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Stephen Starr goes in search of the perfect pizza

Pies lined up for the wood-burning oven at New York´s Una Pizza Napoletana. (Rick Nichols / Staff)
Pies lined up for the wood-burning oven at New York's Una Pizza Napoletana. (Rick Nichols / Staff)
Pies lined up for the wood-burning oven at New York´s Una Pizza Napoletana. (Rick Nichols / Staff) Gallery: Stephen Starr goes in search of the perfect pizza

Stephen Starr took the boys (and a couple of girls) out for pizza Thursday. At 9:41 in the morning. For a clam pie, in New Haven, Conn., for goodness' sake, four hours and change by jouncing shuttle bus from his offices over the Continental in Old City.

In the gray, drumming rain.

He was so hungry by the time he got there that he did what any famished pizza-eater would do: He promptly, and with rueful chagrin, burned the roof of his mouth.

And that was just pizzeria Numero Uno. There were four more to come on this gonzo pizza tour - back down in New York's East Village, and in Brooklyn, the harp wires of the bridge going hazy in the fading light.

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    In late September, more likely October, you may assess the fruits of the junket yourself: For months, Starr and team have been mining the Northeast's rich pizza vein for nuggets to inform a new pizzeria in the works for Second and Lombard in Society Hill - venture number 19 for the restaurant czar who has transformed the city's dining landscape with the likes of Continental, Buddakan, Morimoto, and most recently Butcher & Singer.

    So this was not about a poetic soul building a brick oven. This was about the business of a heavyweight trying to get it right, leaving nothing to chance.

    Starr lieutenants had done advance scouting. Scoped out Philadelphia's finest. Scoured the Internet for reviews. Chatted up out-of-town pizza-makers at the Alex's Lemonade Stand fund-raiser Marc Vetri had held at Osteria on North Broad Street the night before.

    Starr's trademark is adapting successes from elsewhere (Nobu's signature black cod, for instance, at Buddakan) and making them his own. For this project he was leaving no pizza stone unturned: A trek to New Haven, then back through the storied pizzalands of New York's boroughs, was plotted.

    By 6:44 p.m., the new venture still didn't have a name. A minute later, Starr spotted a word on a sign at stop Numero Two, the pretentious Una Pizza Napoletana: "That's it," he declared: "That should be the name. Pulcinella!"

    Pulcinella is mostly associated with the masked, slightly sinister figure in Neapolitan puppetry, the model for Punch - of Judy fame.

    But it was a long bus ride, and it was obvious soon that second thoughts, or third or fourth ones, might be required regarding the name. ("What about using the Italian word for the blisters on the crust?" Starr also wondered.)

    Every other aspect of the pizza endeavor seemed to be on the table, too: The virtues and drawbacks of coal would be debated across the aisle. And the optimal size. (Should they all be 12-inchers? No larges? Simplify the whole process?)

    Should they be sliced, or land on the table - as they did later at Franny's in Brooklyn - unsliced?

    Even direct witness didn't settle matters: The famed clam pie at Frank Pepe's, the New Haven landmark? The tender fresh-shucked clams: Thumbs up. The crust: Mixed reactions. Compatibility: "I don't think this would go over too big in Philadelphia," Starr said. "It's too salty."

    Yet Pepe's might get another visit. And several of the New York favorites (definitely Lucali's in Brooklyn), and late add-ons: The tour had to skip Patsy's, the East Harlem original, to save time, and it had belatedly heard praise for L & B Spumoni Gardens in Bensonhurst.

    Indeed, Trenton's vaunted tomato pies had not yet been vetted. Nor a new New York-style hot spot in Atlanta called Varasano's. Two staffers were booking flights for Phoenix: They'd been dispatched to sample the critics' darling - Chris Bianco's smoky, storied pies.

    In the end, the head of Starr's culinary team and the pizzeria's new pizzaiolo would be tasked with creating a line of pies borrowing features - the four swirls of oil on the hot pie from Pepe's? the shaved-to-order artichoke from Lucali's? the heat-burst of tossing a paddle-full of sawdust on the fire? - from the finest of the tradition.

     

    The brains on the bus

    The boys on the Starr bus were the brains of the organization: development director Michael Palermo (who'd been on the roof of the Continental Midtown since 4 a.m. that morning trying to get a massive water-chiller repaired); Bradlee Bartram, vice president of operations; Al Lucas, regional operations manager; and Chris Painter, culinary director.

    The girls? Starr's daughter Sarah, freshly graduated from Friends Central High School, and her friend Nicki Deutschman - the youth vote.

    What would constitute "the finest of the tradition" was not quite defined. And it was clear before the bus hit the Jersey Turnpike that the pizza party was not of one mind.

    Starr: "Is it the water in New York that makes the good crusts?"

    Painter: "I don't buy that! I mean, is it the water in Phoenix?"

    Have a seat . . .

     

    Basics up in the air

    In the pizzeria's playbook, a few items are stamped "Approved." The tabletops will be slabs of Brazilian walnut reclaimed from the boardwalk at Coney Island.

    But basics - even the kind of oven - are up in the air: Hey, what about baking the pies with coal?

    Starr: "I'd like to explore coal."

    Palermo: "It's dirty!"

    Painter (who hails from Pottsville): "I'm from a coal region and I want coal!"

    Bartram: "If you let the fire go down, it takes a lot longer to recover than with wood."

    Painter: "Wood does give you that smoky [scent] . . ."

     

    Slow trip

    The rain had slowed traffic to a frequent crawl. The trip to New Haven was taking far longer than expected.

    12:19: Just north of the George Washington Bridge, Starr asks: "Isn't there a Pizza Hut around here?"

    1:28: A debate ensues over the best hoagies. "Let's open a hoagie shop!" Starr says.

    He's getting impatient: "I was in Paris. I did the Louvre for 45 minutes. I said, 'Where's the Mona Lisa?' Got a steak frites. Glass of wine. Boom. I'm done."

    1:52: A $20 bet is wagered. Starr bets Bartram that the clams at Pepe's will be canned. (They aren't. They are fresh, plump, and juicy. Bartram wins.)

    2:17: Finally at Pepe's in New Haven.

    Painter: "I'm not digging this crust."

    Starr: "I love this crust." ("See the guy in the hat," stretching the dough? he says. "We give him $3,000, bring him down to Philly for three weeks to show us how he does it.")

    3:35: Back on the road.

    4:09: A discussion of sandwiches. Starr: "Let's open a sandwich shop . . ."

    6:10: Cruising into New York: Sarah Starr sums up the mood; she says she can't face four more hours in the back of a bumpy bus.

    6:24: Starr calls his Buddakan kitchen in Manhattan to request customer feedback on a new dish.

    6:45: Una Pizza Napoletana, 12th Street between First and Second Avenues: The crust is lighter and chewier than the brittle crust at Pepe's. The dough is said to rise for 24 hours, seasoned only with Sicilian sea salt, leavened only by a piece of dough from the day before.

    Disconcertingly, though, the fluid wept by the melted buffalo mozzarella leaves watery puddles on the pie. Lucas finds it inferior to the pizza he'd checked out at Co. at 24th Street and Ninth Avenue.

    7:30: At Artichoke, a "street pizza" joint, around the corner. Lowbrow compared with Una Pizza. But Starr wants the team to taste some herb in the tomato sauce.

    Sarah declares she hasn't tasted anything yet to compare to Lorenzo's, the by-the-slice joint on South Street.

    7:45: Lucas checks his BlackBerry and finds a pizza place in Fort Collins, Colo., named . . . Pulcinella.

    8:10: At Lucali's, on Henry Street in Brooklyn. The room is dim, filled with a mellow, multiethnic crowd. The pizzaiolo, Mark Iacono, is in a Zen-like groove, stretching dough that has been rolled out with a wine bottle, shaving the mozzarella freshly onto each pie.

    The tomato sauce is heated in a pot. The wood in the oven is cherry, oak, and birch. The temperature is over 800 degrees. (All duly noted.)

    It's no contest. The crisp, smoky, thin-crust pizza here - simple to a fault, sprigged with fresh basil - gets the first enthusiastic consensus: better, finally, even than Lorenzo's, the girls concede.

    But Palermo focuses on something else: "Notice the laid-back vibe of the place," he says: "We have to think about that - how to accomplish that in a bigger, more-hectic place."

    9:10: At Franny's, in Park Slope. The clam pie, redolent of garlic and fruity olive oil, is easily as awesome as, if not better than, the original at Pepe's. The sausage pie is jaw-droppingly good.

    But Starr expresses some concern that the crusts are a little Middle Eastern-seeming, stretchy like laffa bread, not sufficiently Italian.

    10:15: Back on the New Jersey Turnpike. "You know, deep down in my heart," Starr confesses, "I kind of still miss the pizza that I grew up with."

    He hadn't found a replacement. Not on this marathon. But there were miles to go, and more pies - endless pies - just around the bend, and over the next hill.

     


    Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com.

    Rick Nichols INQUIRER FOOD COLUMNIST
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