Uncrowned Champions

Most of you have probably read Brad English’s superb coverage of this years Pizza Expo. The Expo is certainly the premier event for pizza pros and is, quite simply, the “must see” event for anyone who is serious about a career in pizza. With that being said, this year I overheard something that at once disturbed me and got me thinking about where pizza is headed. While standing at the entrance to Expo on the first morning I overheard two executives from one of the "Big Three" chains chatting about their product. One of them asked: “ How do you like the new Original Recipe Dough?”   The other replied without a trace of irony “Oh, I like it much better than the old Original Recipe Dough”

Well, this may sound funny at first but to old school pizza makers it’s really kind of sad and here’s why: You could tell that neither of these guys had any sense of pride in what they sell. For them pizza was just a product. Next year they may be selling shoes.

So here is the thing: before we were business men, or restaurateurs, or executives, or chefs, or celebrities we called ourselves Pie Men. I don’t mean that to be sexist, there just weren’t many women making pizzas in the old days. We were Pie Men and we earned the right to be a part of that group by standing in front of a hot oven for 14 hours a day, 6 days a week, year after year. We told the world who we were by staying true to the craft that was gifted to us by those who came before. Everything that a Pie Man wanted to say was communicated through the pie. That’s why every classic pizzeria is named after the founding Pie Man. In a famous interview, Genarro Lombardi patted his coal fired oven and stated, “This is what made me a man.”  No one had a certificate, no one had won any medals, we didn’t insist on being called “Chef” or any other title. In fact no self respecting Pie Man would be caught dead wearing a chefs coat.  Joe Timpone the great Pie Man at Santarpios in Boston famously wore a brown paper bag for a hat while he tended the oven in an undershirt. Most Pie Men probably didn’t own a pair of shoes that weren’t caked with flour.

To have your peers refer to you as a “good Pie Man” was the ultimate compliment. Sure we were competitors, but there was a code of honor that can only be understood by people who are connected through a common struggle. To become a Pie Man was hard work, forged through a long and sometimes painful apprenticeship. Words like “artisan” “authentic” “certified” or the collection of high sounding initials that we now attach to products and methods would mean nothing to a Pie Man. For a Pie Man only two things were important, does it taste good and am I proud of it?  The two chain guys discussing their “Original Recipe” dough that was probably created by a focus group in a lab would most likely be thrown onto the street if they ventured into Totonno’s 50 years ago.

So are there any Pie Men left out there? Yes, and some great Pie Women too. You can find them if you search hard enough. I promise you, it’s worth the effort.  Al Santillo, in Elizabeth New Jersey, is a Pie Man; so is Lou Abatte in New Haven. These kind of people usually live near or above their pizzeria. They’re covered in flour. They have old burn stripes on their arms. They look very tired, but you will see something else too…Pride.

 

 

 

Comments 

 
#1 al santillo 2012-06-25 06:12
I am sitting here on my day off and am glad I chose to read this article. What a nice reward at the end.
Here is the word for today: Calling a fast-food pizza Pizza is like calling glass a diamond.
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#2 George-John:Davidson 2012-06-28 08:05
just found this site and as i sat hear reading this I looked down at my flour encrusted work shoes and scarred arms and had a quiet chuckle,I have been making pies in the UK since 78 working for myself since 98,I moan daily I am constantly tired,but my committment to mixing and baking the best pie I can is never a chore.I will enjoy this site.Thanks.
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#3 Peter Reinhart 2012-06-30 10:51
Wow, that comment says it all -- thanks so much George-John, and also Al -- we love your passion!!!!
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#4 Mike in China 2012-07-01 07:47
I was lucky enough to work for John at Metro Pizza in Las Vegas for a few years in high school and university. Now, after bouncing around for 13 years, I've opened up my own tiny pizza place in Chengdu, China. My arms are covered in scars and my shoes have a permanent crust of flour and I can think of nothing better than being a Pie Man like John.
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#5 Bruce Vetter 2012-07-18 14:22
I am not at all involved in what all of you have been doing for your entire life, I'm a life long leather worker who also likes to bake bread. I've never had a job and have been able to support my family very well by the product of my work. The word that comes to my mind after reading Mr. Arena's column is "Integrity". Unwavering integrity to one's work and values. These all are "Men you don't meet everyday" and it's refreshing and gives me hope. I am not alone.
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#6 Jeff Davis 2012-07-18 20:58
Our family took a pizza trip to Las Vegas to pick up our daughter on the plane and visit Metro Pizza. I asked for a picture with John and before I knew what had happened he was giving us the grand tour. We were literally his special guests... he treated us like family from his royal line. I discussed pizza at length with him behind the counter, etc. This man has a passion for pizza making that few possess. John, you and Peter must get together and write the next authoritative book on pizza "Italian Pie", as you tour Italy's pizzerias. Thank you for the amazing experience. P.S. Your pizza rocks!
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#7 Peter Reinhart 2012-07-19 02:26
Great idea, Jeff -- thanks!!! We're thrilled to have John as a regular contributor here on Pizza Quest. He is the personification of what this quest is all about.
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#8 Old Codger 2012-07-20 16:23
How great to have stumbled across Peter's site. I liked Bruce's comment (above): "I've never had a job [yet] have been able to support my family very well by the product of my work... Unwavering integrity to one's work and values...."

Those who find their passion and live it are truly blessed, and they are an inspiration to those fortunate to see them living that passion.

I thank all of you.
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