Editor's note: In honor of National Pizza Month (aka October), the Serious Eats editors, staff, and Slice writers will top off our regular content with their deepest thoughts on all things cheesy, saucy, and crusty.
I think this is how the dream went. "Guy falls in love with pizza, goes to Italy, learns to make pie from some old guy who's been cooking it for 60 years and who can't speak a lick of English, guy brings back a recipe he refuses to share with anyone, opens a cool space with a big wood-burning oven front and center, makes every pizza himself, refuses to let people have pineapple on their pizza (along with a whole set of other draconian rules), says "thanks for coming" with a big, genuine smile...and scene."
I don't know about you, but that's the person I used to want making my pizza. And amazingly, I actually found some of the fantasy in Chris Bianco. Great story, huge personality, and, most importantly, the best pizza I had ever had. The man seemed to have magic in his hands. But now that Chris has been forced to step away from pizzamaking and Pizzeria Bianco is still cranking out winners, I'm left to ponder...does it really matter who actually makes your pie? To find out I spoke to two people who would know as well as anyone: Caleb Schiff of Pizzicletta (whose dedication to craft echoes Bianco's), and "Kevin," an accomplished pizzaiolo (who would rather not use his real name) currently working back of the house at a very popular, big name pizzeria.
First, a few caveats. Obviously no one cares who's making their pie at Domino's. The bigger a chain gets, the less responsibility they want placed in the hands of employees. And I'm not even talking about any of the high-quality places like Pizzeria Mozza or Co. where master bakers have left the daily grind in the hands of seasoned professionals. I'm talking about one of the critically acclaimed new school places (or old school in the case of a place like DiFara) where, in Ed Levine's words, "lone pizza gunmen" spend the majority of their waking hours slinging pies at their restaurant.
Lose Your Illusion
The connection between pizzaiolo and customer is surprisingly intimate. After stretching and topping a pie, their hands will have touched nearly every square inch of your food, and you'll have most likely seen them do it in an open kitchen (in front of a Stefano Ferrara oven). Though most restaurant dishes tend to look fairly uniform, every pizza is unique in a way that seems to reflect on whoever was manning the peel. The distribution of toppings, the shape of a pie, the charring, even bubbles in the crust... they can all feel intentional. But are they? Or are they just superficial details unrelated to actual taste?
If you catch a burnt pie at Mozza (and you will), you immediately know the cook running the oven took their eye off the ball. But if someone like Anthony Mangieri scorches your pizza (and he might), it's a bit more complicated. Did he want some extra char to balance out the flavor based on the fermentation of that day's dough? Or was he moved like a painter following his muse to add some extra color? There has to be a reason, right? Not according to Kevin. "The emperor has no clothes," he says. "They all screw up just as much as anybody else and they'll admit it... after they've had a martini."
You can't really blame them. Five seconds can make a world difference when you're cooking at 900 degrees. Plus, you often have other worries, like maintaining the oven temperature. "It's not simply a matter of tossing a log in the oven every once in a while," says Caleb. "Size and log placement are important to manage floor heat and flame arch." I don't know what your pizza credentials are, but to me that sounds more like engineering than cooking. And it's even tougher for Caleb since he has 20 percent less oxygen to fuel his fire thanks to the altitude of Flagstaff.
Caleb's had his number two, Scott Weymiller, working next to him since Pizzicletta opened and he trusts him with his pizza life, but Schiff still ends up cooking most of the pies himself. So is running the oven the dividing line between apprentice and Jedi? Not quite. Scott's pies are just as good as the ones made by his boss (and his bread is insane), but Caleb takes the peel because it's, in his words, "ridiculously fun." "When we're running at full steam and I'm working the oven, there's a flow to the work that's addictive," he says. Of course, it never hurts for customers to see the owner cranking out pies, either.
While Kevin has tons of respect for "the lone gunmen," he hates the idea that cooks—especially anonymous but well-trained immigrants—fail to garner the same respect as the big names when they're turning out the same pies. Pizza is a primitive food. It's not particle physics. If you're taught by someone like Kesté's Roberto Caporuscio, you're going to have the ability to make incredible pizza. I even heard a prominent Los Angeles pizzaiolo admit that one of the guys he trained now makes better pizza than even he ever could. "I don't know how he does it," he said, amazed.
Peeling Back the Layers
Caleb also seems to fit that dream pizzaiolo profile I threw out, so chatting with him about Pizzicletta, it's interesting just how little the word "pizza" comes up. Yes, turning out great food is job one, but he's just as concerned that the service is way up where he wants it and that his customers are enjoying themselves.
When you're the boss you're worried about every aspect of your restaurant. Caleb conceived Pizzicletta to be a smaller place he can wrap his arms around, but in larger operations there might be situations when you'd prefer that a "mere cook" make your pie over the boss. If you're just cooking you only have to worry about quality, but when you own the place you have to worry about rising food costs, complaints from table nine, the fact that your slicer just went down, and—oh shit, you have four pies in the oven.
There can also be downsides to cooking every pie yourself. Five years ago I was begging for a place like Mother Dough, where Baz Compani does it all by himself, but wait times can run long. He's working his ass off, but he likely could get better results with more delegation. In Caleb's words, "the best pizzaioli are those who can manage a lot of things because if you slack on one thing, the pie suffers."
My working theory has been that a pizzaiolo's "true signature" is put on a pie long before it's made, before the pizzeria even existed; that working out the dough recipe and choosing quality ingredients that work in concert were the critical decisions/actions that defined your pizza. Caleb and Kevin disagreed—to a point.
Caleb had a solid business plan when he opened his shop, but he'll be the first to tell you that his pizza and process have changed in the fifteen months since he's opened. He doesn't think he could have come up with his current battle plan without seeing action in the field first.
In Kevin's view, the success of a pizzeria is dependent on the team responding to the challenges inherent in a pizzeria—"the moving parts that can be (and need to be) adjusted daily." Yes, you need the solid foundation of a great recipe (and a great oven), but conditions will invariably be "less than ideal." Making dough—especially if you're using a natural leavener—is a daily battle that you're not always going to win. Vendors will fail you. You have to be able to adjust on the fly. If it's an off night for pizza, great service can cover it up. If the waitstaff is a little absent, a particularly "slammin' pie" can make up the difference.
Seeing Beyond the Hype
One of the biggest changes we've seen to our culture in the last decade has been the rise of celebrity, and pizza has not been immune. Your average civilian may not know a DeMarco from a Mangieri, but pizza fans religiously flock to Di Fara and Una Pizza Napoletana to spend (a lot of) their hard-earned. I'm a big fan of both, but there's no doubt that their well-documented stories, which border on myth, have played a massive role in their popularity.
A great narrative can provide a pizzeria with a healthy amount of free advertising. This is usually where exaggerated origin stories and supposed "300-year-old starters"—which in reality are about as old as last Sunday's newspaper—come into play. With that said, the restaurant business is a bloodbath and I don't begrudge anyone trying to get a leg up with a tall tale. And, happily, sometimes the stories are true. Look no further than Paulie Gee, who left the IT industry to follow his passion—who wouldn't want to support a guy like that? Especially since his pizza is, in today's parlance, bonkers.
Pizza rationalists (or agnostics) like Kevin understand the broad appeal of a place like Di Fara, but it bothers him that other unheralded gems making superior pizza languish while the press fawns over over the same places. "I'd like to see the love spread around a bit," he says. "I also wish people were as interested in the back story of any hardworking pizza maker, not just guys from Italy... there is more than one legit narrative."
Knowing someone's story makes you feel more connected to them, and that connection can enhance the way you taste or experience something. But for pizzaioli striving for their very best, that bond can sometimes be a double-edged sword. Though most of his business comes from locals and word-of-mouth, Caleb sometimes gets customers who've traveled very long distances for his pizza, and he says these food tourists "have stronger preconceptions of the restaurant's experience." I think he worries that anticipation can dull the taste buds... He rarely gets anything less than a rave from anyone, but I imagine that someone who just drove 300 miles for a pie might not be the most objective source.
No doubt I've had that sort of reaction (after all, who wants to travel hours for pizza and nitpick?), but I've also experienced the opposite. On my first trips back to Pizzeria Bianco after Chris stepped down, the pizza didn't taste the same. Something seemed off, but in hindsight I just missed the experience of having the him cook for me. I was looking for flaws instead of enjoying the feast. I'm not telling you that a pizza made by Chris Bianco won't taste better to you (or me), I'm just saying that the pie itself may not be objectively better than one made by someone he's trained and trusts. With that said, perception is reality, and there's no doubt the temperature is different when Chris is in the room. There is magic in Bianco, but it's in his intense commitment to quality and his contagious passion for food—not his hands.
The Man or the Management
So after 53,263 words and five different tangents, what's the verdict? That's a tough one. On one hand, a revolving door of pizzaioli hasn't hurt Motorino. And Lucali didn't suffer with the boss away. On the other hand, the Totonno's and Patsy's expansions ended in disaster as Ed's theory predicted. Looking around the country, nobody but Nick Lessins has made a pie at Chicago's Great Lake so we don't know if that majesty could be duplicated. And Emilia's in Berkeley doesn't have room to fit anybody else but Keith Freilich in the kitchen. If you want to know where I come out on this, I think that laying a strong foundation and finding a dedicated staff is more important than hands-on pie-making. But that's just me.
Does it really matter who's actually making your pizza? In all honesty, it's sort of up to you.
(Huge thanks to Caleb and "Kevin" for their invaluable contribution)