He looks to the future and sees pizza

Given his druthers, Dave Ravanesi would be the one making the pizza, not just eating it. But he was giving the impression, nonetheless, that he was enjoying himself one recent evening, the air balmy, the sidewalk scene easy outside Zavino, the pizza and wine bar at 13th and Sansom.

He lofted his Margherita, examining the constellation of chars (almost counting them, it seemed) on its bottom. He turned it sideways like a carpenter sighting down a board for evidence of warp, studying the bubbling in the crust.

A passerby could not be blamed for taking him for a shaven-headed food critic, or maybe - his expression so impassive - a not-entirely-pleased health inspector.

But he is something else entirely. Not just a student of pizza, though he has studied it closely. Not a mere appreciator, though he gets a visible rush discussing it.

No, he is a pizza geek of a higher order, far and away beyond your starry-eyed pizza blogger or average braggart (though he is not shy about his depth of learning).

There is a backstory to his story. But this is what's most important - and the hook that, after several e-mails, is what intrigues you enough to at least take him out for a bite: In frustration that at the age of 42 he did not yet have his own wood-burning oven, he went out to the Home Depot near the two-story Colonial he shares with his pharmacist wife, Jennifer, and toddler son south of Kennett Square, and bought a hacksaw.

With that hacksaw, he opened a whole new world in his kitchen. He sliced off the locking mechanism on his glass-topped GE electric range, enabling him to bake at the incinerating temperatures of the oven's cleaning cycle.

The cleaning cycle, in the event you have never stuck your head in to check, can hover easily upwards of 1,000 degrees. To a pizzahead, that is a beautiful thing. Ravanesi went out and spent $180 to buy the sort of infrared laser thermometer used by HVAC repairmen, a serious piece of equipment for a serious man.

There is a dome temperature in a pizza oven, and a floor temperature. The trick is to get the dome temperature to push the floor temperature up, but not so high that you burn the bottom of the pie.

After an hour at 1,000 degrees, Ravanesi says, you need to keep the pizza stone covered with heavy-duty aluminum foil so it doesn't get too hot too quick: He's looking for a floor temperature close to 810 degrees. At that temperature, he can bake a simple pie in a minute and 40 seconds.

Now and then, he invites friends and neighbors. Four came the first time; now 50 might show up. I've penciled in a June date, his next demo.

Yes, he would like to open a pizza shop one day. Maybe in West Chester, or if he comes by a sudden unexpected bequest, perhaps, in the city. But this has not been his singular dream. At 19, he tried his luck as a singer/songwriter in Los Angeles. The rockers told him he had more of a country sound. He went to Nashville. He played all over town: Dave Rav, on stage. He never really caught on major fire.

He went to the Restaurant School on Walnut Street. He has a day job as a corporate chef for Compass, sometimes even making - from its menu - a pizzalike thing that, in his view should probably be prohibited from appropriating a name he holds so dear and holy.

He learned the pizza basics at the knee of his Italian immigrant grandfather. His mother had a cooking show on cable in a suburb of Boston. He has studied the finer points of dough - he uses only flour, water, salt, and a little starter - and the differences that wild yeast makes, and how it affects the look of a slice. He has paid master bakers for tutorials.

He makes his own mozzarella, preferring cow's milk with 3.8 percent butterfat, not water buffalo milk which, at over 6 percent, he finds weeps too much liquid as it melts.

He has a dough-ball/ounces-to-pie-crust-diameter-ratio that he hews to religiously, asking puzzled servers what ratio their bakers use.

By the end of the evening, Ravanesi has moved on to Osteria on North Broad Street, having a nightcap of sorts - a pliant Neapolitan pie, slicked with mortadella, and a swirl of rich pistachio pesto.

He peers into the mouth of its wood-burning oven, and you cannot help but wonder if somewhere back there Dave Ravanesi is looking for something that looks, well, a lot like his future.


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.