Back in June, I received a call from Marissa Ross, Coordinating Producer for the Travel Channel’s popular “Food Wars” show. The program was filming a pizza showdown in the Big Apple, and the producers wanted me to serve as an expert pizza guest and a judge for the episode, which airs November 17 at 10 p.m. I was flattered and more than happy to say yes. I’ve done television work in the past and always enjoyed it. As a Theatre Arts minor, I’ve always had somewhat of an itch to be on stage. Though television is different from most dramatic stage acting, it certainly has its own challenges and provides a nice break from the day-to-day Pizza Today editorial duties. How could I turn the offer down?
In early July, I flew to New York and stayed in Times Square. It’s always nice to be in the center of a thriving city, whether it be New York or San Francisco. The pace is so much different than what I experience on a typical day in Louisville, Kentucky, where Pizza Today is based.
After getting settled in, the first thing I did was hook up with my friend Scott Weiner, who owns and operates Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York. We met up at Kesté, a highly revered Neapolitan pizzeria that is operated by a true pizza legend, Roberto Caporuscio. Roberto recognized me immediately when I walked in (we’ve met several times at International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas), and the Italian hospitality began. He was pleased to host me, and that became more and more evident as pizza after pizza made its way to my table. Scott and I went through much of the Kesté menu, including a special lard pie that harkens back to the purest of early pizzas. It was more or less a historical and contemporary gastronomical tour rolled into one. I can’t wait to go back to Bleecker Street for round two, which Roberto promised as Scott and I exited his restaurant late into the New York night.
Speaking of Bleecker Street, I’d been informed before heading to New York that the “Food Wars” episode would pit John’s of Bleecker against Grimaldi’s Pizzeria. I knew I was in for a really difficult decision when it came time to vote in front of the Travel Channel cameras. You see, I’ve been to each of these spots dozens of times and hold them in very high regard. I’ve never had anything close to a sub-par pizza from either of these shops. In fact, when I take friends around New York to sample pizza, there are five or six iconic establishments I never miss. John’s and Grimaldi’s are among them.
The producers wanted to start at John’s and then work our way to Grimaldi’s later in the filming. When I arrived, I was greeted on the sidewalk by the director and his assistant. I was told it would be a while and to make myself comfortable. In the meantime, I had the pleasure of meeting my co-judge, Mark Bello of Pizza a Casa, a pizza cooking school located in New York’s Chinatown. Though I’d heard of Mark and knew about his pizza expertise, I had never met him until arriving on the “Food Wars” set. We share a lot of common interests and became fast friends. In fact, later that night, after a day of stuffing ourselves with John’s and Grimaldi’s pizzas, I went to Pizza a Casa for a late-night crash course with Mark and the aforementioned Scott Weiner. Mark fi red up his oven and began to show us how he teaches his pizzamaking class (which is geared for home cooks). We listened to great music and had some beer as we developed dough and made thin-crust beauties in several varieties. I was two-for-two when it came to my NYC “down time.”
Anyway, let’s get back to the filming set. I was put into makeup as about 50 production crew members set up cameras, lights, umbrellas, audio equipment, etc. “Food Wars” host Camille Ford dropped by to say hello, and we, too, hit it off. Just like with Bello, I quickly discovered that Camille and I have a lot in common. We talked first about food, then about our love of working out.
When the set was ready, Mark, Camille and I were all seated in a booth at John’s of Bleecker Street. Camille made her introduction for the camera, then we were off. She introduced the judges and asked us a little about what we look for in a New York pizza. From there, it was time to eat!
A fresh John’s pizza was placed before us and it was our duty to taste and critique it. I found few flaws with it. To me, the first critical step to a great pizza is getting the dough right. So I quickly tore into the crust to dissect it. No, I don’t eat pizza in this sloppy fashion, but I do find it particularly helpful if I’m judging.
This strategy amused the host and director, who asked me about my “pizza autopsy.” So I explained to them what I was looking for (internal crumb structure, as Dough Doctor Tom Lehmann calls it) and why I chose to tear my pizza open during the tasting.
Unfortunately, filming a show doesn’t go as quickly or easily as one might expect when they watch a 30-minute episode on television. It takes a few 12-hour days to yield that half hour of footage, so we were in it for the long haul. Television, as the director put it, is “hurry up and wait.” It’s also somewhat of a lie. When you watch the episode, there are times you may see a close up of me nodding or listening to Mike Frank of John’s or Gina Peluso of Grimaldi’s. In reality, I conversed with them on camera very little. Much of that “nodding and listening” happened artificially — I stared at a wall behind an empty chair and provided that animation on the director’s cue.
At any rate, after enjoying many very good pies from John’s, we had a 90-minute break. I spent that down time with Mark, Camille and Marissa (the Coordinating Producer) in a coffee shop. We just hung out and talked about all kinds of things ranging from our college experiences to our favorite sports teams to television production. Of course, we talked a lot about pizza — but not what we thought about the pies from John’s. Discussing John’s or Grimaldi’s with one another was strictly off-limits. The producers didn’t want us to inadvertently sway one another with our thoughts or comments.
We arrived at Grimaldi’s and it was somewhat of a circus act. At John’s, you see, we’d been on a closed set. When we arrived, the pizzeria wasn’t yet open for business. It has two dining rooms divided by a wall, so the production company set up in the smaller of the two. Even after John’s opened for business, we weren’t bothered and didn’t have an audience thanks to the partitioned, split floor plan.
Grimaldi’s, on the other hand, was very much open when we arrived. It was about 3 p.m. and a long line stretched down the sidewalk. As people waited to get into the tiny dining room, the production crew carried its mounds of equipment in and set up. Camille, Mark and I chatted with some waiting customers and posed with a few for pictures.
When the director was ready, we took our places in the center of a packed house at Grimaldi’s. The staff kept working away in the open kitchen behind us as customers came and went. I feel sorry for the folks waiting outside to get in — we were taking up tons of room and most of the customers inside stuck around well after their pizza was gone to watch us film. It was somewhat surreal. Not only were the cameras and the eyes of the crew on us, but the eyes of dozens of customers — locals and tourists alike — hung on our every words.
Just like at John’s, we were presented a pizza from Grimaldi’s to taste and critique. Again, I found few flaws. I knew after my first slice at Grimaldi’s that picking a winner was going to be more difficult than I first imagined.
Luckily for me, I devised a weighted scoring system of my own before leaving for New York. In the event that there wasn’t an overwhelming favorite after tasting both pies, I knew I could fall back on my scoring system to pick a winner.
As it turns out, that’s exactly what I had to do. In my system, the most critical elements, such as the sauce, for example, are given more importance than, say, the herbs. When I went through my calculations, it could not have been any closer — one pizzeria scored a half-point higher than the other. Wow.
We finished filming at a park in Brooklyn. The beautiful location provided unobstructed and world-class views of the Manhattan skyline and the Brooklyn Bridge. It was an ideal spot to wrap the show.
A crowd gathered around us as supporters of both John’s and Grimaldi’s showed up to cheer for their favorite pizzeria. When crunch time came, the judges were given “Food Wars” cards and asked to write down the name of the pizzeria for which we were voting. Not easy to do when both pizzeria managers are standing next to you, but it was a job I gladly accepted, I had to remind myself.
The three of us wrote down our votes and were instructed by the director to keep them to ourselves. Camille then asked both me and Mark to talk about the two pizzerias and discuss why we picked the one we chose — without giving our votes away.
Finally, it was time to reveal our votes. I went first, followed by Mark. He and I disagreed on the winner, which meant Camille, as the show host, had to break the tie. The air was filled with anticipation as she flipped her card over to reveal the winner of “Food Wars” in New York. To find out which pizzeria won — and see yours truly in action — watch the “Food Wars” episode on New York pizza Wednesday, November 17 at 10 p.m. on the Travel Channel.
In the meantime, the photos accompanying this article provide a brief glimpse of my time on the “Food Wars” set. ?
Jeremy White is Editor-in-Chief of Pizza Today.