John Arena Makes a Pizza…and Heats Things Up
John Arena makes a pizza with the ease of someone tying their shoe. He can teach, talk, toss and transform a few simple ingredients into something other-worldly to eat, in about the time it’s takes you to read these first few paragraphs.
At the drop of a hat, he’ll also tell you all about extended dough fermentation*, and how you can detect quality in the practice of pizza professionals by the bubbles on the cooked crust. (Long fermentation of the sourdough = bubbly crust = crispy/soft/yeasty/tang to the bite.)
He’s also one of our great restaurant philosophers on the theory and practice of successful operations — especially as concerns whether a place needs to grow and change with the times, or stick to doing a few things well. (He is more in the latter camp, while ELV swings both ways, depending on how the economic winds are blowing.) More young whippersnappers should pay attention to his advice and his operation — still going strong for over thirty years.
Arena, like Pizza Bianco’s Chris Bianco (and many others) thinks the type of oven isn’t as important as the care and feeding of what goes into it. Here is a recent essay of his for www.pizzaquest.com on the importance (or not) of your heat source for baking your pies. In his opinion, it all comes down to different strokes for different pizzaiolos:
HEATING THINGS UP
By John Arena
Lately, like many of us across the country I’ve been thinking about heat. Now, I’m no stranger to intense heat. I’ve been working in front of a pizza oven for over 40 years and I live in Las Vegas where one day last week the temperature topped out at 119 degrees. So, let’s just say heat is a big part of my life.
As pizza makers and bread bakers, we all know that along with time, temperature is one of the most important elements of our craft. From the very beginning of the pizza making process we agonize over water temperature, friction factors and conditions during the various stages of fermentation. Next we start experimenting with proper temperature of our dough prior to extending, which gives us another point we can debate endlessly. All of this is just a prologue to the main event…oven temperature. For many pizza makers getting that oven hot enough is the Holy Grail in their personal pizza quest.
Sure we all seek out great ingredients, and closely watch the hand techniques of masters like Chris Bianco. If we are really serious, some of us will make the trip to Southern Italy so we can observe legendary pizza makers such as Antonio Starita work his magic on the marble table. We are diligent about replicating every detail, only to find that our efforts fall short. Often the explanation is “I just couldn’t get my oven hot enough”. Most of us, amateur and professional alike, just can’t seem to capture that true moment of magic that seems to emerge so effortlessly from the oven of Paulie G’s in Brooklyn or Tony Gemignani’s great pizzeria in San Francisco.
So, how hot is hot enough? At the low end some of the classic Chicago pizzerias set their ovens in the 450 degree range which gives them the flexibility to make both deep-dish and thin crust pies. For years most New York style pizzerias set their ovens at 525-575. Dominic Demarco, of Difara’s cranks his Bakers Pride ovens up as hot as they go, to somewhere around 600 degrees. Roman style pizza makers swear by electric ovens that are set at 700. The wood fire advocates shoot for 900 degrees and the coal fire devotees swear that you must get your oven up over 1000 for a proper bake. Famously some amateur pizza makers have disabled the safety mechanisms for the cleaning mode of their home ovens in the quest for more heat.
All of this ignores what should be an obvious truth: As with all things pizza related there is more going on than just the technical aspects when seeking a desired result. In his extraordinary book The Bread Bakers Apprentice our own Peter Reinhardt stated “If making bread was simply clinical, bread would not have such a powerful influence on our lives”. I must add that this is particularly true of pizza as one of the world’s great collaborative foods.
This brings me to my real point. Last week I made a brief trip to New York City and visited 12 pizzerias in 18 hours. Many of these places are celebrated landmarks. Several of these restaurants are owned by internationally famous pizza makers. More than one of them touted the temperature of their ovens as a marketing point. Interestingly, virtually none of them were running their ovens as hot as they advertised. In fact, one very well respected friend of mine admitted to me that he had recently improved his pizza by lowering the temperature of his oven by nearly 100 degrees. On this trip I experience nearly every major style of pizza making and realized something that I think is very important: The enjoyment of a pizza has less to do with the heat of the oven and more to do with the warmth of the pizzeria experience.
For a pizza or a pizzeria to approach greatness the entire experience must tell us something about the person or people who created it. This simple fact became obvious to me after I left a cavernous (and empty) pizzeria in Greenwich Village and walked into a tiny bustling place called Slice on Hudson Street. Slice offers health conscious New Yorkers a sustainable, socially conscious pizza option. It is certainly not any ones idea of a typical New York pizzeria, and Miki Agrawal, the young woman who created the place is not the typical New York pizzeria owner, but that’s not important. What makes Slice special is that it is a unique expression of the personality and values of the owner. Just as the spirit of Antonio Pero haunts Totonno’s in Coney Island, the essence of what Miki is all about permeates her pizzeria. Think about it. Nearly every pizzeria that we love tells us all we need to know about its founder. Every memorable pizza we have ever eaten speaks volumes about the person who made it.
Thin crust, Chicago style, VPN approved, none of that really matters to me. Any of these methods can provide a great or a dismal experience. I don’t care how hot your oven is, the real issue is how much warmth you have in your heart. When your pizza quest results in an expression of how you feel about the people you are cooking for you are on your way to pizza greatness. Sure we need to know the proper temperature to achieve a desired result. But as Peter said “the mythic and the romantic” can truly bring us joy. In the end warmth is much more important than heat.
ELV note: Metro Pizza’s “Mulberry Street” a fried eggplant parm pie with herbed ricotta was recently named one of America’s best pizzas by Food Network magazine.
4001 South Decatur Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89146
* Arena’s philosophy/technique of proper dough fermentation is as follows (much of what he says echos things told to us in the past by Carlos Pereira of Bon Breads):
As with all things pizza there are many answers depending on the desired result and personal preference. That being said, I prefer longer fermentation and science backs me up.
When we ferment dough for bread or pizza we are trying to accomplish several things. First we are creating carbon dioxide which makes the dough rise giving it a pleasing crumb structure. This can be accomplished quickly by using warm water, adding sugar or high levels of yeast. Of course what we are really after is not just rise but also flavor… and that takes time.. Every great pizza maker in Italy and most in the US including Roberto Caporuccio of Keste and Anthony Mangieri of Una Pizza Napolitana use long fermentation. This is supported by all of the famous artisan bread bakers including my friend Peter Reinhart.
While I am a huge fan of Chris Bianco, the fact is his dough would have even more flavor if it were given additional fermentation time. In Italy they now go as long as 96 hours. My dough is given a minimum of 36 hours. The key to this is using cold water, no sugar, and a tiny amount of yeast. We use 4 ounces of yeast for 80 pounds of dough.
Slow fermentation allows not only the conversion of sugars to alcohol but also increases the levels of flavorful amino acids that add complexity to the dough. In the old days before we had the temperature control to allow for slow fermentation, pizza makers (and bakers) would save old dough and add it to their fresh batches much like using a biga or starter. In the modern era we now use slow fermentation in a cooler or a cold room to achieve the same depth of flavor. Science tells us that those flavor components can only develop over time, (at least 24 hours) so when a pizzeria advertises that they use “dough made fresh daily” it is much like saying “wine made fresh daily” It takes time to develop the doughs full potential. The plain truth is longer fermentation will produce measurable increases in the levels of the components that add flavor to your dough.
In Italy they also claim that slowly risen dough is more digestible. I am not ready to stand behind that as some of it seems like a ploy to serve the Italian preoccupation with digestion.
I hope this helps, and believe me I mean no disrespect to Chris. He follows his own inner voice. I can only say that science, recent trends, baking experts and my own experience call for fermentation of a minimum of 24 hours