Pizza Self Sufficiency in App Form

DIY Pizza Pie is the greatest home pizza making tool since the advent of the pizza stone. No less should be expected of Mark Bello, the big cheese at Pizza A Casa in NYC’s Lower East Side. PAC’s pizza making workshops have become legendary for their ability to transform the dough-phobic into master pizzaioli in a matter of hours using a treasure trove of tricks and hacks developed over Bello’s years of tortured existence in the land of the deep dish. His methods are extremely simple and yield incredible results. The DIY Pizza Pie app distills the juiciest moments of a Pizza A Casa pizza making workshop into an easy-to-use app that’s perfect for beginners or pizza pros.

The app opens with a menu of selections ranging from necessary pizza gear (Tools of the Trade) to common mistakes (7 Deadly Pizza Pitfalls) to necessary dissertations on sauce, cheese and dough. Each of these categories gets you to a far more detailed list of options, such as this step-by-step process for making a Pizza Margherita.

Bello keeps it simple, but there are special features on nearly every page that will take you even deeper into pizza madness with incredibly detailed videos. These aren’t your ordinary cooking show variety where you see five seconds of work and the thing is magically done. One video demonstrates how to repair a punctured dough skin by using a light box to illustrate thin sections. Another shows two simultaneous angles of a dough stretching technique that would be difficult to describe in text alone or with a single video shot. It’s brilliant in its deep understanding of what processes concern most home pizza chefs, a skill the crew at Pizza A Casa developed by instructing thousands of people in the ways of the DIY pie.

For those who have taken the class, DIY Pizza Pie is a perfect way to take Bello and his bag of tricks with you. For those who aren’t planning a trip to New York anytime soon, it’s a valuable tool for attaining independence from low-quality take-out pizza wherever you live.

DIY Pizza Pie is currently available for iPad at the App Store. Live-action public workshops run weekends from noon to 4PM at Pizza A Casa in NYC’s Lower East Side.

The World’s Largest Dough Tray Producer

The more I get into pizza making, the faster I slide down the slippery slope that accompanies obsession. First, there’s the obligatory pizza stone you purchase to simulate the direct heat conduction of a real deal pizza oven. Then there’s the pizza peel to help you slide your potential masterpiece safely and quickly onto the hot stone. Next comes the hot-rodded pizza cutter and serving trays to help with the presentation. Those are the absolute basics, but there seem to be more and more products on the market every day that aim to help the aspiring pizzaiolo creep closer to the big leagues.

Enter the DoughMate.

 

This simple box is exactly what pizzerias use to store their proofing dough. The only difference is that it’s just HALF THE SIZE — so it fits in the fridge right on top of what looks like a box of leftover pizza in the above photo. Circle of life, my friends.

I used the DoughMate a few times and did what any normal person would do - I joined their facebook group! One thing led to another and the president of the company, Michael Maddan, invited me and Mark Bello (of Pizza a Casa) to take a tour of their production facility in New Jersey. I was pretty jazzed but nothing could have prepared me for the jazziness that overtook my soul when Michael told me his exact location.

It was none other than Cranford, NJ - my hometown.

Allow me to paint a picture. Cranford is a 4.8 square mile town of about 25,000 people. To use some classic NJ terminology, it’s located off exit 137 of the Garden State Parkway. I have taken this very exit at least a hundred thousand times and can recall the journey down the off-ramp with the ease of tying my own shoes in the morning. I know the location of every pothole, the exact position of police speed traps, the best way to enter the Dairy Queen parking lot in order to architect the fastest getaway. Yet I somehow overlooked the fact that I was driving past Madan Plastics, the largest producer of pizza dough trays in the world.

Madan opened in the 1950’s as a manufacturer of injection-molded pieces for just about every industry imaginable. They only entered the dough tray biz in 1988 after receiving a request from a little company called Domino’s. They wanted a stronger box that could handle the physical demand of a high volume pizza business and Madan had the goods. Now every Domino’s pizzeria is stocked with dough trays stamped “Cranford, NJ” on the bottom (Domino’s is the sole carrier of blue dough trays as pictured above and below). The Madan box was so good that eventually other pizza franchises called with requests, but they get the gray boxes.

 

Michael Madan gave us a great tour of the facility and we learned a lot about the exciting world of injection molding. Michael is a huge pizza enthusiast so we spent quite a bit of time talking about pizza making and pizza eating. Conversation took us past the realm of pizza and we learned the fascinating fact that Michael’s grandfather Ed Madan invented the soft toilet seat. WOW!

 

I have to be honest, I had never thought much about pizza dough trays but after visiting Madan Plastics I have a new found respect for this seemingly benign aspect of the pizzaverse.

Big thanks so Michael and everyone at Madan for the factory tour. You can check out the Madan Plastics website for more info about pizzeria dough trays and mini “artisan” dough trays for home use.

Tomato Taste Test Part II

Exactly eight weeks after our crack team of pizzaphiles and tomato enthusiasts congregated in my back yard to dive into the highly-controversial world of canned fruit studies, an even larger and hungrier gang gathered for round two. The weather was colder and the group of tasters was larger, so our venue was shifted into the Lower East Side’s cozy Pizza a Casa, a pizza (and now pasta) training center and supply store. After analyzing the method used for round 1, we tweaked the process a bit.

Here’s how the test went down. I brought unlabeled cans to Pizza a Casa for Mark and Jenny to distribute into identical serving boats. Prior to delivering the goods, I marked each can with a letter (A-O). Each serving boat was marked with the letter from its corresponding can.

Tasters were each given a unique tasting order, so no sample was relegated to the first or last position. We graded sweetness, acidity, texture, color and overall flavor on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. We tasted 15 samples but one tomato appeared twice to act as a control. Any tasting sheets whose findings for these two identical tomatoes were drastically different were ignored in the final tally. Two sheets were disregarded for this reason; one additional sheet was ignored because it didn’t have data for most of the tomatoes.  This left eleven data sheets to be included in the final tally.

 

I have to admit, our roster of tasters has been really exciting for both taste tests but this round was incredible. Here’s the roll call:

Roberto Caporuscio (Keste)
JoAnne Ling (Scott’s Pizza Tours)
Brooks Jones (Me, Myself & Pie; Paulie Gee’s)
Mark + Jenny (Pizza a Casa)
Adam Kuban (Slice)
Rachel Cohn (author; tomato lover)
Louis Colluccio (Coluccio & Sons)
Megan (tomato lover)
Jason Fierman (I Dream of Pizza)
Michael Glazer (Pullino’s, Paulie Gee’s)
Michael Park (food writer)
Sara Bonisteel (food writer)
Al Santillo (Santillo’s Brick Oven Pizza, Elizabeth NJ)

I did not participate in the tasting because I already had too much interaction with the cans. The group was stacked with killer taste buds and pizza palates so I was content to let ‘er rip and wait to tally the results. It was funny to watch because everyone was so intense. These people were so focused it made me uncomfortable. I wanted to toss a whoopie cushion under somebody’s chair but I held back. Good thing too, or someone might have blogged that the tomatoes were giving them gas to save face.

The results of the test were super interesting because the two highest rated samples were both products of Canada. Crazy, I know. But it’s also heartwarming. Most probably expected the Italian tomatoes to come out on top, but that was not the case. Next time you’re in the canned tomato aisle of your local grocery store, keep your eyes peeled for Luigi Vitelli and give them a whirl. They scored highest in all five tasting categories and took home the prize for overall flavor. Way to go, Canada!

For the rest of the results of our taste test, check out the full writeup on Slice. It even has a link to the raw data so you can make your own observations. If you missed the results of Round 1, you can check those out on Slice as well.

Pizza Road Trip - New Haven, CT

Pizza nerds everywhere shiver with delight at the mere mention of the greatest pizza cities on Earth. Napoli is where it started and New York is where it transformed, but New Haven fits somewhere in between tradition and adaptation. Between 1880 and 1920, millions of Southern Italians immigrated to the industrial cities of the United States. Most of them made a bunch of money and went right back to Italy but some stayed and gave life in the US a shot. Industrial cities on the late 19th Century (NYC, New Haven, Trenton, Chicago) are now the beacons of American pizza tradition and we must celebrate their significance!

My last trip to New Haven was about 5 years ago when I was touring with my band the Bikini Carwash Company. We played a show in New Haven but the real goal was pizza. I stopped at a cool place called Modern Apizza before the show, a couple historic pizzerias called Frank Pepe’s and Sally’s Apizza in between sets, and finally we had takeout from a newish joint called Bar later that night. This pizza was GOOD! So good, in fact, that I have been plotting my return ever since. I’m ashamed that it took so long, but five years and several thousand slices later I was primed for a serious pizza road trip.

We timed our trip carefully so we would arrive at Frank Pepe on Wooster street as it opened its doors at 11:30 AM. Team Alpha (Mark and Jenny from Pizza a Casa plus me) headed up from Brooklyn and Team Beta (SPT tour guide JoAnne, her husband Peter, her father Sid) started from their home base in nearby Fairfield, CT. Even with some yucky traffic, Team Alpha made the trip in about an hour and forty-five minutes. But as we turned onto Wooster Street, all traffic was forgotten and only one thing remained: pizza. Oops, I’m sorry: Apizza. That’s right, New Haven lingo holds dear to the Neapolitan tradition of squeezing words a bit, so the pronunciation is somewhere along the lines of “ah-beetz.” Whatever.

Frank Pepe has a huge coal burning bread oven that was built by the Middleby Company, now popular for their conveyor belt air impingement ovens found in most Dominos and Pizza Hut locations. Back in the early 1900s, they were building big masonry units that required their own structures. You can see in the photo below that there’s an addition to the back of the building. That’s where the oven lives! The chimney is all the way in the back of the building. If you look really close, you can see a vertical white line in the brick to the left of the chimney under the tree where there was a second addition to incorporate more storage space onto the property.

 

We decided to keep a standard order of a large pie with mozzarella and one white pie with clams at each pizzeria. Frank Pepe allegedly started throwing clams on the pizza in the 1960’s and it became his trademark pie. Both pies were great, but the white clam pie was magical. No mozzarella, just olive oil + grated cheese (not sure exactly which but tasted like a soft Parmesan) + oregano + tons of garlic. The balance was perfect and I’m a big fan of this dense-chewy crust. New Yorkers would be into this except for the fact that instead of cutting a pie into eight big slices, it’s more like 12 skinny minnies. No problem, you’re just allowed to eat more of them!

 

We made our way chronologically, Pepe’s opened in 1925 and stop number two opened in 1934: Modern Apizza. This was a favorite on my first trip to New Haven. Unlike Pepe’s, Modern fuels their brick oven with oil. I don’t know much about these ovens, but apparently many coal ovens were converted to oil and natural gas in the early 1930’s. We ordered the two standard pies and added sliced meatball to half of the mozzarella pizza because it looked delicious on someone’s table as we walked in. It tasted as good as it looked and fulfilled all my greasy cheesy needs.

 

Our remaining two pizzerias both opened at 5 PM, so we had some time to kill. Right after a stroll around the Yale campus, we made a mad dash to Sally’s and sat down before the place packed up. Wow, what a vibe in there! The oven is very similar to Pepe’s but almost looks like it was slapped together; some exterior bricks are white and some are red. But who cares, it’s what’s inside that counts and the inside of that oven was all HOT! Judging by the way these pies were coming out all day, I’d say these ovens aren’t blazing at 850 degrees F but more around the 650 - 750 range. The crust is dark and rich, with some more burn than char at this stop. Decent clam pie but excellent mozzarella pie! Just remember to order mozzarella because a “plain” pie doesn’t come with cheese at Sally’s.

 

The scoop behind this place is fun because it was started by two brothers in 1938 who happen to be nephews of Frank Pepe down the block. Salvatore’s name made it to the facade of the building because he was old enough to hold a liquor license. Most New Haven residents align themselves with either Pepe’s or Sally’s, but there’s really no need to make that difficult choice because they have completely different strengths.

With only one stop left, the crew started losing steam. Daylight was gone and we had a major stop ahead of us that would undoubtedly have a wait. All of a sudden Mark pulled out a bottle of Fernet-Branca, a useful digestif that gave us a second wind and a renewed hunger for pizza! The stuff tastes like herb-infused paint thinner but I got used to it after a few sips. In all seriousness, thanks Mark!

This new hunger gave us enough power to order not two but THREE large pizzas at our last stop, Bar, the youngest of the day’s pizzerias at just 19 years of age. Here we go: one half mozzarella, half chicken+hot cherry peppers+bacon; one half white clam, half shrimp+bacon; and one whole mashed potato+bacon pie. It didn’t seem like a lot of bacon when we were ordering. Oh well. Hopes were high, as Mark’s students at Pizza a Casa and my customers on pizza tours had heralded the mashed potato pizza at Bar as the savior of all things pizza. It was tasty, but my favorite surprised the heck out of me. It was the chicken+hot cherry peppers+bacon pie! Well, I actually swapped out the chicken for some shrimp from the other pie but bacon and hot cherry peppers made my day. It was really something special.Unfortunately it was pretty dark so my photos aren’t worth posting, but here’s a shot of the mashed potato+bacon pie.

Not a bad way to spend a Tuesday, right? If you haven’t been to New Haven and you’re a pizza nerd, you have some homework ahead of you. But these four aren’t the only games in town. I’m planning a revisit to hit some of the lesser known spots so let me know what I’m missing and I’ll add it to the list. I really love the rich culture of pizza in Connecticut and it’s great to see so much variety and experimentation happening within the context of this historic pizza locale. Have a slice day!

This Month’s Pizza Magazines

In the Septmeber issue of PMQ’s Pizza Magazine:

1. There’s a clip about May’s Slice Out Hunger event, in which we helped raise $1600 in just to hours to benefit City Harvest, NYC’s premier food rescue organization! (page 14)
http://pmq.com/digital/201009/

2. I wrote a feature about NYC’s Pizza a Casa, your one stop shop for home pizza making supplies! (page 42)
http://pmq.com/digital/201009/

In the September issue of Pizza Today:

1. Interesting article about what food critics are looking for during a restaurant visit, written by the Chicago Sun-Times’s Pat Bruno. (page 22)
http://pizzatoday.com/imags/piz1009/pageflip.html

2. Editor-in-Chief Jeremy White put together a fun timeline of pizza history. (page 44)
http://pizzatoday.com/imags/piz1009/pageflip.html

Say Cheese!

So I’ve noticed a pattern with myself lately. After reading a couple books about tomatoes, I ordered some seeds online and planted a tomato garden in my backyard. Then I read some books about oven construction and thermodynamics only to readjust the heat strategy in my home oven (I’ll explain that in a future post). Well last week I was trying to figure out what book to read (just finished Jane Ziegelman’s 97 Orchard: An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families) when something magical happened. Immortal Milk by Eric LeMay arrived in my mailbox to answer my pizza-related reading needs.

Eric was on a pizza tour last month but he kept silent during all of our discussions about cheese. He’s an incredibly smart guy to keep his true identity a secret because I would have assaulted him with questions for the bulk of the tour had I known. Instead, he waited until the conclusion of the tour before he casually mentioned “I had a really great time. Oh, and I just wrote a book about cheese. I’ll have to send it to you.” And send it he did.

I have a few cheese guides and books about cheese history but Immortal Milk falls into an entirely different category. It’s a memoir of personal discovery through cheese. Eric begins the book with a comparison of the words “expert” and “enthusiast.” I was sold from the start because, like Eric, I am lulled to sleep by experts who merely site facts and figures without mention of context or personal involvement. His book chronicles trips to cheese shops around the globe in search of significant cheeses.

The book weaves travel stories with in-depth research about all things cheese - including a terrific chapter about why we call things “cheesy.” Eric’s humor is right up my alley, so I had a lot of fun reading his milky musings. He also brings in the experiences of his travel partner and wife “Chuck,” whose final chapter recommends pairings that compliment particular types of cheese discussed throughout the book.

Two amazing things happened after I read Immortal Milk. First, I found myself in Choice Greene, an incredible specialty food shop in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. They have a great selection of cured meats and quality cheeses, so I poked around and found a couple cheeses I had never tried before but were mentioned throughout the book. I finally tasted Comte, a French cow’s milk cheese that carries AOC protection (same thing as Italy’s DOP certification). It’s so creamy and mild, I’m surprised I haven’t tasted this on a pizza. Comte has an extremely versatile flavor, although not incredibly exciting on its own. I bet it would be nice on a pie with pear and walnuts! Choice Greene also has Parmigiano Reggiano and fresh mozzarella if you’re looking for standard pizza fare.

The second incredible cheese discovery happened at Pizza A Casa, the Lower East Side’s incredible pizza school. Owner Mark Bello had recently returned from the Fancy Food Show at the Javits Center and he was showing me some mozzarella making kits he found at one of the booths. This is exactly what I was looking for, as Eric’s book made my brain-gears spin into motion about how cheeses all start out as milk but end up as any one of thousands of flavors. So I took the mozz kit home and went to work.

The kit has everything you need to make fresh mozzarella except for a gallon of milk and the entire process takes only 45 minutes. I learned a lot by making a batch of cheese but it made me think about how many simple homemade foods have become gourmet rarities. Mozzarella is a cheese intended for home preparation and home consumption, so it only shows how the tables have turned when this simple process becomes a novelty.

Visit Pizza A Casa for your own mozzarella making kit or for classes on home pizza making.

I was fortunate enough to attend a preview class at Pizza A Casa, New York’s first “Pizza Self-Sufficiency Center.” Owner Mark Bello taught us how to make pizza using simple ingredients and a standard home oven. This video captures the end of the evening, when we used our skills to make our own pies and dance like crazies.

Pizza A Casa
371 Grand Street
New York, NY 10002-3951
Info and sign-up sheet at www.pizzaacasa.com