February 13, 2017
Franco Pepe travels the world, preaching pizza. He is an earnest man, a perfectionist, a control freak, who makes every chef he visits nervous. Every single ingredient must be up to his standards.
When he leaves his small Pepe in Grani pizzeria in Caiazzo, outside Naples he travels with his own wheat; nothing else will do. He’s fussy about tomatoes; they must be Piennolo del Vesuvio tomatoes (he has them preserved in jars). Anchovies, of course, will only do from Cetara and Signor Pepe prefers the olives from his hometown. As for mozzarella, here’s Chi Spacca’s chef, Ryan Denicola, on the subject. “We got buffalo mozzarella from four importers, and he rejected them all. They were too soft inside. He won’t use mozzarella unless you can see the layers in the cheese, like rings in a tree.”
And when he’s mixed the dough, he runs around whatever kitchen he happens to be in with a thermometer, searching out the perfect place to let it rise.
The result? The most perfect pizza you will ever eat.
Signor Pepe spent last weekend in Los Angeles, teaching pizza classes at Chi Spacca. He was a wonder to watch, deftly patting out the dough, covering it with cheese and putting it into the oven for less than a minute. At the very end each pizza is hefted on the peel, lifted to the fire and toasted on top, much as you would a marshmallow around a campfire.
The result? Simultaneously soft and crisp, the crust bakes up into something very much like a cloud, cradling whatever toppings Signor Pepe chooses to add.
My favorite was Il Sole nel Piatto (sunshine on a plate) with buffalo mozzarella, anchovies, basil, extra virgin olive oil and olives. The flavors simply exploded on the palate.
Fried into calzone, the dough becomes crisp, fragile and virtually greaseless; I had a hard time believed it had ever encountered oil.
Pizza Scarpetta. In Italian table talk, fare la scarpetta means “make the little shoe.” It’s what you do when you tear off a piece of bread and scrape the last bit from your plate. And this pizza, with is stunningly intense tomato sauce, insists you eat every last tidbit. Fantastic!
Onions. Cheese. Cream By this time I was in a pizza coma, eating blindly, unable to stop.
Sadly, I neglected to photograph the “wrong Margarita,” which the chef makes by cooking only the mozzarella, then adding squiggles of tomato sauce and basil oil after the pizza emerges from the heat. A challenge and an exclamation from the man who many think is the greatest pizzaiolo in the world: “I will make it mine!”
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