Next up, the hip-pizza
20 February, 2013
Now an old-fashioned fast food like the burger has become hipster cool, says Alec Howard, then the turn of the humble pizza for a groovy makeover cannot be very far away
If the reinvention of the burger is the latest hot urban trend, the next category for an achingly hip makeover looks like being pizza.
The likes of Dalston, Shoreditch and numerous railway arches across the country will soon see a proliferation of pop-ups, street stalls and wagons, all extolling the virtues of their particular take on better pizza. The only surprising thing, perhaps is that it has taken so long. Pizza is, after all, one of the best-loved and most addictively delicious of comfort foods, with a history that pre-dates burgers by a couple of millennia.
Early in Planet Food we ran a US pizza safari, covering 40 restaurants in six days, which was followed up by a subsequent trip to Naples. Both Naples and New York take their pizzas very seriously indeed and while their approach is different, crisp versus softer, they have developed armies of fanatics who will, as we did, queue for hours. Most memorable of all was Di Fara in deepest Brooklyn, which has been doing its take on pizza pie since 1964, and was most definitely worth the 90-minute wait.
Our foodie instincts, driven in part by a long-term relationship with one of the best-known pizza operators, caused us to look deeply into what makes a truly outstanding pizza. As with our work on burgers, we are always seeking out a recipe or technique that will deliver memorable ultra-taste: what we call “addictively delicious”. We will break the rules, side-step convention and often anger the traditionalist in our quest to understand how to make a recipe really stand out. We only care about the same thing as the customer: flavour.
Pizza is one of the greatest products of all to work with: when handled correctly the combination of salty, savoury, cheesy, crusty umami deliciousness is utterly addictive. Get it wrong however and the resulting soggy, bland, flaccid mess will be, and all too often is, anything but delicious.
There are only three things to worry about in the execution of better pizza. First is the dough, the foundation of every great pizza. Each pizza specialist will have their own jealously guarded recipe, with a specific grade of flour and, in some cases, even imported spring water. The recipe is, of course, important but in truth only up to a point: how the dough is handled, stored, proved and stretched really makes the difference. We have seen too many examples of hand-made artisan recipes ruined through poor kitchen practices, and as many examples of great-tasting pizza that started with frozen bought-in dough. It’s what you do with it that counts, so much more than what is in it.
Second is the topping. If there is any dish that is more dramatically affected by the quality, or more accurately, the taste of the ingredients than pizza, I have yet to find it. Soggy frozen vegetables, bland cheese or dry meats will not miraculously transform in the oven, ever. Always go for big flavours, fewer combinations and the best quality you can afford, and the result will not disappoint. The much feted Chris Bianco has a signature Rosa pizza made with parmesan, red onion, rosemary and pistachio that is sensational. In the case of better pizza, less is always more.
Finally and perhaps most controversially, there is the oven or, more accurately how you cook your pizza. While a wood oven is definitely hipper, and far more experiential, it does NOT necessarily equal better pizza. At Di Fara, a distinctly unglamorous electric pizza deck has served them well for nearly 50 years. What matters is not the deck but how well you cook with it and at what temperature.
We have our own views on whether to go ultra-high temperature and shorter cook times, as favoured by the Neapolitan traditionalist, or slightly lower and longer, as is more common in the US. What is undisputed, however is that more char, what the New York Times calls “slightly shy of burnt”, always equals bigger taste. While I accept that the pizza served in some of New York’s edgier pizzerias would be seen as burnt by the average UK customer, it is all about degrees, in both senses of the word. Far too many operators routinely under-cook their pizzas, failing to appreciate the impact this has on the experience and, more importantly, the flavour.
If the commentators are right about the “better pizza” trend and saying that the sector is due for a makeover, then I look forward to debating the best recipe for years to come.
Alec Howard is managing director of PlanetFood. See www.planet-food.com.