You have a wood-fired mobile pizza oven. That's crazy awesome. When did you get it? Where's it from?
I love my mobile oven. It was built by Joseph Pergolizzi of The Fire Within in Boulder, Colorado. The trailer is custom built to carry the oven—a modular unit from Forno Bravo. Both are very well built. For an oven with a large mouth and reasonably high dome, as opposed to true Neapolitan ovens, it really holds the heat well. Joseph really stands behind his product; he's even come out to work some events with me to see how we do it and offer some pointers.
The mobile oven is actually my second oven—I built my first one in 2005 in my backyard. I got the mobile one in late 2008 and did a carnival at my daughter's school with it. I had just received the oven and it really wasn't cured properly. I was horrified at the pizzas coming out, but the people at the carnival loved them. I then had it sit idle until March of 2009, when we started doing pizza nights at a local winery—then it just got insane.
Are there any special considerations when hauling it from spot to spot? I'd be afraid it would break on rough roads.
It's a modular unit—it doesn't have that many joints, so the road vibrations don't really bother it. Plus, we're in Dallas, so there aren't a whole lot of hills to worry about either. It weighs about 4,000 pounds, but I can tow it with a 6-cylinder SUV. Because of the ridiculous heat down here, I bought a catering van this year that has a refrigerated compartment in it and can tow up to 10,000 pounds. My staff calls it "The Creeper" because it looks like Buffalo Bill's serial killer van. I'm still working on my back-up skills—not so easy with a trailer, but I'm getting pretty good now. If pizza doesn't pan out, I think I can get a good valet job.
How often do you use it? What is the Cane Rosso schedule?
We are insanely busy—about busy enough for a second oven. We are booked pretty solid each week Wednesday through Saturday, with some doubles on Friday and Saturday. We were recently using the oven at a "pop up" restaurant that became a huge hit. We rented space from a bakery that closed at 4 p.m. and Thursday through Saturday we turned into a Neapolitan pizzeria. I brought my own staff in, used the bakery facilities, and we did a simple menu of appetizers, salads, pizza, and dessert — and we were BYOB. We were doing about 200 pizzas a night and would regularly run one-hour waits. That experience helped validate that people do "get" Neapolitan pizza and gave us the courage to start aggressively looking for our own permanent space.
This is probably a stupid question, but do you cook anything besides pizza in it?
We try to cook everything in it. Bread, pies, turkeys, chickens, casseroles, barbecue. I brought the mobile oven to my 7-year-old daughter's YMCA Indian Princess campout one weekend, and we made pizzas in it the first night. The next morning I used the residual heat (along with a few woodchips now and then) to smoke a 13-pound brisket. I let it sit in there for about 12 hours, and it was incredible.
You do Neapolitan-style, right?
Yes—definitely Neapolitan style. In 1995 my wife and I went to Italy and that's where I had my "holy crap" moment. I couldn't believe how amazing the pizza was. I still have a picture of my first Italian pizza from Pizzeria Aurora in Sorrento. It only took me ten years to build my own oven and then train with the Associazone Verace Pizza Napoletana. I had one of my early restaurants (I was a minority investor), Campania Pizza in Southlake, Texas, certified by the VPN, but as I dialed back my involvement to focus on Cane Rosso, I found they weren't really adhering to the guidelines so I called Pepe Miele and had them remove us from the list. VPN is an honor but also an obligation. When we make pizza, we want people to have that same "holy crap" moment I had back in 1995.
What's your favorite topping or topping combination to make?
My favorite combination is one we call the "Paulie Gee"—hot soppressata, fior di latte, caramelized onions, San Marzanos, basil, and Calabrian chiles. I named it after Paulie because he pushed me to get rid of pepperoni and use hot soppressata. We get it from Salumeria Biellese so it is pretty amazing. I also have a pie called the "Motorino" that is a total rip-off, oops ... I mean "homage" to their Pugliese pie (burrata, broccolini, Calabrian chiles, garlic). I do get burned out on pizza, but in August we get Hatch green chile peppers in from New Mexico and that kind of gets me fired up again.
Nice. I love Hatch green chiles. Maybe I'll press you for a Top This in August. So ... I'm assuming you cook for friends and neighbors when you're not working? I think I've seen pictures of that thing fired up in your driveway.
It seems like I am always working. I have a great three-man oven team: one shapes, one tops, and I typically run the oven. We could never get 200 pies out a night without Sevi and Alvaro. They love pizza almost as much as I do. We had lots of experimental nights in my backyard and driveway till we got things just right. If you are going to fire up the oven, you might as well have people over because it doesn't make sense to just make three pizzas.
What do your family and friends think of your pizza madness?
With the success of our little guerrilla restaurant, I think everyone finally thinks it's a good idea. They've all been guinea pigs for the past couple of years anyway. I've been making pizza for my wife for years, and she has never been overly impressed, but I think she's on the bandwagon now.
My kids and their friends definitely are on board. Dallas is obviously not like New York City, so there aren't a ton of Neapolitan-influenced pizzerias around, which helps us stand out. The few that we do have are pretty good, though. I spend a lot of time thinking about pizza, oven management, etc.
I try to read everything I can about trends in the Neapolitan places, so I'm definitely obsessed. I think it comes through in the final product. Whether or not our pizza is "the best" is up to individual taste, but I know there aren't many people that care about the process and the product as much as my team and I do.
The Pizza Cognition Theory, by Sam Sifton, states that "the first slice of pizza a child sees and tastes ... becomes, for him, pizza." Do you remember your first slice? Where was it from, is the place still around, and if so, does it hold up? On that note, has your taste in pizza evolved over time?
I grew up in a small town in Massachusetts and we had a lot of little Greek pizza places that served some pretty forgettable pizza. I remember a place called The Sorrento Room that we used to go to all the time. I don't think it's still there, and the slices definitely wouldn't hold up anymore. I used to work for GE and lived in Connecticut for quite a while, and I have fond memories of John the Baker (Stamford), John's Best (Norwalk), and Post Corner Pizza (Westport). I really prefer Neapolitan pies that are cooked in a true wood-burning oven these days. If I see a gas flame in the pizza oven, I order something else.
Where do you go for pizza in your area (when you're not making your own)?
Some of our pizzaioli work at a very cool place called Urban Crust in Plano, Texas. They have great skills and do a pretty nice job with their oven set-up. They have a bar that has a frozen tap system so the beer is pretty incredible, too.
I also like a place called Olivella's in Dallas run by a guy named Charlie Green (he had Salvatore Olivella come in and train the staff). A good friend of mine opened a place in a little suburb called Coppell, Texas, named Maurizio's. He was born in Naples and was a cop in Rome before coming to the U.S. He has a nice wood-burning oven, but when I'm there I usually go for the pasta (cooked perfectly al dente) or the awesome meatball and eggplant sandwich. If I'm not eating pizza, I'm eating breakfast tacos at a place called Taco Joint in Dallas.
What's most important to you: crust, sauce, or cheese?
If I had to pick one—the crust. It needs to be more than a topping delivery device. It should actually have flavor. We've experimented with all kinds of "00" flours to find one we really like. We tinker with hydration to make sure we get a nice oven spring. We proof our dough at low temperatures for several days so it develops a great flavor. For tomatoes we use DOP San Marzanos—and I do believe there is a taste difference. We make all of our mozzarella too—I just haven't been able to find a supplier that makes it creamy enough.
What one thing should NEVER go on a pizza?
Ranch dressing. Gross.
Weirdest pizza you've ever eaten?
We make one at home with pear, brie, and caramelized brown sugar. It's weird, but awesome.
What's the farthest you've traveled for pizza?
Not counting trips to Italy, I once set up a semi-legitimate business meeting in San Francisco specifically so I could go to A16. I sat by myself at the pizza bar and I think I ate two whole pizzas that night.
Anything you'd like to get off your chest?
Friends don't let friends eat chain pizza.
Now: Who would *you* like to see interviewed next?
I'm adding them to the list, Jay! Thanks for playing. And, seriously, I'll be bugging you in late July about the Hatch green chiles.