Pie in the Sky
My boyfriend Tim is a pizzaterian. If he had to eat pizza three or four times a week for the rest of his life, he'd have no complaints. Needless to say, I eat a lot of pizza. And make a lot of them, too. As a self-taught pizza chef, I have to say I'm pretty proud of the light, airy thin-crusted za that I'm able bust out with my own two hands.
Still, my pies can use some fine-tuning, and one of my main failures is in preparing the dough. Rather than tossing it into a perfectly round, flat disc, my technique involves stretching out the dough with two fists until it resembles a crude circle. If you were being nice, you could call it "rustic," but it's really just the result of not knowing what I'm doing. I knew that couldn't call myself a pizza-making master until I perfected the quintessential skill of a pizzaiolo - hand-tossing pizza dough.
I wanted to learn how to toss from the best, and fortunately, the best happens to be a Bay Area native who co-owns two pizza restaurants. Tony Gemignani of Tony's Pizza Napoletana in North Beach, is a nine-time world pizza champion. He's won the title both for his skills in tossing dough (what they call pizza acrobatics) and baking excellent pies. If that's not enough cred for you, he also runs the International School of Pizza, which officially certifies its graduates in various styles of pizza, following the strict regulations of the Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli in Italy. He also happens to be a really nice guy.
I contacted Tony on the morning after a break-in at Tony's. I don't know about you, but if my business just had a break-in, I'd be in no mood to teach some amateur my master craft. But Tony was friendly and seemed relatively unfazed by the bad news. He invited me to join him in his North Beach restaurant later that week, during down time between the lunch and dinner rushes, to show me how to toss a Neapolitan style pizza.
I arrived at Tony's at 3:30 p.m. on a drizzly Friday. A sweet, warm aroma of tomato sauce and freshly baked dough enveloped me. The hostess showed me to the adjacent dining room, where I'd find Tony. At the back of this room a certified Neapolitan Cirigliano wood fire oven blazed at 900 degrees - this is where the magic happens.
Tony and another pompadoured pizzaiolo were finishing up a large order for the last of the lunch crowd. Tony was wearing a red kerchief tied around his neck that reminded me of a Pamplona bull runner, and both were clad in the restaurant uniform - a t-shirt with "Respect the Craft" emblazoned on the back. I sat down at a nearby table and stared as they worked in the relatively small space together.
They had a steady, but unhurried rhythm about their movements, which was a strange juxtaposition to the feverish, clubby dance music that was quietly playing in the background. Tony assembled the pizzas, and the other chef slid each uncooked pie into the oven with a long-handled metal pizza peel that looked like an over-sized fly swatter. In no time, beautiful, steaming Neapolitan pizzas were removed from the oven and taken away to awaiting customers.
When the last order was sent out, Tony motioned for me to join him behind the counter and pulled out a palette of soft mounds of white dough that resembled large breast implants. The dough had been resting in the fridge for about 30 hours. Cold-risen dough is better to toss because it's easier to handle and properly resting the dough makes for a lighter, airier texture with better flavor. As Tony said, it lets the "yeast do its work."
Tony picked up a dough ball and threw it into a drawer full of flour to coat it on both sides. He then placed it down onto the counter and pushed on it with his fingers, using a circular rubbing motion. In no time, he had a 10-inch disc on the counter. The dough, he explained, should be big enough so that when draped over your two fists, it falls over each wrist. Next, he demonstrated the crucial movements that make pizza tossing possible.
I honestly couldn't believe that Tony trusted me behind the counter, during business hours, handling his pizza dough. I was afraid that I was about to do something that would make him regret this decision. I imagined several disastrous scenarios that I believed were bound to happen in the next moments. In one, I saw myself Frisbee the dough across the restaurant at the table of six, with me wincing and snorting like Steve Urkel - "Did I do that?" In another, I saw myself stumbling backwards while trying to catch the dough and falling into the 900-degree oven behind me.
With trepidation, I tossed up my dough, and well, what do you know? I was doing it - I was tossing and catching pizza dough!
After a few throws, Tony demonstrated the last step, to work on the edges of the dough. Once again, he placed the dough over my two fists, but this time, my fists were close together sitting near the edge, or what would be the crust of the pizza. Tony showed me how to pull my fists apart, and then back together again, while rotating the dough, until I got an evenly-stretched final product.
In the end, mine didn't look like Tony's perfectly-stretched, almost transparently thin dough, but I was still proud of myself. Like a good teacher, Tony praised me on my best tosses and patiently offered tips on how to get things more evenly-stretched. He also told me the three reasons why people toss pizza dough in the first place (no, it's not just for show):
After our lesson, I asked Tony if he sold pizza by the slice. Being around all those pies was making me hungry. About five minutes later, he placed a whole margherita pizza in front of me, which he said is best to eat within a minute of it hitting the table. That wouldn't be too difficult. The pizza was perfectly cooked: its crust was charred in spots and crispy all around, the sauce was slightly sweet and bright, the cheese was generous but not overwhelming, and the whole, fresh basil leaves were wilted but still had bite. On top of that was a splash of flavorful extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of Neapolitan sea salt. In a word, it was heavenly!
I also got to try a piece of his Sicilian deep dish pizza, as the restaurant staff was eating a family meal before the dinner crowd arrived, and that too was delicious. As we sat and ate, I listened in on the workers' conversations, and it was apparent I was surrounded by a group of people who loved pizza and probably ate a good deal of it every week. I had found Tim's people! I was able to eat a few slices and wrapped the rest up to go (not really recommended, but hey, I wasn't going to waste it!). As I rode my bike home, I was already planning my next trip out to North Beach with Tim.
If you've always dreamed of becoming a certified pizza chef, the International School of Pizza offers courses in authentic Neapolitan Style pizza, New York, Chicago, California, and New Haven Style Pizza. The school also offers classes for amateur home chefs. Or if you just want to eat some really great pizza, visit Tony's Pizza Napoletana. Both the school and pizzeria are located at 1570 Stockton. Call (415) 835-9888 or visit internationalschoolofpizza.com for more information.
Image: Jeff Kubina