2011 September: PIZZA A MODEL OF DIVERSITY

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2011 marks the 150th anniversary of Italian unification. As anyone who has ever driven a car in Naples can tell you, it has taken a while for reality to catch up with Giuseppe Garibaldi’s noble vision.

The fact is that Italy has always been a land of individualism — and this is particularly true of culinary traditions. Every region (every village, in fact) seems to have its own hotly debated and fiercely protected cooking styles and dishes. Is it any wonder that this trait was continued and expanded when the first pizza makers immigrated to the new world? In truth, it can be said that the only hard and fast rule in pizza making is that every pizzaiolo is convinced their way is the best.

When my cousin, Sam Facchini, and I moved to Las Vegas to open our first pizzeria in 1980, we had a world view that was typical of Brooklyn born pizza-makers of that time: New York was the culinary center of America, and any variation other than New York style pizza was irrelevant. With this in mind we named our first business “The Original New York Pizza.” Imagine our surprise when the first customer walked in to our shop and asked for “a thin pizza with no edge, cut in squares” and proclaimed that, as a Chicago native, he knew that this was “the way a pizza is supposed to be.” This guest was immediately followed by a customer who requested a thick-crust pizza with a rolled edge and a side of honey to dip the crust in, “you know…the way they do it in Colorado.” We quickly realized that our plan to provide New York style pizza to “deprived” Las Vegans needed a revision. People were moving to Las Vegas from all over the world, and it became obvious that just as in the old country, everyone had very strong opinions and sentimental attractions to their local pie. In response, we changed our business name to Metro Pizza and began modifying our menu to reflect the unique demographics of our city and our commitment to offering our guests a slice of home — wherever home might be.

Over time we became adept at recognizing a guests’ place of origin by what they ordered. If a guest asked for “ah-beetz with clams,” we knew they had a special connection to New Haven, Connecticut. Searching for “pepperoni rolls” meant the customer most likely came from West Virginia. If a patron requested “tomato pie” we would reply, “OK, will it be the Philly-style in a pan, or the Trenton, New Jersey, variation which is similar to a New York-style pizza, but with the sauce on top of the cheese?” Rather than debate the customers about which pizza was best or most “traditional” it became our mission to learn, embrace and honor the unique place that pizza holds in the hearts and memories of our customers.

As our business and our menu evolved, several factors emerged and validated our instinct to expand our pizza repertoire. For example, the most influential developments in our industry in the past few decades have been the Internet and the growing variety of cooking and travel shows on television. While in the past, our customers’ preferences were determined mostly by their childhood exposure to a local pizza variation, today’s guests are constantly reading about and seeing interesting variations that offer us incredible opportunities to expand our menu and increase our customer counts. Diversifying your pizza offerings will not only draw transplanted customers hungry for a taste of home, it will also bring in culinary adventurers and well travelled guests seeking to re-create the pizza experiences they have heard about or enjoyed elsewhere.

While champion pizza maker Tony Gemignani has chosen to offer many of the world’s most prominent pizza variations at his San Francisco-based Tony’s Pizza Napoletana and his fledgling New York-based outpost 900 Degrees, it may be best to offer only a few types based on an evaluation of your market and needs. With so many different pizza styles to choose from, how do you decide which variations are right for your pizzeria? I have found that the most important factors are equipment, service style, ingredient availability, staffing and training.

Some of the more unique pizza variations demand specific ovens and mixers to create authentic renditions. Obviously, New York-style coal-fired pizza must be baked in a coal oven. Does a Roman style pizza, which is up to a meter long and is often cut with scissors and sold by weight, have to be baked in an electric oven? Many of Chicago’s great pan pizza landmarks insist on using a rotating or revolving deck oven, yet years ago my kitchen visit to the original Pizzeria Uno revealed that they were baking outstanding pizzas in well used standard deck ovens.

It is important to consider flexibility. Your beautiful wood-burning oven may be perfect for classic Neapolitan style or even California-style pizza, but will probably be much too hot if you want to offer Sicilian-style pan pizza as well.

What about service? You may love the idea of walking up to a window in New York and ordering a thin, crispy slice of pizza like John Travolta did in the opening of Saturday Night Fever, but unless you are in an area that has the foot traffic of Brooklyn, pizza by the slice may not be right for you.

Largely, pizza variations evolved in response to social influences. While you may have a great recipe for Chicago-style deep-dish pizza, your customers may be unwilling to wait 40 minutes to get one. You must also consider the effect that offering this type of pie will have on your table turns. Many Chicago pizzerias evolved from taverns, where the objective was to keep customers in the establishment all night. Pizza makers in Naples want the pizzas to cook in 90 seconds so they can serve you and make room for the next customer. Even climate can affect the type of pizzas that will be popular: In Las Vegas, with extreme summer temperatures, we find that sales of heavier stuffed pizza will slow down while sales of lighter fare such as pizza margherita may increase. To that end, you may want to consider offering different pizza varieties on a seasonal basis. Just keep in mind that you must determine the economic goals of your pizzeria, your clientele and the limits of your facility when selecting the styles that you will offer.

Also keep in mind that different types of pizza require very specific ingredients. What you stock is going to be influenced by availability and space considerations. You may want to offer St. Louis style pizza, but unless Provel cheese (a blend of Swiss, white cheddar and provolone) is available in your area, that may not be a viable option. It is also possible that demand may not justify taking up space on your cook line or in your walk in cooler. In some cases certain ingredients may not be available because of health code restrictions. While bromated flour is the choice in New York, it is not widely available on the West Coast. That is why, over time, we have developed a basic dough that can be modified with various fermentation and shaping techniques to provide a broad range of pizza options.

As with any element of your restaurant, success is largely going to be dictated by staff training and education. Once you have determined which styles are right for you, your pizza makers and servers are going to need to be immersed in the history and rationale behind each pizza type. This can be an exciting journey that should include tastings, classes and even field trips for key employees so that they can experience the authentic pizza versions in their place of origin. Over the years we have taken dozens of employees to visit pizzerias that we admire and feel exemplify a particular pizza style. We also hold frequent tastings with long time customers who are invited to share their early pizza memories with our staff as a way of educating our employees and reinforcing the special connection people have with their hometown pies.

The pizza landscape is rapidly changing. Consumers are more adventurous and more knowledgeable. It is inevitable that more enterprising pizzamakers are going to begin offering a selection of pizza variations in order to stimulate customer interest.

Each year, International Pizza Expo brings thousands of pizza makers with diverse backgrounds to Las Vegas to showcase their talents and teach the unique methods of their specific pizza renditions. Once-hidden secrets and information about little known regional variations can now be easily accessed. By offering a variety of regional pizzas you can keep your guests and your staff engaged in the diverse world of pizza, honor our craft and keep your pizzeria vibrant, exciting and profitable.

John Arena is co-owner of Metro Pizza in Las Vegas, Nevada. He is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Nevada, where he teaches a class on the culture of pizza.