Earlier this year business journalist Liz Barrett Foster interviewed me for her book on pizza history. Liz worked on staff at PMQ magazine for years before striking out as a free-lancer, so she’s got serious chops on all aspects of the pizza world. Here’s my interview, excerpted from her excellent book.
We all love pizza, but what inspired you to make a career out of writing about it?
I fell into it, really. When I first moved to NYC in 2000, I assumed someone would have had a “fan website” about pizza—something that documented the best pizzerias in NYC. There was nothing online at the time, so when simple blogging platforms sprang up in 2003, I had the perfect outlet to create my own guide to NYC pizza—which became Slice. I just made it up as I went along, inviting the audience to join me, weigh in, and direct the exploration, too. It was a hobby at first, and then in 2006 Serious Eats bought Slice from me and hired me as the founding editor. Slice became a part of Serious Eats, and I continued to write for it and edit it.
You’ve visited a lot of pizzerias over the years, which ones have been most memorable, and why?
I love the old-school places with a story, a family that’s been at it for generations, tables or booths that have a time-worn patina to them and pizza that lives up to all those attributes. Totonno’s in Brooklyn, Patsy’s in East Harlem, Maria’s Pizzaria in Milwaukee, Sally’s Apizza in New Haven. Those places speak to me like no other. Partially because I dream of opening a pizzeria of my own, and I’d aspire to that same kind of longevity and intergenerational customer loyalty.
In your opinion, what is it about pizza that draws us all to it again and again?
There’s just unending variation to pizza. Get tired of plain cheese? Add some toppings. Get tired of those toppings? Switch it up. Get tired of that? Switch pizza styles altogether and run through the toppings gamut again. Within each genre of pizza there are dozens and sometimes hundreds of pizzerias to explore. It never gets old. And of course one of the best things about pizza is that you almost HAVE to share it. So even a lackluster pizza can make for a great pizza experience, if you have the right company.
Can you share a couple of insider pizza-making tips you’ve picked up over the years?
Well, I haven’t been making pizza professionally for even a year yet, so nothing I can say will surprise anyone working longtime in the industry. But the one thing that I’ve taken to heart in my apprenticeship (at Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn) is that you can learn from ANYONE on your team—from the top dog in the shop to the newcomers. I’ve worked with a number of pizzamakers who have done time in different shops, and they each may have some quicker way of doing something or a trick that can help you out of a jam. You just have to ask them and be open to learning.
In your opinion, what makes for a truly great pizza?
For me, crust is king. Whether that’s a Neapolitan-, New York–, New Haven–, or bar-style pizza. The crust has to have flavor yet at the same time not overwhelm the toppings. If the crust is bad, the pizza can’t be called good.
How can novices or those visiting a new city train themselves to pick out a great pizzeria before walking through the door?
Hah! You think it’s that easy? Well, honestly, as a guy who made his mark in the pizza world via the web, I’m going to have to go with “the internet.” Do some research. Check out the various pizza websites out there. Can I plug Slice here? Haha. In addition to Slice, Pizzamaking, I Dream of Pizza, and many other regional pizza blogs and sites have sprung up in the last decade. I also like to use the Foursquare app to find good pizza and even Yelp to get a lay of the land. They’re not always going to jibe with any one individual’s preference, but they’ll give you an idea of what people think are popular. Also, I like to take to Twitter and Facebook and ask my network of friends. Chances are someone in your social circles will have a good suggestion.
Do you make pizza at home? Do you have any aspirations to open your own pizzeria?
Yes. I make pizza at home at least twice a week, and like I said above, I’m doing an apprenticeship/training at Paulie Gee’s in Brooklyn, where I do one pizzamaking shift a week (and until recently had been doing a prep shift on Sundays too). The plan is that I’ll be opening the Portland branch of Paulie Gee’s as Paul Giannone expands to other cities. So, yes, I do aspire to open my own joint. As far as homemade pizza goes, I’ve been chasing down a great bar pie recipe for almost a year now. I’m hoping to do a bar-pie pop-up night in NYC before I move to Portland to open Paulie Gee’s PDX. [See postscript. —The Mgmt.]
You can buy Liz Barrett’s new pizza book here: Pizza, A Slice of American History
I talked with Liz in March 2014 for this interview. Since then, some things have changed. Most notably, I’ve launched my pop-up, and I am no longer spearheading the Paulie Gee’s expansion into Portland, Oregon — instead I’ll be opening a full-fledged Margot’s Pizzeria somewhere in NYC (location still TBD). Also, Slice ceased publication as we once knew it when Serious Eats folded all its sub-sites into the larger, more-well-known Serious Eats brand.