Mark Bello is so passionate about pizza I’d follow him into the flames of a wood burning oven. The metaphor is even more appropriate because he reminded me that with pizza, as with so many things, the devil is in the details.
I’ve made pizza at home dozens of times, but it has never been, in my estimation, anything very special. And I feel like I’ve been granted undeserved praise for my pizzas–extra bonus points because I am a devoted Italian cook, Neapolitan by heritage, and a person who has eaten her fair share of pizza from the toe through the top of Italy’s boot and beyond. The thing about pizza, though, is that even bad pizza is pizza and still kinda good.
My most recent efforts produced a dough that didn’t rise so well and a fairly flavorless crust. Still, my pizzas were lauded by my guests. It didn’t feel right to accept kudos when I knew it could be so much better, and so I signed up for a workshop with the experts at Pizza a Casa Pizza School.
Housed in a storefront very far east on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, this “pizza self-sufficiency” center hosts pizza-making workshops nearly every day of the week. Mark greeted me at the door and immediately offered me a seltzer in a short, fluted water glass exactly like the ones found in every small-town trattoria in Italy.
“Are you coming here from nearby today?” he asked.
“No, not at all!” I replied dramatically, peeling off my winter coat. “Washington Heights. Northern Manhattan!” He laughed a little which I realized later was in response to my intrinsic New Yorkiness. The other workshop participants were from Chicago, Phoenix, and the UK. Apparently the word is out.
Mark opened the workshop by explaining that his quest for the perfect homemade pizza took root while he was exiled in Chicago, the land of deep-dish pizza. He missed the crispy Neapolitan-inspired New York/New Jersey pies he grew up with, and so began years of experimentation to achieve pizza perfection in a home oven. Then we dug into three hours of pure fun.
Every detail of the workshop is impeccably well considered and organized. Each work station has every necessary tool at the ready, two assistants aid each stage of the pizza process more responsively than servers at a five-star restaurant, and questions—even just potentially confused looks or furrowed eyebrows—are noticed and addressed with jolly urgency.
Mark champions quality ingredients and gets all of the workshops’ mozzarella from Alleva Dairy, New York’s oldest cheese shop and one of three relic food stores of the old Little Italy. He passed around samples of the fresh moist cheese as well as the smoked version, which he claims to eat like an apple when he picks it up fresh from the smoker.
Intense pizza passion is also manifest in the paraphernalia that decorates the walls and makes the oven-warm interior even more cozy and comfortable. There is everything from a movie poster for “The Pizza Triangle” starting Marcello Mastroianni to advertisements for Chef Boyardee “pizza-in-a-box” to a large fork shaped to ward off the evil eye. (The finger sign is more popularly known to heavy metal fans as devil horns, though they originate from Ronnie James Dio’s Italian grandmother and the “malocchio.”) The only picture that confused me was this one:
Mark must have noticed me staring at the photo because he suddenly explained that it was Queen Margherita, queen consort of the newly united Italy, for whom the classic tomato, mozzarella and basil pie was created to echo the flag of the brand new country.
So what was I was doing wrong with my own pizzas? Not any one thing, but lots of little things along the way that, once adjusted, added up to a remarkably improved pie. I had been reactivating my yeast in water that was too warm because my definition of “bathwater” is apparently a lot hotter than most. I had also been too rough on my dough. Previously I had rolled my eyes at pizza purists who say you must never use a rolling pin, but to achieve fluffiness in a home oven, which can never get as hot as a restaurant pizza oven, one must respect the little houses of air that the yeast molecules worked so hard to build. (Think Fraggles and Doozer sticks.)
I learned to be gentle, go slowly, and never ever forget that food is a conduit of love. If you knead with love, you’ll impart love straight into your pizza.
Leaving Pizza a Casa, I was armed with a wealth of knowledge, two fully cooked pies, two containers of dough to freeze at home, a precisely written recap of the recipe and process, and a small paddle with the dough recipe printed on the side. Mark assured us that the recipe wouldn’t wear off in the dishwasher. Did I mention the unimpeachable attention to detail?
Even accomplished home cooks can seriously benefit from an afternoon with Mark and his team who put so much devotion into making and sharing their favorite food. And so you should. Because even though bad pizza is not the worst thing in the world, good pizza is certainly one of the best.