In search of pizza
Jack Deatherage, Jr.
(10/2016) It started in Columbus, Ohio, in 1961. Dad brought a hand tossed pizza home, the first pizza I can remember. It had sardines on it, which fired up my appetite! Pizza was such a rarity in our house that we'd long
since moved to Pennsylvania before I recall eating another one. That one probably came from The Palms in Emmitsburg, it was likely a frozen crust pizza. The others that followed were probably frozen crusts as well from Corny's Corner or the Ott House, each satisfying my lust for pizza, though they varied in flavor and quality.
Those were American pizzas, thick crusted, loaded with sauce, cheese and meats.
Sometime in the mid 1970s, I was introduced to Italian pizza and everything changed! Luca's, a pizzeria in what was then called The International Village (over off the Old Gettysburg Road), was operated by two Italians who barely spoke English. Which worked out as "large pepperoni pizza" seemed to be all the Italian I needed to speak. They'd toss 18
inch rounds of dough so thin as to force me to use both hands to hold a slice. The pepperoni was perfect, setting a standard that no one else's cured meats have come close to. Luca's thin crust pizzas had thick, airy "handles" of crisp, tangy dough that was almost lost in the spicy, sweet, salty pepperoni. Gods, I'd lick the pepperoni oil that ran down my arms! (Luca's is
long since closed, though my memory of the place drives my search for the perfect pizza!)
Stavros' pizza was the next offering to capture my imagination. Mr. Stavros' Greek pies were nothing like Luca's, though the crust "handles" came very close. I took to patronizing Stavros on Fridays, just as his ovens were reaching the proper temperature. As Mr. Stavros seemed to enjoy my asking questions about his business and his pizza in particular,
we'd talk for as long as it took my order to finish. I allowed I'd heard he was a tightwad and forced everyone that worked for him to follow his strict instructions on how each menu item was to be prepared. He laughed and politely set me straight.
"Do you like my pepperoni pizzas?"
I allowed they were my current favorite. (He later convinced me to try a stromboli, which caused me to stop eating pizzas for several years! His stromboli set a standard no one has come close to since.)
"Would you expect them to be the same each time you ordered one?
"Then each employee must make the pizza exactly the way the first one you ate was made. That means they must stir the sauce before ladling it onto the dough. They must use only two ladles full. The same with the cheeses and the other toppings. Everything must be the same as that first pizza you ate."
Duh. Even I understood that.
Sadly, I could never get Mr. Stavros to provide the barest hint as to how he built his pizza dough. (He wasn't the first, or the last, to deny me that tidbit of information.) Sadder yet, once Stavros no longer ran the restaurant the quality of the food dropped below what I thought was acceptable and I went back to hunting the perfect pizza.
From Biglerville to Frederick, from Taneytown to Hancock I've sampled pizzas offered in many of the shops that have come and gone (gone as far as I'm concerned) during the last 45 years. Some I continue to patronize, such as No Anchovies in Taneytown, and others I've happily not darkened their doorways twice. (Continuing the sadness theme, several
excellent pizza shops have closed, Snugs in Frederick and The Red Door in Thurmont. Both made some of the finest subs I've eaten as well!) Of those shops I tend to patronize, I still try to discover the secrets of what draws me back to them. Sometimes it's the tomato sauce, sometimes the cheese, often it's the owner and the hired help. But it's never because they share hints
of their dough recipes, other than Tim at No Anchovies. He buys his dough from a dough company in Baltimore, if he's telling me the truth, which I'd not blame him for if he weren't.
Lately I've been studying Giuseppe's pizzas. Giuseppe owns Pizza Leone, a few miles west of town out on the Waynesboro Pike. I almost didn't try Pizza Leone because one of DW's clan said the food wasn't very good. Fortunately, I remembered DW's people tend to be even more limited in their tastes than I am and one of my own clan (she works in one of the
area's restaurants) said Pizza Leone wasn't bad. So I ordered a pizza. Well, I've ordered several.
Does Pizza Leone make the best pizza I've ever had? Nope. It is a pizza I've grown into however. Or perhaps I've grown enough to appreciate the pizza? What Giuseppi offers is a pizza new to me. Which provides me yet another clue as to the perfect pizza. In this case the clue is Giuseppe himself.
When I mention I'm reading a pizza book written by a West Coast bread builder, Ken Forkish, who journeyed to Italy to learn how the Romans, Milanese, Venetians and Neapolitan build their dough, Giuseppe asked what I had learned. So I began rattlin' on about higher salt ratios to slow the ferment which should take no less than 10 hours at room
temperature, and possibly as long as 24 hours! Yeast measured in fractions of a quarter teaspoon. (Counting grains of active dry yeast would be an easy way of measuring the tiny quantities needed.) Dough hydration in Italy is in the 50 to 55% range because the pizzas are being baked at temperatures over 700 Fahrenheit! (American home ovens rarely reach beyond 500F and require
a wetter dough of around 65% hydration to sustain longer baking times in the cooler ovens.)
Everything I was mentioning got a nod of agreement from Giuseppe. When I reached the flour the Italian pizzerias use, a "00" from a company in Naples, Giuseppe exclaimed, "That's the flour I use. I have it imported from Naples!"
Wow! I never expected this. I've just been told what flour a professional pizzaiolo uses! And beyond that, he tells me what percentage of "00" flour he uses, though he doesn't mention which "regular" flour he mixes with it. (Some things must be discovered through one's own efforts. Besides, Giuseppe's recipe wouldn't work in my home oven. His brick
oven gets much hotter!)
I'm nearly swooning from the kitchen heat (though it may well be from suddenly gaining knowledge about pizza building from a pro) when Giuseppe offers to sell me some of the "00" flour at his cost! That snaps me awake! I can buy a 5-pound bag of "00" flour from the same company he gets his flour from for just about the same price he'd sell me a
And the search for a perfect pizza moves an unexpected step forward!
Read other articles by Jack Deatherage, Jr.