When Jay Jerrier first opened Il Cane Rosso in Deep Ellum in 2011, he was intent on making "authentic Neapolitan pizza." So intent that not only did he buy an oven from Naples and use a mixer, flour and tomatoes from Naples, but he even recruited a Dino Santonicola, who grew up making pizza in Naples. The only thing left out was importing fresh air from Naples.
Three years into Neapolitan pizza-making, Jerrier has turned his scope onto New York-style pizza, which is very specifically not served in his Neapolitan den. This summer, hopefully in August, he will open his third pizza spot (there are two Il Cane Rossos), Zoli's, in Oak Cliff, just a hustle outside the Bishop Arts District in what used to be BEE: Best Enchiladas Ever.
So, what are Jerrier's plans to bring the perfect slice of New York-style pizza to Dallas? Well, first he sent Santonicola, the master pizzaiolo at Cane Rosso, and GM Megan Dennison on a Big Apple pizza binge.
Jerrier got input from a few people in the industry, like Serious Eats' blog, Slice and some colleagues in NYC.
"We had some recommendations on places to go," says Dennison, "even though everyone has their own opinion on which place has the best pizza."
On the first day of the trip, Santonicola and Dennison indulged in slices from seven different places. Day two: five places. Day three, into a taper: just three.
One of those places was Best Pizza in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where they met 30-year-old chef and owner Frank Pinello, who opened this tiny (in Texas terms) pizza spot just three years ago. And the Dallas duo agreed that Best Pizza was, as the ballsy name suggests, pretty damn good.
That's when once again Jerrier, a man clearly intent on authenticating his technique and recipes, recruited Pinello to help him "dial in" his pizza. Jerrier plucked Pinello from the comforts of his tiny Brooklyn pizzeria and brought him to Dallas for 100-degree heat and a two-week pizza-making training camp.
A first-generation American, Pinello grew up in big Italian family in New York City. Despite the small spaces NYC affords, his grandparents continued to grow many of their own vegetables and cook the same way they did in Sicily. No matter how small of a backyard or patio they had, they always managed to have huge vines of tomatoes.
"I grew up making tomato sauce every summer and jarring it," Pinello says. "My grandparents would go to Prospect Park where they kept the horses for the manure for fertilizer. They didn't go to the store and buy fertilizer. They did everything the same way they did in Sicily."
Eventually the Pinellos bought a bigger place on Long Island, "It had land, it was a full acre, and that's all my grandparents cared about. They had the most amazing garden then." His aging grandpa had skills beyond just growing vegetables though.
"One day my brother and I came home from school and my grandpa told us to come back to the garden, he wanted to show us something," says Pinello. "He had a rabbit tied up by one leg! This aging old man caught a rabbit in the garden! To this day we have no idea how he did that."
When asked if they had rabbit for dinner soon thereafter, Pinello smiles and shrugs.
Later on, when Pinello went to the CIA (Culinary Institute of America), the fresh rich flavor and from-scratch cooking he grew up with was enhanced by classic French technique. "Everything kind of came together," says Pinello.
After working in upscale kitchens in NYC, just three years ago Pinello opened Best Pizza, a tiny walk-up by-the-slice spot in Brooklyn, where pizza is cooked to perfection in a 100-year-old wood-burning oven. Here's a video produced by Munchies that introduces you to his grandmother, the cool delivery guy, Bill, and the oven that brings it all together.
Pinello is now spending two weeks rolling soft dough, pressing it out into giant orbs and doing a lot of "upskirts" -- a pizza-geek term for lifting the crust to get a peek at the underside. Jerrier's pizza-makers, Dino Santonicola, Manuel Arce and Matt Reddick, are learning all the subtle nuances of the perfect slice.
But, that's not all. Pinello's clinic covers more than just New York-style. There's a glorious pie that has, until this time, flown painfully under the radar in Texas. It's called grandma pie and you just may love her more than your real grandma.
As with most things, there are variations to grandma pie, but the essence is thin dough pressed in a rectangular pan, then topped with crushed tomatoes (not sauce), a thin layer of cheese and a drizzle of olive oil. It's cooked until the crust is soft and slightly chewy in the middle and crisply along edges (the best part). It's thicker than New York-style, but not as thick as Sicilian.
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Toppings vary, which in part speaks to the evolution of grandma pie. There are stories that grandmas would often make this pie and use whatever ingredients they had in their gardens or left over from a previous meal. So, the pie might have zucchini or sausage -- it's a pie that grandma made when guests came over, something she just threw together.
The heart of a great grandma pie though, has to be flavorful tomatoes. Rich, sweet, slightly acidic little lumps of red love are imperative for a proper grandma pie to come together. As always, Jerrier focuses on using quality ingredients, which makes all the difference.
The other day Jerrier posted to Facebook: "2013 will be the year of the Grandma Pie for Dallas."
We'll have to wait until August to get started on making that more than just a hopeful suggestion. When the time comes, I'm game for giving it a solid effort.