organizedferment

The Cost of a Pizza

IMG_5988

 

Late August. My summer of making pizza outside Naples neared its end. I woke from a deep and dreamless sleep sometime around five in the afternoon. The heat of the day had fully bloomed and pressed in on my apartment. I made coffee, sipped water and blinked my eyes slowly and repeatedly, as if the action could help pump blood into my brain. Before long, I realized that I was hovering in a numb twilight between drunk and hungover. No buzz. No pain. Just a vague sense of impending doom.

I drank more water and finished my coffee. Time to head down to the pizzeria for work. With all my strength I pushed out the door and onto my bike.

I had no thoughts beyond getting to work. I didn’t tally how much I drank. I couldn’t bear to imagine how bad the hangover would be. I kept myself in auto pilot, rolling down the hill, hoping I could just roll on through the night ahead. Maybe the hangover would pass me over like the thick, hot air rushing past me on my bike.

Hours earlier I was having lunch with Nino, the owner of the pizzeria. He had left everyone else to work and took me into wine country to buy a nice bottle of Taurasi for my birthday. I was thrilled not to be working, and Nino’s spirits lifted once we sat down to eat at a nice agriturismo up the road from the winery.

Before our first bottle of wine hit the table, Nino started feeling expansive. He looked up to the owner, a wiry, tired-looking woman who was serving us and announced, “I love the wine country. There’s something special in the air. Every place that makes great wine has this special quality to it. It’s magical.”

We happily started drinking the house-made wine: a slightly chilled, tannic aglianico with just enough bite to wash down all the earthy, olive-oil drenched food that came our way. We ate beans, crostini with some kind of liver, fried vegetables, and a roasted hen raised on the property. Tucked away in that cool back room, protected from the heat by the thick, stone walls, I felt like I could keep eating and drinking forever.

Somewhere along the line, one unmarked bottle turned into two, and slowly but surely, half the third bottle disappeared into our glasses. We finished eating and poured out the last of the wine. I sat back in my chair: full, happy, drunk. We turned down dessert but accepted house-made amaro: an icy liqueur steeped with bitter herbs and spices.

I sipped the amaro and Nino drummed up conversation with two men who sat a nearby table, the only other customers. I took inventory of my full stomach, the important bottles of wine we had tucked away in Nino’s trunk, and the easy daze of drinking to my heart’s content. Nino had given me a great birthday, and as he started talking, I could feel the day reaching its crescendo.

“There’s no secret to making a great pizza,” he told these two men. “I use the same recipe as anybody else: flour, yeast, water, a bit of oil.”

Nino’s voice has none of the up and down, musical quality of other Italians. His words spill out in a throaty, slurred rasp.

“Love is the secret. It sounds stupid, but it’s true. Listen, my mom uses the same coffee machine and the same coffee as anybody else.”

The men nodded. They could see where Nino was going with this.

“It’s the same machine and the same coffee, but my mom always makes an exceptional coffee. So what’s the difference? It’s the love. And it’s the same with pizza.”

Nino paused, slowed his cadence for effect.

“I take the time to make a great dough. I watch it. I give it time. I let it rise properly. I put my love into it. And my pizzeria is always full.”

He now had the owner drawn into his sphere of attention. She stood between the two tables with her hands pressed into her lower back, as if to hold herself upright.

“And I’m not afraid. You should never be afraid to do something exceptional. To be the best. I pay more for my products.” He scooted himself up to the front edge of his chair and sucked a deep breath into his chest. “Look, in Naples, they know how to make pizza, but they use garbage for the toppings. They want to keep the price down. I use tomatoes of quality. Fresh fior di latte. Real olive oil. I put Sicilian pistachios and fresh truffles on my pizza. No one else would dare to do this. They just want to sell a margherita for four euro. I’m not happy with that. My customers are willing to pay for quality. But you can’t be afraid, that’s important.”

Somehow I registered what Nino was saying, even though I couldn’t really process the message at the time. His monologue and the image of his mom making coffee sunk into a deep, safe part of my mind, far from the risk of being smashed into oblivion by a hangover that started at five forty-five in the evening, right as I entered the pizzeria for dinner service. I passed through the open front door and with the blast of heat from the two wood-burning ovens, a headache cracked into my skull like the crash of thunder that announces the start of violent storm.

And the night promised me no comfort. I was too full from lunch to eat or drink anything. My job of slicing pizzas and organizing the orders was hot and tedious. I had no way to distract myself or chase away some of the pain. My whole body felt like it needed to sneeze. Sweat beaded and slowly dripped down my lower back. My pants started sticking to the inner parts of my thighs. My stomach gurgled in its ongoing effort to digest lunch. The coffee kicked in, making me more alert and present for the suffering.

I did nothing but stand there and take it.

Later, when the rush had passed, Nino walked by, took his glasses off, and rubbed the sweat from his forehead and eyebrows. “We had a good time today, huh?” he said as he put his glasses back on. He walked away and laughed before I had time to thank him.

I wanted to thank him for lunch, of course, but also for telling the story of his mom’s coffee and the love he puts into his pizza. Nino never gave me advice or told me things directly. I had to learn by watching him, following him, spending as much time in his presence with the hope of gradually absorbing information and technique.

This was the kind of learning I had been craving during the whole year of studying food, traveling to producers, tasting their products, and then leaving. In those short visits, whether to a cheese-maker, a winery, or a man with a herd of pigs in France, I always felt a whole lifetime was wrapped up the food they served us. Tasting the cheese or the wine or the sausage can only illumine so much. To really understand the food, one would have to understand the person. Follow the winemaker, live with the cheese-maker. Watch him. Eat with him. Work with him. Understand the full reality of the product.

For a short time, I got to see Nino’s reality, and there’s nothing glamorous about it. His pizzeria occupies the bottom floor of what looks like a small apartment building, just off the main road that runs through a string of nondescript towns. A stark, rocky mountain looms to the north and rolling, green hills hem in the valley from the south. Nino installed a patio and large awning on the front of his storefront. The place is called “Banana-Rana”, which means “Banana-Frog”. A bright, colorful picture of a frog with his arm around a giant banana dominates the signage. Nino never explained why he called his place “Banana-Frog”, and he never acted like he needed to.

My first day at Banana-Rana was no different than the rest of my days that summer. I got there around eleven. The door was open and soccer highlights were playing on the big plasma screen. A fire roared in the main oven. I met Petronella, the tiny Romanian woman who ran the front of the house. She stopped her cleaning project to say hi and take me to the back kitchen to meet Gabriella, another Romanian woman who was doing prep work. Pasquale, one of the pizzaiolos, pushed through the front door with a wheel barrow full of wood. The dough mixer drummed along lazily, seeming to struggle with the fleshy mass of dough that wrapped and unwrapped itself around its forked arm. Luca, the other pizzaiolo, popped out of the bathroom. He was smaller and darker that Pasquale, dressed in fresh white pants and shirt, neatly spiked hair, and red-framed glasses. He took interest in me. We went around to the back and grabbed stacks of unfolded cardboard pizza boxes.

And then we started folding the sheets of cardboard into boxes: punching out the perforated cuts and pressing the creases to give the cardboard its shape. They use three sizes at Banana-Rana: three foot long “metros”, “mezzo metros” which are half that size, and “tondos” for the round, personal pizzas that measure about a foot in diameter. The boxes were an endless effort. Stacks and stacks of boxes were lined up before every night and would be consumed in hours. We always needed boxes. We were always folding boxes, and more could always done. Everyone folded boxes. The waiters, dishwashers, pizzaiolos, and even Nino himself would sit outside on the patio at odd moments of the day with a stack of cardboard and a tower of boxes steadily rising beside him. The task became a kind of mindless meditation, like whittling on a stick to pass the time. But not long after Luca and I sat down to my first box folding session, Nino charged in and smacked Luca on the side of the head with enough force to knock his glasses off. We were doing something wrong; I can’t remember what, but I remember Nino telling him something along these lines:

“If you’re going to teach him something, teach him the right way.”

And Nino walked out. I didn’t see him until later that night.

It took a while to settle in at Banana-Rana. I didn’t hit it off with Nino right away. I had a hard time explaining why I came to his pizzeria and what I wanted to get out of it. I struggled to understand his heavy accent and dialect, and was never sure if he really understood the Italian I tried to speak to him. After a few awkward, forced conversations I told him that the most important thing for me was to learn to make pizza. All I wanted was to learn and I didn’t care if he paid me or not. I just wanted to learn. When I finally got this message across, Nino told me:

“If you want to learn, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t run. You should learn the right way.”

Just like the boxes, Nino believed in a right way and a wrong way of doing things. And the right way to teach me to make pizza was to make me wait. So I waited, and fell into a routine. I walked or biked to the pizzeria every morning. I helped Luca and Pasquale with odds and ends projects; we portioned and shaped a batch of dough into tight, fist-sized balls, and we cleaned up the endless piles of flour that found their way into every crevice and low point in the flooring. We swept and swept and swept. I felt like a Bedoin trying to keep sand out of his tent: more would always come.

Pizzeria Banana-Rana

Pizzeria Banana-Rana

At one in the afternoon a few customers would file in, and Luca or Pasquale would make their pizzas. They didn’t do much business at lunch, and as Nino explained, it didn’t really matter. We had to be there to get the ovens roaring and prep for the evening, so they served the customers who showed up, but it was nothing compared to their dinner service.

Around two o’clock we gave the floors one final sweep, loaded the ovens with big logs and closed them up, and everyone went home. We all had time to eat, shower, take a nap, and make it back to the pizzeria before six.

In the evenings, I joined the ranks of the other teenage boys who helped out at the pizzeria, were paid almost nothing, and hoped to eventually learn something. While Luca and Pasquale meticulously cleaned the deck of the oven, stacked their wood, and made other serious preparations, I stood shoulder to shoulder with Giovanni, Bernardo, and Mario doing menial tasks like peeling potatoes, smashing walnuts, and loading the kebab into its little rotisserie cooker.

At seven thirty, Nino had finished his errands and changed into his uniform: white pants, a Banana-Rana t-shirt, and Nike basketball shoes. By then, almost all the prep work was done and we had some time to catch some fresh air out on the patio. We played cards, drank sugary espresso shots, some smoked cigarettes, and a few times we even kicked a soccer ball around the parking lot.

The business started to trickle in around eight, and by eight-thirty, it was time to man the battle stations. Nino stood as the first line of defense. The waiters passed the order tickets to him, he hung them above the line, and then started stretching pizza dough. Once the orders came, Nino’s hands never stopped. He pulled dough onto the marble counter, pressed the balls into disks, slapped and stretched the disks into thin skins, and then slid them down the marble on a thin, almost invisible layer of flour. He never looked down at what he was doing, but constantly scanned the restaurant, reviewed the tickets, and talked to the waiters and Pasquale.

Pasquale had to build or “dress” the pizzas for the oven. He floated up and down the marble with a steel bowl of tomato sauce, applying tidy circles of sauce where needed, and then sweeping down the line with mozzarella, basil, sliced meats, vegetables, olives, oregano, and all the other items he kept within reach. He had to work frenetically to keep up with Nino, who could stretch another ten pizzas in a blink of an eye. Pasquale also had to be precise: pizzas could be modified with a dizzying array of toppings in endless combination. Once a pizza hit the oven, there would be no second chances. More importantly, he had to work cleanly: a rogue splash of sauce or cube of mozzarella could cause a pizza to stick and crash the whole line.

Once Pasquale had finished building a set of eight or ten pizzas, Luca would swoop in with his peel, a big metal spatula on the end of a stick. With a swift, fluid motion, Luca would scoop a pizza directly off the marble and then pivot around to load the pizza in his oven. Luca never seemed rushed, even when both ovens were lit and he was juggling up to fifteen pizzas at a given time. He scooped and loaded, turned back to the oven to rotate his pizzas, and then plucked them one at time, landing them in boxes or on plates at the far end of the line. He was always sucking on hard candy or lollipops while he worked, and a few nights I even saw him keep a lit cigarette propped on an ashtray around the corner. He would turn his pies, dash around the corner, drag the cigarette, and then dash back onto the line to nab them from the oven just in time.

This three man ballet was fun to watch, but the moving poetry ended abruptly once the pizzas left the oven and some combination of Mario, Giovanni, and Bernardo had to figure out where all these pizzas would go. Boxes had to be arranged. Pizzas had to be sliced. Prosciutto, speck, or arugula had to be applied. Orders had to be organized and handed over to customers. Pizzas had to be run to tables.

At first, Nino told me just to watch the whole system, but before long I found a niche as a kind of expeditor at the end of the line. Without a doubt, this was the worst job in the restaurant. I had to stand directly in front of the second wood-burning oven and then try to decipher hand written tickets for what added up to three or four hundred pizzas each night. Some servers wrote neatly and thoughtfully communicated any special instructions. Roberto, the most senior waiter, scribbled his tickets in a kind of shorthand that truly resembled no modern written language. Pizzas would land in front of me, eight at a time, and while I was slicing some, or arranging strips of prosciutto on another, I would have to stop and ask if the margherita in front of me needed to have sliced hot dogs on it, arugula, or if that margherita actually needed to be sauce-less in the first place.

Nino could somehow understand Roberto’s writing, and when I showed him a ticket, he almost always had an answer for me.

“Nino, what’s this?”

“Kebab with potatoes.”

But even some, Nino couldn’t decipher. I would bring the ticket all the way over to Nino, he would stop, give it a good hard look, and then grab Roberto:

“Roberto!!!! Why are you writing in Chinese?”

Roberto would shrug. His writing wasn’t as bad as it looked. To the untrained eye it looked like Chinese, but after a few nights, I started picking up patterns in his tickets. I soon realized it wasn’t really writing, but more of a pictograph system, and this scribbled, graffiti-like penmanship was completely consistent. A “margherita add sausage no basil” would always be written the same; I just needed some more exposure to Roberto’s language. Eventually I was able to understand maybe eighty-five percent of his orders, but there were still a few that stumped even Nino.

The nights were a marathon at Banana-Rana. Once we got going we had to grind it out until at least midnight. By that time my nerves would be fried from processing all those tickets, and I’d be hungry, thirsty, and wilted from standing in front of the oven all night. Sometime during my first week, Luca turned to me and declared, “This is a job that will toast you.”

Soon after, Pasquale backed up Luca: “It’s not a physical fatigue. It’s a mental fatigue. You don’t have time to breathe, to do your laundry, have some fun.”

During the summer, Nino kept the pizzeria open everyday. In theory, Luca and Pasquale, even Nino, wouldn’t have a day off for the better part of three months. This was the mental fatigue Pasquale was referring to, and I started to feel it in the first few weeks. The only guaranteed break was Sunday, when we were always closed for lunch. That was the only time to rest; it was what we looked forward to all week.

But I had the advantage of being fresh and rested going into the summer, and after spending a year of just studying food, it felt good to be doing real work. I also found encouragement in talking to people around the town. Everyone said two things about Nino: he knows how to make good pizza and he uses quality ingredients. Strangely, in a land where pizza was born, the second trait set him apart. Pizzerias all over Italy, and especially around Naples have earned a reputation for using low quality ingredients. Cheap seed oils have replaced extra virgin olive oil. Local fior di latte (cow’s milk mozzarella) has been replaced by rubbery, factory produced cheese. The famed San Marzano tomatoes that grow in the shadow of Vesuvius have gone the way of overcooked, processed tomatoes from huge farms in Puglia or anywhere else. The pizzerias cut corners to save money and keep their prices low; it’s the only way to sell a margherita for four euros and still make a buck at the end of the day.

But Nino has taken a different approach. He still sells a margherita for about four euros, but Nino has based his business on his wildly creative pizzas. He entices his customers to pay more for a pizza with porcini mushrooms, roasted potato and provola for example. Or they pay even more for a pizza with fresh sicilian pistachios, zucchini blossoms, truffled cheese, and grated black truffles. Here in the states, we take creative pizza for granted. Wolfgang Puck and Alice Waters have been inventing pizzas since the eighties. But Nino is a true maverick, inventing pizzas in the land where pizza was invented. Years ago, Nino started making the “pizza bruschetta”, a pizza baked with only a small amount of mozzarella and oregano. The pizza is finished with a simple salad of seasoned tomatoes, basil, and garlic. Raw tomatoes on a pizza? People thought Nino was crazy, but he stuck to his guns, and the “pizza bruschetta” is still one of his most popular creations.

Now, Nino’s customers come to him expecting to try something new and trusting his recommendations. But still, even with his solid reputation and a packed pizzeria, Nino’s day to day life is far from glamorous.

“It’s easier just to sell a margherita and a marinara,” he told me.

Being in the countryside, Nino has to track down all his products himself. He goes to the grocery store everyday for items like olive oil, soap, sponges, and canned goods. He purchases his produce from a trusted retailer in the next small town, bringing in cases of fresh tomatoes, broccolini, basil, and zucchini blossoms in his station wagon. Smoked mozzarella comes from the cheese-maker down the street. Sausage comes from the local butcher. He orders pistachios and large wheels of pecorino directly from his source in Sicily. He has one food distributor that actually delivers, and only the most basic and high volume products like flour, cases of mozzarella, and the big cans of tomato sauce.

Before I realized Nino had to track down all this stuff himself, I was stumped as to how he spent his days: always in and out of the pizzeria, coming in to check on us, dropping off some groceries, feeding ice cream to his three-year-old son, rounding up his kids and dogs, heading back out, coming back in. He never stopped moving around.

And I had no idea the literal lengths he would go for a quality food item. One day he asked me if I wanted to go pick up the sausage and the cheese with him. I was expecting a jaunt to the next town. After about forty minutes of driving, Nino pulled over at a cluster of shops just off the highway. We must be there, I was thinking. I followed Nino into a cafe but saw no evidence of sausages or anything that would be of use in the pizzeria. Nino disappeared into the back. He came out drying his hands on the back of his shorts.

“I just needed to pee. You want a coffee?”

I turned down coffee, which was smart, because we drove for another hour, all the way out of the valley and up to some small hill-town in the middle of no where. I have no idea the name of the town, but there, on this dusty, sun-burnt hill with one strip of businesses, Nino had found a butcher that makes a spicy, hand-cut pork sausage. At the pizzeria, they lop off three feet of the sausage at a time, stick it on a custom-made, spiked rack and roast it in the pizza oven. The roasted sausage is served on a long, wooden board as a shared appetizer.. That day, Nino walked out of the butcher with a twenty meters of sausage tucked under his arm like an oversized garden hose. He packed it on ice in his trunk, and we kept driving.

An hour and a half later, we had driven out of the hills, through high plains, and turned onto a winding, two-lane highway that climbed into a group of barren mountains that looked like massive, grey boulders. We had passed into the Molise, a region I had never hear of before. Nino drove into a tiny town that had been carved out of the mountain side and parked his car.

“This guy makes a great cheese,” Nino said. Obviously, he doesn’t deliver.

We met the large, friendly cheese-maker, and Nino chatted with him to find out what he had available. Nino picked out three wheels of snow-white sheep’s milk cheese studded with black truffles, and a small wheel of something else for his house. He encouraged me to buy some smaller cheeses that hung in pairs from thin ropes that looped through a knot in the top. We didn’t linger long: Nino dropped the goods in the car and we charged on foot up the road to another butcher. There, in the tiny shop, two whole lamb bodies hung from the ceiling against a white tile backdrop. An ancient, lean man helped Nino purchase a huge bag of tiny lamb skewers, which I recognized from the pizzeria. They grilled them over charcoal pulled from the ovens and served the lamb kebabs as another appetizer.

Just like the cheese and the sausage, these lamb kebobs were unique. That little town was known for its lamb, and to Nino, it was worth driving all that way to get it.

Nino’s approach made more sense to me once I saw him cook. He made great food for himself, his family, and sometimes for the workers at the pizzeria. He loved good food. He loved to eat. If he wanted something, he made it for himself. Plus, Nino didn’t like to eat pizza.

“I prefer food from the kitchen” he said, which is a bad translation, but basically he meant he likes the pasta, braises, grilled and roasted meat, seafood, and salads that come from every kitchen in Campania.

“My cuisine is the cuisine of five minutes,” he also said. He never fussed around with his food. He cooked like a very focused, very hungry person. He would boil pasta, get a sauce going, come back to strain the pasta, put it all in a bowl, and then eat. And it was always very good.

His “five minute” cuisine was more of an average. Some days he would bring back a fresh baguette from the bakery, some mortadella from the butcher, and maybe some fresh slices of provolone from the cheese-maker. He would take all of a minute to lop off a generous hunk of bread, slice it, and stuff it with the goods. He’d show off his creations, holding up a sandwich he could barely hold in one hand, “Look! Look at this bread we make here! Look at this sandwich!”

Other days, he brought in ingredients that required more attention. After a long weekend at the beach in Puglia, he brought a haul of huge, red shrimp, packed on ice in a big styrofoam box. When we had finished making pizza, shaped the dough, and cleaned the pizzeria, he went to work in the kitchen. He separated the tails and then sauteed the heads and the bodies with just a touch of garlic and white wine and then tossed it all with spaghetti. First, we ate our pasta, which had soaked up all the flavor of the shrimp bodies. Then we cracked open the bodies to slurp down the sweet, soft heads of the shrimp. Finally, Nino sauteed all the tails, and we peeled and ate them with a squeeze of lemon.

A few days later, Nino’s car was in the shop and we walked home together after dinner service.

“Those shrimp you made were really good Nino,” I said.

“If you have really good ingredients, you can screw up, and it will still be good.”

Some of the beauty is lost in translating Nino’s words, but he even stopped and repeated.

“Andrea, listen to me: if you have good ingredients, you can screw up, and it will still be good.”

A few weeks later, on a hot day in the middle of July, Nino closed the pizzeria for lunch. I had slurped down my espresso and was starting to organize myself for a morning of prep work when Nino came in with a big cooler and a few bags of groceries.

“It’s too hot. We’re closed. We’re going to the mountains.”

We all got in Nino’s car. After a stop at the butcher, we drove into the hills that loomed above the valley to the south. Just ten minutes up the road, Nino’s father owned a small cabin. Shaded by the forest and a thousand feet above sea-level, the cabin made a good retreat from the screaming heat of the valley. Nino lit a fire in the outdoor stove and put us to work wiping off the big picnic bench and raking leaves.

Once the fire had burned down into manageable coals, Luca started grilling meat with a metal rack held over the fire with two bricks. Nino dressed a salad. Pasquale sliced peaches. Bernardo appeared with a bucket of cherries he picked from an orchard down the road. We put the cherries on ice. Nino poured us chilled red wine with chunks of peaches. Then we ate: grissly, fatty steak seasoned with nothing more than salt and olive oil, salad, and fresh bread to mop up all the juices.

We all ate to our hearts content, and then spent the afternoon sipping wine, eating cherries, and playing cards. Since that day, a salty, fatty steak drizzled with olive oil has been my favorite thing to eat when I have the chance to cook for myself.

Nino’s meals illustrated his whole approach to food: choose good ingredients and the food will be good. Nino was not the best pizzaiolo in the world: he had only learned to make pizza a few years ago when his hired-gun pizzaiolo quit and suddenly he had no other choice. Nino was not the best cook in the world: he had no training in the kitchen, no interest in technique or equipment. At the end of the day, Nino knew more about eating food than cooking it.

IMG_5994

Nino with a plate of ravioli.

 

And at the end of my summer with Nino, I had definitely learned more about eating food than cooking it. Perhaps this was Nino’s intention the whole time, or just the result of his approach to owning a restaurant. Eventually I learned to stretch a pizza dough and properly cook pizzas in a hot oven, but Nino never emphasized any pizza techniques. I guess he figured I could learn that from Luca or Pasquale or figure it out on my own like he had.

Nino did emphasize his ingredients, and he emphasized the sacrifice needed to make good food. One Sunday Nino invited me over for lunch. Again, Sunday lunch was the only precious time to rest all week. But before we could eat, we had to drive to the pizzeria to put away a batch of dough that had been left out to proof the night before.

“It’s a sacrifice,” he said. “I always have to watch the dough. Always have to watch the restaurant. When my friends want to meet me for dinner, for a beer, I’m always here.”

At one point I had asked for some days off to take a short trip, and Nino got mad at me.

“You’ll never be a good pizzaiolo! You don’t understand the sacrifice!”

He let me take the days off. Nonetheless, I did get a taste of the sacrifice needed to make good food that summer. I also saw first hand the toll it took on Nino and his workers. At any given point, when the customers were gone, and everyone had helped themselves to a few beers, the entire place would erupt into a chaos of screaming.

Petronella and Pasquale would usually instigate, raising their voices at Nino. He would stay calm and not give any ground. They would keep yelling, louder and with more intensity. Then Nino would snap and unleash a fury of screams and spit and hand gestures, his face red and distorted, sweat beading on his forehead.

Their arguments circled around the same themes: Petronella, Pasquale, and others felt underpaid, overworked, treated unfairly. I never understood Nino’s responses to their complaints. I could only sense his anger. At the end of the day, these workers didn’t have other options.

“She needs me, and I need her,” Nino once said of Petronella.

I’m glad I got to witness these fights. I’m glad I was there in the mornings to see the tired look on Petronella’s face as she smoked cigarettes and cleaned the restaurant. I’m glad I got to see Nino’s wife yell and complain while she chased a two-year old around their crowded apartment and dishes piled up in their sink after a big Sunday lunch.

Nino can talk about his dough, his great ingredients. He can talk of his full pizzeria, how he was never afraid to be different, to make something new, but the picture will never be complete without seeing him on a Sunday morning, putting his dough away while everyone else is gone. Even his overworked pizzaiolos were at home with their families, but he was at the pizzeria because he had a job to do.

We must not gloss over the pain and sacrifice required to make good food. Cheaply produced, industrial food carries the sunken costs of the environmental destruction and its future consequences, and the negative health effects the consumer faces down the road. Artisanal food, however, carries it’s own hidden cost: the toll it takes on the producers. The consumer has no way of knowing how many terrible hangovers went into making their four-euro margherita pizza. Nino’s customers can’t  compensate him for every Sunday morning he has to wake up early to put away pizza dough. They don’t pay him for the arthritis he’ll surely suffer in his wrist and his elbows. Customers come to Nino because they know his pizza is good: but they can only appreciate the tip of the iceberg. His puts his whole life behind his pizza.

For a few months, I shared in the sacrifice Nino made for his work.  Working with food in Italy is a such a privilege, I can’t help but be grateful for the experience. But I need to be honest about my time at Banana-Rana. I can’t edit-out the hard stuff: the boredom, the frustration, the constant petty fights with my teenage co-workers. The utter exhaustion of working all day, seven days a week. The heat of the ovens. Squirming as the first few beads of sweat started to drop down my lower back before dinner service. I have some good stories to tell, but it was a miserable summer.

I need to remember that epic hangover, that’s why I went to such lengths to describe it. It paints a good picture of the lesson I learned from Nino. That was the best day of my summer and it quickly turned into the worst ten hours of my life. Making good pizza, or any good food, has a cost. As Nino said, “It’s a sacrifice.” We should all be glad there are still people out there who believe this sacrifice is worth it.

Ask Kraftymatt Installment #1: Fried Chicken

image (2)

Anonymous asks: “Hey Krafty, what do you think about fried chicken?”

Kraftymatt says:

This may come in stages. Prince’s (a fried chicken shack in Nashville) may  be the pinnacle of fried chicken as we know it. (Read more about Nashville style fried chicken here.)

To make my own fried chicken, I go for a dry mix. I’m not crazy about wet batter or tempura (Korean fried chicken is a good example of wet batter method). I brine the chicken overnight (or at least a couple of hours) in a combo of whatever is on hand, ideally salt, cayenne, buttermilk, and cheap lager beer.  The dry mix is flour, more cayenne, salt, black pepper, dried thyme (though fresh rosemary is located conveniently in about half the front yards around here and it works great too). I mix a little a baking powder in the dry mix too. Don’t be shy with the seasonings. The frying process tends to tone them down a bit.

The trick I’ve found to achieve a thick, crunchy, satisfying crust is a two-pronged attack. The beer/buttermilk soak gets the flour to stick, but if you get hasty and take it out of the flour dredge too soon, the crust is thin and sad.

First prong: Letting it rest a bit in the dredge as the liquid leeches out of the chicken creates a nice thick flour coating that translates into crunchy good parts.

Second prong: I use corn oil and a large pat of butter about halfway through the frying. 350-375 is a good oil temperature.

Cast iron skillets are great, but not quite deep enough. A cast iron Dutch oven is perfect. Totally submerged pieces of chicken, not resting on the bottom of the pan, is what you want. If it sits on the bottom of the pan it inevitably gets too dark or just sticks. A hot oven is a bad place to rest your chicken if making large batches. For some reason the crust takes this as an invitation to fall off. After a wire rack drain I usually rest my chicken in a towel-lined bowl.

Part 2: Kraftymatt’s Fried Chicken Recipe

photo 4

Brine, dredge, fry.

With Kraftymatt’s guidance, we took to the organized ferment test kitchen to develop a recipe. The chicken turned out great, but think of this recipe as more of a guideline than a tried-and-true blueprint. You may need to adjust the salt and cayenne to your own taste. Here goes:

Kraftymatt’s Fried Chicken:

-2 whole chickens, split in half and cut into leg, thigh, wings, airline breast, and back pieces

-1 carton of buttermilk

-3 PBR’s or other cheap lager

-4 T cayenne pepper

-8 T kosher salt

-4 T chopped rosemary

-2 t baking powder

-2.5 lbs all-purpose flour

-about two gallons corn oil

-half stick of butter

1. Make the brine. Mix buttermilk and lager beer in equal amounts (half a carton of buttemilk = about three cans of beer). Add about 4 tablespoons of salt and 2 tablespoons cayenne. Stir well to dissolve. Mix in two tablespoons of chopped rosemary.

2. Cut the chicken in fry-able pieces. When buying whole chickens to fry, it’s best to pick the smaller ones. Once the chicken is butchered, submerge it fully in the brine. (If you don’t have quite enough liquid, top it off with some more beer). Let the chicken rest in the brine overnight.

3. Make the dredge: Mix 2.5 lbs of flour (half a bag) with 3-4 tablespoons kosher salt, 2 Tablespoons cayenne, 2 Tablespoons chopped rosemary, and 1 teaspoon baking powder.

4. Get ready to fry: take the chicken out of the fridge a good hour before cooking. Get your first batch of chicken out of the brine. Cover the chicken in the flour dredge and allow it to sit for 20 minutes. This is a key step. Slowly heat your corn oil to 350-375 F, once you hit 350, turn the burner to medium/low heat. You may have to toggle between low and medium heat as you cook to maintain the ideal temperature range. This takes some skill but will come easily after your first deep fry session.

5. When your oil hits 350, you’re ready to cook. Set the burner to medium heat, pull the chicken from the dredge, shake off anything loose, and drop three large or four smaller pieces, one by one, into the hot oil. Use a metal spider to turn the chicken over once in the oil. After about 4 minutes you can add a large pat of putter to frying oil. Cook another 4-5 minutes, depending on the size of the pieces. When the crust starts to look a deep, golden brown, check the internal temperature of the biggest piece (165 F is safe for poultry). If the biggest piece is cooked, use your spider to pull the rest of the chicken onto a wire rack. Let the oil drain off and move to a towel-lined bowl if you have multiple batches. Boo-yah. You’ve just made fried chicken.

Two pots of hot oil, towel-lined landing zone.

Two pots of hot oil, towel-lined landing zone.

Be safe, have fun, never drop into oil from great heights or long distance, and happy frying!

New Feature: “Ask Crafty Matt”

image

Ask this man any question.

Working with “Crafty” Matt Davidson can at times feel like stumbling into a college lecture, listening to a gripping podcast, and channel surfing between the Food Network, The History Channel, and Home and Garden Television, all at the same time. Without acting like a know it all, he appears to know just about everything.

Needless to say, I’ve had countless questions answered by Crafty Matt, and now I bring his services to this blog. If you have a question for Crafty (known simply as kraftymatt on the streets and the internet), send an email to askraftymatt@gmail.com. Ask a good question, kraftymatt will answer it.

Suggested topics for questions include:

food (specifically of the south)

knives

leather-working

sewing

cookbooks

twangy music

beverage pairing

uses for duct tape

baking (especially pies, biscuits, and old-school cakes)

food history of the United States

kitchen gadgets

gadgetry in general

men’s shaving equipment

boots

just about anything else

24 Lunches

These are pictures of my lunch from the past year. I don’t know why I started taking them. Sometimes the light, the colors of the food, the imperfect, un-fussed geometry of the plate struck me, and before sitting down to eat, I had to take a picture. This is a look at the food I make for myself when I am hungry.IMG_0105 IMG_0359 IMG_0367 IMG_0378 IMG_0385 IMG_0389 IMG_0392 IMG_0411 IMG_0539 IMG_0483IMG_0530IMG_0360IMG_0377IMG_0396
IMG_0616 IMG_0608 IMG_0375IMG_0399 IMG_0480 IMG_0524 IMG_0556 IMG_0582 IMG_0607IMG_0792Yes, I eat a lot of eggs.

Luca’s Next Level Mixed-Asian Ribs

IMG_6866

This recipe should be secret. It has never been written down. It’s origins are murky. The ingredients are simple. The results speak for themselves.

You’ll never again fuss with a long cook time, braising, smoking, or complicated rubs. The acid in the marinade does all the work. You get chewy, tender ribs, next-level flavor, and the approval of your friends.

You will need:

-one very large rack of pork ribs

-1/2 C of peeled, diced ginger (3-4 inch piece)

-1 C peeled, diced garlic

-3/4 C fresh squeezed lime juice (5 big, juicy limes)

-8-9 small Thai chilis, diced, seeds included (other peppers will work, just ball-park the spiciness)

-6 T. Dark Soy Sauce

-6 T. Light Soy Sauce

-3 T. Rice Wine

-3 T. Rice Vinegar

-1 T. Honey

-30 Cracks Black Pepper

-pinch kosher salt

IMG_6871

Instructions:

1. Cut rack of ribs between the bones into individual ribs. Set aside.

2. Mix all other ingredients in a large bowl.

3. Toss ribs in marinade. Set in fridge for at least twenty four hours, turning ribs 3-4 times for even coverage.

4. Light your grill. Remove ribs from fridge to temp or at least 30 minutes.

5. Grill ribs on medium/hot fire until they are well caramelized and cooked through. Serve immediately.

The Best Bad Pizza

Being so deep in the pizza game, and being such a pizza snob, it’s good to step back every now and then and realize that pizza is bread with cheese melted on it. Even bad pizza can be good pizza in the right context, and sometimes really bad pizza can be incredible.  I wrote this a a while ago about some bad pizza I ate in Italy. I found this pizza so bad I had to keep going back.

Pizza Cinema: The Best Bad Pizza

As I wait and stare out the window at nothing in particular, my stomach gurgles with anticipation for what I know will be a bad piece of pizza. I have to assume everybody who eats the fast-service “Pizza Quadrato” from Pizza Cinema, here in Bra, Italy, knows they will be eating bad pizza. Why do we keep coming back? Pizza Cinema may serve bad pizza, but it does not serve disappointing pizza.

The par-baked, lifeless squares of dough, cheese, and toppings sit on the counter, in plain view behind glass. Most employees encourage customers to choose their own slice, a necessary courtesy: on these rectangular pizzas, the corner and middle slices can vary greatly in cheese content and crunchiness.

After waiting three to five minutes for my chosen slice to reheat, the employee wraps it in paper and hands it over. Immediately, I notice the parcel’s heft. It feels like carrying a greasy, thick, paperback book. I step out of the small storefront and unfold the paper for the first bite.

The crisp bottom crust, the chewy middle, and the surface layer of twice-cooked cheese achieve so much complexity in one bite because the pizza is at once undercooked and overcooked. The first baking leaves the dough gummy and dense in the middle. When the workers reheat the individual slices, they do so at such a hot temperature that the outside crisps and dries out before the middle can barely warm.

The careless baking results in a thrilling push and pull of textures. Although I must assume the technique at Pizza Cinema is unintentional, the end result vaguely brings to mind a marbled steak cooked quickly at scorching temperatures to leave a charred, crisp crust and juicy, soft inside. Some of my slices have even had cool spots in the middle, adding an element of temperature contrast.

The generic, boring mozzarella they use as the base topping, not worth eating on its own, comes to life during the harsh, two-step baking process. The restaurant uses a generous layer of the stuff, and on the first baking the cheese melts and loses fat and water content to the spongy foundation of dough. After the reheating, the under-layers of cheese have fused so completely with the dough that I cannot tell where the cheese stops and the dough begins. On the surface layer, the reheating scalds the cheese, creating the satisfying flavor of nearly burnt cheese and a pleasant toughness in the mouth. The well-done spots on this top layer make me think of gooey yellow cheddar that drips out of a cheeseburger and crisps on a flat-top grill.

When choosing other toppings at Pizza Cinema, I opt for something bold in flavor. I always look for a slice with spicy salami, as the spiciness goes a long way to cut through the base richness of dough and cheese. The salty chunks of pork sausage also work nicely, but I avoid slices with vegetable toppings. Zucchini or fresh tomatoes, once subjected to the double-baking process, can offer only mild visual appeal and little in the way of flavor.

A classmate of mine once described her Pizza Cinema slice as “a full contact lunch”. These slices offer a gripping array of textures, the physical challenge of chewing and swallowing barely cooked chunks of dough, and the solid feeling of a full stomach.

And for the locals, the real Italians, eating at Pizza Cinema is a kind of rebellion, a counter-cultural act. In Italy they take their food seriously. Most people in our town even sit down on a bench to eat their ice cream cones with full attention. Yet almost everybody eats their Pizza Cinema slices while walking around, in full public view. In a country where smoking is still quite common, a person must find other ways to look rebellious and anti-authority. Eating a big slice of bad pizza sends the message: “I do what I want, when I want, and I don’t apologize to anybody.”

Assistant Kitchen Manager

Between seven and seven-thirty in the morning, the produce arrives. I have to stop cutting meat, take off my latex gloves, and check the order. The boxes appear, white or brown cardboard with green lettering. I see them in the corner of my eye, stacked neatly like a delivery of office supplies . I always see the boxes first, then greet Jose as he comes in, rolling four or five more boxes on a dolly.

Jose is lean, tatooed, almost twice my age, but he acts nervous around me. I am the assistant kitchen manager, and this his company’s most important account. When I make the order, he works for me.

“Got the avocadoes just a little soft just how you like them.”

I count all the boxes, check every item on the invoice. These people make mistakes, just like everybody else. I have to check everything.

“Where’s the mint?”

Jose leans in, peeks at the invoice and digs into a box of herbs with both hands.

“I swear I had it in here. I saw that you needed it. It should be in here. Hold on.”

He keeps rummaging through the box. I keep moving down the invoice, checking the prices, making sure he brought everything we ordered.

“Shit man. I can’t find that mint. Fuck.”

I feel every single mango. We use eight to ten every day. Jose has brought us hard mango and slightly soft avocado, just like we need. We let the mangoes ripen in the pantry. Avocados go straight into the walk-in refrigerator.

“I’m going to need that mint.”

“Yeah, uhhh…I could come back…when do you need it?”

“We have enough to open. Can you be back by noon?”

“Yeah, man, no problem.”

Jose will come back; he always does. I just never know when. Usually I call the owner of the company at noon and he shows up in twenty-minutes. I like it when they make small mistakes, because when I make a big mistake, and forget to order iceberg or corn or the peppers that we only need once a week, I can always call in a favor, and they are happy to send Jose out on the fly.

Fish comes in later in the morning, usually around 9:15. By this time, I have butchered at least fifty pounds of meat, and my first chef-coat of the day looks like it has been tie-died in blood.

The grade 2+ Ahi must be dark ruby in color and firm. We should order #1 for sushi, but the head kitchen-manager, has realized that no one notices the difference when he just uses 2+ for everything, and he saves 5.99 a pound.

I put each item we order on the scale and check it against the weight listed on the invoice. They never cheat on us on the weight, but I still weigh every item.

The halibut must feel firm to the touch and have no visible discoloration. I poke the skin-side of salmon filet, and if it feels firm and taut, we accept it. If any of this fish smells bad or seems off, we’ll know once we take it out of the bag to portion it. Ali, our fish guy, will take back any fish if we are unhappy with it.

I have no idea whatsoever where any of this fish comes from. I have no idea when Halibut season starts or ends, or if Halibut even has a season. We purchase Scottish salmon. I have had a nagging feeling the fish does not come all the way from Scotland, but I don’t know to whom I should direct that question.

I do know that salmon costs 7.99 a pound. Halibut costs 9.99 a pound. Tuna costs 11.99 a pound. Loup d’Mer means “Wolf of the Sea” and it comes in a bag of twelve for 35.99. We serve it grilled with chopped herbs and Marcona almonds on top. Marcona almonds come in a five-pound bag from the “Marion Nut Company” and have no skins. We place that order on Monday, which is my day off.

The general manager comes in around 9:30. He comes charging in, wearing his white undershirt and carrying his shirt and tie on hangers, slung over his shoulder. He greets all of us at once with a “Hello boys!” and heads straight for the espresso machine. He drinks at least six double espressos everyday. He is high-strung, always walks at full speed and talks at full volume, and I have never spoken to him for more than two-minutes at a time. I do like talking to him about the product-mix though. It is an easy way for me to act like I really care.

“Hey boss, did you see we sold seventy-five backs last night?” (Backs are full racks of baby-back ribs, the most popular entree).

“That’s not bad for a Tuesday.”

“Especially with twenty-two New Yorks and thirty Crab Cakes. That’s how we hit twenty-six mid-week.”

“Twenty-six” means twenty-six thousand in sales. We don’t count covers here. Only sales. On a good Friday or Saturday we do over thirty.

At 10 AM, all the kitchen guys clock out for a thirty minute break to eat. I need to finish cutting all the meat and fish by 10, or I’ll run behind all day. The cooks put together a spicy, greasy, starchy meal using scrap meat, beef ribs, rice, onions, garlic, and eggs. I have been working since 5:45, and I am hungry by this point. Their food always looks good, but never eat more than a few bites, because every morning, before the restaurant opens, I have to taste everything.

During my training, the kitchen-manager made a big fan-fare of “taste plate”. We just have to taste everything before service, but he made it seem like a test for his cooks and prep guys. I prefer to quietly move down the line, cold to hot, with a bowl and a handful of spoons.

I tackle the worst part first: the salad dressings. I stir each container, dip the handle or the back of my spoon, and taste while consuming as little as possible. We have seven different permutations of industrial mayonnaise, dried spices, chopped onions, and herbs. I know what they all should taste like: I look for the bitterness of stale oil or herbs, flatness when the lemon in a Caesar dressing has gotten too old, and I check to see that Blue Cheese dressing has enough chunky Danish Blue Cheese.

I don’t like to think about how much mayonnaise I must have consumed over the course of my employment here. I move my way down the line. I check the salad greens for freshness. I check the broccoli: it must be eighty-percent cooked so that when microwaved on pre-set number three, it won’t come out rubbery and overdone.

I smell all the fish. I throw a hamburger, three ribs that have broken off a full rack, and half an artichoke on the grill. I have to taste these items, and I end up eating most of them as my breakfast or lunch. The salad dressings always ruin my appetite, but I eat now, because once the rush starts, I won’t have another chance to eat anything until four in the afternoon.

I see the general manager and his assistant fussing with a plate of tomatoes. The assistant is taking pictures with a digital camera. Corporate has emailed them, concerned that we are selling “Vine-Ripe Tomatoes” as a side item in April. They want to see the color of the tomatoes. The general manager and his assistant try a few different lighting options. The tomatoes we serve are bright red, and we finish them with torn basil and olive oil. The customers love them. Eventually they take a satisfactory picture and nervously send it off to corporate. The tomatoes can stay.

But I don’t last more than a year . I quit after one year, on the exact day. They mail me a check for the week of vacation that they owe me.