Thursday, April 29, 2010

Heading back to Tony's


We did it. We had another dining adventure at Tony's Napoletana Pizzeria in San Francisco.
Two of our pizza making friends, Dean & Joanne treated us to one of the two tickets she had won at a raffle to cruise out under the Golden Gate, around Alcatraz and back to the pier. After a walk on the wharf and cruising through a couple of art galleries
we headed up Stockton Blvd. to Tony's. Unfortunately Tony had taken the day off after returning
from Italy and winning the triple
crown of pizza cooking contests. Nobody has ever done it before; not even an Italian. He is, to pizza over there, what our Lance Armstrong was to the French and the Tour de France–beating them at their own game. So, it was an hour wait on a Saturday evening, but what a beautiful spring day in San Francisco it turned out to be. Again we ordered his crown jewel,

the Napoletana Margherita,









a Garlic and Clam
and a Cal Italia which was another Gold Medal Winner from the Pizza Challenge and the Food Network. It carried mozzarella, asiago, imported Italiann Gargonzola cheeses with a sweet fig preserve,
thin slices of proscuitto and and topped with parmesan and a basalmic reduction. No wonder it won! It was a delicate balance of simple flavors, not outweighed by the sweetness of the fig sauce which made it almost a pizza pastry. Wow, I had no idea a pizza could be sweet and salty at the same time and just leave you drooling for more.
We both came home with a signed copy of Tony's book of pizza recipes and desserts. How could we not? After tasting his pizza masterpieces you have to know how he did it! One pizza at a time I suppose, is the only way to go right now.
I don't know why he does it. I suppose after winning these world championships of pizza he wants to share his expertise with those who are interested. In the business world I would have to think it would be business suicide to let go of your secrets. However, in his school of pizza where you can become certified in pizza making of every sort, you will learn his secrets anyway. On a professional level he will train you and you will become certified in only 5 days in one certain type of pizza making. For example: at his International School of Pizza (Scula Italiana Pizzaioli) which is the only international school certified by the Italian International School of Pizza,
Tony will personally train you to bake his world famous Margherita for a mere $1800 to $2000 in a 5-6 day course. Other courses cost less, such as Romana or any one type of American Pizza for only $1500. Or if you prefer all 3 of the American styles which would include all 3 of these certifications in New York, Chicago and California styles for about $4000. Do you think Ray Kroc would have done that to make hamburgers? Or Colonel Sanders? Ahh, but Tony, you give away the very types of flour you use, the brands of cheese and tomatoes. On YouTube I will see all of your techniques. What do I need to become certified for? You have taught me practically everything that I know so far. But he has also taught me that when I return to Tony's, to bring friends. Anybody want to toss pizza dough with Tony? Only $500 for beginners and $500 for advanced!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Rare Photo of Elvis ;-)


A pound of bacon for breakfast? Peanut butter and banana sandwiches? I wonder if Elvis would eat pizza. I suppose he would and he did but did we ever hear about it? Was the most photographed man in the world during his lifetime ever get photographed picking up a Shakey's and walking out? One of my favorite songs by Elvis was called: It's Now or Never. Huge vocals over an enormous range that only few singers could handle.
Sheri & I were in Venice, Italy going on a gondola ride of the canals when the gondolier from another boat started singing and it echoed across the water and through the narrow chasms of centuries-old, weather worn buildings. Immediately I recognized the melody. It was an Elvis song called 'It's Now or Never' except that it was in Italian? Then it dawned on me, O sole Mio was the actual name and the melody belonged to the Italians, not Elvis. Lucianno Pavarotti would sing it the correct way of course but I gotta hand it to The King, I thought he did a great American version of it.
Above is probably the only photo ever taken of the King eating pizza while singing It's Now or Never. It looks like a New York style to me with pepperoni.
I expect he probably would knock down a couple of these before or during a performance based on the size of the man's waistline and chubby cheeks.
Hey, if the King can eat pizza so can I. Of course I would need to put on my full Elvis jumpsuit, the rings, the rubber wig and sunglasses, not to mention the 70's style boots that he wore with the pointed toe that zip half way up the ankle.
Yeah, I think everyone should do it that way at least once in their lifetime. And while we're at it, guys get your woman an Elvis jumpsuit they can call their own. I'm talking beads and gems and sharp 70's styling with the high collar and the open front. Don't forget the cape and be sure to learn how to do that famous snarl too. Let's go to an Elvis festival somewhere and chow down on some carnival pizza!

Elvis Presley - It's Now Or Never Lyrics

It's now or never,

come hold me tight

Kiss me my darling,

be mine tonight

Tomorrow will be too late,

it's now or never

My love won't wait.

When I first saw you

with your smile so tender

My heart was captured,

my soul surrendered

I'd spend a lifetime

waiting for the right time

Now that your near

the time is here at last.

It's now or never,

come hold me tight

Kiss me my darling,

be mine tonight

Tomorrow will be too late,

it's now or never

My love won't wait.

Just like a willow,

we would cry an ocean

If we lost true love

and sweet devotion

Your lips excite me,

let your arms invite me

For who knows when

we'll meet again this way

It's now or never,

come hold me tight

Kiss me my darling,

be mine tonight

Tomorrow will be too late,

it's now or never

My love won't wait.

I Cured the Stone but Killed the Oven

Even when you don't believe it, sometimes the stars do line up in your favor. I went through 3 pizza stones before ordering one that should withstand temperatures of 750º. With a bit of a white lie, since they wouldn't deliver it to a residential address, only a commercial address, I told them to deliver it to Starbucks. What do they know, maybe Starbucks is expanding into the drive-thru coffee and pizza business. After 4 weeks this 16 pound stone arrived at Starbucks. I had to mention to the baristas that I had it shipped there so they wouldn't accidentally send it back or possibly break it. Naturally, questions abounded. To a select few, I promised I'd bring them a homemade pizza during their shift. I carefully removed the stone from the heavy cardboard box encased in strapping tape, then bubble wrap, then pop corn and then the shredded paper and there she was: Ooooooh, what a nice smooth and thick stone it was. This is the Fibrament D stone
that I had talked about in an earlier blog. The instructions called for me to cure the stone. I didn't know they were diseased! It said I had to bake it at increased temperatures of 100º for an hour for each hundred degrees. Then after I reached 500, keep it at 500º for 2 hours. Like a Swiss watch maker I worked that oven thermometer gauge in tandem with the timer until I reached my goal. Now, I had to cook dinner. The meatballs I made from Chef Gordon Ramsay's famous recipe were ready to go in. I shoved them in and reset the thermostat. After 45 minutes I went to take them out and nothing, no heat at all. After checking numerous times and resetting and even throwing the breaker I declared the oven had just died. Wow, what bum luck. I had cured the stone but killed the oven.
The stars do line up though. The next day we visited our local appliance store and got an education! We checked out Lowe's and Home Depot, came home and checked the internet. The one oven that I did like at Lowe's had ball bearing racks, cast iron burners, big knobs, wave-touch something or another and bunches of other features. One problem, it was $2299.00.
Much more than I could afford. But, there on the side, was a return of the same exact model half price but no warranty. Dang, I need that warranty. We headed home and checked the internet. There on Ebay the same darn oven in Texas for only $1299.00 with warranty and free shipping! Since it was Texas: no sales tax; that's another $100 saved. After we emailed several questions to them, we decided to call Texas. After 10 minutes on the phone, he knocked it down another $100 plus threw in a free gift card from American Express worth a $180! "OK, what's wrong with it?" we asked. Close-out: the manufacturers are discontinuing the color black and only going with stainless steel. Done deal! The range will be delivered free of charge next Tuesday.
The girls at Starbucks can have their promised home-baked by Chef Vincenzo pizza...finally.
I feel kind of like Bruce Willis after just saving the world from a huge apocalyptic calamity. Thank God, we can have pizza again! That's what's important, but I suppose we could have not bought a new range, avoid Starbucks forever and just go to Pizza Guys for pizza the rest of our lives. I'm thinking of keeping pictures of it in my wallet so when people show me pictures of their children or grand kids, I can show them pix of my new oven!

Thursday, April 22, 2010

A Backyard Sanctuary

OK, I've been told to slow down. A vast number of people have asked me where I find the time to write these blogs and one reader said I'm wearing them down by writing too much, too quickly. I remember an uncle of mine used to say you don't find the time, you make the time. In a large part that uncle was a huge inspiration to me. This guy would entertain 5 or 6 families at a time, all their kids and managed to still find the time, excuse me, make the time to say hi to each of the kids, not to mention all the adults, spread some humor around, show you his latest garden project and feed you all at the same time it seemed. This man was phenomenal. He had more talent and ability than most people I've met even to this day. Physically he is gone, but spiritually he's still there at least in my mind. He would grow corn six feet tall and in the same garden have towers of tomato bushes ripe with tomatoes. I can remember him barbecuing chicken many summer evenings for all these families. The man was a master at entertaining and making us laugh. He wasn't the kind of guy that told jokes but more of the play on words with clever humor or silly comments. I remember him calling himself a wordsmith once and of all the things he could do, inspiring me with his humor, whether he knew it or not, was an amazing gift. He had passions. His garden was an oasis of wonder. He had his pigeon coop and a mighty fish pond with huge Koi in it. Above his Japanese tea hut he could turn a valve and make it rain while you stood under the hut and watched the rain drops spray the pond. In his yard were sculptures of hand carved wood, glass balls and delicate plants. Next to the house was a waterfall and stream that emptied into another fishpond. It was always a fun trip to get in the car and go visit his house.
Maybe this is where I learned to love what I could do. Maybe watching him take a backyard and turn it into an environment. The man didn't let anything stop him. He once told me that if you do anything in your backyard Vince, do it with stones and water. In the 3 homes that Sheri and I have lived in I have always done just that. The first home in Oregon I built a pond and waterfall with streams and Koi. The next home I built a waterfall that emptied into our black bottom pool. The house we live in now is a little piece of what looks like Lake Tahoe here in Elk Grove. It has two waterfalls and my Danish mermaid looking down on the water to reflect my heritage.
My uncles' backyard was his sanctuary and mine is my sanctuary.
The one thing that is missing that would make it complete is that brick fired pizza oven. I need to build one out back somewhere out of bricks and mortar and let the primal man come out once more as I make fire and feel the heat on my face.
I bounced the idea off Sheri a few times and have been met with ambiguous confusing responses. I suppose I just don't understand what she is trying to say. I would say something like, "what if we were to..."No! "Ok, then if we moved the ..."No! "What if we took out this kitchen window and..."No! So what she is saying or at least this is what I am hearing is, I haven't phrased the question quite correctly yet. Or maybe I heard that today isn't a good day to discuss it. I didn't actually hear the word No come from her yet in my mind. I just haven't heard the words, Yes dear, I'm behind you 100%.
I don't expect to hear those words either, so I
will either wear her down emotionally or approach it serendipitously. The go ahead phrase that I expect to hear will go something like this. She'll ask me what's on my schedule today and I'll say, "I'm going to wash the car, mow the lawn, go to Home Depot, build a backyard pizza oven and put gas in your car." Her response, I'm hoping will be, "Alright, I'll be upstairs." Bump bump, bump bump. ( heart pounding wildly) I will say YESSSSS! . . . let the building begin!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Entertaining Michaelangelo, Queen Margherita and Napolean

Personally, I love to entertain. There are multiple reasons in the plus column why everyone should entertain. I find it extremely motivational to look beyond the surface and try to see my environment from a visitors vantage point. In other words, see it with fresh eyes. Things that I see everyday that visually don't bother me anymore are suddenly flashing like a beacon and I am suddenly aware of again. I'm talking about the dust that can accumulate on the fan in the family room or that ugly painting apron that I wear when I am oil painting that is lying across the bar next to the kitchen.
All of a sudden that cobweb 16 feet up in our entry will be getting noticed when guests stop to look up at the mural I have painted on the ceiling ala Michaelangelo.
Another aspect I like is showing off what I have worked so hard to accomplish. Maybe their first pizzas weren't as bad as my first
few pizzas but it if they were, they will appreciate mine that much more. Hopefully I provide a warm environment that my family and friends want to return to as opposed to being the topic of discussion on
their drives home.

What I will do also when guests ask me what, how, why and when about this journey is I will often interject bits of historical facts that will relate to the pizza or the process. I love history and had I not gotten a degree many moons ago in Art it would have to have been in History. I would venture to bet that the average person can't tell you 3 significant facts about the history of pizza. I know a year ago that I couldn't. People will often throw their two cents worth into the conversation about pizza or food and before you know it, you are learning
something new too.
I grew up with the myth that pizza was an American invention slanted to taste and look Italian. Now I know that it's origins are in Naples, Italy and many generations of evolution of it happened in
America. Those conversations can become fun and interesting. Someone will throw in the fact that the
English don't know what an English muffin is.

Or that burritos were invented in the U.S. or that Chop Suey and Fortune Cookies are also an American invention.
In 2006 we had gone to China. We both love Chinese food but that was American Chinese food and we were to learn that very quickly. I do believe,
if Chinese food had not become Americanized that most of us probably wouldn't be eating it today. I have to say it was different than what we expected or were used to.
The third and maybe the best thing of all is look at the pretty women that pizza attracts! Maybe it's not the pizza but maybe it's that a man is cooking. I can just hear those
discussions on their way home. "Hey! How come you don't cook pizza like Vince?" or "Why don't you learn to use a pressure cooker?"
My point is, that in the suburbs of Elk Grove we will not see an authentic Italian style Napoletana or a Margherita pizza.
For those guests uninformed as to what you are about to serve them a little explanation can go a long way. Suddenly the fear factor can be dissolved and the anticipation factor can rise.
It's something like if you ever wondered where that delicious cream filled pastry called a Napolean got it's name.
Which brings to mind some questions I still have about certain foods. Why do the Brits called fried potatoes, chips? Why are sardines always packed like sardines? And who was Chuck Roast?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Who is Gail and what does she have to do with the 3 Stooges?

Gail's Pizza Dough was the latest dough recipe on the internet that I had found coming with the highest of accolades from Albert Grande of Pizza Therapy. She had won the pizza making contest on Pizza Therapy. Mitch of prior blogs had been extremely proud of his recipe and very generous in sharing it with the world. I believe I posted his recipe earlier in the blog titled, "A New World to the Old World". It comes via FabulousFoods.com. When I come upon a review of a successful crust, sauce etc. I will copy the recipe to the computer and print it up as well for my hard copy file. Later when it's time to make another batch of dough, I prefer to do a side by side comparison so that I can rate one against the other. I ran hers against Albert Grande of Pizza Therapy and she wins hands down. Sorry Albert and sorry Mitch, Gail is in town. Her recipe, after one pizza, is my new favorite. The thing about it though, is her procedure, not her ingredients. Basically all doughs will have the same ingredients with multiple variations. Anyway, it has inspired me to design a few different pizzas that this dough, I believe, will work very well with my latest of thought creations. Two of our friends, who share my enthusiasm for pizza are vegetarians. The first couple of pizzas I had made for them, I just didn't put pepperoni on their
half. Problem solved. Yes and no, not really. I started to see where I could go with this. This was going to be my latest of challenges.
How could I construct a vegetarian or meatless pizza that a carnivore like myself could enjoy? For me the sensation of sizzling
pepperoni on the first bite is up there with winning your first costume contest. (For those of you who know me, no explanation needed. For those of you who don't, just take my word for it.) It's a good thing! It got my mind in gear and the notebook had to come out and I recorded my thoughts. While I have already done a few fabulous Margheritas that are meatless, I was thinking along the lines now of a thick crust NY style.
Our friends, Dean & Joanne, do eat fish so that opened up an ocean of possibilities. (Like my
descriptive and well placed adjective?) I started thinking about using crab meat. Crab meat with a garlic sauce. Sheri and I have googled numerous garlic white sauces. The one I really like is Round Table's. The exact recipe didn't come up, but I got
some help from some insiders that had worked there. It went something like this. Open five #10 cans of this mystery white sauce and mix it with a 5 lb. bag of these unmarked spices and you get Round Tables' white garlic sauce. The unfortunate part was the can and the package don't tell you what are in them, so that was no help. We did pursue the quest and with the help of the internet came up with some common ingredients Sheri finally worked them and a few of her own into a very nice white garlic sauce.
In addition, Sheri makes a crab dip that everybody raves about. It gets baked in the oven and served hot. I figured this combination would make a killer pizza. Although my first attempt didn't scream at me that it was huge success, I do believe it has high potential of being one of the best pizzas in my repertoire. Please feel free to try this dip.
Sheri’s Famous Hot Crab Dip:

This recipe is the most requested hors d’oeuvres ever!

It is great with wine and crackers and good friends.

8 oz. softened Philadelphia cream cheese

1 T. milk or 1/2 & 1/2 or cream

1 T. minced sweet onion

1 tsp. Old Bay Seasoning

Dash freshly ground pepper

6-8 oz. can crab meat (fresh is best!)

1/3 cup sliced almonds OR

1/2 c. freshly grated Parmesan

Stir milk into cream cheese. Blend in onion and seasonings.

Gently fold in crabmeat. Spread in greased casserole dish.

Sprinkle with Parmesan. Bake for 15 minutes at 375.

Serve with assorted crackers or crispy French bread slices.

As for Gail's dough, I am excited about the possibilities that await me. In my mind and in my notes, I have already created a pizza with elements from two of my favorite Italian dishes: pizza and lasagna. I will report on my success or failure, but first I had to bake the World's Best Lasagna as a lasagna to see what would need adjusting. I always bake double batches then split them as they are a lot of work. The lasagna worked out very well and I don't think I want to change anything the first time around.

The second lasagna is to confirm right or wrong the first one. I'm thinking of a meat sauce first. Small globs of seasoned Romano cheese topped by one more layer of meat
sauce and covered with mozzarella and parmesan. This would be served on Gail's thick NY style dough with the high border crust smacking of a sourdough texture and taste.
This could be when greatness happens, like when peanut butter and jelly met or when Larry Fine met Moe & Curly Howard, or when ... well, you get the idea.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Is Cooking Hazardous?


As I mentioned before, pizza is one of those communal foods. I, personally don't know anybody who doesn't like pizza. Some people are allergic to cheese and some of tomatoes or wheat but if they weren't I would venture to bet they would still like pizza. I've had friends swear Papa Murphy's is the best pizza you can buy. I have to smile and not say anything. I've also had friends tell me my pizza was the best they've ever had. I usually wait for the punch line or ask to see if their fingers are crossed but no, they really mean it. So does that mean game over, I win? Not hardly. I think like an artist because my mind works like an artists' mind. Good, bad or otherwise, that's the way it works. And when someone tells me it's the best pizza they've ever had that is one hell of a compliment but I always know that there is something else I could've done to tweak it to make it better. I then start rationalizing to myself, maybe you've only had so-so pizza all your life, maybe they don't eat pizza often enough to know the difference between frozen pizza and a well constructed pizza. Maybe you were born with inferior taste buds. No Vince, you make a helluva good pizza now. And I can say it out loud.
I'm not sure where this is going but to listen to the critique of your masterpiece or mastermess
and learn from it. It took me about 20 years to regroup after kitchen disasters and rewrite the future.
I did respond once to one of Rachel Ray's requests in her magazine to send her your kitchen mess or success. I decided mine was as good as anyone elses' in that column so I wrote it down
and sent it in. About 2 months later it was published with their
condensed version on my story. It went like this: (a very true story by the way) I was about 16 and my mom was cooking veal
scallopini in a pressure cooker.
She told me she had to run to the store for something and had asked me to wait for the timer to ring then turn off the fire under the cooker. I could do that! So the timer rang, I turned off the fire and doing her one better I was going to serve it for her. I had seen her cool the pressure cooker under the kitchen faucet before so I immediately put it under the faucet. I figured 10 or 15 seconds should be enough time to cool it and turned the water off. I lifted the heavy bugger up onto the breadboard
and began trying to separate the lid from the pot. I pushed with all my strength as it gradually started to move. I couldn't believe how stuck it was. I took a deep breath and pushed on the handle of the lid again while holding on to the pot handle. It moved slowly and finally after about 30 seconds of going super power on it,
with an explosion of air and scalding hot tomato sauce sending my right arm upwards still holding the lid in a huge arcing manner I knew I did something wrong. The pot stayed on the breadboard with most of its contents on the ceiling, the wall next to me, the cupboard in front of me, the counter, the floor and especially on me. I hit alert defcon 4. Mom wasn't going to be gone long and I had a hazmat spill the size of Mt. St. Helens on my hands, literally. In a confused and panicked high state of alert I began wiping the chunks of tomatoes and veal, onions and peppers and sauce off the walls and cupboard. Into the pot it went. The sauce on the floor and below waist became waste. I was too panicked to even realize that I was burned. I cleaned that kitchen cleaner then it had been before she had left. After sighing in relief I went into the bathroom to clean myself up. I changed my clothes and thought I had gotten away with it. I checked the kitchen again. I saw that I hadn't put the pressure cooker back on the stove with the lid on tight again. I was satisfied she would never know. I was confident and anxious for her return. There she was, she had just pulled up in the driveway. She walked in the front door. The door hadn't closed behind her when she looked at me and said, "You opened it didn't you." It wasn't a question, it was a statement. I was stunned, did she have spies? Did she never really leave? No, she saw the red splotchy burns all over my face and arms. I never did ask her how she knew immediately that I had opened it. Had she done it once before and recognized the pattern and shape of burns. Is it a text book medical case and it's taught how to recognize and identify veal scallopini burns? It never mattered. Moms are moms and they know everything.
Physically I recovered. Mentally I was scarred. Cooking could be hazardous to your body and your mind. I went on to cook later in life professionally and personally but I never forgot that incident nor did I repeat it. Thank god pizza isn't cooked under that kind of pressure.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

A Slice of Knowledge


Pizza hasn't always been around. In our lifetimes it has, but not forever like apple pie. Pizza was fairly well kept secret that crept overseas, through Ellis Island and ended up in places like New York City. Gradually it showed up in general stores, made in the back room by the in-house baker and fed to the workers in a crude form somewhat resembling what we know as pizza today. It was an Italian peasant comfort food. World War II opened us up to other cultures by taking us back to the old countries that so many of our fathers, and grandfathers had left. Back then this country was very much isolationist. When the war came and G.I.'s ended up in Sicily with Patton and up the leg of the boot, they discovered the little Italian mamas who would feed them from time to time with a very inexpensive food that was still available even at war time. Some home made cheese melted in a brick fired bread oven over some minced tomatoes with a few spices on a flattened piece of bread tasted pretty darn good to the soldiers on leave. When the G.I.'s returned they remembered that mouthful of flavors and sought it out. The back room pizza makers were catching on with the general population, but mainly in the Italian districts of the big cities. Soon they were starting up their own pizzerias and an industry was born. I'm not sure how quickly the big screen LED TV's moved into the franchises and plastered sports with no sound on every wall of the place, while video arcade games decorate the walls and the sounds of Darth Vader getting shot at for the millionth time, all while you ate your pizza, but those places are relegated to the title of Pizza Parlor. I suppose it gathers the same respect a massage parlor would get as opposed to massage therapy. In any event, a true authentic style pizza place that respects the craft like Tony in San Francisco or that little Italian mama in Rome or Naples is still a pizzeria.
I can remember as a child getting the occasional pizza at a place called 'Gay 90's Pizza'. I'm not sure that name would make it these days, but on the other hand maybe it would be highly successful. I've never stepped foot in a Chuck E. Cheeses but somehow I don't think that place is ever going to end up on the list of pizzerias. Also there was Shakey's who was one of those guys coming back from Italy after WWII and building his pizza empire. For the time I still think he had it right. Saturday nights banjo music by live banjo players would get together and do their banjo version of barbershop quartet music. I hope that wasn't an oxymoron. The servers all had vertical striped red vests on; it seemed to fit the part. Those days are gone. I haven't seen a Shakey's or a Straw Hat Pizza place in decades. I still remember a sign posted at one of the Shakey's I frequented. It read: We made a deal with the bank, we won't cash checks and they won't make pizza. It always made me laugh. Another one I recall now read: Free pizza to all customers over 90 accompanied by both parents. I suppose they didn't give away too many pizzas.
Historically pizza has been a finger food and a communal food. I suppose it would be the New Testament version of breaking bread with family and friends because it always takes a family or a few friends to eat a whole pizza. Eating pizza with your hands is the right thing to do wherever you are. You reach over the person sitting next to you grab a slice and pull it away with that huge stretchy band of mozzarella ready to snap back and wrap around you and the guy behind you. You take a huge bite and immediately burn the roof of your mouth and say man that's hot. Oh no, no, no. Not if you are in London eating pizza. We did exactly that at an American franchise pizza place. Sure there was silverware at our table but we figured that was for the lettuce munchers at the salad bar. Sheri & I were devouring our first slice of pizza and the place went virtually quiet. I paid no attention to the silence but I did notice there was a room full of people staring at us. I asked Sheri If I had cheese hanging from my chin. Was there sauce all over my face? That's when I noticed the silverware in action. The Londoners properly cutting a nice bite size and manageable piece of pizza off their slice. They all sat so straight and rigid too. I think a couple of them even had their napkins tucked into their buttoned up shirts. Nevertheless we decided by then the spectacle was made, so we continued to eat it like cavemen. I wanted to stand up and make a statement about the proper way to eat a pizza is with your hands but to the Londoners that would be like to us, eating oatmeal with our fingers. I say that any food that is thrown into the air when being prepared can be eaten with your hands. That's my new rule!
The first picture is that of a Napoletana Margherita. Pizza has evolved though. I believe there are about 21 official styles of pizza in the U.S.
In Chicago there is deep dish,
In New York there is of course, New York style,















New Haven style.


and the midwest has their versions as well with a very noticeable difference on the right. Family size for sure.
Californians have their style, and we don't even want to go into the frozen aspects of pizza, pizza pockets, or any of the kids meal versions of pizza. Calzones, however are basically a pizza folded in half and worthy of mention. Any place with a pizza oven can assemble and bake a calzone.
As a young teenager with my first vehicle I thought it would be cool to drive across America and have coffee at every Sambo's restaurant there was. What a worthy goal that was! (Remember, I speak sarcasm fluently). Now as I am older, wouldn't it be cool to drive across America and try all 21 styles of pizza? Who's with me?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Form is now Following Function








When you wake up thinking about dough, sauces, techniques I could've tried instead of things I need to do today you start to wonder about yourself. At least I'm not skipping work to wrestle with a new dough recipe. But, on your day off you drive 78 miles one way to find some canned tomatoes that are nearly impossible to get your hands on unless you are a restaurant is that cause for alarm? I say yes, if the tomatoes are no good. However, these aren't any old canned tomatoes. These are Alta Cuchina whole plum tomatoes from the Stanislaus Valley. So what, you say! OK, let me explain. The canned tomatoes that I paid $5.99 that came from Italy's Compania region near Mt. Vesuvius called San Marzanos are becoming harder to get. I have heard rumors that the region is becoming polluted and the tomatoes are not what they used to be. In any event. Tony, remember Tony from earlier blogs? Tony is buying these tomatoes. If Tony is buying these tomatoes it's like saying,"OK, Van Gogh is using Grumbacher paints. Shouldn't I be?" The tomatoes by the way are available to the public if you can find this place in Modesto at an Olive Oil plant called Sciabica & Sons. His olive oils are worth the drive alone.

But that's not what this web log is about. I would wake up and know that the dough in my refrigerator is in a kitchen that is bordering on total boredom. Face it, the kitchen is where guest congregate and lean on the counters and set their drinks. There is no escaping it. You can build a wine room, you can build an outdoor patio station that some people would envy, you can decorate your family room with actual artists like a signed original by Peter Max, a signed print by Salvador Dali and two by my very good friend and international wildlife artist, Terry Isaac, it doesn't matter. The people come back to the kitchen. That's where the food is. That's where the action is and that's the comfort zone. (Just a thought: maybe it's the original Vince Larsen pizzas that keep them in the kitchen! ) Anyway, it almost embarrassed me at how plain the kitchen was. Yeah, I know, I'm an artist so it's my fault. Truth of the matter is there wasn't much wall space but there was a lot of need for some character. I thought about emailing HGTV for a kitchen makeover. I figured I would be lost in the thousands of emails there so I decided to do something about it myself. I wanted color. I wanted texture and I wanted it to represent the current journey of rediscovering pizza that I am on.
After numerous times of asking Sheri what we should do about the boring kitchen, she went out and bought some red accents. To brighten up the kitchen you need color. She bought a rug for under the sink, some red utensils and a container to hold them on the counter. For me that wasn't enough. That was like drinking near-beer or watching a bald guy imitate Elvis. What I wanted was to make a statement. I decided to float the walls with drywall mud in a random and freeform method. After it dried I painted it an off-white semigloss paint then I faux painted it with a rustic rust and an earthy brown to frame it. Sounds kinda 70's doesn't it! Don't worry it didn't end up looking like a page out of a Foxfire book. I hope. The result was an 'Old World' look that accentuated the walls so that the microwave was no longer the focus. Some people will call it a Tuscan finish. Either way the final results are in and I like it. I framed Tony's menu and hung it on the end wall and now I feel like I am being reminded to, as Tony would say, "respect the craft." I am, Tony, I just bought a case of Alta Cuchina tomatoes from the Stanislaus Valley. BTW, Alta Cuchina tomatoes are only $1.99 per can!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

San Francisco Sour Dough









I suppose I should face up to it. As long as there is internet, there will be recipes to discover and experiment with. I keep finding new ones or twists on old ones. One that it intrigues me is sourdough. I had discovered that a sourdough culture is necessary to have a sourdough bread or pizza dough. So I googled sourdough starters and a whole new science was there to be explored. I had never heard of such a thing. I guess the conversations at a tailgate meeting with employees or standing 30 feet up on a ladder aren't conducive to 'what does anyone knows about sourdough starters?' Now remember, I'm the same guy who didn't know yeast was a living thing. These cultures apparently were highly guarded and very secretive. Some of these cultures have been kept alive for hundreds of years. When the 49ers came to California in search of gold not superbowl rings, some were called sourdoughs. I never knew why I just figured they probably smelled like sour dough. Indeed they did! On a cold night these sourdough miners would sleep with their cultures to keep them alive and warm. Myths were perpetuated about the sourdough cultures to protect them. Stories are told that the flavor comes from the water in that region and specifically I'm talking about the most famous cultures of them all, San Francisco. The fact is that it comes from the air. That's where the cultures are most likely blown in from the ocean that gives San Francisco its own unique taste. A bread cannot be called San Francisco Sourdough unless it is actually from an authentic San Francisco sourdough culture. Much like wines from Napa must be of Napa grapes, not from another appalachia.
Back to pizza though and you can see where this is going. Introduce an authentic San Francisco sourdough into my nearly perfect pizza dough and I think Nirvana would be within reach. However, I still need an authentic sourdough culture of San Franciscan origin, not style, as there are fakes, but you would want it from the mother lode of San Francisco sourdoughs themselves. I know you can hear the theme song to 'Mission Impossible' in the back of your head. Not anymore! This is beginning to sound like an ad for Google but there they are: Authentic San Francisco Sourdough yeast cultures right where you would expect to find them, in Idaho. We called the aging Ed Wood in Idaho. Not the same Ed Wood that made famous Hollywood disasters like 'Plan 9 From Outer Space', or at least I don't think he is. Anyway, we bought some Italian yeast as well as the authentic SF sourdough yeast cultures.
This is where it starts becoming scientific. We built a couple of these proofing boxes from styrofoam ice chests with a light bulb, a dimmer switch and a thermometer probe. When you receive the yeast it's in a dry form. You have to activate it by feeding it regularly with mixtures of flour, water red meat, shoe leather and moustache wax. OK, the last 3 things I made up but you do have to feed it and it grows into a blob under controlled conditions. You split it and feed again. I had read stories about people cutting their vacation short to jet home to feed their dough starters. I'm not that crazy yet. Others have named it and call it their pet. Remember it is a living thing! Our first bread experiment is happening as I write this. We are baking our first Italian sourdough to practice before we tackle the holy grail of sour doughs and anxiously waiting for a success. If it is, then my pizza dough is the next thing to be converted and I believe I can truly call the dough recipe mine.

Friday, April 9, 2010

While in Rome...



Sheri and I had gone to Rome. While on a tour bus we decided at one of the stops we would hop off and do some exploring on our own and find our own way back. Mick & Maggie, a couple from Australia were going to do the same thing. We split up without the intention of meeting up later. How could we? We didn't have cell phones back then and neither of us had been to Rome before so we didn't know our way around. There is nothing like immersing yourself into a foreign culture without knowing the language and not even a map. The exhilaration of exploring, discovering and experiencing with all your senses, sights to behold, the sounds of the city, aromas (good & bad) and to feel cold marble and stone under your feet and hands at all times and the surroundings of an ancient culture as we walked along for what may have been several miles.
We were getting hungry and started looking for a place to eat. Block after block there were no eateries, no ristorantes, street vendors, trattorias, cafes or anything that resembled food. We finally had realized that we weren't in the food districts of Rome! We had been walking through the retail section. I had forgotten that Europeans divide up their cities like that into districts. We finally moved one block over and there were all the ristorantes. Problem was, they were all closed. Again, the Europeans eat much later than we do. It had gone from 6:00 to 6:30 to 7:00 and now was getting close to 8:00. Finally I noticed a little old woman sweeping her sidewalk with a handmade broom. The door to her ristorante was open. In it was a brick fired oven with a nice fire burning in it. We crossed the street and doing my foreign gesture thing she gladly welcomed us inside and said "you eat, you eat." Not 5 minutes after we sat down our friends, Mick & Maggie were peeking in the door to see if they were open. I saw them and called out to them. Had we tried to meet up with them some 5 hours later in a huge city like Rome we could've never made it happen, even with cell phones. The chances would've been astronomical. Mick & I had to order the brick fired pizza. I had never had one before so this was a first. A first also to engage my 5th sense in Rome. The taste was out of this world. Old world cooking meets hungry travelers. After devouring the pizza we all laughed at what a phenomenal bit of luck we had meeting up again for dinner. We caught a taxi back to the hotel with a driver that spoke no English. After a hair raising, multi car passing, over double lines and through intersections at amazing speeds that turned our knuckles white we made it back to our hotel. The day was a huge success and a lot of fun but the thought of that pizza continued to visit me through the years. It was not to go away and I was going to have to deal with it again some day by meeting it head on. This day is coming soon.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A New World to the Old World







\








































The dough can make for endless conversations and debates. I suppose it's been debated since the first pizza made in Naples centuries ago. The dough recipe that I keep coming back to even though I am constantly experimenting with others is Beverly Collins who gives out her recipe in the 'Secrets of the Pizzeria'. It is available for purchase but I don't want to give away what she is selling so I will not post her recipe. Others that are out there are Mitch's dough recipe which is at www.FabulousFoods.com:


  1. 3 1/2 cups flour
  2. 1 cup warm water
  3. 2 tablespoons yeast
  4. 2 tablespoons honey
  5. 1/4 cup olive oil
  6. 1/2 teaspoon salt
Along the way I found it necessary to experiment and try other dough recipes and other styles. I had the opportunity to go to Tony's Napoletana Pizzeria in San Francisco. Tony is famous internationally in the world of pizza and food in general. He has been world champion pizza tosser for numerous years as well as world champion pizza maker by actually beating the Italians in Naples at making a Margherita Pizza. He's all over You Tube, Food Channel, Jay Leno, Rachel Ray and you get the idea. We got the chance to meet him and taste his award winning pizzas. There were 5 of us so we ordered 3 pizzas. The award winning Margherita named for Queen Margherita of Italy designed to be the colors of the Italian flag. The red tomato sauce, the white mozzarella and topped with green basil leaves. Besides that one we also ordered a cheese pizza and a garlic and clams on a white sauce which was in itself worth the 2 hour drive from Sacramento. Tony unknowingly opened up a whole new world of pizza to me. These were all thin crust Napoletana style baked in a brick fired oven imported from Italy. Did I mention they bake in 90 seconds at 900º?
I knew exactly what my new goal was now. I had to try and duplicate what the master does 73 times a night. When Tony reaches 73 Margherita's he's done for the night.
I used my standard dough recipe made for thin crust and rolled it out as thin as I could from tossing and finishing with the rolling pin. On it I did not use my standard sauce. I had done my homework. On his menu that we brought home tells you the type of San Marzano whole plum tomatoes imported from the Compania region of Italy near Naples grown in the ash of Mt. Vesuvius that he uses. He had also mentioned imported Mozzarella di Bufala on his menu as well. We shopped and we found at Nugget the brand of tomatoes Tony uses for $5.99 for a 28oz can. We also had found tubs of the mozzarella di bufala imported from Italy at Grocery Outlet. A basil plant was all we needed and it was pizza time.
I preheated the oven for over an hour and a half at 550º with the pizza stone on top of the tile stones. This warmed up the kitchen a tad. I turned the vent fan on low and paced myself. The sauce I made earlier was simple. Crushed tomatoes with a little bit of red wine vinegar, salt & pepper. I did not cook the sauce, I chilled it. I applied the sauce to the dough and it spread out almost translucent. I had sliced the mozzarella and dried the slices on paper towels. Spreading the cheese out carefully now and drizzling it with a high quality extra virgin olive oil. I slid it into the hot oven. I was anxious but I was peeking through the glass in the oven door. I had some basil leaves ready, opened the door and dropped them on and slid it back in quickly. About 3 minutes was all it needed as light as it was in mass. I pulled it out with noticeable charring on the edges and bubbling cheese. Let it rest a minute or two and listen for that crunch when you cut it. OMG, when I took my first bite I knew I wasn't far behind Tony. He had given all his secrets on his menu and on You Tube.