A pizzaiolo is a professional pizza maker; often donning a flour-laden apron while wielding a weather-worn pizza-peel; artfully churning out pies in the Neopolitan style. Dedication to any craft deserves admiration and for those committed to preparing pizzas full-time, I have the utmost respect.
At Eataly in Chicago, I got a front row seat to observe a couple classically trained pizzaiolo’s in action. Their bodies flowing in a focused ceremonial dance—stretching dough balls, ladling sauce, pivoting between bowls of fresh mozzarella and basil leaves—weaving within each other and a 900º oven with the precision and grace of a martial arts masters.
A packed Friday lunch rush put these pizzaiolos were under the gun. Amidst the chaos, their faces were fixed with an intent and stoic expression, framed between red baseball caps and surprisingly clean white t-shirts —rock-solid composure for one mission only: Put out exceptional pizzas.
La Pizza & La Pasta
Eataly is an international Italian eatery—the brain-child of Italian born Oscar Farinetti—it’s U.S. locations are notably backed by celebrity chef Mario Batali. The multi-level marketplace celebrates all things Italian: freshly made pasta, old-world deli meats and cheeses, imported sauces and accompaniments; a smorgasbord of handcrafted desserts—Tess’ go-to is the Gelato. Multiple restaurants and food counters provide delicious morsels around every corner, naturally, I gravitated toward La Pizza & La Pasta where they spare no expense with their wood-fired Neapolitan pizzas.
Steve Dolinsky in Pizza City, USA says the pizzaiolos of La Pizza are trained by an outsourced company from Napoles called Rossopmodoro that comes in and coaches them up to perform with an authentic edge.
I was mesmerized by their well-executed operation.
Pizzaiolo #1 preps the pizzas and begins by plowing little wads of dough out of a plastic tray; afterward gently tossing them into a mound of flour. From there he starts a deep tissue massage that widens into a 10-inch pizza skin. Next comes a splash of sauce, a handful of fresh mozzarella and a sprinkle of basil.
Pizzaiolo #2 swipes his pizza-peel under the pizza and spins it around into a gold dome-shaped wood-burning oven. His job is to rotate the pizzas and let the flames kiss them in just the right spots, every so often tossing a log on the fire.
After about 90 seconds the pies are pulled and plopped in front of Pizzaiolo #3 who cuts them up and expedites them out into the restaurant. Over and over again it goes.
What’s better than a pizza that takes 90 seconds to bake?
In a 900º oven, pizzas need undivided attention and the oven-tender must be extremely diligent. In about 90 seconds the pizzas are charred up and ready to serve. The simplicity and quality of Neopolitan style pizzas make them special; a few select ingredients showcase themselves. A chewy, blackened crust provides the backdrop for a portrait of bright sauce, fresh basil, and gooey fresh mozzarella.
The fresh mozzarella is my favorite part and has a much different texture than typical shredded. It has a smoother, more subtle milky flavor—not as salty—the slight squeak of a fresh Wisconsin cheese curd.
I admire the finesse of a pizzaiolo, but I was happy to be on the opposite side of the pizza, napkin in lap, ready to eat.
“Sprezzatura” according to prolific writer John Mcphee in his book Draft No. 4 is an Italian term from the 1500’s that means someone with “effortless grace, all easy, doing something cool without apparent effort.” In other words just being plain awesome and it seems to me, these pizzaiolos must have picked up some “sprezzatura” from their Italian trainers.
Preparing Neopolitan style pizza takes precision and attention to detail. According to Eataly’s site “In Italy, pizza-making apprentices train under experts for years before earning the title pizzaiolo”. That means it can take years of practice to master a pizza that bakes up in 90 seconds.
I’m sure they’ve dropped a few dough balls from time to time and may have burned a few pizzas, but their experience has led them to a smooth operation and proficiency in pizza making.
What pizza taught me:
A cool, calm and collected confidence is not only “sprezzatura” it’s something to strive for in any endeavor. Watching a pizzaiolo execute his craft is a sight for any pizza lover, their training and tradition offer a lesson in mastery as well as a quick, tasty 10-inch pizza.
What I’m eating: La Pizza & La Pasta Counter at Eataly Chicago-Margherita pizza
What I’m reading: John Mcphee Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process