Pizza is an equalizer.
When tomorrow’s people look back on the strife and schisms that led to the decline and fall of our contemporary civilizations, they will laugh and ask, “Kial ne tauxga por pico?” which is Esperanto for, “Why didn’t they just meet for pizza?”
But as much as pizza brings people together, opinions as to what constitutes ‘pizza,’ let alone the perfect pizza, can tear them apart. Forget pineapple, anchovies, or broccoli — those are obvious grounds for a fight — but whether you favor Chicago, Detroit, or New Haven or throw down in defense of New York, Neapolitan, or St. Louis, someone else is going to see it differently.
New York Times food editor Sam Sifton has coined what he calls Pizza Cognition Theory which states “The first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes (and somehow appreciates on something more than a childlike, mmmgoood, thanks-mom level), becomes, for him, pizza.”
To sort it out or perhaps just add further confusion to the topic, we spoke to the chefs behind four local pizza joints to find out about their earliest pizza memories, and what they now think constitutes a flawless pie and why.
We start by putting the Pizza Cognition Theory to the test.
“My first memory of loving pizza came from a place called Colony Pizza in Stamford, Conn.,” reminisces Chef Greg Kurtzman of Ristorante Juliet (654 King St.). “I don’t think it’s influenced what I think of as the ideal pizza, but it was the first pizza that I remember falling in love with, and I still do to this day.”
Chef Luke Davis of Luke’s Craft Pizza (271 Ashley Ave.) recalls “my dad bringing home a thin, cracker-crust, square-cut sausage pizza from a local mom and pop shop in Columbus, Ohio, and eating it at the kitchen table with my three brothers.” However, he also claims it has no bearing on the pies he produces today, noting “the memory is more nostalgic than anything.”
Chef Evan Gaudreau of Renzo Wood-Fired Pizza and Natural Wine (384 Huger St.) has a slightly more embarrassing core memory, laughing that, “I’m sure I had eaten pizza prior to this, but a memory that sticks out is going to the Pizza Hut pizza buffet. It wasn’t a common occurrence, and probably after a baseball game carpooling with a friend’s more laissez-faire parents. The idea of a buffet is really appealing to a kid, especially a pizza buffet. You choose your own adventure. If eight-year-old me had anything to say about it, there would be a dessert pizza on the Renzo menu for sure.”
“I don’t think Pizza Hut influences my aesthetic,” he says, “but when we were figuring out which direction we wanted to go, we were very open-minded. I discovered pretty quickly that everyone has very strong opinions on pizza no matter where they’re from. So to find our niche we edited down all of our favorite pizza experiences to create our own style.”
The outlier, New York-raised chef Todd Lucey of Slice Co. (1662 Savannah Hwy. Ste. 202) seemingly confirms the theory, recalling, “I remember always asking for lunch money on Pizza Friday in elementary school. Also, I grew up with slice pizzerias on every corner. No matter what neighborhood we were in we had a go-to pizza spot for that area. They aesthetically all looked similar, no-frills décor because the focus was on the pizza. I, to this day, order ‘regular’ (just cheese) slices. I like simple pizzas with only a few components.”
Nonetheless, and despite the reasons why, most people have an idea of what makes the perfect slice of pizza. Most chefs, it seems, have a crystal clear picture of the same.
Gaudreau is one of them. “There are a lot of factors in a perfect slice,” he says. “Most of them are crust-related. So much has to happen before that dough is even shaped into a pizza. First, I look at how it’s been cooked. I want a good amount of leoparding on my crust for aesthetic reasons, but also for flavor. Those black spots also let you know the oven is 800+ degrees, which is essential. The crust should be puffy, crisp, light, and airy, with an aroma of that fermented tang. From there I look at the cook on the bottom. It should be just slightly charred, and flexible — but cooked through. Then we go to the toppings. There should be as much moisture as possible on the surface of the slice without compromising the structure of the crust.”
Gaudreau says that when it comes to choosing the ‘perfect’ pizza toppings, “That’s impossible. I can’t choose. But if we’re going classic then the sauce has to be crushed raw San Marzanos with olive oil and salt. And thickly cut mozzarella pulled that morning.”
Davis also has a vision. “There needs to be a slight char and a medium-crumb hole structure on the crust (which is the result of proper dough proofing),” he explains. “The crust on its own should taste like great bread; not too thin and droopy, but still easy enough to fold. Also, quality tomatoes that make a simple, straightforward sauce, and a combination of a superior mozzarella (for a milky, mild flavor) and a hard aged cheese (for a rich, sweet, nutty flavor) that melt perfectly together. Plus the right balance and ratio of sauce/cheese/toppings — less is more — and everything on the pizza complementing each other; no ingredient overshadowing another.”
Kurtzman is a diplomat, it seems. “I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect pizza,” he equivocates. “There are so many styles, techniques, and combinations of pizza that you can’t say one is better than others. I feel that pizza and Italian cooking in general should be more focused on the quality of the ingredient you use to let it shine in a dish.”
Tomato, tomahto; flatbread, deep dish. Regardless of your preference, there’s likely a chef out there singing your siren song. And lucky for those here in Charleston, there are more than a few outstanding tunes to choose from.
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