I just got back from a 10 day pizzacation in the good old American south. Here’s a round of images from Atlanta, GA.
These are two of the four pies we had at Antico, one of Atlanta’s new hotshot pizzerias. The place is loud a bustling — more an open garage than a restaurant — and everyone seemed to be having a blast. I loved the place. It felt great. You stand in line, order your pizzas and the server hunts you down by calling out your receipt number about five minutes later. Seating is open and communal, so you have to scout your spot once your order is in. It’s pretty intense.
The photo above shows the San Gennaro (sausage, red peppers and onions) and the Bianca (mozzarella, ricotta, pecorino, basil). The place bills itself as “authentic Neapolitan STG” but that’s far from true. Their pizza is more Americanized in that it’s larger and stretched with more aggression. Don’t get me wrong, I actually really dig what they’re doing but it doesn’t conform to STG standards as it so claims. Solid pizza and a really fun experience, just don’t expect a quiet evening of gentle conversation.
Next stop was Mellow Mushroom. I’ve had so many people mention this place to me I just had to check it out. There are a bunch of them scattered around the USA but most are concentrated in the southeast. It’s a real family joint — there was even a family celebrating a kid’s 3rd birthday while we were there!
The pizza was fine but nothing Earth-shattering. The crust is sweet and ripe for ample toppings. We had one that was half Maui Wowie (pesto, pineapple, ham, jerk chicken, banana peppers, Applewood smoked bacon, mozzarella) and half Magical Mystery Tour (pesto, button and Portobello mushrooms, feta and mozzarella cheeses, spinach and jalapeños). It’s kind of a mess but absolutely fine for what it was.
The two folks in the photo are Jeff and Kirstin. I met Jeff a few years ago as he was getting ready to open his own pizzeria. If you’re into pizza making, Jeff’s website is the Rosetta Stone.
The big event in Atlanta during my brief visit was finally checking out Jeff’s place - Varasano’s. I would normally go more covert when making a visit like this to get a more honest experience, but Jeff’s a friend and I had no choice but to GO BIG! I invited all Atlanta-based pizza tour alumni and about 15 came out for a tasting with Jeff. He had the kitchen make 14 different pizzas plus three desserts and everything was delicious. I wish I had better pizza photos but the lighting was low and slices were cut small so I’m not going to bother.
This photo shows Jeff presenting the final pizza of the night — a super herby Sicilian — to the crew of ready-to-explode pizza eaters. Varasano’s is located in the ground floor of a fancy apartment building. There’s even valet parking, which creeps me out at a pizzeria. The vibe is totally different from Antico and Mellow Mushroom but I enjoyed the pizza more. Jeff’s crust is just killer. He got his start by experimenting at home with dozens of flours, tomatoes, cheeses and methods. He even went so far as to clip the lock in his electric oven so he could bake pizzas in the high heat of the self-clean cycle. Please don’t try that at home.
One more thing you need to know about Jeff Varasano: he wrote a book about solving the Rubik’s Cube when he was 14 years old. You’re welcome.
My journey into one of NYC’s salvaged bakery ovens.
The subject of coal-burning ovens seems to be popping up a lot lately and I have a feeling it’s at least partially because of the recent Grimaldi’s relocation. To sum it up, Grimaldi’s recently moved up the block from its original location after lease problems with their landlord but had to leave the oven behind. Not a huge problem because all they had to do was to build another one in the new location. This sent the press and public into a tizzy because, even though I covered the history of coal-fired ovens just a few months back, people still believe the myth that they are on the endangered species list. The fact is that New York City has more coal-burning ovens than it knows what to do with.
Coal ovens come in several formats, but the oldest are the cavernous mason-built bread ovens from the turn of last century. These beasts are so massive that they were either built out into a building’s back yard or into the foundation itself, extending beyond the building’s footprint. When a bakery went out of business, it was much easier (and cheaper) to slap a wall in front of the oven than doing any kind of demolition. This means that old bakery ovens are very likely still in place, just waiting to be discovered. Here’s a quick rundown of five dormant coal-burning ovens in New York.
Everybody knows that Patsy’s has been making some of the city’s best pizza in a coal-burning oven since 1933, but not many are aware of the huge bakery oven in the basement of 2287 1st Ave. I only learned about it recently while talking to one of the owners about the history of the building. East Harlem became an Italian enclave in the early 20th century and this block was comparable to Manhattan’s Mulberry Street and the Bronx’s Arthur Ave at the time.
NYC took a photo of every building for tax assessment between 1939 and 1941. Patsy’s is indicated by the white arrow.
As indicated by the building’s tax photo (circa 1940), the restaurant with the apron-clad man outside was flanked by a cheese maker, butcher and bakery. Reverse directories that let you look up a building’s occupant by address don’t go earlier than 1929, but I have a feeling Patsy’s location was a bakery before it became a restaurant.
Beneath Patsy’s Pizzeria in East Harlem.
The adjacent Frank’s Bakery may have baked their breads in the oven beneath 2287 1st Ave for sale in their storefront one building down. This subterranean oven wouldn’t have been ideal for a pizzeria, so they shifted to a more compact unit that better suited their needs. Now the old oven sits waiting, but the building’s owners have no immediate plans to revive it.
I just found this photo I took of two identical margherita pizzas baked in different ovens at a pizzeria called 900 Degrees (RIP) in the West Village. The one on the left baked for 5 minutes and 33 seconds in a brick-lined electric deck oven, the one on the right baked for 1 minute and 24 seconds in a wood-fired brick oven.
Judging by these photos, the wood-fired pie looks way better. The lower temperature electric oven caused the fresh mozzarella to break down before the crust completely baked. You can see why pizza makers switched to low-moisture mozzarella when deck ovens became standard (besides the fact that they had a longer shelf life). The crust on the right looks more even and the cheese/sauce separation has remained intact.
But looks are only part of the picture — almost everyone on the tour that day preferred the taste of the pie on the left. BOOM!
Here’s a reallyyyyyyy early reference to pizza in the December 6, 1903 edition of the New York Tribune. It’s part of a larger article about how much Italians love hot foods (there’s a section that defines pepperoni as hot peppers rather than the later Americanized cured meat) and includes some rather controversial remnants from our lost pizza past. The article doesn’t mention a restaurant name, so it’s unclear whether this is a bakery, pizzeria or somebody’s house. What is clear is that the author directly compares Italian pizza to American pie, making it the earliest reference to pizza as a pie that I have ever seen. We use this slang in the Northeast, but people outside the area always ask me why I call pizza a pie. Here’s why!
But there’s a lot more mind-blowing info in this tiny paragraph. The article indicates a method of dough stretching that is more or less outlawed in both Naples and New York City pizzerias today: the rolling pin. In Naples, all pizza dough is extended by hand with special care taken to preserve the gases of fermentation. New York pizza makers tend to use more muscle with their dough stretching because American flour is much stronger than its European counterpart. But nobody currently making New York or Neapolitan style pizza even owns a rolling pin.
The instructions also say to roll out the dough to an inch thick. WOW, that’s not thin crust at all! Could it have been a typo? A misunderstanding? Lost in translation? Just the wrong person to interview for the article? We may never know, but what’s certain is that pizza has never been a food with strict definition — that’s what makes it so wonderful!