Welcome back to Obsessed, the interview series in which we talk to uniquely driven amateurs and professionals from all across the food world. We hope to shed light on the passions that inspire enthusiastic food nerds, from home cooks to chefs on the line to veteran butchers, fishmongers, and farmers. Hopefully we'll also pick up some of their favorite tips, tricks, and food wisdom along the way. Know somebody who you think would be perfect for this interview series? Email us!
Adam Kuban should need no introduction for longtime Serious Eats readers. He founded both the pizza-focused blog Slice and its sister, A Hamburger Today, both of which Ed Levine bought and incorporated into Serious Eats in 2006. He then served as the managing editor of the entire site until 2010, during which time he contributed immeasurably to its development and success.
But we didn't decide to interview Kuban for Obsessed because of his association with Serious Eats; we did it because he's a nut for pizza. And I suppose I didn't really understand how deep his obsession ran until I tried some of the pies he's putting out at Margot's, the pop-up pizza shop he sets up in the Emily space in Brooklyn's Clinton Hill. And that understanding came in the form of a small pizza epiphany.
As I was finishing off my fifth slice of Kuban's Collaboroni pie (pepperoni, jalapeño, honey), it dawned upon me that eating a slice of pizza is a dynamic experience, and that every bite should be a little different. Pizza geeks will probably find the observation remedial, but it nevertheless struck me with the force of revelation. The kaleidoscope of my memories of all the cheesy, tomatoey near-triangles of bread I've consumed over the course of my life suddenly took on a sense of order, as each was measured against an image of the Good Slice as a Platonic thing, and that image looked surprisingly like the slice of pie in front of me.
The Collaboroni doesn't seem remarkable on paper. Salty, spicy, a little sweet, but otherwise, a pizza—it's got sauce; it's got cheese; it is, fundamentally, a bread. But the toppings were dispersed in a way that made every bite interesting. A bite dominated by pepperoni gave way to another where the blend of mozzarella and other cheeses and the oregano-tinged sauce rose to the fore. The next after that had a little of everything, until a clear, green jalapeño taste gradually rang out above all the others, like a drunk's shout at a bar. And, while I was trying to intervene in the knock-down drag-out fight between my mouth, which wanted another slice immediately, and my mind, which was making a weak case to wait just a goddamn minute, it occurred to me that the bodily need to eat another was engineered: The first bite of each slice is slightly sweeter than any other, as the honey and pepperoni grease pool together and run onto your tongue, and the final two bites of the slice are saltier than the rest because of the crisped-up ring of Pecorino Romano that skirts the outer edge, where a normal pie would have a crust. The intensely salty final bite makes you yearn for the sweetness of the first bite of another slice, and the process could go on and on forever, until you either run out of pie or, well, die. So, the original epiphany had an addendum: Every slice should make you want to eat another, ad infinitum. The image of the Good Slice in my mind altered slightly, gaining a twin, since every Good Slice should point to another waiting in the wings.
I talked to Kuban about starting Slice, managing Serious Eats, and a lifetime of making pizza, as well as Margot's and his plans to open up a permanent location to give his pies the audience they deserve.
Name: Adam Kuban
Day job: Social media manager at NYCgo.com
So first off, I want to nail down the timeline of your lifelong love affair with pizza. In that vein, what's your first pizza-related memory?
Adam Kuban: I have a photo of me and some friends making pizza at what is either my seventh or eighth birthday party, when we lived in North Andover, Massachusetts. I don't remember the actual party itself. I vaguely recall my dad loading unglazed quarry tiles into the oven around that time while he futzed with trying to re-create Midwestern thin-crust pizza at home.
Was your family into pizza in a way that was out of the ordinary?
AK: Considering that my dad eventually opened a pizzeria, I'd say yes, we were more interested in pizza than most families. The older I get, though, the less I recall specifics. My dad was into this place in Milwaukee, a fantastic place—in the literal sense of that word—that's still there: Maria's Pizza. And what he was trying to mimic was that style. Maria's makes glorious, oblong, flaky-crisp thin-crust pies that overhang the cafeteria-style trays they're served on; they're loaded with cheese and have a generous amount of toppings. I always call it "Midwestern thin-crust" pizza; in truth, it's probably the same thing as Chicago thin-crust. My Milwaukee roots, though, don't allow me to slap the Chicago designator on it.
Do you think your father's attempts to re-create Maria's pizza at home played a pivotal role in your interest in pizza? How frequently was your dad making pizza from scratch?
AK: I grew up eating Maria's maybe only once a year, when we'd go visit relatives in Milwaukee. It definitely affected my relationship with pizza, in that pizza became a special-occasion food. I mean, we ate it other times of the year back home, but the reverence my dad showed toward Maria's.... We always drove to Milwaukee from Kansas City. That's a nine-hour trip. Instead of driving straight to my grandparents' house, where we usually stayed, he'd detour to pick up a couple large pies. These days, I see that it probably had as much to do with arriving with an edible gift for our hosts as it did with a love of this one particular pizzeria, but what imprinted on me was that this pizza is stop number one.
I don't recall how often my dad made pizza from scratch. There were two periods, in my recollection: the pre–Mamma Mia's period, and post–.
Mamma Mia's was the pizzeria my dad opened in Olathe, Kansas, in, like, '83. We'd moved to Olathe in, I don't know, 1982, and the pizza there was garbage, so he thought he'd open a place that served the Maria's-style stuff he missed. I vaguely recall the quarry tiles coming out during that period, and pizzas baked directly on them. But I never really helped make them.
Then there's the post–Mamma Mia's period. The pizzeria lasted about a year. It must have been 1983, because I can't hear Michael Jackson's "Human Nature" without thinking of the kitchen there. It seemed to do okay, but when a Pizza Hut opened across the street, Mamma Mia's days were numbered. After that, I feel like the experimentation period for my dad was over, and we started doing Friday pizza nights with Chef Boyardee boxed pizza kits. Was it easier than making pizza from scratch? Maybe marginally. I don't know. But I loved the boxed kit, too, and my dad used a heavy hand with the Kraft "Parmesan" cheese it came with, which I mimic to this day.
Was there ever a moment where you understood that pizza was a vast subject worthy of exploration, or did your interest just gradually build over time?
AK: I flirted with the idea of creating a photocopied zine about pizza in the late '90s while living in Portland, Oregon. I never got beyond doing a square-format mock-up and slapping the name "Slice" on it. It wasn't until blogs really blew up, in the early 2000s, that I realized I might be able to devote a website to pizza. Even then, I didn't realize the scope of the subject—there are so many angles.
Slice was, at first, just journal-entry "reviews" of pizza, and me regurgitating little bits of pizza news from various local and national news outlets. The links I shared back then, in the pre–social media era, were things that we now all share on Facebook and Twitter with a little line of insight or snark. It's amazing to think that whole blogs were built around dumb links that, today, you might read only the headline of them and give no more than a "like."
My imagined audience was my mom, basically. I wanted to write for someone without a ton of technical knowledge of pizza (lord knows I didn't have it at the time anyway) and in a voice that was welcoming and accessible. Over time, as more and more pizza nerds were drawn to the site, I started writing more in anticipation of their questions—"What kind of mixer do they use?" "What hydration is the dough?" "Are they using bromated flour?" Toward the end of my run at Slice, that got to be a real drag. I mean, it's great info to have and to know, but trying to satisfy both a general audience and pizza nerds was taxing, and reviews often ran in the 1,200-word range.
When did you decide to start writing about pizza? What made you want to start Slice? Did you have another job at the time?
AK: Since I'd already thought about starting Slice as a zine in the late '90s, I already had a name for the site. And once I'd moved to New York, in 2000, I started clipping out—yes, physically clipping—stories about pizza in the local papers and magazines. A couple memorable clips I saved were Ed Levine's "State of the Slice 2002" in the New York Times and a printout of the late Steven Shaw's "Fat Guy Guide to Pizza." (Shaw was one of the founders of eGullet, an early forum about restaurants and cooking.) I used all these different articles as guides for exploring New York's pizza scene.
In 2003, blogs hit the mainstream. I got hooked on Gawker and Gothamist, jumping between tabs all day, hitting refresh. I was addicted to the constant updates on cool stuff around NYC and wanted a blog of my own. After a brief attempt at a more personal blog—which was just stupid, because who wanted to read what I had to say about anything?—I hit upon sharing with the world my search for great NYC pizza. I figured it was a way to share all my first-person pizza travelogues and the trove of third-party intel I'd gathered.
I was working at the time at Martha Stewart Living magazine as a copy editor. It was a weird time—it was just before all the legacy media companies (like Martha Stewart) jumped online in a real way. Back then, working editorial on a monthly magazine often meant two weeks of intense work and late nights, when all the copy came in for the month and you had to scramble to edit it and place it in the layout. And then you'd have another two weeks where you basically just waited for the writers to file their stories. It was during those lulls that I figured out how to configure blogging software and customize its templates to create Slice's look and feel. And that lull also gave me plenty of time to read about pizza online and plan my next adventures.
When did making your own pizza become something more than just a thing you did for dinner? Was it before or after the creation of Slice?
AK: I started dabbling in making pizza in college, if by "making pizza" you mean following a recipe without really knowing the fundamentals behind it. Heck, I was pretty ignorant about pizza science throughout most of my Slice days, too. It wasn't until the end of my run at Slice that I started to understand the benefits of long fermentations, how gluten worked and what factors affected it, and, thanks to a lot of Kenji's work, the way toppings work. (His pepperoni explainer remains one of my favorite pieces on Slice/SE.)
But there are two distinct moments I can point to when the whole Slice/pizza-journey thing became about more than eating pizza out, making it at home, and writing it all up.
The "opening a pizzeria of my own" seed was planted the night I first visited Gruppo Thin Crust's original Avenue B location. It was super cozy, warm, and inviting. As I sat in a booth there with friends and noted the classic black-and-white tile floor, the beer available in pitchers like at a proper pizzeria, I remember thinking, "Self: File this place in your mind as an inspiration for a pizzeria you might open someday."
From that moment on, I began noting what made memorable pizzerias and restaurants memorable—the way Paulie Gee visits your table when he's there, the medicine cabinet in Joseph Leonard's bathroom, any place whose bar has hooks beneath it for hanging jackets and bags; all of that got sorted into the "things my pizzeria would do" file in a dusty corner of my brain.
But, you know, you can plant a seed, and it may not germinate for years. So opening a place was something I'd think of when I'd see something so right—or so wrong. But it was never anything more than "Yeah, if I won the lottery..."
Which brings me to the second moment—and the first time the concept of opening my own pizzeria became something tangible. That was the day I stepped into Paulie Gee's kitchen to work my first prep shift.
On some post on Slice, I mentioned in the comments that my ideal life would be spent running a pizzeria in Portland. Paulie responded, "Slicemeister, talk to me."
He'd just announced that he was expanding to Baltimore through a partnership with a pizza enthusiast there who went by the name of Pizzablogger. (Longtime readers of Slice will remember Kelly from the comments and from his own pizza blog.) If I was interested, Paulie said, I could do a Portland location. The first step, though, would be working a couple shifts a week to see if I'd even enjoy it.
This dovetailed with something my wife had said just a couple weeks earlier: "Why don't you go moonlight at a pizzeria and see if you even like the work? If you do, explore the next step. If not, it's time to get a new dream." (I think she was just tired of hearing me talk about cloud castles every time we passed a vacant storefront in our neighborhood.)
Anyway, I started working prep on Sundays at Paulie's, and then a pizza-making shift at night on Wednesdays. I LOVED IT. I remember, after the first pizza-making shift, being tired as hell and my feet hurting, but it was the good kind of exhausted—and, most important, I knew I'd been a small part of making a bunch of people happy through pizza.
Circling back to Slice: Can you give a brief timeline of Slice, from conception to birth to when Ed Levine decided he'd had enough of someone horning in on his beat and he bought it out?
AK: I kind of already covered a lot of it, but...
Late '90s: I mock up a pizza zine, to be called Slice. It's a square format (to recall pizza boxes) and would feature first-person essays, reviews of pizzerias in Portland (where I lived at the time), and musing about pizza ephemera.
2000: I move to NYC, begin amassing pizza intel in the form of firsthand eating experience, web links, and actual clippings from local newspapers and magazines.
2003: I get hooked on blogs and want to create one of my own. I hit upon turning that stillborn zine into a blog called Slice. We launch on 10/13/2003, with me and a couple other contributors doing gonzo pizza reviews and aggregation blogging of local and national pizza news and reviews.
April 2004: I meet Ed by chance at Totonno's while I'm leading a "Slice Pizza Club" meetup. I'm starstruck and in no way want to approach him. Someone at my table makes a bathroom trip and, on the way back, unbeknownst to me, tells Ed about the meetup. Ed comes over to get the lowdown.
May 2005: I launch A Hamburger Today (I still LOVE that name) with some burger-heads, as a sister site to Slice. Basically the same format, but burgers—and bicoastal, since one of our founding correspondents, Hadley Tomicki, who was known as "Hamburger Hadley," moved to LA the month before we launched.
November 2005: Ed approaches me about coming on board as the founding editor of Serious Eats. He liked the voice of Slice and AHT—passionate, authoritative, and discerning but still welcoming—and wanted me to help him establish that tone for a larger site about food.
Late 2006: Serious Eats buys Slice and AHT from me and brings me on board full time to help launch the site.
2006 to 2010: I'm editing and/or writing for SE, Slice, and AHT, while serving as SE community manager and, when Twitter launches and Facebook expands beyond universities, building and managing the sites' social channels.
2010: I start to burn out. Dealing with community squabbles, trolls, pizza purists and nitpickers, and the long hours of start-up life take their toll. Ed assigns Maggie Hoffman to edit Slice, and I sort of mark October 2010 as the end of the Kuban era at Slice. I continued to contribute posts, reviews, and knowledge through mid-2012 or so.
Early 2011: I go to part time at SE, running social media, managing community, and doing posts here and there on Slice and SE. Shortly thereafter I pick up some part-time work at NYCgo, the website of NYC's visitors bureau. In 2012 I transition to full time at NYCgo and contributing reviewer/columnist at Slice.
2012: My wife and I have a kid—Margot. I pretty much hang up my pizza hat. Between the baby and another full-time job, I've got no time now to visit and review pizzerias the way I once did.
2014: Slice, AHT, and all existing Serious Eats subsites are folded back into SE as mere categories. The archives exist, more or less, but it's hard to piece together Slice or any of the subsites as coherent blogs in the new SE format. Which in some respects is good, because it's hard to find my early ignorance on the site, but it's also kind of a shame.
What were you trying to do with Slice? Was it purely a hobby, or did you have some defined goal you wanted to accomplish?
AK: It was totally a hobby! I was insecure, bored, lonely, and unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. I started Slice primarily as a way to connect with people.
I've noted above that my original goal was merely to start a blog, any blog. But I had also been to journalism school and worked at a newspaper and magazines, so I knew you also had to have a good story to tell and to entertain people. I didn't have a good enough personal story or lifestyle to make for any type of compelling blog, so I turned to the things I loved doing more than anything at the time—eating pizza and exploring New York. Early Slice was a travelogue of NYC that always ended with a pizza review.
Eventually we (it was me, Marc Bailes, and Ian Ritter in those days) got noticed by Gothamist and Gawker, got mentions there, and the site gained a small and steadily growing readership.
I made enough revenue from advertising that I could pay for hosting fees and mostly cover the cost of pizza and burgers. But it seemed a stretch that I'd ever be able to do it full time, so when Ed came knocking, I was happy to sell them. It didn't make me rich, but it paid off my credit cards, and I made sure my early contributors got a fair figure for the posts they had made. A lot of people still mourn the loss of Slice. I do, too, at times, but I guess the salve I have that they don't is that it got me out of debt when I desperately needed it to, and it absolutely changed my life. I have so many new friends now thanks to blogging, and wherever this whole Margot's pop-up may lead (hopefully to a brick-and-mortar), I certainly wouldn't be doing it were it not for Slice. It got me out of my funk and, weirdly enough, gave me the confidence I sorely lacked as a 20-something newly arrived in New York.
How did running Slice (and, later, Serious Eats) change the way you viewed pizza? How did it change how you made pizza? You've written that you used to be a purist, and attributed it to being a New York transplant. What's changed?
AK: When I first started Slice, I felt like I had to be more-New-York-than-thou about pizza. In part because I knew no New Yorker would take me seriously, as a transplant open to the idea of deep-dish. The early tagline was something like "Slice: It ain't about deep-dish, Domino's, or any other dreck," which is a TERRIBLE tagline for a variety of reasons. There's no one more zealous than the newly converted, right?
After a while I mellowed and became more big-tent about pizza. If I were to be true to myself, I'd have to admit that my favorite pizza is the Maria's thin-crust style. And I would take it every single time as a last slice on earth, against even the best NYC pizza. So how do you remain honest with yourself or your readers, knowing that?
Also, a lot of New York's slice pizza could be much better. So after a couple years of eating mediocre plain or even minimally topped slices, I got extremely bored.
When Slice was young, the thinking was you needed to eat plain slices or pies (or, with Neapolitan, a margherita) to establish a baseline. But over the years, at least a few pizza nerds I know evolved away from that, saying that you can sort of reverse-engineer in your head what a plain slice would be like, just in tasting the crust itself or a bit of the slice without toppings. I don't know if I necessarily agree 100% with that, but I think it's true enough that it has liberated me from the tyranny of ordering plain pizza all the damn time. And heck, these days I'll just order a plain and something else more interesting. I'm back to exploring my roots, seeking out various regional American pizza styles. I'm all about bar-style pies these days, and various squares—Sicilian, grandma, and Detroit-style, specifically.
Are there any Slice posts that you're particularly fond of? Any that should be preserved for posterity? Any that come to mind that seem to be totally absurd now? (Ditto for anything SE published when you were running the place.)
AK: Oh, boy. I think ALL of it should be preserved. (What do you know about purging the site that I don't?)
Over the years people have suggested I write a book. I always say Slice was my book. And that when all was said and done, it would serve as a snapshot of pizza culture in the early 21st century.
The most interesting posts to this day are those I had little to do with beyond hiring and editing talented writers. Kenji's "Why Does Pepperoni Curl?" post remains a favorite, as does Scott Wiener's series where he worked at different pizzerias and showed that side of things.
I wish I'd learned more about the business angle of the industry while I was editing the site. Working at Paulie Gee's and talking to various pizzeria and restaurant operators while writing my own business plan gave me an invaluable insight that Slice could have used.
I had no idea, all those years I was writing, what a process it is to make pizza on a commercial scale. I knew at home what the process was like. I knew you had to make a dough, you had to prep the ingredients—which is fine, you expect a restaurant or pizzeria to have all that work. I guess, more so, I didn't know how all those parts went together, and how.... Paulie calls it "pizza theater," which is a great term; it is like prepping some kind of drama or Broadway production. You've got all this stuff going on in the background, long before anyone shows up in those seats.
In retrospect, it's not a huge revelation; if you just stop to think about it, it's pretty obvious that that's going on. But it just laid bare the sheer amount of work that goes into the pizza, into what goes on the table. I think I did not appreciate what [pizzerias] were doing, or the limitations they might have had. It's one of the biggest regrets I have when I look back at Slice. If I could go back and do it again, even if I wasn't thinking about opening a pizza place, I think it would have behooved me to have worked at a pizzeria for about a year or so, because it answers a ton of questions, like "Why don't they ferment the dough for three days?" All the stuff you can do at home to make really delicious pizza—not that you're going to necessarily get commercial results at home—all these things you can afford to spend time on at home, you just can't do in a commercial setting. For some of these places that do multiple-day ferments on their dough, they have dough sitting around for three days somewhere, so that's taking up space; that space costs them money, so they have to have a larger walk-in for that dough. So that's all got to factor in.
Some of my harshest critics sometimes accused me of not knowing shit. And, looking back, I have to say they weren't necessarily wrong.
Do you remember your first solo forays into making pizza at home?
AK: I didn't know diddly about making pizza when I started making it in college. I don't even know where I got the recipe I used. This was at the dawn of the web, and there were no great resources online, like PizzaMaking.com. It always amazes me and makes me a little jealous that people starting out today can avail themselves of this knowledge and be making fantastic-looking pizzas in a matter of weeks.
The biggest challenge I had was that I didn't realize there was a challenge, if that makes sense. I didn't know what I didn't know—or that I didn't know it. So I never questioned too much why my pizzas weren't so great. I just assumed pizzerias had super-special pizza secrets and that I'd never learn them, so, shrug.
What was it about making pizza for yourself that you found so compelling as a subject for experimentation? Was there a single style you wanted to perfect, or did you want to try to make any style?
AK: What really made me level up was pursuing a bar-style pizza recipe for my pop-up. For the first time, I established goals for the texture and flavors I wanted, and I delved deep into baking books, baking websites, and PizzaMaking.com to find answers. I got serious about keeping a baking journal and about methodically testing components of the recipe, adjusting a single variable at a time, until I finally dialed in a crust I was happy with.
What was the hardest part about making pizza at home when you first started: a lack of equipment or a lack of knowledge?
AK: Lack of knowledge. And laziness. I'm fortunate enough that I can afford most of the equipment I want. For many years I was just too lazy to really dig deep and figure out what made for good pizza at home. It was too easy to get good stuff around NYC.
When did your interest in making pizza at home shift toward making pizza for other people to purchase and consume? What was the origin of the Margot's Pizza concept?
AK: Oy. Originally this all started as the intention to open a Paulie Gee's in Portland—in the same way other pizza enthusiasts have partnered with him in opening in Baltimore, Chicago, Miami, and Columbus, Ohio (what Paulie refers to as a "brotherhood of pizza").
Knowing I'd eventually be leaving NYC, or so I thought, I wanted to finally do a pizza pop-up series, something I'd been wanting to do since seeing Casey Crynes do pop-ups out of a bar in San Francisco. (Casey eventually went on to open SF's first pizza truck and, recently, a brick-and-mortar location—Casey's Pizza.)
I was just going to do a general riff on NY-style pizza, until I had lunch with an internet friend who brought things into focus. He was toying with the idea of opening a deep-dish place in NYC at the time and asked if I'd be interested in being involved. No can do, I said. I enjoy deep-dish, but I don't have a passion for it, and I didn't want to do something in the pizza realm that I wasn't 100% in love with.
"Well, what style would you do?" he asked. "Bar style," I said instantly, thinking of the pizzas I'd fallen for at Star Tavern in Orange, New Jersey, and Colony Grill in Stamford, Connecticut. Boom! I knew what direction my pop-up would take and set about developing a recipe.
The Margot's concept mashes together a number of different styles I love. There's the ultra-thin and -crisp crust that harks back to Maria's in Milwaukee. It also riffs on 1960s-era pizza because of the sauce, which is "herb-forward"—which sounds like food-journalist-speak. It's not heavily herbed; it's just the right amount. At the same time, I love how NY-style pizza is crisp yet foldable, so I made sure you could fold a Margot's slice. From Detroit's fantastic pan pies (and about a quarter of the perimeter of Star Tavern's pizzas), I took the frico edge—the way the cheese fries, crisps up, and "caramelizes," for lack of a better word. (One of the tour guides at Scott's Pizza Tours calls edges like that "cheese bacon.")
As soon as we pulled the first test pizza out of the oven at Emily, where I'd been offered pop-up hours by owners Matt and Emily Hyland, I knew bar pizza was my calling. You know the way some people describe knowing their sweetheart was "the one"? I looked at the first Margot's pie, tasted it, and knew I'd found what I was put on earth to do. (Yes, I know I sound insane.)
How often do you do the pop-up?
AK: We just came off hiatus and have switched from the occasional Saturday to the first Monday night of every month—for now.
Why is it impossible to get tickets to the pop-up? (I have a reliable source who says the last round was sold out in under a minute.)
AK: There are 3,500+ people on the email list that blasts out the ticketing link. There are 36 to 40 pies per pop-up. It's demand far outstripping supply, unfortunately.
Are bar pies a favorite to make or eat, or are they just the best suited for the pop-up?
AK: They're the best to eat, of course! They're actually terribly suited for a pop-up, since they involve a two-step cooking process—starting in a pan, then popping out for a quick kiss on the oven deck before hitting the serving tray. I mean, it's not a super-complicated procedure; it's a little more involved than some. With a Neapolitan you just stretch it, top it, and throw it in the oven, so it's pretty simple. Same with New York–style, too. The bar pies are only a little more complicated, in that most of the cook happens in the pan. Then we take them out of the pan and throw them on the oven floor for 30 seconds or so, just to crisp them up and give them some color. One of the main reasons for the pan is that I can get that frico edge; otherwise I'd have to leave a rim, a crust around the edge, so the toppings wouldn't fall off and burn on the oven floor. It also insulates it from the oven floor so it doesn't cook as fast and can get a little more crisp.
The best pizza style for serving a crowd is probably wood-fired pizza, because you can crank a pie out in less than two minutes. That's why you see WFO pizza at all these street fairs and other outdoor festivals and events.
Are you ever going to open up a permanent pizza spot?
AK: That's the million-dollar question, isn't it? I'm still shooting for it, but I've been slow about it. I know the time is now or never, strike while the iron's hot, and all that. But I have a family to support and a mortgage to pay, and good health care through my job right now. And it's incredibly terrifying reading about, and hearing from friends in the business, how insane the restaurant industry is, particularly in NYC. At the same time, I'm not getting any younger, and I did make a promise to my daughter when she was born that I'd do my best to live out my dreams so she'd have a role model for her own life. I don't want her to see her dad grow old(er) sitting in front of a screen the rest of his life.
I also think of Paulie Gee, who inspired me to model my dream for Margot. He had preached similar platitudes to his son Michael: "You can do anything you put your mind to," I think he said he told him. And Michael believed him and worked hard to become an Air Force pilot—then turned the tables on Paulie when he got accepted into the AF Academy: "Now what about that pizzeria, huh?"
So I'm kind of scared senseless to take the next step, but I think it would be a bigger disappointment to not do it. Also, all these people who can't get tickets to the pop-up need an easier way to get Margot's bar pizzas. Does that answer your question, Dr. Melfi?
What is your favorite style of pizza to make, generally speaking? Why?
AK: Right now, NY Sicilian. It's the one I have the most luck with at home. Plus, it doesn't require making a floury mess of my countertop, or peels, or a ton of urgency, like NY-style round pies do. I generally use Kenji's spicy Sicilian recipe, and it works well—if you have a Baking Steel preheated in a 550°F oven.
What's your favorite type of pizza to eat?
AK: Thin-crust, whether it's bar-style or Chicago thin-crust, or whatever else.
Do you have a pizza-making-related kitchen tool that you can't live without?
AK: A scale! Weighing ingredients for a dough is essential, since doing it by cups leads to too much variation. I'm sure most SEers know this by now, but it's worth stressing. That OXO one that Kenji recommends is what I use. I'd vouch for it, too. I've never used anything else, though.
Oh, and a Baking Steel. Complete game-changer. Great for cooking NY-style directly on it—and for giving your pan pizzas a huge boost. Everything else, I could find some kind of workaround for.
Do you have a recipe or idea in the works? Anything that's particularly challenging or thorny about it?
AK: Nothing really. I feel like my bar pizza recipe is dialed in enough for now. I'll eventually have to retool it for whatever ovens I end up using at a brick-and-mortar Margot's, fingers crossed. I'd love to have that problem to tackle—a high-class problem, as Ed would say. Anything beyond that is just for fun and not mission-critical in the big scheme of things.
Any tips for the aspiring home pizza-maker? Ideas about where to start?
AK: Get on PizzaMaking.com. I have a long, checkered history with the crowd there. They are all pizza geeks of the highest order. You will find many talented folks there with a ton of knowledge and intel, and they are great about helping out newbies. That said, be prepared for long threads sometimes, with more speculation than answers, and some personalities that can be, well, let's just say, pizza-splainers.
Any resources in particular you'd like to highlight (online purveyors, cookbooks, blogs)?
AK: Read and cook some recipes from the following:
- Ken Forkish's Flour Water Salt Yeast and The Elements of Pizza
- Tony Gemignani's The Pizza Bible
- Joe Beddia's Pizza Camp
- Chad Robertson's Tartine Bread
See also PennMac for hard-to-source cheeses, meats, and flours. They've been a go-to for home pizza-makers for a while now, and one of the only places a civilian can get the coveted Ezzo cup-and-char pepperoni that is lighting Pizza Instagram on fire right now.
Any current favorite pizza spots you'd like to recommend (anywhere)?
AK: Too many to name. Right now, though...
- Sofia Pizza Shoppe on First Avenue and 54th in Manhattan has been my go-to for the last year for lunch. Excellent NY-style slices.
- Pizza at Boro Hotel in Long Island City, Queens. Longtime Slice-ers should know that this is where Lou T(omczak) from the comments is now slinging some excellent pies.
- L'industrie in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, is making a killer take on NY-style pizza as filtered through an Italian (though not Neapolitan) sensibility. Really light, crisp, and airy slices. Don't sleep on it!
- Corner Slice in Gotham West Market in Hell's Kitchen, for some flavorful, crunchy grandma pies.
- Emmy Squared, the Emily spin-off in Williamsburg for some amazing Detroit-inspired pies—and one of the best chicken sandwiches in New York.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.