A New York Expatriate’s Magnificent Obsession: Pizza
JEFF VARASANO woke at 2:50 a.m. so he could get to his kitchen, measure precise quantities of water, flour, salt and yeast on a digital scale, and then mix them together. Sixteen hours later about 30 guests would be arriving, and they would want pizza.
Since moving from Manhattan to Atlanta in 1998, Mr. Varasano, a 42-year-old software engineer, has been looking for the kind of pizza he left behind in New York. Finding nothing close, he has spent much of the past decade trying to reverse-engineer what had been his favorite — from Patsy’s in East Harlem — in a home kitchen oven which, like nearly all consumer models, has a maximum cooking temperature roughly half of the 1,000 degrees pumped out by the coal-fired pizza oven at Patsy’s.
“I came to the conclusion pretty early on that their pies were cooking in 4 minutes and mine were cooking in 15 minutes,” making dense and chewy pizzas, he said. “And so I just went on this quest for more heat.”
He could, he thought, rewire the oven’s internal thermometer to switch hot signals for cold ones. “I started to think I was going to burn the house down with these tricks,” he said, “and then I came upon this idea of running it on the cleaning cycle.”
That epiphany, four years ago, allowed Mr. Varasano to finally produce a pizza as good as he would get in New York. He took a photo of that pie and posted an account, with mad-scientist specificity, of his six years of experiments with flours, mixing techniques, yeast cultures, canned tomatoes, cheeses and oven temperatures.
He has continued to make updates to the single-page Web site, slice.seriouseats.com/jvpizza, as he has turned his attention to different aspects of pie theory. The post is now less pizza recipe than the ravings of a pizza madman, 20,000 words of obsessive text in something like the crude Web style of the late ’90s. It has made him, perhaps, the Internet’s foremost homemade pizza maven.
Many of Mr. Varasano’s guests would be meeting him for the first time, having stumbled upon his Web site in their own quests. After corresponding via e-mail about this type of flour or that brand of mixer, they found themselves invited to this latest in an endless series of “pizza tastings.”
Whether it would be a success depended on Mr. Varasano’s seriously abused oven.
Electric ovens, which are what Mr. Varasano uses, clean themselves by maxing out their heating elements and incinerating spilled food. To prevent injuries, nearly all have safety latches that engage during cleaning to prevent someone from opening the door to, say, insert or remove a pizza. Mr. Varasano overcame that obstacle by snipping the metal latch with garden shears.
Pointing the laser sight of his $250 Raytek infrared thermometer, he found the pizza stone on the center rack in his cul-de-sac home in Atlanta was as hot as a New York pizza oven.
“It’s not so much about heat as it is temperature differential,” he said as he peered into the top compartment of his double oven. The stone needs to be about 150 degrees cooler than the air in the top of the oven, he said, so the crust beneath the sauce can cook before the bottom burns.
Over the past few years, he has devised a jury-rigged system to regulate the temperature of an oven that must, by now, think itself spotless. To cool the stone, he places a baking sheet on top. In the cabinet above, a fan blows over a tray of ice and water to cool the oven’s electronic console.
In the steel floor of the lower oven, there is a jagged, dime-size hole, made when an errant piece of superheated topping melted through. One window pane in that oven’s door is shattered, destroyed after a drop of sauce fell onto it at high heat. There is a long list of wrecked equipment — two more oven windows, three mixers and food processors, one internal fan. The oven has been shorting fuses lately. It’s getting harder, Mr. Varasano said, to make up stories for the oven repair guys.
As guests arrive, he engaged his one functional oven, and prayed. There was, in the room, the feeling of a happening, a kind of speakeasy anticipation as the oven’s temperature climbed.
Mr. Varasano was visibly nervous. If the oven were to break (again), he would pan-fry the 28 balls of dough he had been nursing for the past 16 hours into sugar-coated doughnuts.
The first pizza, mozzarella with basil, slid in and then out again in under three minutes. Over the next three hours, a dozen different pies slid on and off of Mr. Varasano’s peel, including a surprising arugula with lemon juice, a terrific clam pizza and a pie with oregano, black pepper and an elusive tanginess (the source of which was kept secret).
The oven overheated and shut down three times, the last outage lasting long enough to prompt doughnuts. It’s possible that it may join the other casualties of pizza, but there is something noble about sacrificing an appliance for one’s art. On his Web site, Mr. Varasano tells would-be pizzaioli that he’s not recommending they use their ovens this way. “Use this section with caution,” it reads, “i.e. no lawyers please.”
That warning may not be necessary. Mr. Varasano said: “I would say that one of the two or three most common comments I get is ‘Dude, I’d love to do that with my oven, but my wife would kill me.’ All the time.”
Freed from such personal restraints, Mr. Varasano has followed pizza-making to an abnormal level of compulsion.
Today, Mr. Varasano is hoping to translate his latest obsession into something more, by opening a pizza restaurant in Atlanta, perhaps as early as this fall. Whether his passion will survive the nightly grind of the restaurant business remains to be seen.
Chris Bianco, another ex-New Yorker, whose Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix is among the most acclaimed pizzerias in the country, said after reading the Web site that he could tell that Mr. Varasano was on the right track.
“I do like that he figured it out on his terms, and I honestly learned things the same way,” Mr. Bianco said. “I could train a monkey to make one good pizza, but I think it becomes an artisanal product when we are truly engaged in the process.”