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Balancing Act

I spent this last week making some of the best pizza in New York City. I know, I know, that’s a pretty bold statement. We’re talking New York here. The official shape is “the slice”. With the possible exception of pastrami on rye, there’s no food more “New York” than pizza. Yet even with all the history, pizza is still the hottest food in town.

Everyone knows the standard New York style slice. It’s an icon, like the Empire State Building or Woody Allen’s neurosis. But lately Neapolitan pizza has been popping up all over town. These pizzerias use wood burning ovens and menus entirely in Italian. They’re a combination of the traditional and the experimental. The process dates back to the dawn of history. Cook stuff on top of bread. Yet the flavos and presentation are distinctly modern.

Getting back to the story, last week I was lucky enough to be able to train at Forcella, a new Neapolitan pizzeria in Williamsburg. The restaurant has only been around for a couple of months, but the pizzaiolo, Giulio Adriani, has been cooking this style of pizza for decades in Naples, Argentina, and Brazil. Now he is opening his own place in Brooklyn, with one more spot on the way in the Bowery.

I was glad to work with Giulio because I think he represents both sides of the new pizza. He understands tradition, not just how things were always done, but why. From there he’s not afraid to experiment, and to try to fit the local tastes.

I was lucky enough to be able to see the whole operation. From the mixing of the dough to the firing of the pizza. I rolled dough balls, made mozzarella from scratch, crushed the tomatoes and worked the oven. When you see pizza from this end, it’s not a commodity product, sliding off a conveyor belt. Each one is it’s own struggle of balance. You must time the fermentation of the dough just right. The oven must be burning at the proper temperature. The crust must achieve a harmonious mixture of doneness and char.

Essentially you are walking a fine line between perfect and destroyed. We’re talking about a matter of seconds. Not tens of seconds. Seconds. You have waiters screaming, people pushing past, pizzas lined up to be cooked, and you’re trying to make the one, two, three, or even four pies you have in the oven into a transcendent pizza experience.

Cooking a pizza like this is a lot like mixing a song. There is no precise amount of midrange that should be applied at all times, and every time you inch up the fader, you’re not making a perceptible difference. But pretty soon you tweak a couple knobs and you’ve got a cacophonous mess. The same can be said of cooking in general, but really Neapolitan pizza in particular. You can start getting so focused on minute details that you begin to lose sight of the big picture. You shoot for the perfect leopard spotting, only to miss and end up with char.

I’ve actually never worked in a professional kitchen before. I’ve done a bit of under the table catering, but I’ve never worked in an actual restaurant kitchen. To say this was a wake up call would be an understatement. Cooking for a busy dining room full of paying customers is completely different from anything I’ve ever tried before. Most people there are as interested in the social aspect of it as the food. They went with friends to have a good time. Maybe they’re trying to impress a cute hipster chick. It could be a reunion with an old bicycling club. Whatever the reason, they expect you to do your job so they don’t have to think about it. Any nagging thoughts about problems with their food are a distraction and are not what they signed up for.

Transcendence can be found just about anywhere. We live in an amazing world and it’s important to open yourself up to what you see all around you. However, trying to create this from base parts (flour, salt, water, yeast, tomatoes, cheese) is a whole other story. They say practice is the most important thing. It’s clear that what you want is to get it into your muscle memory. Thinking only exacerbates the problem. You want transcendence to feel like just a part of nature.

Update: You want photos? No problem.

Categories: Nom, Pizza
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