Pizza as Self Expression

by John Arena, Metro Pizza

Blog post courtesy of Pizza Quest with Peter Reinhart

John ArenaLately I’ve been thinking about pizza as a form of self expression.

On a recent holiday shopping expedition I found myself fascinated by what are called Fine Art Galleries in the mall. I’m sure you’ve seen them, places that sell the mass-produced work of a particular “artist” who seems to be capable of turning out thousands of paintings at an alarming rate, each new one eerily similar to the last. Well, just as I was about to turn my nose up at this array of McArtwork, I looked across the aisle and noticed a food court that housed the standard chain outlets including, of course, pizza. There, on an illuminated display I spied a huge number of mass-produced pizzas, each new one eerily similar to the last. I realized that in pizza, just as in fine art, there are different goals that can tell us quite a bit about the maker, and the consumer as well.  Trying (with little success) not to make any value judgments, I’ve identified three distinct types of pizza-makers.

The first types are what we might call CPA’s: Certified Pizza Assemblers. The CPA has been carefully trained to mass produce identical pizzas according to a template that is designed with one goal, profit. Don’t get me wrong, an assembler may be highly skilled in the mechanics of cranking out a huge quantity of pizzas. However, the pies themselves must conform to a corporate ideal. In no way should the individual hand of the pizza-maker show through in the finished product. In many cases the CPA’s will have only a rudimentary understanding of the true nature of the ingredients, equipment, and techniques that they are using. In truth, the pizza assembler is sort of making pies phonetically. The end result may appear correct, but it lacks meaning. I have to admit I get a bit depressed when I see those sad Stepford Pies lined up on display, each one denied any personal connection to its maker. Most of the pizza-makers at your local chain pizza shop are CPA’s, and many pizza makers at independent pizzerias are also CPA’s. They simply mimic the methods they have been taught, with no real understanding; they know the how but not the why.

At the next level we have what I call the PC:  Pizza Craftsman. The PC has learned and polished all of the tools of the trade. He or she understands the origin and nature of the ingredients, the capabilities and maintenance of the tools, and is highly skilled in the various techniques of the pizza-maker’s trade. The skilled craftsman will collaborate with the customer and utilize all of those elements to bring to realization the customer’s vision of a perfect pizza. We can think of the pizza craftsman as being similar to a master carpenter, who is commissioned by a patron to build a set of custom cabinets. The finished work will tell us quite a bit about the maker, but it is influenced by commercial considerations and the preferences of the client. I would consider myself an example of this level. For me, the joy of pizza-making is in learning about my guests and using my skills to bring their vision to reality.

At the third, and arguably the highest level, are the TA’s: True Artists. For the true pizza artist the pie is a medium for the expression of the personality, values and soul of its maker. An artist will give almost no consideration to commercial viability beyond funding the continued quest to produce art. A real pizza artist (and they are very rare) is compelled to create pizza in answer to an inner voice or ideal. On occasion someone such as a Chris Bianco will find a following of people who “get it,” and they can meet with financial success. More often, though, they labor on as long as possible, at best just getting by. Several years ago I spoke with Anthony Mangieri at the now shuttered Una Pizza Napolitano in Greenwich Village, before he reopened it in San Francisco. He told me, “I don’t know if I can make any money like this, but this is my pizza, I have to do it this way”. There is the heart of it, the TA’s are compelled to listen to that inner voice and express themselves through their pizza, public opinion be damned. Sure, Van Gogh could have made some money producing conventional portraits and landscapes, but he simply could not go that route. The result was legacy rather than currency. He created art that reflected his soul and, as a result, he will be remembered forever.

For each of us, pizza making is a personal quest. We have to decide for ourselves which level suits our objectives and most importantly our personalities. Over time we evolve, change and hopefully grow, but at each stage we should consider that our approach can be a wonderful way to tell the world who we are.

PART II

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about three inspirational pizza makers. At the risk of sounding blasphemous, I often call them the Father, Son and Holy Spirit of pizza. They are three men who couldn’t be more different in their contributions to the world of pizza, but together create, represent, and inspire all that we should be in our quest to serve pizza that is both delicious and meaningful.

In the beginning, there was Anthony Mangieri, or at least someone very much like him. I’m not talking about some dubious pizza pedigree that goes back to 19th century Naples. What Anthony does is more rooted in ancient Rome or perhaps even Egypt. Walk the ruins of Pompeii and you will see bread ovens and marble work tables that could have been the prototype for Anthony’s pizzeria. This is food at its most elemental, 3 or 4 simple ingredients, natural leavening, fire, and the hands of a gifted and uncompromising artist who serves as a conduit between nature and man. Anthony’s pizza is as primal as it gets. Take away the mozzarella and tomatoes, add some garum and it is possible that Mangieri’s ancestors were baking these pies for hungry citizens on the day that Pompeii was buried. You won’t find a diploma or certificate of authenticity in Anthony Mangieri’s pizzeria. What he is doing with pizza pre-dates those organizations by thousands of years. Certainly there have been many innovations and additions to our craft, but everything leads back to the original elements, and no one is more dedicated or consumed by this than Anthony Mangieri. With Anthony, you either get it or you don’t. There is no place to hide, and where you stand when you experience his pizza reveals everything about you. The latest incarnation of his Una Pizza Napoletana can be found in San Francisco (much easier to get to than Pompeii).

If you don’t believe in miracles I suggest a visit to a quiet corner in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago. There you will find Spacca Napoli, a piece of Naples somehow transported to the Windy City. More importantly, you will find Jonathan Goldsmith. If Anthony Mangieri represents what came before, clearly Jonathon exemplifies the heart of what the Italian pizza experience has become. Genetically, Jonathan is not an Italian pizza maker. He did not discover his true nature and calling until adulthood. Yet, he embodies everything that a pizzaiolo should be. Dedicated and knowledgeable, a gracious host, a generous teacher, and a self sacrificing steward to his staff and community. Jonathon had the belief and resolve to bring his message of authentic Neapolitan pizza to a city with a long standing pizza tradition of its own. He has been embraced by thousands of loyal supporters, including expatriate Italians who find Spacca to be a comforting reminder of home. His pizza and his beautiful restaurant continue to evolve, but always reflect a simple message, that a neighborhood pizzeria can be a place where people gather to restore both body and soul. In short Jon is the pizza maker that I wish I had both the talent and courage to be.

What would a religious metaphor be without a journey into the desert? As every pizza enthusiast knows, Chris Bianco is at the forefront of America’s pizza renaissance. It’s important to examine how he lit the flame of inspiration for so many pizza makers to begin their own journey. What Chris Bianco does in his Phoenix pizzeria is not constricted by rigid interpretations of tradition or the guidelines of self appointed governing bodies. He has instead chosen to represent the spirit of pizza making and finds it not in the details, but in the ideal.

Although clearly informed by tradition, at Pizzeria Bianco he is not recreating or replicating anything. He is following his own inner voice. While for Anthony or Jonathon, true pizza can only be expressed by using the ingredients, methods and equipment of Campangnia, Chris has in some ways moved beyond that idea. In his view, to honor those who came before you must seek what they sought. Rather than import ingredients, he does what an Italian pizza maker would do, build a relationship with local artisan producers. If the Neapolitans are using indigenous ingredients then the spirit of his pizza is to do the same. Arizona grown pistachios anyone?

In my opinion there is something even more important about what he does. Chris has told me that he sees his pizzeria as a place that can serve as an inspiration to his guests, a place that is completely dedicated to one small thing and it can, possibly, hopefully, inspire people to bring that commitment to their own lives. He stated that people come to Pizzeria Bianco “armed” with their own expectations of what a pizza should be. It is his mission to disarm them and by extension, “Perhaps disarm the world”. Wow! A pretty serious goal from a guy who humbly describes himself as “Just a pizza man”

And there you have it, if not the alpha and omega of pizza, certainly a trinity of pizza makers who together represent all that we could and should be if we are serious about our craft. Let me know if you can think of others who have turned pizza into an act of creative self-expression.

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