It's Sunday, February 26, 10:15pm, and my weekend just began. We shut the restaurant down quickly tonight. It was great to watch my staff work so well together. Very fluid and efficient work. So I returned home with a little energy left in me to write, which is a rare occurrence nowadays.
It's been a little more than eight months of wielding the peel, and the restaurant is now operating on a consistent level of quality, a bit analogous to the predictability of fermenting dough. In fact, I would say the smoothness of the operations is in part due to the dough being "on" nearly all the time. I think if you would ask most pizzaioli, they'd state that consistency is one of the most difficult things to hone, and I'll be the first to admit I am still working on it. My schedule is also pretty well developed: I still run or bike most mornings, stop at the market on my way in, arrive by 10:30am and leave about 12 hours later. In between I place orders, make dough, do bookkeeping, schedule shifts, pay taxes, manage payroll, prep, and finally at 5pm, make pizza, which is my favorite time of the day.
So, please excuse me as it's been a while since I've made a post. Today's post is a bit longer than normal, and my intention here is to bring everyone up to speed as well as to share what I've learned to date.
I'm sure one of the top curiosities might be the business' financial standing. After all, I opened on the tail end of a recession and about 100 feet from the most popular pizza place in town. Nonetheless, things are going really well. The numbers have been better than anticipated. I've paid off my personal debt and plan to pay off all my loans in a little more than a year from now. I believe I did a lot of things right with respect to financing, location, design, and the simplicity of my concept, and this helped me to get my doors open and hit the ground running. We were voted "Best New Restaurant" in town and my little corner is becoming known as THE place to be. Undoubtedly, I believe the future success will depend on me sticking to something I am committed to: always improving with each passing week. That commitment started with week one and continues today.
Some weeks it's something simple like new shelving for better storage, enabling me to utilize another square inch of my tiny 650 square foot restaurant. Other times it's a flavor combination on a special or a gelato flavor that people wake up the next day dreaming about (so I'm told). That commitment keeps my mind constantly churning about what to improve or make more efficient. I'm sure it's partly the scientist in me, but it's also an expression for my love of this place. Customers notice it too and I have a lot of regulars. It's a rather overwhelming feeling at times, knowing that I've built a place that has such a strong following, and I'm only 8 months into it. I'm also thrilled when I get a Serious Eats reader in. Whether it was Alan from Buffalo, Stephen from Playa del Rey or Lance from LA., it means a lot that you followed along and then made the extra effort to give me a try. Awesome.
Now that you know I will be around to make you a pie next time you are in Flagstaff, I'll discuss what is near and dear to Slice readers hearts: pizzas and menus, dough nitty-gritty, and kick-ass ovens. Here is what I have to offer after 8 months:
Pizza & Menu
I love bread. That love was established when I had my first job at Lorenzo's in my hometown. My love of pizza came only when I had bread-born pizza, that which focuses on the dough and uses a long fermentation or natural leaven. So for me great pizza is really just great bread topped with fresh ingredients. I like that concept because it allows a chef to have fun, combine unique toppings, and still retain the roots of pizza. I try to do this everyday with my specials and I run two every night. Not all of the specials are a grand slam, or even a hit, but I'm batting better than average. This was my plan when making pies in my backyard and some of those homerun pies did make it on my permanent menu. Take the Amore Oi Mari (mascarpone, pecorino, prosciutto di parma, arugula, and Queen Creek meyer lemon olive oil). It's one of five pies that is on my menu and, as reported by Lance Roberts, the love for the Amore oi Mari is contagious. People dig it. There is a lot going on, but you can taste each individual ingredient. Lance mentioned that it'd be what the Rosa is to Bianco, and I think it's certainly on it's way to such status.
Outside of my specials, the menu has not changed much. I still have five pizzas, one salad, daily gelato, daily specials, and I don't expect to expand much beyond this. I'm retaining the model of simplicity as it is really all my small space will allow for, but also because I can focus on what I love to do, which is to make pizza. Simplicity is also the best way to prepare Italian food, in my opinion. It allows the ingredients to speak for themselves.
The gelato recipe I was gifted by Franca, the co-owner of Podere Ciona, a vineyard I visited in 2010 in Tuscany, has been a big hit. In the rare occurrence of my travels since opening, I've yet to find an ice cream or gelato I enjoy more than my own. The base recipe allows us to do a diverse range of flavors from basic vanilla bean, to chevre, to prosciutto, to basil, to olive oil.
My wine list is the only thing that has expanded but I love good, food-focused wine. It's what I choose to drink with food and unfortunately I feel Flagstaff has too much ripe-fruit, over-oaked wines that overwhelm food. I wanted to offer something new, as well as educate how wine can compliment food rather than take the main stage. Italian wines are perfect for this reason because Italians craft wines with the intention of pairing well with food. So, I have about 15 wines available. That might not sound like a lot, but considering how small my space and menu is, it's a sizable offering.
During the first few months I had a saying to my staff and customers: "I own the business and pay the rent, but the dough is the boss." At that time, I was still getting my footing as a professional pizza maker and as you might recall, I opened on July 5th.
The summer monsoons had not kicked in yet so it was the hottest time of the year. Fermentation increases under warm conditions and it made for a difficult time keeping the pies consistent. Some nights I pulled the dough too late from the fridge, and other times I pulled too early and the dough would be nearly overripe because of the temperature. This was never an issue in my small-scale backyard oven, but going "pro" is a whole new world. However, I've managed to overcome the temperature difficulties by increasing my fermentation to two days. I use less yeast and a slower rise so the window of ideal baking conditions has expanded. The result is consistency but also AMAZING char and suppleness in the crust. This is what I've always been trying to achieve with my dough. I'm not going to discuss percentages and I'm sure I'm not the first person to say this, but a good take away is that time should be an ingredient you use liberally with pizza dough.
Oven and Wood
My Ferrara oven has exceeded my expectations. It's amazing. Really. I grew up camping in the backwoods of southern Indiana always sitting around the campfire, so maybe it's nostalgia for me, but I doubt it.
The heat circulation is something to behold as it sends black wisps of smoke floating through the cavernous interior like a feather in the wind. The flame looks like a twirling flag as it arches across the dome.
I placed the oven is front and center of the restaurant and it was a good decision. It's a piece of art and the workhorse of the restaurant, and I'm not sure which gets more photos, my pizzas or my oven. That being said, I've discovered the importance of only using the best wood I can get my hands on. No oven could compensate for poor, unseasoned wood. Here in Arizona, the wood of choice is pecan. The pecan wood puts off an intense, bright flame, better than any oak, juniper, aspen or other woods that are available locally. I'm currently using some eight-year-seasoned pecan. It's harvested from orchards near Tucson and seasoned in a 10-acre lot in Phoenix. It's dry as a bone. Flagstaff's climate is too cold and wet to get well-seasoned wood, so a trip south to the valley is really a must.
Since I've brought up the topic of Flagstaff, I will elaborate on one of the most common questions I get: "Did you have to change your dough recipe for altitude?" (Flagstaff's elevation is just above 7,000 ft). The short answer is, "no" because I developed my recipe at altitude, so there was no adjustment needed. I never followed a cookbook recipe for my dough and developed it through trial and error. However, altitude has turned out to be an important factor for me, but one you might not think of. At 7,000 ft, there is about 80% of the oxygen available at sea level. So the impact for me is on the flame. Less oxygen equals less brightness and intensity of flame. This is one reason I get pretty crazy about my wood. I no longer will purchase any wood from local sources because it's nearly impossible to achieve the dryness I need in northern AZ. It's just too wet of a climate.
As you likely know, Paulie Gee was on the Today Show's segment "Your Life Calling" yesterday. It was timely and coincidental because I've been doing a lot of thinking lately about one's life work and we have some similar backyard-born roots. I've always believed there are three levels of occupation: a job, a career and a calling. A job is an occupation where you punch in, out, and then go home. In a career you move up the corporate ladder, receive promotions, and plan your retirement. If you have a calling, you are doing something for the greater good of the company or your customers. Being at work makes you intrinsically happy and there is flow in your work day. When you go home, you think about how to improve. You are simultaneously always on and off the clock.
It's kind-of amazing when I take a step back and think about what I'm doing. Two years ago I was working on spreadsheets and writing science articles. I'd always been a hard worker and over-achiever, but it was right around that time that I no longer wanted to work hard at my career. It was scary and I'd stay up late at night to read Slice or develop my business plan to give me direction. About the same time, I made a visit to New York and San Francisco to do some pizza research. I set out with a big list of places to visit and nearly made it to all of them. Of course, I went to Paulie Gee's. He'd done it. It was inspirational to see, and it was at that moment that I knew I'd found my calling as well.