We rarely deal with breaking news on Special Sauce, but when said news concerns pizza's US origins, exceptions must be made. As soon as I learned that Peter Regas, a Chicago-based statistician by day and pizza obsessive by night, had discovered that there were pizzerias operating in Brooklyn and Manhattan years before Gennaro Lombardi opened what has long been thought to be the country's first pizzeria in 1905, I knew we had to have him on the podcast for an extended interview. I even brought in reinforcements: New York Times restaurant critic Pete Wells, and Serious Eats senior editor and veteran pizzaiolo, Sasha Marx.
Here's a taste of what Regas shared with us: "What we know there is a man named Filippo Milone who had probably come, it's not clear, but he'd probably come around 1892 to America from Italy...The first indication that we have hard evidence of him owning a business is at 47 Union Street, again in Red Hook...That would be then in the early part of 1898....Then what we have at Spring Street, 53 Spring Street [the site of Lombardi's original location], we have a permit that's applied for in the summer of 1898. That's for a bake oven. The man that appears in the next directory cycle, which would be the early part of 1899, is...Phil Malone, Filippo Milone, it's the same man.”
Pete Wells told Regas that when he heard the news, he tweeted that "it was like if we found out some other dude wrote The Federalist Papers and The Declaration of Independence and then, like, gave them to Madison and Jefferson and we never knew it. It was some guy named Tony all along." Wells urged Regas to continue his research, telling him, “Follow the mozzarella, Peter.”
Pizza nerds (and even plain old pizza enthusiasts) will rejoice in the conversation that ensued. To get started on your own mozzarella journey, check out this week’s episode, and stay tuned for part two next week, when Regas expounds on his discovery and Kenji weighs in on all things pizza.
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Ed Levine: Serious eaters, you know how CNN, MSNBC, Fox, they're always flashing that banner that says, "Breaking News"? Well, this is Ed Levine and I'm waving The Special Sauce Breaking News Banner right now, so brace yourselves. Peter Regas, a pizza historian by night and practicing statistician by day has uncovered definitive proof that the first pizzeria in America was not Lombardi's in New York City. That's right, all the dough that all of us pizza scribes have been slinging at you for the last 20 years, me, Adam Kuban, Scott Wiener, Evelyn Sloman, we've all got red sauce on our faces. To set us straight, Peter Regas himself is here in the studio, and as the news dribbles across Gotham, New York Times Restaurant Critic Pete Wells will be joining the conversation, as well as Serious Eats Culinary Editor Sasha Marx.
EL: Enough stalling. A grudging welcome to the man who is making all of us look bad, Peter Regas.
Peter Regas: Hello, Ed.
EL: Do tell, I mean, because this was big news for any of us ... My pizza book came out, what, 10 years ago or something? Scott Wiener's been researching pizza history for years now from Scott's Pizza Tours. Adam Kuban, who started Slice, the great pizza blog that became part of Serious Eats. I mean, we've all been putting forth fiction.
PR: Well, I think the story that I'm gonna tell is probably more accurate than the story that was out before. I can stay that.
EL: That's such an impersonal way of dissing me. Very politic of you, Peter, but what was the first pizzeria in America if it's not Lombardi's?
PR: I know there is several more earlier than Lombardi's. That's the best information we have. There is an address in Brooklyn that I have, an actual ad, so it's hard evidence. We have a date on the newspaper and that was at 42 Union Street.
EL: In Red Hook?
PR: Correct, and that was early 1898.
EL: Wow. Where did it go from there?
PR: Well, just to backup a little bit, there were probably earlier ones than that, too, so as you go back in time, as you can imagine, the evidence gets a little bit murkier, but I've got one that I'm pretty sure about. 1895 in 59 1/2 Mulberry Street.
EL: What was that called?
PR: What was it called? It was called ... Well, that's an interesting question. They actually probably did have a name because in the City Directory it said Pizzeria Il Forno.
EL: Pizzeria Il Forno, which forno is oven.
PR: Oven, exactly, so the speculation of that would be the City Director canvassed going up and down the block and writing who he thought the name of the proprietor was, but he actually wrote the name of the business. It was a fortuitous error that he made.
EL: That's funny. That was in 1895 did you say?
EL: Yeah. Then what happened?
PR: Well, they destroyed that because they made that Mulberry Park or Columbus Park, and so that was torn down. There's not great documentation here, but what we know there is a man named Filippo Milone who had probably come, it's not clear, but he probably come around 1892 to America from Italy, or he came from ... His home city was around the Sorrento city. The first indication that we have hard evidence of him owning a business is at 47 Union Street, again in Red Hook. We don't have good directories before then. We have some of the Brooklyn directories, but when the consolidation happened, they had really quality directories happen. That's the first indication that he's there. That would be then in the early part of 1898.
PR: Then what we have is that we have at Spring Street, 53 Spring Street, we have a permit that's applied for in the summer of 1898. That's for a bake oven. The man that appears the next cycle of the directory cycle, which would be the early part of 1899, is depending on the directory is Phil Malone, Filippo Milone, it's the same man..
EL: Got it.
PR: Because we know his history now.
EL: It's not anybody named Lombardi?
PR: Not a name Lombardi, certainly not. What happens in the directories, if you look at enough of them, it's like different people looking at the elephant that are blind so partly they describe it as a grocer, some describe it as a bakery. In the most rigorous directory that I know of, the Trow's Directory, they actually have it as a delicatessen, which is not obvious that you would see an Italian delicatessen at 1898.
EL: This is on Spring Street?
PR: This is 53 Spring Street is the address, so we know it was at the address and then we know it's him. We know that when the census happens at the turn of the century, 1900, someone from their household describes him as a baker. This is all happening at the same time. An interesting event happens. He gets a flower salesman sort of tries to defraud him, and so there's a legal dispute that happens around June of 1900. This happened to a number of bakers at the time. The man was convicted and he went to Sing Sing. Shortly thereafter, Phillip Milone goes to different addresses, so the question is, what is he doing? Why does he constantly move during that period?
PR: He's in Brooklyn in 1898 early, then he goes to Spring Street, then he goes to 130 West 26th Street for at least a year, then he's coming back to 183 Mulberry Street.
EL: The only thing it has in common is that these are all Italian American communities?
PR: Yes, yes, yes. The one at 130 West 26th Street is a little bit less, and so they call it actually, it's interesting, a French Italian hotel restaurant
PR: So that's got a lot of pieces to unpack because hotel and restaurant is interesting.
PR: He's back at 130 Mulberry and the ad that we have that I publicized and found, there's a company article with it that describes him as having a popular pizzeria such that he had to move because it was so popular. He's at 183 Mulberry Street in early 1903, then he apparently moves to 192 Grand Street because it's bigger and he's building out a little bit more.
EL: Right here on the second Serious Eats World Headquarters at 197 Grand.
PR: Right across the street from our ... Exactly. From that period, he's there a few years and we actually have a confirmed ad with his picture on it. The interesting thing is when they first took out ads, very often there would be an accompanying blurb in the same paper at the same edition of the paper. In this blurb, they describe him as having specialties in Naples that the people around the community would recognize, and not just specialties but specialties from Pizzeria Port'Alba, which is a famous pizzeria in Naples.
EL: Yes, which is still there.
PR: It's not exactly clear if they're boasting, if they're just using words cleverly, or if the situation is such that he actually was there. If he actually was there, that's very exciting because Phil Milone also is different from Lombardi and Pero in that he comes from an older generation. He was born around 1862. We're trying to find the birth certificate now, but he comes from just a different generation. If he would have come in 1892, he would have come around 30 years old, so he's mature in the industry. He's already established.
PR: Interesting enough, around that time, 1905, The Washington Post puts out an article and the article is an Italian man who takes an American reporter, a woman, down to the Italian community and he says, "I'm gonna show you these hot cakes." They're pizzas, right? He takes them to a pizzeria on Spring Street. We're not sure which one it is, but the description is almost exactly like the Lombardi ... The picture in the interior. They describe the booth, they describe the long tables, they describe the benches.
PR: I'm virtually certain it's Lombardi's, the description. The interesting point is that he makes is he says, "Of all the places that sell pizza here, two are by far the most authentic, and that is this one on Spring Street and the one on Grand Street", where at the time Milone's at. He would have opened up the two spots that were the most authentic.
EL: It also implies that there were more than just two pizzerias...
PR: Exactly. Exactly, so this gets into the issue of, how do you find a pizzeria? There would have been as Scott Wiener has said many times, "If you were a Southern Italian with a bakery with the dough, it would have been highly probably at least on some days you would have turned out some of the pizzas." My perspective on this is that if you're making dough primarily to make pizza, that's a special category. That shows intention and commitment to the product and confidence in the product. The other bakeries were making dough for bread, that is a trivial thing to just turn out a sheet of pizza dough, right? It's interesting and you can always say that there was pizza in America since the first Southern Italians were actually here, but we're talking about Phillip Milone and a group of men in his sort of cohort, they're doing something different. They're doing actual ... What is gonna turn into instead of grocery baker pizzerias, they're gonna turn into actual dedicated pizzerias...
PR: That we have ads for.
EL: You're saying that Mr. Milone probably opened Lombardi's?
PR: Or what turned into Lombardi’s
EL: Or turned it into Lombardi's. He opened John's...
PR: Or turned into John's on Sullivan Street at the time.
EL: They moved it to Bleecker Street.
PR: Correct, eventually, right.
EL: Now it was John Sasso, who presumably learned his craft either from Mr. Milone or from somebody else.
PR: Right, and the interesting thing about John Sasso is he married into the extended Phillip Milone family.
EL: Wow, man.
PR: Once you get into the details...
EL: It's just like...
PR: ...Of it, they ... Family relationship ... In fact, that's an interesting point, because all the early pizzeria men came from the Compiegne region that I've found except one, and that's John Sasso, and he married into the family.
EL: That's awesome. How did you come upon all of this? I mean, Peter, it's one thing for Woodward and Bernstein to bust open Watergate. You're taking investigative reporting to a whole new level.
PR: My sister says I'm obsessed.
EL: Pizza obsessive? Or are you just an obsessive?
PR: Well, I like the food. Who doesn't? I traveled for business and I went to the old communities and what first ... This is right when the Jeff Varasano pizzamaking.com era
EL: Sure. Jeff Varasano was the very famous blogger who did about a 10,000 word attempt to replicate...
EL: The original Patsy's dough.
PR: Right. I saw that and I said, "Well, that's curious", then I went to pizzamaking.com and I got into the Evelyn Sloman threads and she started talking about the history. She got into rather huge debates from a baker in Naples about Lombardi and the way it started. I saw that and I thought ... First thing I saw was I thought there to be a survival bias so that the history that she was giving, and she did a great job on her book, but the history that she was giving had enormous survival bias. She was counting the people as significant if they survived as a business to the current day...
EL: Got it.
PR: That she could capture the story. The immediate question was, there must have been a lot more at that time who didn't survive who went back to Italy who died out or whatever. I looked at that and I said, "Well, that's a curious question." I saw some of the comments that were being made and I thought, "It doesn't really ring true to me. There's something missing there." I didn't really know, so...
EL: Yeah, and for those people who don't know, Evelyn Sloman was actually one of the inspirations for my pizza book. She wrote a book called ... I believe it was called The Pizza Book.
PR: The Pizza Book, exactly, in 1984, and it's a great book and she deserves all the credit in the world for being there at that time because she was the one that visited Jerry Pero and got a lot of the information that no one would have had and there's a question whether serious New York style pizza would have died out at a certain point. I saw that and was curious, but I didn't really want to start that, and then I started ... There was a famous at one point very well known pizzeria in Chicago called Great Lake.
EL: Oh yeah, I know that place. We had a Serious Eats party there.
PR: Right, so I went to Great Lake one Saturday. This is probably in February of 2009.
EL: It was a great Chicago pizzeria. Not making Chicago style pizza, it was really his own style of pizza, but the weird thing was there was only room for 18...
PR: About 11? Or no, it's smaller than that. There was a long bench table and one small table.
EL: It was very weird and wonderful. Just wonderful husband and wife team.
PR: It was very hardcore. If you're a pizza purist, that's your spot. We were at the bench table and we got our pizza and I noticed out of the corner of my eye there was a man, an elderly man with glasses on, and with another younger woman. That wouldn't have been surprising, but they had three pizzas between them. He started eating the pizzas, the slices, and he would leave the crust or a large portion of them and I thought, "Well, that's odd. He's not really eating like a normal person." I saw him take out a notebook and start writing in it, and that got my attention. I said to myself, "I'm gonna introduce myself to him." It turned out to be Alan Richman.
EL: Alan Richman, who was the longtime restaurant critic for GQ. Still writes for gq.com and freelances for a lot of other people and is a great food writer. Won more James Beard Awards than any individual.
PR: Well, at the time that he said his name, I didn't know who Alan Richman is, 'cause I was not...
EL: You weren't a foodie.
PR: I was not a foodie. I told my friend that and he said, "You idiot, it's Alan Richman. He's a big deal." Anyway, I talked to him about pizza. At this time I'd been to the East Coast and he said, "Well, why don't you come on my next one?" We went to sort of a famous Chicago stuffed pizza place and we both didn't really enjoy it, but he started asking questions and it was questions that I didn't have answers to. It was an interesting discussion. We had a good time and that was that. All these things sort of nudged me into a direction to sort of raise questions in my own mind.
PR: What then happened is I went to an Italian deli in Chicago. I was waiting for my sandwich to come. They had one of those little free flyers I was reading from and they had an article about deep dish history of Chicago and the fact that Chicago had a cultural historian that I had no idea we had. His name was Tim Samuelson and when I read that I was like, "Well, this is sort of the last straw. I have to go see this man." I lived about four blocks away from him, where he worked, and I waited for an hour for him to come down and he finally did. We talked about three hours and he said at the end of it, "You should do a book." I said, "I don't have time to do a book." He said, "Do a book." I said, "Well, I'll look into this whole thing.
PR: I started to go into The Newberry Library, do the genealogy on Chicago. This is the point, on just Chicago. It's gonna be a Chicago piece, no big deal. Then about a year in or so, I started to get bored with looking through telephone directories and city directories of Chicago and they had the New York directories there. I said, "I've done all these things about Italians in Chicago. I should do the same thing about New York." I believed the story 'cause everyone had it in their books just like everyone else, but I thought, "If I'm gonna do it for Chicago, I better do the same application for everyone in the book."
EL: Especially because the New York pizza culture and the East Coast pizza culture preceded the Chicago pizza culture.
PR: Yes, right. I did it for Lombardi and there's a general directory where you ... I mean, it's perfectly easy to do it. Anyone could do it. It's on the microfilm and you look under L's and he's not in there, or a man of his description is not in there. I looked for Antonio Pero, couldn't find him. Antonio Pero was a worker so I wouldn't have expected him to be in there, but Lombardi in 1905 or around 1905 should have been in there. Looked under various spellings, he's not in there. That's strange. Then I picked up what they had ... They had the 1910 business directory, and that was interesting to me because they have it segmented.
PR: The general directory's just by alphabetical order. Everyone's in there. The business directory has bakers as a group in alphabetical order, grocers, restaurateurs, everything in separate sections. Why not look at Lombardi in the bakers? Not in there. Look at the grocers. Not in there. Restaurateurs. Not in there. Well, this is getting really strange. It's five years after they claimed to have the license. Plenty of time to put him in there. He should have been in there. Then as a last thing I said to myself, "This is really frustrating. I'm gonna go through every one of those things and look at every one of those bakers because I'm gonna look for 53 Spring Street to see if someone is in there. Maybe they misspelled the name or whatever. I'm gonna look through every one of 'em."
PR: I started on bakers, started at A, and I got to D and I found a man by the name of Francisco D'Errico at 53 1/2 Spring Street under bakers. Within a second, I said, "I have a major story here."
EL: Wow, that is some Woodward and Bernstein stuff, man. That's ... You didn't even have a Deep Throat.
PR: I would say a Deep Dish
EL: Or maybe you do
PR: But that's ... No, I would
EL: That was just low-lying fruit, man. You can't say Deep Dish. I know that my friend Pete Wells of The Times was very, very excited and he and I have been talking actually the last few months about pizza history. He's been talking about like nobody's done a definitive history of the slice, and you've taken it one step further. This is like, this is your life. Let's call him right now.
EL: Mr. Wells. Mr. Wells.
Pete Wells: Okay, are we gonna talk about my technical difficulties, right? That was me holding the phone upside down and you couldn't hear me.
EL: All right. You're not gonna believe. First of all, I have in the studio Mr. Peter Regas himself.
PW: Ah, the troublemaker.
EL: The troublemaker. The one who's making us all look bad.
PW: Your whole career is based upon a lie.
EL: My whole career has been reduced to hard baked pizza dough. Peter, I should explain that Pete and I have been friends for a long time. He was my Editor at a couple of places, but he and I have been talking about this as I told you, pizza. Also, when he heard about this, he had one of my favorite tweets. The Twittersphere was rocking with your revelations, and what was yours? What did you ... You compared it to?
PW: I said it was like if we found out some other dude wrote The Federalist Papers and The Declaration of Independence and then like gave them to Madison and Jefferson and we never knew it. It was some guy named Tony all along.
EL: That's so awesome. Pete was very eloquent in his expression of surprise and so I just figured he'd be a good person for us to talk to now that we've got you.
EL: Peter's been explaining his methodology, which is insane, which goes beyond Woodward and Bernstein.
PW: Meetings in parking garages...
EL: Yeah, he's not even meeting... He's looking for baker's licenses in phone books.
PW: Follow the mozzarella, Peter.
EL: Why don't you tell Pete very briefly so he can respond what you just told me?
PR: Well, in 2009 I started on a pizza project for Chicago and in about 2010 I stumbled upon a name that should not have been there in the New York Directory under 53 1/2 Spring Street, and that name was Francisco D'Errico in 1910. Once I found that, I knew I had a major story on my hands.
EL: Then you moved backwards, though?
PR: Once I saw that I said, "I'm checking everything and I'm spending every moment I can on this." For that first year I was dedicated to that, and really, I mean, I got the story nailed down probably within the first two years of that. By 2012 I had 90% of the story.
PW: How did you know that so significant?
PR: Well, because I knew that the story between Evelyn Sloman's book and Ed's book should have been 1905 they've got the mercantile license and by 1910 there's really no excuse not to be in the directory as a proprietor, so they had plenty of time to be in there or recheck the directory and put themselves in there. Once I saw that they were not in there, that was a major red flag to me, so then I trained my eyes on Francisco D'Errico and within a week or so I had found his descendants and when I called one of them in Georgia I talked to him and I said, "I'm Peter Regas. I'm doing a book on the history of Italian bakers and grocers and restaurateurs. I think your grandfather might have been one. Is that true?" He goes, "Do you know where my grandfather had his bakery?" I said to him, "I think I know where this is going." This was Donnie D'Errico in Georgia, and from that moment on, I went out to the D'Errico family house and we talked extensively.
PR: They had photographs. What's interesting the thing about D'Errico is that most of the people associated with that pizzeria other than Lombardi's never had children. The D'Erricos had 10 children, so then the question is, where were they? Why didn't they say anything? Apparently the family story was that the two other daughters did write into The New York Times when they had a significant article about Lombardi's in the '50s and they never heard back.
EL: Yeah, Mr. Wells, that's your employer, okay, we're talking about them right there.
PW: Oh, that's my department, isn't it? Yeah. You know what? I've got that letter right here and I just want to say I'm crafting my response while we speak, because it is my job to answer every...
PW: Disgruntled reader. Yes.
EL: They never heard back from anyone at The Times?
PR: That's the family story.
EL: Right. Was Milone's derived from that family?
PR: No, there's no relation that we..
EL: Got it.
PR: Know of between Milone and D'Errico.
EL: Got it. How did you happen upon Milone then?
PR: Milone was a tougher case because the Milone one first started when I started to look at the directory and the census. If you do what's called an enumeration of the census, you look for addresses instead of the people's names. There' a ... It's a little bit more complicated and harder to do but you find 53 Spring in the census.
EL: Right. We've had ... Enumeration of the Census is a very famous novel, right? No, that's In the Realm of the Senses. I'm sorry, go ahead. Go ahead.
PR: I found Milone ... My memory is he was just around the corner on Mulberry Street, but the significant thing is that I found him in the general directory as working at 53 Spring Street
EL: Got it.
PR: As a baker, and that had my eyes wide open. He's a baker at 53 Spring Street around 1900. Great. Let's find him. I did the genealogy on him and I was let down because in 1905 he's in the state census, the New York State census as a pastry maker or a pastry baker. I thought ... Well, I thought calzones ... I mean, I thought sfogliatelles or something, but I didn't want a pastry baker, so that was a big letdown. I put him on the back burner for a while.
PR: I forget the reason why, but for a few months afterwards I said, "You know what? I better complete the story on him, just to make sure." I continued him on and by the 1920 census he was living at 175 Sullivan Street, and that might not mean anything to anyone else, but that was the bombshell because I knew from Evelyn Sloman's book that 175 Sullivan Street was the earliest pizzeria at John's.
EL: You need to hire this dude, Peter.
PW: I know. Our pizza correspondent.
EL: A combination pizza correspondent/investigative reporter.
PW: Actually, I think that's a good idea. My idea is that some major university, like hello New York University or Columbia, needs like an endowed pizza chair because there is so much work to be done. It sounds like Peter is doing a lot of it, but there's so much work to be done on the history of pizza in the United States. Forget about the Italian part of it, but this thing that becomes like absolutely like universally recognized symbol of New York City and we don't know where it started.
EL: Pete and I have been talking about this, Peter, for months now because we did a sort of State of the Slice which was an updated version on Serious Eats. It was an updated version of a piece I'd written for the times and Pete and I started getting together at pizzerias and he was musing about exactly what he just said. Like, "Why isn't there anyone who really" ... I introduced him to Scott and I thought, "Okay, Pete, meet Scott Wiener." He was impressed.
PW: Right. I mean, I think the lack of caution on the slice is even more inexcusable because it's so much more recent and you're not ... You're often talking about people in living memory who ran the first slice shops when the gas ovens came in.
EL: There's so many people who could endow this chair that Pete's talking about.
PW: Pizza should be appealing to some academically minded billionaire.
EL: An endowed chair or maybe it should be a building on the new Columbia campus?
PW: You're even more ambitious than I am. Wow. Yes.
EL: Maybe we can get Henry Kravis involved here and we can have a pizza lab, we'd get the physics department, the chemistry department.
PW: It's just ... It needs to be sponsored 'cause I mean ... Peter, are you funding your research out of a book that you're writing? How are you able to do this work? I know the kind of stuff you're doing is incredibly time consuming.
PR: Well, I'm lucky enough to have a sister who lives in the city and I have another cousin who's around the Washington D.C. area, so if I have to go to the Library of Congress, I have a place to stay sometimes.
PW: You have places to stay, right.
PR: That's enormously ... If I didn't have a sister in Manhattan I would not have done this part of the project.
EL: Peter is a freelance statistician whose work takes him to New York a fair amount 'cause he does ... You do a fair amount of work for financial institutions, right?
PR: That's a little bit too gracious. I travel because sometimes I have to go out East and I make an excuse to go to Brooklyn and New Haven or Trenton. That's the reality of the situation.
EL: That's what I say to my wife. I say, "It's right on the way."
PW: Yeah, they always know what we mean when we say that.
EL: It's true. That's code for we're about to...
EL: Exactly. Pete, do you think what Peter's doing matters to how the pizza tastes now?
PW: There are a lot of things I'd loved to know that are probably unknowable, but I'd love to know like things that nobody was writing down then like, what kind of tomatoes were they using? Imported cheese, was it somebody making mozzarella on Spring Street? I'd love to know all this stuff. The other like real missing link is a connection between New York and Naples. Did we get ... Was our first pizza maker here somebody who made pizza for a living in Naples? Or was it just somebody who maybe hung out at his uncle's pizzeria and watched them do it a few times and thought, "Oh..
EL: Right. Was that
PW: "I could do that"?
EL: What's interesting about that is Peter has traced at least one of these families back to Naples to Port'Alba.
PR: Right. There's a number of pizzeria makers, especially in the early period. One, they come from an older generation than Lombardi and Pero, so they're 1862 compared to 1887, 1881. We're talking about older men and we're talking about them coming as mature men already established as bakers. Now, then the question of course is ... The great question is, were they in Naples or where they pizza makers in the Province of the Naples or in the City of Naples? There are very, very tantalizing hints that they may have been. I've got a few bakers on my writer’s screen that I'm still doing the research on, but if you had to hold ... I think it's more probable than not they were pizza makers in Naples. Some of them probably were workers. I think a few were probably owners.
EL: All right. Well, we have so many questions that we have to answer. Thank you so much Mr. Wells for coining the term "follow the mozzarella".
PW: Follow the mozzarella.
EL: #FollowTheMozzarella. All right, Pete, thanks a lot, man.
PW: Take care.
PR: Bye bye.
EL: Now, Peter, we're gonna bring in another guest. Serious Eats Senior Culinary Editor Sasha Marx, who is very opinionated and doesn't always agree with the Serious Eats Overlord. I wanted to get him in here and one of the reasons he's really opinionated about pizza is that he spent some of his formative years, his high school years, in Rome. Did you not, Sasha Marx?
Sasha Marx: High school and childhood years. We moved there when I was five and then I moved back to the States for college.
EL: That's a long time, it's like over 10 years.
SM: A good amount of pizza eating time, yeah.
EL: What was your pizza introduction then in Rome? What was your take on it?
SM: In Rome there's sort of two main styles of pizza. There's pizza al taglio, which is the sort of equivalent of pizza by the slice, which is more of a grab and go kind of street food I guess...
EL: Is that where they cut it with the scissor?
SM: Cut it with the scissors and it's-
EL: It's oblong, right?
SM: Usually it's baked in teglia, which are sort of large sort of black steel pans in a gas oven, and then you sort of pay. Why it's called al taglio, which again is sort of by the cut, is that you can define how big your slice is. You sort of ... It's sold by weight and so you can get at the time a thousand liras worth of pizza or 6,000 liras worth of pizza. Now by the euro I guess. That ...
EL: That was one style.
SM: One style, yeah, and then there's also pizza tonda, which is more like a sit down pizzeria. Sort of getting an individual pie like you would at a Neapolitan pizzeria, but the Roman style, it's the crust is much different. It's a lot thinner, a lot more sort of cracker crisp. Also baked in a wood oven, but doesn't have that sort of puffy rim or cornizone that you have on a Neapolitan pie. It's sort of ... That's sort of a casual eating in Rome.
EL: It's funny because neither of those styles made it intact to the States, did it? Did it?
SM: Not really, although now you're starting to see it. I think it's sort of in the States with pizza, we're always sort of looking for the next sort of niche market, so for I would say, what, the early 2000s was the Neapolitan pizza boom.
EL: Right, and then a couple of pizza by the foot places did open
SM: Right, and so now there are ... They got into sort of Roman ... A third ... Sorry, I should have said there's one more kind of style. Bakery pizza, so earlier Peter mentioned the forno and is talking about sort of the great pizza debate in the early 1900s in New York. In Italy, a forno is a bakery and a lot of bakeries have ... They'll do some style of pizza. In Rome one of the most popular ones is what they call pizza bianco, which is basically just sort of kind of the idea of focaccia, pizza dough that's sort of dimpled with your hands then sort of covered with a lot of olive oil, sea salt, sometimes rosemary...
SM: And baked directly on the deck of an oven.
EL: Jim Lahey learned how to make that in Rome...
SM: Right, and at Sullivan Street Bakery, so that was there. Sort of that came to New York, and now you're sort of starting to see some more like...
EL: Cheffy Pizza, like...
SM: Cheffy Pizza
EL: Gabriele Bonci and...
SM: Yeah, Gabriele Bonci has opened in Chicago actually and his pizza Italia is amazing. Stefano Callegari has opened a couple of spots here in New York. He's a very sort of ... A great pizza pizzaiolo but he does sort of sit down pizza in Rome as well. Danny Meyer opened Marta and Martina, which is trying to do more of that Roman style pizza, too and...
EL: The thin crust
SM: Super thin crust, very crispy. I feel like we're always trying to find the next pizza frontier in the States and something that not everyone is doing. I feel like we've sort of saturated…
EL: Yeah, for sure.
SM: ..the market on Neapolitan-style pizzas in a way. I mean, you can never have too much great Neapolitan pizza, but I think that you're sort of seeing it now in New York, especially as the State of the Slice sort of got into your getting this revival of New York style pizza.
EL: It's true, it's fascinating that the evolution of pizza continues to this day because at its heart, let's face it as people have said, including me, even bad pizza is pretty good. Number two, chefs have taken a liking to it. Alice Waters once told me for my pizza book that cooking is easy, pizza is hard, because there's nothing ... Would be that you're making pizza, as Sasha could attest, there's nowhere to hide. It's like every one of the three or four components has to be spot on.
SM: Yeah, I've always said the happiest I've ever been as a professional cook was when I worked at a restaurant and worked the wood oven station making pizza and said to be ... For me, it was the best experience of ... It's completely tactile and then you really ... You control every aspect of the food, from building a fire and managing a heat source to then making of dough and all of that, and then just sort of the repetition of it and the craft of it and sort of knowing most diners won't know the day that you really nail every pizza. You and the people on your team in the kitchen and your chef, they're like, "Oh man, today, that pizza was on point."
EL: Exactly. There's two stories I have about that. One is Chris Bianco, the famous pizzeria owner in Phoenix once told me that I could teach a monkey how to make one great pizza. The hard thing is making a hundred great pizzas every day when all the conditions change, and that's what you're talking about.
SM: Yeah, absolutely. There's no better feeling ... I mean, 'cause the first like month that you're working on a station like that, you're never doing it right. You're never doing it right. I think Daniel Boulud said that praise in the kitchen is the absence of criticism. You're always hearing how badly you're doing and then the day that you finally do all right, I think a chef told me that like, "Oh, that one didn't suck."
EL: Yeah, so that's interesting. I think Peter, you're gonna be studying this podcast.
PR: It's almost like we have a live laboratory and is there an analogy in the past that you can see, "This is how the bakers move now, would that have happened in the past?" I think ... I mean, we have the benefit now of actually talking to bakers and seeing them operate, where we just have a posit of information in the past. We're just holding onto tiny threads to infer what actually happened, whereas now we actually have really good information, so maybe the present can tell us a little bit about the past.
EL: Now, Sasha, Peter actually admitted he likes pizza. I don't know that he loves it with all his heart and soul, though.
PR: I mean...
EL: Do you love it with your heart and soul?
PR: Maybe my heart, but not my soul. I don't know what that means, but it means something.
SM: Yeah, I mean, I love pizza. I pre-gamed this podcast by getting a couple of slices at Mama's TOO! which you wrote about, which is not too far from here.
EL: Close to his house.
SM: My fiancé and I heavily lobbied to have our wedding at a pizzeria here in New York.
SM: Yeah, that one didn't work out so well.
EL: It didn't fly with the in-laws?
SM: It was ... Yeah, we wanted to have it at a spot in Bushwick that was a little too Bushwick for them.
EL: Oh, the one near Niki's? What's the name of it?
SM: At Roberta's.
EL: Oh, at Roberta's. Okay.
SM: We compromised and we're having our rehearsal dinner the night before at a pizza place. A different pizza place, so yeah. I think that I really can't go more than a week ... At max a week without eating pizza. I mean, recently over the holidays, I spent a week in Paris and I was going through withdrawal by the end of not having pasta or pizza….
EL: Yeah, I'm the same way.
SM: On the ... Yeah. From JFK we ordered pizza to make sure it was there when we got home.
EL: I had no idea, Peter, I'm learning a lot about one of our employees now, which I love. Now, where did you make pizza in Boston?
SM: Actually in Maine...
EL: In Maine?
SM: Yeah. Working at a restaurant that we had, yeah. Farms where we grew ingredients and stuff and then it was...
EL: What was the name of the restaurant?
SM: It was called Earth.
EL: Got it.
SM: I was working for Ken Oringer and then.
EL: Ken Oringer is a very well-known Boston chef restaurateur that you spent many years working with.
SM: Yeah, and then the two executive chefs are now very close friends of mine. They had opened ... They were on the opening team of Flour and Water in San Francisco where they do amazing pizza. Their pizza program was incredible.
EL: Got it. We are gonna keep going 'cause I could talk about pizza for hours, but we're gonna have to end the first Special Sauce pizza episode. I have to thank you Peter Regas for setting me straight, teaching me the true lineage of pizza in the States. Regas is writing a book on the history of pizza in America and he's going to be giving a lecture at The U.S. Pizza Museum at The Roosevelt Collection in Chicago. So cool that there's a U.S. Pizza Museum.
EL: Peter. When is the lecture at the Pizza Museum?
PR: It's February 23rd.
EL: Tickets are free. You do need a ticket. You can get it on line and it even comes with the first two hours of free garage parking.
PR: It should be fun.
EL: Yeah, and Sasha Marx, Serious Eats Senior Culinary Editor, thank you for lending your expertise. Next week, we're gonna have Kenji Lopez-Alt weighing in on pizza and everything that we've talked about here. Until then, thank you gentlemen. Peter...
PR: Thank you.
EL: Regas. Sasha Marx.
SM: Thanks so much.
EL: We'll see you next time, Serious Eaters.
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