These days, small-time food operations– specialty mayonnaise stores, gourmet dog treat bakeries– especially those on-the-pulse in trendy neighborhoods, seem to come and go quickly as say, nipple photos disappear from Instagram. Restaurants concepts grow tired, indie ventures can’t afford their rent, local faves raise their prices after media feeding frenzies blow up their latest dessert… the list goes on. Sometimes it can seem like there’s no hope for the lil shops selling classics anymore. But, there is hope for pizza. There is always hope for pizza.
A lecture last week at the Brooklyn Historical Society called Brooklyn Pizza: The Search for Authenticity, featured a panel of pizza makers and real live “pizza historian” Scott Wiener (the guy behind “Scott’s Pizza Tours”), and proved that the heart (and hearth) of this beloved food and those who make it is certainly alive and well. Sure, pizza may have reached gained some “cool girl” cred recently, but true pizza lovers will not be overshadowed by Hot Girls Eating Pizza and then inevitable parodies on Reductress; we really care.
The talk welcomed pizza purveyors of all kinds, from upscale Neapolitan restauranteurs to greasy slice kings, from all over Brooklyn (if pizza had a soul, it would live here) including Maggie De Marco of the acclaimed Di Fara’s in Midwood, Gio Lanzo of Luigi’s Pizza in Park Slope, Luca Arrigoni of Neapolitan-style shop Sottocasa, and Anna Viertel of sustainable-mobile-eatery-turned-physical-shop, Pizza Moto.
The evening was charmingly wholesome, from the passion of the panelists to the attentive, cardigan-clad audience. The only thing that wasn’t whole was the pizza, which was snapped up in a flash by what I can only imagine were gleefully early attendees, so much so that there was barely any left by the time I got there. But still, it was civil— there were no fights over the last slice. At least nothing outright. Maybe there’ll be some subtle cyberbullying later.
Perhaps I’m out of touch in the world of pizza– I have to admit I’ve never made it to any of these establishments. Everyone around me certainly had; when Wiener asked who had been to at least one of them, so many hands shot up around me it felt like I had suddenly been transported to a zombie’s field of wheat. Things started to feel even more culty when someone remarked wryly amidst cheers that they wouldn’t want to be the one person who didn’t raise their hand. But if you had to join a cult, a cult of pizza doesn’t sound half bad.
The presentation started fairly businesslike, with an explanation for pizza’s origins, which were placed in Southern Italy. But pizza pies grew famous in New York during the 1970s and ‘80s, and Italians took note, and even tried to create classification systems to denote which pizza was done correctly as a way of taking back the reins. This attempt, while well-intentioned, fell flat in America. (Hey– we’re a classless society, right?)
While many of the ingredients that make up the panelist’s pizzas come from Italy (others come from local vendors, some as close as across the street), it does not seem like the borough is giving up their pizza supremacy anytime soon. Arrigoni, who hails from Milan and came to America to do acting, said that pizzerias in Milan are a dime a dozen, and there’s not much of a sense of curiosity and rigor to pizza consumption and creation as there is here. There, pizza is more or less pizza. Wiener asked Arrigoni if he misses pizza in Italy, and he says he wishes he did, but unfortunately it’s just better here. Milan’s pizza is “larger, thinner, and drier,” and doesn’t use the kind of high-moisture mozzarella that he does in his celebrated Neapolitan pies.
Others have deep roots in Brooklyn. “I was stuck in it, I hated it every day and now I can’t get out of it,” explained Gio, who grew up watching his father work at Luigi’s and went through much schooling and a paperwork-laden desk job before inevitably returning to the family business and realizing it was exactly where he was supposed to land. He charmed the crowd with his sincere love for cheese and sauce, saying he could eat pizza every day, and often does. “Pizza sneaks in,” he said with a laugh. Though he often partakes of other pies in the city, he notes that his lifelong presence in the pizzeria makes him a very finicky restaurant-goer. “We ate at home, and home was in the pizzeria,” he recalled.
Similarly, De Marco (whose parents were in the audience) tells the crowd that she was born into it; her parents worked long hours every day in their pizzeria, and sometimes the only way she could spend time with them was to join them.
Not all the businesses represented were classic family legacies. Viertel’s Pizza Moto, started with business partner David Sclarow, began as a mobile operation and settled at a brick-and-mortar location between Red Hook and Carroll Gardens. The building they found had been a bakery since 1859 that went through several iterations, although most recently it was a Papa John’s franchise that had put up a wall obscuring the oven. After discovering the oven behind the wall, it took two years to renovate and get everything in working order.
This building’s history is special to Viertel, who has a background in sustainable agriculture and urban planning. She uses a sourdough fermentation process to make her pizza dough, and creates the starter for this bread from “wild yeast.” The technique requires that the flour base be left out for many hours to collect free-floating bacteria from the air rather than using active yeast. It was almost poignant when she explained that each batch of dough essentially has the building’s rich history and spirit baked directly into it.
True, the lecture did set out to explore what makes Brooklyn pizza authentic, but the panelists spent more time explaining specific passions rather than delving into that particular inquiry. It made for a more engaging time; for example, they spent a long time detailing how each of their pizza ovens work, from makes and models of ovens to how they were transported into their shop and whether or not their stones break and how they fix them. This did not go unnoticed– when the panelists began taking questions from the audience, the first man asked them outright, “What really makes an authentic Brooklyn pizza?” He simply had to know.
Many of the panelists agree that the clay pipes that carry Brooklyn’s water is a major factor. Viertel explained she tried making pizza using the same ingredients and technique while in France, and it just wasn’t the same. However, there’s less of a clear-cut answer to this– Wiener cites a 1907 New York Tribune article that claimed to have found the two places to get 100-percent authentic Neapolitan pizza in the city, remarking that surely the “authentic” pizza being made now has shifted and changed since then. Viertel adds that any ingredient and technique can be authentic to your practice, as long as “it’s taking you where you want to go.”
And B+B wasn’t the only one to note pizza was worth making a pilgrimage for. During the Q+A section, one kindly older man went on about how people flock from all over to get a taste of Di Fara’s pies and how he brings all of his out-of-town friends there. He got so caught up in sincere praise for pizza he finally had to admit that he entirely forgot what question he meant to ask.
It’s easy to get caught up in cynicism and being jaded about the city and its inhabitants. It’s not hard to fill your brain with thoughts about how everything is terrible, because really a lot of things are. But it’s nice to have a reminder that passionate and hardworking folk are still out there, thriving and genuinely loving what they do without taking the easy route or pandering to trends. And not only that, there are scores of people who will attentively listen to them speak at length about their craft.
Cheesy as it is, it’s comforting.