Artisan Pizza is not an Oxymoron

(This article appeared in the September 2011 issue of South Bay Accent. See previous post on tips for making good artisan pizza at home.)artisan pizzaConsidering it was invented by foreigners, the success of pizza — America’s favorite food — is remarkable. We each consume on average 23 pounds per year of the cheesy stuff, spend upwards of $38 billion on it annually and argue over where to find the best versions with a passion usually limited to politics and sports.  New York-style pizza, Chicago deep-dish pizza, Neapolitan pizza, fast-food pizza, frozen pizza — it has as many styles as Lady Gaga. But artisan pizza?  Given the humble pie’s ubiquity and common-man, low-cost appeal, this may sound oxymoronic, like jumbo shrimp or sanitary landfill. But don’t tell the South Bay’s gobs of pizza purists seeking transcendent local pizza like hidden treasure. And finding lots of it.

Artisan pizza is to pizza what the Krupp diamond is to jewelry.  Forget the greasy, soggy, pedestrian version sold by the millions in pizza chains.  When the steel cutter slices through an artisan pizza, you’ll hear a crack, crack, crack sound as the blade hits thin, puffed, crisp sections of crust that has character, like bread from a boutique bakery. No industrial shredded cheese comes anywhere near an artisan pizza. If tomato sauce is involved — by no means a necessity — it’s likely to be made from intense, low-acid San Marzano tomatoes or other forwardly fruity varieties.  The cheap pepperoni that leaves orange grease slicks on ordinary pizza will never appear on the artisan variety — if pepperoni is even present.

Artisan pizza ain’t like Domino’s — toppings are high quality and lightly applied.

Let’s be clear.  Making great artisan pizza is difficult, which might seem surprising for such a simple, widely consumed food.  “I’ve been cooking 30 years, and I’ve never been as perplexed as I have been by pizza dough,” stated Howard Bulka, who left a long career as a chef in many celebrated restaurants to open Howie’s Artisan Pizza in Palo Alto in 2009.  Developing an acceptable crust was a lengthy process for Bulka, whose dough requires two days for mixing and proofing.  His other pizza ingredients demonstrate similar quality and care.  Yet he still isn’t finished tweaking his product.  Said Bulka:” It’s likely that the pursuit of a perfect pizza will consume the better part of my remaining professional life.”

Howard Bulka makes a mean pie at his Palo Alto cafe.

Opinions and myths abound when it comes to pizza, which according to statistics is eaten by 94 percent of Americans. Although it’s been a staple in the Italian diet for centuries, the dish was actually invented in ancient Greece as a formed flatbread baked with toppings.  Although some misinformed residents insist that pizza was invented here, it actually first came to America along with early Italian immigrants but didn’t reach critical mass until after World War II. Returning U.S. soldiers popularized the dish after discovering it during the Italian campaign and brought their appreciation home.

When it comes to artisan pizza, the South Bay played an important, but little-known role in its genesis. Back in the ’70s, Los Altos teenager Ed LaDou — later dubbed “the prince of pizza” — learned to make the dish when working at Frankie, Johnnie & Luigi Too in Mountain View. Contrary to instructions, LaDou wanted to use unorthodox toppings not on the menu, so he kept jumping to new cooking gigs in the area until landing at Prego in San Francisco as the pizza chef, where his creativity was finally appreciated.  In 1980, one of LaDou’s customers was chef Wolfgang Puck, who was soon to open a new restaurant in Hollywood called Spago. Puck loved LaDou’s unusual pizzas so much that he hired him as the pizza guru at Spago and the rest, of course, is history.  Puck usually gets the credit for inventing gourmet pizzas but it was actually Ed LaDou who has that honor — and later developed the pizza recipes as a consultant for California Pizza Kitchen. Now with 265 locations, this international chain introduced a scaled-down version of artisan pizza for the masses back in 1985.

Not surprisingly, Berkeley’s Chez Panisse was also seminal in the history of artisan pizza. While LaDou was creating smoked-salmon pizza and barbecued chicken pizza at Spago, Alice Waters and her crew had installed a wood-burning oven in their newly opened upstairs cafe and were applying their love of local ingredients to inventive new pizzas.

The upstairs cafe at Chez Panisse in Berkeley serves fantastic pizza.

While South Bay artisan pizza chefs march in the same direction as these pizza pioneers, they are also indebted to Naples, where making great pizza is part of the local DNA.  Let’s not forget that Pizza Margherita — the basic pie featuring tomatoes, cheese and basil, the colors of the Italian flag — was invented in Naples in 1889 to honor Margherita, the queen consort.  Even today, this remains one of the most popular varieties and a mainstay of many local artisan pizza joints.

So seriously does Naples take its pizza that a local pizza association has strict guidelines for such pizzas and even offers certifications for pizza chefs.  How the dough is made, how it’s baked, the specific ingredients — these are all defined so that certified pizzaiolos can produce the most authentic, tasty pie possible.  Holding this certification is Costas Eleftheriadis, the half-Italian owner and chef of Mountain View’s Napoletana Pizzeria.  His Italian flour makes crust that holds sauce from San Marzano tomatoes and he makes his own mozzarella.  Most importantly, his pizza is baked in a searing-hot wood-burning oven for a minute and a half, tops.

Napoletana Pizzeria makes it according to the strictest Italian standards.

As he explains it, “The pizza in Napoli is typically not cut and people use forks and knives or they fold it and eat it like a sandwich.” The folding part is reminiscent of New York-style pizza, which is, in fact, much like the thin-crust Naples version.  For those passionate about pizza, this kind is the real deal.  While local artisan pizza establishments don’t all have wood-burning ovens — several have special high-heat gas ovens that offer more control — their pies are otherwise variations on a thin-crust pizza inspired by the demanding Neapolitans.

The South Bay’s artisan pizza chefs don’t all speak Italian but they still have a strong common language: a thin, flavorful crust with a little crunch topped by just the right amount of highest-quality toppings so that each mouthful is an irresistible combination of textures and tastes.

The take-out artisan pizza at Howie’s comes in a cheerful cardboard box.

Where to Find Artisan Pizza

Calafia Cafe, 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, 650-322-9200. Lunch weekdays, 11-4:30; dinner daily, 4:30-9.

Although former Google head chef Charlie Ayers crafted pizza that was good enough to entice thousands of 20-something Googlers to stay on site and work longer hours, his love of a good pie started during his East Coast childhood. Four vegetarian and four meat pizzas in New York thin-crust style are served at his freshness-focused restaurant and patrons love, love, love them. “Kids even eat the crust,” he says, which is from a secret Italian recipe.  Some iterations stick around, such as “Wolfgang’s pizza,” featuring shredded duck-leg meat, pumpkin-seed pesto, mozzarella and goat cheese, or the most popular version, “the simple pizza,” which has full-fat mozzarella, fresh basil and sauce with a “little secret ingredient,” he says. Elsewhere, this type is called Pizza Margherita and shows off Ayers’ quality ingredients and crisp, chewy crust. However, he usually follows his muse in new inventions, noting: “I’m not a total pizza snob. I’ve made some really crazy pizzas recently,” like a sweet and sour red cabbage pizza with crispy cured sous-vide pork belly and Manchego cheese, or a roasted miso black cod pizza with wakame (a subtly sweet seaweed) and tart, hot Sriracha sauce.

 Charlie Ayers’ pizzas at Calafia are all about fresh ingredients.

Donato Enoteca, 1041 Middlefield Road, Redwood City, 650-701-1000. Monday-Thursday, 11:30-10; weekends, 11:30-11; Sunday, 11:30-9.

Chef Donato Scotti has been making Americans swoon over his native Italian cuisine for years, particularly after opening his namesake restaurant in 2009, a handsome spot offering popular and lesser-known dishes.  Mostly Napolitano in style, utilizing a wood oven, imported tomatoes and super-fresh ingredients, Scotti’s pizza, according to some of his customers, “is just like the ones they had in Italy,” he says.  Classic versions like the Margherita (tomato, cheese, basil) and a tasty pie featuring house-made sausage and mushrooms are popular, but Scotti has engineered some enticing creations, such as a pizza with Monterey Bay calamari, tomatoes, Calabrian peppers and Gaeta olives.  It’s like an ingredient tour of Italy in one dish.  Given the perfection of Scotti’s super-thin, crisp crust and the luscious smokiness imparted by his oven, his pies need not wear tomatoes or mozzarella to be delicious.  Examples: a self-indulgence combining pork belly, wild arugula and black rock salt, or a luscious pie featuring heirloom radicchio, extra-creamy gorgonzola dolce and guanciale, a magical type of Roman bacon.

Donato Enoteca is where Italian food lovers get their fix.

Howie’s Artisan Pizza,  855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto; 650-327-4992. Open daily, 11:30-9.

Knowing his way around fine dining, chef Howard Bulka has applied this knowledge to producing the most irresistible pizza possible using the best ingredients, often made in house.  Upwards of eight varieties are on the menu of his casual, attractive cafe and his crust is a work of art: thin, yeasty, nicely darkened in spots and wearing just the right amount of toppings.  At first glance, the offerings seem simple — like pizza Margherita, pepperoni pizza and a pesto-focused pie — but with sublime ingredients like Hobb’s pepperoni, house-made fennel sausage from Berkshire pork and fabulous Castelvetrano olives, simple sings.  A hugely popular pizza here combines scalloped potatoes, Gruyère cheese, crisp bacon, rosemary and Parmesan.  Another popular choice, “the works,” sprinkles meats and vegetables onto the crust with an appropriately sparing hand. After all, this isn’t Pizza Hut.  Take advantage of “pizza any way you like it” and have Howie’s fashion a customized version, which will be charmingly delivered on a corrugated cardboard square.  This small spot even has a good wine list and non-pizza choices that encourage future trips.

Howie’s in Palo Alto is in Town & Country Shopping Center across from Stanford.

La Strada Ristorante Italiano, 335 University Avenue, Palo Alto, 650-324-8300; Sunday – Thursday: 11:30-10; Friday-Saturday,11:30 -11.

The people-watching on the front patio makes this spot on restaurant row popular with diners but those who dig into the sizeable menu of Italian items will find a few outstanding, thin-crust pizzas cooked in a wood-burning oven.  Chef Osvaldo Tomatis is a native of Turin and brings a strong Italian sensibility to his pies, which feature a crisp, flavorful crust and excellent topping ingredients like house-made spicy sausage. He pairs the latter with artichokes, mozzarella and tomato sauce for a simple, satisfying iteration.  More exotic is a rich pizza topped with high-fat fontina cheese, wild mushrooms, tomato sauce and truffle oil.  The chef’s origins show in his light hand on the toppings — no cheese bombs here — and attention to flavor and texture contrasts.  Reduced prices on some pizzas are available during happy hour and wise diners save room for the celestial chocolate souffle.

With its wood-burning oven and Italian chef, La Strada is a good destination for fine pizza.

Mayfield Bakery & Café, 855 El Camino Real, Palo Alto, 650-853-9200. Weekdays 8-9pm; weekends 9-9.

With its first-rate bakery — the source of its excellent crust — and wood-burning oven, Mayfield has two of the elements for great artisan pizza.  Fresh, local ingredients and kitchen creativity complete the picture.  Despite all the many other enticements on the menu, the cafe still sells around 70 pizzas daily, such as tasso ham and herb pizza with creme fraiche that’s simply spectacular.  Four pizzas are offered at a time and are changed frequently, showing off the hand-stretched, thin crust, which emerges from the wood oven with a bubbled, charred exterior that pizza purists adore.  The simple, handsome decor matches the food in this popular spot, such as mozzarella and Tuscan kale pizza with pancetta and oregano, or a delicious, scaled-down offering: anchovy with parsley salad. A recent French inspiration combined tasty Niçoise olives, chevre and caramelized onions.  The plain cheese and pepperoni pizzas on the kid’s menu are miles away from the gooey, over-cheesy iterations made by the pizza chains for parents concerned about little Jason’s cholesterol count.

 Mayfield’s kale and pancetta pizza has the blistered crust beloved by pizza addicts.

Napoletana Pizzeria, 1910 W. El Camino Real Ste. C, Mountain View, 650-969-4884. Lunch daily except Monday, 11-2; dinner daily, 5-9, until 10 weekends.

The word is out among local Italian transplants: here’s where the most authentic Naples-style pizza is found.  Owner-chef Costas Eleftheriadis is half Italian and earned a certificate for learning how to make real Neapolitan pizza, so the flour comes from Italy, as do the tomatoes. He even makes his own fresh mozzarella and cooks his pizzas at a blistering 900 degrees in his wood oven for just 60 to 90 seconds — just long enough to produce a crispy, bubbled crust with a slight char and a magical melding of lightly applied toppings.  His Margherita (tomato, mozzarella and basil) is perfection, but eight more pizzas are offered, like a luscious four-cheese iteration that includes smoked mozzarella and gorgonzola, and a tasty pie featuring home-made sausage, broccoli rabe and smoked mozzarella.  Most unusual is a pizza in which ricotta cheese is rolled into the crust edges and the pie topped with tomato, mozzarella, basil and olive oil.  The non-pizza offerings include some recipes from Naples and the fried calamari has lots of fans, as does a super-rich concoction that layers mascarpone cheese, chocolate syrup, amaretto cookie crumbs and chocolate shavings.

Certified by a pizza association in Naples, the owner of Napoletana Pizzeria makes pies that attract local Italian expats.

Pizza Antica, 334 Santana Row, San Jose, 408-557-8373. Sunday-Thursday, 11:30-10; weekends until 11.

Imagine crossing an exacting Italian pizza mindset with creative California high-end cooking. The result is this popular, attractive spot.  One of four in the state, the San Jose Pizza Antica serves outstanding cuisine under the direction of star chef Gordon Drysdale. Although under the same ownership as Mayfield Cafe, this restaurant’s pizza is different, done Roman-style with a cracker-thin, high-gluten crust. In addition to some much-loved menu mainstays such as an alluring combo of heirloom potatoes, caramelized onions and truffle oil, or delicious broccoli rabe, creamy burrata cheese and chile oil, Pizza Antica follows its muse via a rotating band of new creations celebrating seasonal ingredients. Among many winners is a much-loved summer invention pairing sweet corn, bacon and spicy arugula.  But the several pizzas on the menu are by no means the only enticements.  Patrons are hopelessly addicted to an other-worldly caesar salad, pillowy gnocchi napped with pesto and sun-dried tomato, or to-die-for mussels with saffron.

 Pizza Antica’s executive chef, Gordon Drysdale, knows how to construct a great pie.

Quattro Restaurant, Four Seasons Hotel, 2050 University Avenue, East Palo Alto, 650-470-2889. Lunch, 11:30-2:30; dinner, 5:30-10.

Hands-down gorgeous and classy, this restaurant within the super-premium Canadian hotel chain somehow ended up Italian — but certainly not checkered-tablecloth Italian.  Under the helm of executive chef Marco Fossati, the cuisine is as sophisticated and well-appointed as the facilities. However, insiders know that Quattro also serves some terrific pizza as sort of a well-executed afterthought.  Available on the lunch, bar and room-service menus, it features hand-stretched dough,  Italian tomatoes and quality toppings.  Although just a few versions are offered, they are distinctively Italian, with a crispy thin crust and modest load of toppings.  The Margherita is satisfying, while the most exciting version is “Siciliana,” with capers, chile peppers, fresh ricotta and sweet & sour eggplant.  Showing the kitchen’s modernist bent, the Italian sausage pizza includes caramelized onion and smoked mozzarella, while the Parma ham pizza also wears arugula and creamy, soft-ripened Bellwether Farms Crescenza cheese.

Quattro, in the Four Seasons, is the most elegant place to eat pizza in the region.

>>See previous post on tips for making artisan pizza at home.<<

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