Sifton's Pizza Cognition Theory—"The first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes...becomes, for him, pizza." Is this true for you? Do you find that your childhood pizza favorites influence your tastes today?

I have vivid memories of a couple of childhood places. Each one had a unique quality, and quite sadly neither is around anymore. My favorite would definitely hold up today; it closed in 1999, so I still have clear memories of it. It was called Marchello's, and was a savory bomb of herbs, garlic, and Romano. As kids, we all thought it had a "beer-like" taste, and was unlike any defined style that I've tried anywhere else.

Shakey's Pizza was my other big childhood love. It was thin, crunchy, slightly greasy, and full of "smoke flavored" provolone. Each of my two favorites had a different, one-of-a-kind flavor.

I think that part of the Pizza Cognition Theory is about defining what's not pizza. A lot of chains and newcomers (think Greek pizza) that opened in my teens were definitely not pizza for me. Although, there were times as a kid when I would eat the bland stuff, too—after all, it was still tomato sauce and melted cheese.

Evolving for me has meant embracing a relaxed standard, and no longer venerating the oldest coal-fired pizzerias in a way that can often lead to disappointment. Recent pies from Vito & Nick's in Chicago, Mario's on Arthur Ave, Rubirosa in NOLITA, and Zuppardi's in West Haven been some of my recent favorites. I still look forward to eating Patsy's, Sally's, and Pepe's, but I don't walk in expecting a religious experience. That way, if the pie is good, everything is exciting and new again.

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A pie with Grande dry-aged slices on the bottom of a San Marzano sauce, cooked on a 740˚ deck for about four minutes with only hot coals in the oven. [Photograph: Eric Leath]

That sounds like a good way to approach pizza (and life, really): with an open mind and palate. In that vein, when you're trying somewhere new, what do you tend to get?

It will always be something simple like a plain slice; it will tell you everything truly important about the pizza-maker's skills.

When you aren't testing the plain, do you have any particular topping combinations that you especially love?

A good hot or sweet fennel sausage will always get my attention, and some onions don't hurt, either. I'm certainly down for most toppings found on traditional menus, but not too many at once.

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Soppresatta and homemade sausage pie [Photograph: Eric Leath]

Florida isn't exactly known for its pizza—where do you go to get your fix?

Sky's Pizza Pie is the only local place for me. It's New York-style, and they use 24" pies for slices. The pizza itself is very thin, with a crust that really delivers everything a purist would expect. I can't say enough good things about it. Decent pizza along the Gulf Coast is hard to find.

Seems like it would make a lot of sense to start making your own—and you do, don't you? How did that all start?

I've actually been making pizza since I was really young, like not-tall-enough-to-see-what-was-in-the-mixing-bowl-without-standing-on-something young. I longed to make anything with tomato sauce and cheese, and did so in seemingly every possible way. My (non-Italian) grandma fostered the interest; she would try to track down obscure ingredients from written recipes, and helped me make some interesting pies.

I stuck with it, learned from a few professionals during college, and had groups of friends over for pizzas cooked in a vintage gas oven. It all culminated with a couple of years making pizza professionally. Now I'm just doing it at home, but with a wood-fired oven, and some of the same faces from 20 years back are still showing up for pizza.

Let's get into some of the nitty gritty—what kind of dough are you using, and what are your ovens like?

These days I'm making an even mix of wood-fired and conventional oven pizzas. The formula for the dough is constantly changing; whatever is on hand is used for both ovens. I use a live starter/dried yeast combination, and King Arthur bread flour at around 62% hydration (humidity is a beast along the Gulf Coast) in the warmer months. This is actually a great time of year to play around with some doughs that are as wet as 75%, when company isn't around. No witnesses for epic fails...or triumphs.

When it's just me, I experiment with leftover dough in a somewhat hacked gas home oven. I should shout out to Scott123 for a design hack that has helped it make much better pizzas. This is where I play at reproducing all of those childhood flavors that are my "Rosebud."

My WFO is basically fire-brick and fire-clay, insulation, and stucco. I drew the dimensions to reproduce the shape of a Neapolitan oven with a dome height that was barely above 17 inches. A good friend and local contractor brought the whole thing to life, and came up with the design for the Jetsons-style pedestal.

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Eric's WFO [Photograph: Eric Leath]

Sounds like a pretty handy friend to have around! Has the style of pizza you've been making evolved over the years?

In the beginning, I only wanted high BTUs for making pizzas that would resemble my coal-fired favorites. I had just moved, and no longer had everyday access to a high-temp deck oven, or a cleaning cycle hack. Even though I had played around in some commercial wood-fired ovens, there were a lot of nuances that I didn't understand at first.

The oven didn't exactly yield the types of pizzas that I wanted to be making, but luckily it was suited for making Neapolitan-style (something I didn't instantly adapt to). Even after trying some of the most acclaimed spots in NYC, the Neapolitan-style pies just didn't match the satisfaction that I got from the best coal-fired ones.

A trip to Naples really opened my eyes; the texture of the fior di latte and the flavor of the crust made a big impression. My favorites there were slightly larger pizzas that didn't necessarily have a very large cornicione, or a lot of leopard spotting. I returned with a desire to really make this type of pizza sing, with hotter and faster bakes.

I'm pretty early in the experience curve with wood-fired pizzas, but want the consistency I often get with less than sixty-second bakes. Ones where the pie just capitulate—the edges just blooming quickly and almost wanting to collapse into themselves—and the toppings come out bubbling. It became about the pizza wanting to come out that quickly. The pizza was lighter than air, and I was addicted. This is what I'm striving for, and occasionally, I'll get something worthy of a My Pie Monday submission.

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An uncured bacon and rapini pie with dry aged mozzarella, lower temp [Photograph: Eric Leath]

Clearly you're pretty flexible when it comes to your pies in general, but is there anything that should absolutely never find its way on top of a slice?

Beef tenderloin (or any other prized protein) is the first tragic choice that comes to mind. Even if it were possible to cook the meat to perfection on a pie, steak doesn't need pizza, and vice versa.

I can snack on a Wolfgang Puck smoked salmon, caviar, and crème fraîche creation and don't have a problem calling it a pizza, but it's never going to satisfy any sort of craving for what I really think of as pizza.

I hear you—when I'm dying for pizza I really need the classic crust-tomato-cheese trifecta to satisfy the craving. Is that Wolfgang Puck pie the craziest it's ever gotten for you? What's the weirdest pizza you've ever eaten?

This reveals that I'm pretty boring! It's probably a Hawaiian pizza that a date once swore would be incredible. I also remember trying a slice that was loaded with cream cheese, meats, and red sauce. There have been some concoctions in California, but beyond the Salmon Pie at Postrio, I've totally repressed them.

New Haven, New York, Chicago, Naples, Staten Island, California...a lot of places have come up as you've talked. What's the farthest you've ever traveled just for pizza?

By distance, it's Naples, but most of my travels are centered around pizza. One day last year, I rode the same train from the Bronx (Mario's) to Coney Island (Totonno's) for pizza. If it's a big city, I'll spend a lot of time in transit, and try as many places in a day as I comfortably can.

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Margherita with San Marzanos and Buffalo Mozzarella [Photograph: Eric Leath]

Naples! I'm officially jealous. Do you have any future pizza travel plans?

The most exotic trip I have in mind would have to be to São Paolo. I've heard that it isn't as good anymore, but with the sheer number of pizzerias and deep Italian heritage, I think it's worth checking out. I had a regular pizza customer from Brazil, who used to order plain pies with garlic. He was a world traveler with great food knowledge, but wasn't a fan of most pizza in the U.S.—it just seems to have so much undiscovered potential.

The very last pizza that I had in Naples came from a place called Lombardi. The Margherita was the least soupy and the crispest of the trip. I really identified with this place, and later heard (not sure if it's true) that the family actually immigrated back to Naples from Brazil.

I want to get to Sicily just as badly, and really understand the different flavors there as well. This will more than likely be my next big trip, but I'm up for any opportunities that present themselves. Every time I see the combinations that Jimmy G is doing, it strengthens my resolve to get there soon.

Earlier you mentioned finding support for your pizza obsession in your grandmother—how do the rest of your family and friends feel about it?

Everyone is basically supportive. I was fortunate that I had two grandmothers who both fostered my interest. One cooked with me a lot, and the other took me to some great pizzerias and restaurants. As a kid, everyone was pretty tolerant of the fact that I made a mess, and I got toys like a pizza peel and a stone.

Friends have truly made every pizza-making event into an awesome party. A lot of interesting and talented creative people show up, and there's demand to turn my yard into an occasional underground restaurant/music venue...not necessarily saying I would do that, though (only, yeah, I totally would).

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Sounds like a pretty good idea to me! And finally, to turn the tables a little bit, who would you like to see interviewed?

It would definitely have to be an MPM contributor. There are always pizzas that really speak to me, especially very homemade simple ones, and every one of the makers has a story to tell. Right now Chris Koller stands out a lot. Even before the wood-fired pizzas, his conventional oven pies (like the al-taglio ones) were very compelling.

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A "Filleti" with homemade unpasteurized milk mozz and sliced locally grown heirloom cherry tomatoes, pecorino Romano and Fresh oregano. [Photograph: Eric Leath]

About the author: Kate Andersen is a Contributing Editor for Slice.

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