It has been exactly three years since I ran my first official pizza tour on the big yellow school bus (April 27, 2008). So much has happened over the past three years and I just wanted to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has ever been involved in any way.
Thanks to all the people who have taken tours (there are almost 10,000 of you out there!); thanks to all the pizza lovers who have emailed me with suggestions; thanks to all the editors and journalists who have written about SPT; thanks to PMQ and Pizza Today for welcoming me and SPT into the national pizza community; thanks to Tony Muia from A Slice of Brooklyn for helping me get started; thanks to anyone who has ever reviewed us on TripAdvisor, Yelp, Zerve or told a friend about our tours; thanks to all my fellow pizza enthusiasts and bloggers who have hipped me to new spots, shared slices with me, even taken pizza trips with me; thanks to my family for not having me committed when I quite a steady job with benefits. Most importantly, I want to thank all the pizzerias who have been so warm and welcoming to our groups. We only do what we do because they are too busy selling pizza to tell their own stories.
Thank you all for supporting SPT these past three years. We look forward to sharing more slices with you as we continue our journey through the ever-changing NYC pizza landscape.
I’m not into writing restaurant reviews, but when pizzerias sign up for culinary competitions I am more than willing to be on the eating end of their slices. I’m proud to have judged at several national and international competitions over the last few years but last month I tackled my most challenging competition yet. The International Pizza Expo in Las Vegas splits its culinary competition into two divisions: Traditional (basic crust, cheese blend, tomato sauce, two toppings) and Non-Traditional (no holds barred). Each round of judging consists of twelve different entries. I was enlisted for two rounds for each division, totaling 48 different slices.
But how does one accurately judge a pizza competition?
#1 Bring Palate Cleansers A few years ago, I brought a small container of coffee beans to a competition. I thought I could clear my senses by taking a whiff between slices but it didn’t do quite the job I had hoped it would. This time around, I showed up with two simple tools: a lemon and a bottle of Pellegrino. Lemon rind is a great palate cleanser. Just pick off a small piece and chew on it between slices. You need a beverage to help keep opposing slice flavors from converging and Pellegrino is perfect because of its bright carbonation, which wakens the palate without coating it in new flavors. A squirt of juice from your lemon will also help the Pellegrino preserve your taste buds for their important duties.
#2 Take Photos Documentation is extremely important because it’s really hard to maintain context over the course of one round in the competition. After completing a round, we always flipped through the visuals to make sure our grading held up from slice #1 to slice #12.
#3 Don’t Eat Too Much My mantra is “A bite of the tip, a bite of the lip.” This lets you experience all aspects of the pizza’s landscape without having to wade through several identical mouthfuls. It’s easy to overeat at the beginning of a round, but resistance is necessary for the good of the competition. Yes, lots of good pizza will end up in the garbage but that’s the harsh reality of pizza competitions.
#4 Free Your Mind Just because you don’t like Sicilian pizza, it doesn’t mean you get to disqualify all square entries. Ask yourself, “Did this pizza achieve the pizzaiolo’s goal?” Even if the slice is far from what you’d consider ordering, enjoy it for what it is within the context of the competition.
#5 Go With Your Heart It’s easy get get overly analytical when sitting at the judge’s table with nothing but a grading sheet, a pencil and a slice of pizza. But don’t forget that at the end of the day, pizza is about having fun and enjoying yourself. Take a step back from the slice and remember that there’s a lot about pizza that cannot be scored on a scale of 1 to 10. You can take non-scored elements into consideration at the end of the judging round by making sure your true feelings about a slice are reflected in its overall score.
Buckle up everybody, I’m growing tomatoes again. Last year’s roller coaster of emotions was so intense, I just can’t keep myself away from the constant battle between man and nature that comes with growing tomatoes in an empty Brooklyn backyard. If tomato season 2k10 taught me how to swim, this year will take me into the deep end.
The adventure started on my trip to Italy earlier this year. I planned some dangerous operations, all of which would potentially result in the testing of some popular tomato mythology. Everything worked out according to plan and now I have some tricks up my sleeve for this year’s tomato season.
Trick #1 - The Seed I started last year’s experiment by ordering seeds from a reputable company based in California. They were great and the seeds sprouted beautifully, but I craved more mystery. BINGO! I found a tomato on the tracks of the train station in Capua after spending the day on a buffalo farm.
Our friend/guide Nino was excited to see the tomato and told me that this was “an authentic San Marzano tomato.” There are a couple problems with this proclamation, mainly the fact that January is about as far from tomato season as you can get. If I found the tomato in August, I would be far less skeptical. Then there’s the sad truth that the San Marzano variety has been cross-bred so much that there remains no such thing as an “authentic” specimen. And any picture I’ve seen of an “authentic” San Marzano tomato looks pretty different from this one. But the fact remained that these lovely Italian tomatoes were about to become rail-kill if I didn’t intervene.
The least I could do was gut my precious cargo and dry out the seeds. This occurred a few days later in the kitchen of a bed and breakfast in Palermo.
Trick #2 - The Soil Every pizza enthusiast knows the refrain Italian tomatoes are fantastic because they are grown in the rich volcanic soil around Mt Vesuvius. Well I have never been much of a fan of that tune and I fell even harder off the bandwagon after our tomato taste tests last year. The Italian samples scored much lower than those from California and Canada. There are a few good explanations for the discrepancy, such as our tasters’ inherent preference for familiar products and the possibility that some cans marked as being from Italy may have been filled with lies rather than rich and tasty pomodori. Regardless, I wanted to do my best to simulate the fertile soil surrounding the stunning and stoic Vesuvio.
That’s why I took a ride 1000 meters up the slopes of Mt Vesuvius and grabbed a handful of soil.
Yeah, I know. I grabbed mostly rocks and chunks of hardened volcanic debris. But let’s be honest with each other — my experiment will not be the most scientific endeavor imaginable. I spent some time lining my pocket with a plastic bag to contain whatever I managed to scoop, but the operation was complicated by the gang of van drivers watching my every move. But it all worked out and I escorted my bits of sacred volcanic ash back to Brooklyn.
When time came to plant my salvaged seeds, I sprinkled a bit of the finest debris atop some of my lightly packed tomato nests. Of course I didn’t grab any actual soil and there surely isn’t enough to run a comparison, but if a dusting of Vesuvian dust results in crazy-amazing tomatoes I will certainly be the last one laughing.
#3 - The Defense I had some major issues last year with unwanted guests chomping down on my sweet red beauties so this season I’m upping my game with a jug of wolf urine. Thank you, Internet! That’s right, the Information Superhighway seems to have sources for all sorts of animal urine off every exit. Apparently vicious tomato-killing critters are not cool with hanging out in backyards that get whizzed in by wolves [Wait, am I?]. I’m not sure Brooklyn vermin have ever seen or even know that they should fear wolves, but I’m willing to take the chance.
I’m pretty excited about this year’s batch! Hopefully everything will work out and I can can some ripe beauties for winter use. Let’s just hope I don’t end up with a backyard that smells like Wolf wee-wee and rotten tomatoes.
If you’re a pizza maniac planning your first trip to Italy, there are a few things you should know before hitting its winding streets and alleys in search of the perfect pie. Pizza begins in Naples, so don’t assume that Rome or Florence are going to deliver ancient slices. These cities are packed with deliciousness, but if remnants of pizza’s past are what you’re after, you’ll need to check out these must-see (and must-eat) pizza landmarks.
Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba Via Port’Alba, 18 Open noon - 4; 7pm - 1am CLOSED WEDNESDAY
No Neapolitan vacation is complete without at stop at the world’s oldest pizzeria. Port’Alba sold street foods back in the 1730’s but became a pizzeria by adding tables and chairs to its current location in 1830. The pizzeria is located along a street called Port’Alba. If you’re heading west along Via Tribunali (the main concourse of pizzatown), you’ll find it just after passing through an arched passageway. The building and pizza ovens have most certainly changed, but you can’t deny the magic of dining in the same space as the world’s earliest pizza eaters.
Pizzeria Brandi Salita Sant’Anna di Palazzo, 2 Open 12 - 3pm; 6:30 - midnight CLOSED MONDAY
The spread of pizza throughout Italy can be traced back to the name Margherita. Queen Margherita, wife of King Umberto I (of Savoy), famously enjoyed a pizza featuring crushed tomato, fresh mozzarella and basil and was so taken by it that the pizzaiolo renamed the dish in her honor. With this new-found endorsement, the word (and recipe) of pizza spread throughout the peninsula. Although it is unlikely that he created the dish, master pizzaiolo Raffaelle Esposito’s fame grew alongside that of the pizza bearing the Italian queen’s name. His pizzeria is located within Naples’s Spanish Quarter and celebrates itself as the birthplace of the Pizza Margherita in 1889 (the restaurant opened in 1780).
Pizzeria Da Michele Via Cesare Sersale, 1 Open 10am - 11pm CLOSED SUNDAY
This place was super busy long before Julia Roberts ate pizza here in the film Eat, Pray, Love. The Condurro family began making pizza in 1870, but Michele Condurro opened his own pizzeria in downtown Naples in 1906. In 1930, the pizzeria moved to its current location, continuing a tradition five generations deep. Now it’s one of the city’s most popular and beloved pizzerias. The long wait for a table is offset by the extremely fast bake time of the pizza (usually around 45 seconds). It takes even less time to choose your pizza from the brief list of options; you can only choose between pizza Margherita and pizza marinara. That means it’s easy to eat your way through the menu! Just be sure to enjoy some of the history while you’re there — keep your eyes peeled for faded family photos and pizza poetry lining the walls.
Pompeii and Herculaneum Open 8:30am - sunset (last admission 1.5 hours before sunset) CLOSED Jan 1, May 1, Dec 25
While you’re in the area, be sure to take day trips to Pompeii and Herculaneum, where you’ll find the most historic brick ovens in Italy. Both cities were destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in August of 79 A.D. but their respective positions give each of the two cities unique features. Pompeii, located south of the volcano, was damaged by the eruption’s intense heat release before being covered with ash and debris. Herculaneum was more of a vacation town for the wealthy and its position near the water on the west side of the volcano was literally out of the line of fire. Since it wasn’t hit with intense heat before being buried, many of the features and artwork are extremely well preserved.
On the left is a photo of a bread oven in Pompeii. This one’s in the large house right by the main exit. There are several ovens in Pompeii because it was a large city and just about all of them were communal because it didn’t make sense to have an oven in every home. The oven on the right is the only one I could find in Herculaneum. It was hidden behind some scaffolding so I had to bend the rules to get a good look. Please don’t alert the authorities.
There’s plenty of pizza history to see in and around Naples so plan carefully and you’ll be able to pack your days with sweet sweet pizza goodness. Just be sure to leave room for gelato and sfogliatella!