Über-chef, restaurateur, and television personality Mario Batali found out the hard way that even for famous chefs, cooking is easy and pizza is hard. When I wrote Pizza, A Slice of Heaven, I asked Mario to write about the difficulties of a well-known chef opening a pizzeria.
Words by Mario Batali | I'd always wanted to make pizzanot the regular, great New York City slices like the ones I eat at Joe's, right around the corner from two of our restaurants, Babbo and Lupa, or the great whole pies made in coal-fired brick ovens like the one at Totonno's in Coney Island, where we eat when Susi and I take the kids to the aquarium. Instead, Joe Bastianich and I decided we'd do a pizzeria and enoteca that would feature Sardinian flat bread, more like cracker or a lavash, that would be charred on a griddle. It'd be faster, different, and easier to do. Or so we thought.
Otto opened on January 8, 2003. The first griddle we bought and installed was unusable. It had too many hot spots. But that didn't stop the people from coming. The second Saturday we were open, we served almost a thousand people. Plus, we had every freakin' critic coming through the doors, and I found myself on the line burning pizzas on one side of the griddle and leaving them cold on the other. We weren't quite ready for the crowds in other ways as well. My dough recipe was enough for 20 pounds of dough, and the first weekend we opened, we needed 800 pounds. A slight miscalculation. I was trying to make a classic Neapolitan dough using fresh yeast. Among other things, I misinterpreted the mixing time and the intensity of gluten development of all-purpose flour. I was hoping to develop a firm, chewy crust, more crisp than elastic. Unfortunately, it came out hard, not crisp, when it came off the griddle. As it cooled, it got worse. We knew we were still in the process of fixing it, and we also knew the other things on the menu, the calzones, the vegetables, the antipasto items, were all killer. And every day the pizzas were getting a little better. But with everything coming at us, the crowds, the critics, it was virtually impossible for us to step back and look at the pizza objectively. We were too inside the process to know exactly how to fix it right away. We started fanning out to any place that made pizza, looking for clues to pizza. We went to New Haven, Providence and all kinds of places around New York, like Little Frankie's.
We were really up against it. I lost my confidence a little bit, but I didn't lose my resolve. Who knew there were sixteen million pizza experts in New York City? But pizza is one of those foods that everyone grows up with and has strong taste memories of. Danny Meyer went through the same thing when he opened his barbecue joint, Blue Smoke. But I think it was even a little worse for us at Otto because pizza is one of those things everyone north, south, east, and west grew up with.
The food press had always been very good to us, but the pizza at Otto gave people a good opportunity to take a shot at us. Some of it was deserved, and some was a little gratuitous. William Grimes, then food critic for the New York Times, gave us a glowing, two-star review, which of course we deeply appreciated. But even the headline of his review read, "A Pizzeria Where Pizza Is Not the Main Thing."
Our colleagues also weighed in with suggestions. It turns out that anyone who's handled any kind of dough thinks they know about pizza dough. Although it was hard to listen to sometimes, I think just about everyone was well intentioned. And some were genuinely helpful. Jim Lahey from Sullivan Street Bakery did give us the idea to stop mixing the dough so much. So we cut the mixing time to four minutes from 12 minutes, and that worked wonders. We also started proofing the dough whole instead of in little balls, and that helped a lot as well. Finally, we added a little more olive oil to the dough.
In the end, what did I learn? I learned I wasn't bulletproof. I learned that it's hard to go up against people's taste expectations about a food that everyone has tasted a thousand times in their lives. I had never staked my reputation on dishes that everyone knows and loves. Nobody has ever walked up to me after eating at Babbo and said, "I've had goose liver ravioli with balsamic vinegar, and you're not making it right." Or, "That beef cheek ravioli you make is not the way my mother made it."
And you know what? Our pizza is really good right now. We fixed the crust, and the toppings are out of control. The pizza at Otto is not definitive or earthshattering. But it's pretty damned delicious.
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