I’ve read that the Inuit people have over 100 words to describe snow. I feel the same way about pizza.
For a host of reasons I’ve spent the last two years avoiding one topic. Pizza. I’ve come to appreciate that talking pizza is like discussing politics or religion… or in the case of Ann Arbor, both. Most of us were imprinted at a young age. Our opinions of good pizza are mired in emotion and sentiment. I grew up ‘Motor City’ which means I believe in the big three; Buddy’s Loui’s and Shields…square (technically rectangular) Sicilian deep dish. My brother in law is from Phili. He prays to an extra large, thin and foldable circle served by the slice and covered with Parmesan and “Son of Italy” seasoning. For the record, both rock.
Last fall rumors about [James Beard recognized] Chef Luciano Del Signore bringing his Pizzeria Biga concept to Ann Arbor started a meditation on Neapolitan Pizza. It’s suddenly everywhere. Now that the rumors about Biga are confirmed I’ve decided to put pen to paper (or pixels to screen).
Guido goes Gucci
While Pizza is a sacred thing, it’s forever been a culinary outcast, relegated to the lower end of the food-glamor hierarchy. Glamor be damned. Pizza’s like the honey badger, he don’t care. Over the last fifty years this “outcast” has grown into a multi-billion dollar category. Unable to ignore dollar signs, the culinary elite have started paying attention to pizza.
Like most great trends, it started on the coasts. One brand in particular, CPK, has single handedly elevated pizza from fast food gut-fill to an affordable luxury item (AKA casual dining). A decade later we’re witnessing a new pizza-elite arms race. Celebrated chefs have joined the fight. For some, it’s an empire building brand extension (Wolfgang Puck’s Pizzeria and Cuccisa and frozen pizzas). For others it’s a savvy tactic to offset declines in fine dining (Chef Luciano’s Biga). Regardless of motivation, it’s a thing. If you don’t believe me read this 2009 collective piece from New York Magazine.
This is not your Father’s Oldsmobile / Dr. Atkins Kills the Carb / Pizza Rises Again
It’s important to acknowledge that as the market has evolved, so has the product.
Case and Point: I’ve made my crush on Vinsetta Garage public. When I learned that they served pizza I assumed it would be akin to Buddy’s. This is Detroit of coarse; they serve Casserole dishes of Mac-n-Cheese to single diners. It seemed predestined that it would be dense, comma-inducing Sicilian pizza. Not so fast. While they are 100% Motor City, this is post-bail-out Detroit. Everyone is leaner and smarter. The studied option was to install a stone hearth and sell a more refined pizza (no offense intended to Buddy’s). Well played Curt and Ann.
So what is Neapolitan Pizza?
There’s a few critical attributes that define success for the Neapolitan Pizza.
The Dough Pizza dough has a fairly simple ingredient list. Still, what seems “simple” quickly becomes a complicated science. Neapolitan Pizza dough is graduate level dough science. The result is a light, chewy, richly flavored dough with huge cell structure. When done well it’s marvelous. The name of Chef Luciano’s pizzeria is taken from the foundation of this dough, Biga. In the Spirit of lazy journalism here’s a fine explanation compliments of Wikipedia:
Biga is a type of pre-ferment used in Italian baking. Many popular Italian breads, such as ciabatta, are made using a biga. Using a biga adds complexity to the bread's flavour and is often used in breads which need a light, open texture with holes. Apart from adding to flavour and texture, a biga also helps to preserve bread by making it less perishable. Biga techniques were developed after the advent of baker's yeast as bakers in Italy moved away from the use of sourdough and needed to recover some of the flavour which was given up in this move.
Bigas are usually dry and thick compared to the French poolish or a sourdough starter. This thickness is believed to give a Biga its characteristic slightly nutty taste. Biga is usually made fresh every day, using a small amount of baker's yeast in a thick dough, which varies from 37% to 50% water by total weight or 60% to 100% as a bakers percentage, and is allowed to ferment from 12 to 16 hours to fully develop its flavour.
After fermenting overnight, biga is then added to the bread dough in place of, or in addition to, regular baker's yeast, depending on the recipe, and the bread dough is mixed, kneaded, raised, shaped, proofed, and baked like any other yeast dough.
What’s On Top The second key to Neapolitan Pizza is in the way it is topped. The American tradition of mounding cheese and meats would weigh down the light and delicate dough, preventing a proper rise. If there’s any sauce at all, it’s a minimalist painting of crushed tomatoes. More common is a drizzle of olive oil. The rich, almost nutty dough flavor lends itself to more savory pairings. The most widely recognized is a Margherita Pizza, with a sparing few dollops of fresh mozzarella and fresh basil. I’ve become a fan of more adventuresome flavors, like the “Countryman” at Michael Isabella’s Graffiato in Washington, DC (black truffle, fontina, farmed soft egg). Locally we call that Tartufo.
The Oven The final step is in cooking method. All dough perform better when cooked on stone. The slab holds a hotter, more even heat that conventional ovens. And it takes a significant shock of heat to activate this dough. Most pizza hearths remain between 800 and 1000 degrees. In addition to quickly activating the rise, it cooks the pizza much faster, some as quick as three minutes versus the 20-30 minutes it can take to fully cook a Buddy’s deep dish; another smart reason for table-turning restaurateurs to pick Neapolitan.
The Neapolitan Pizza Movement in Ann Arbor
In relatively short order we’ve gone from zero to multiple high profile options. Here’s a run-down.
Mani Yes, I’m a fan boy. Still, you need to give Adam and the crew props. They’re more than just pretty faces. They perfectly executed on the ideal. The dough at Mani is lustful. The topping combinations are inspired. While I’m addicted to Arugula & Prosciutto, all are worth note. Highlights include Red Onions & Pistachio (red onion & pistachio, Goat cheese, rosemary, chile flakes) or Burrata & Balsamic (burrata cheese, garlic spinach, balsamic onions).
And while this is a post about pizza, I would be doing you a dis-service if I did not mention a few of the other Mani highlights. Of coarse the pickled tomatoes have become an obligatory signature. For me, the charred Octopus has become a moral imperative; the lemon and celery add an acidic punch and crunchy bite that perfectly partner the mellow and chewy grilled sea creature. I’m also a big fan of the Branzino (fish).
NeoPapalis For an entirely different reason, I am exceptionally intrigued by NeoPapalis. It’s one thing for Mani to flaunt a high fashion concept. It’s another thing entirely for a man who’s made his career selling deep-dish pizza to suddenly create a well financed foray into a ”thin crust.”
For those out of the know, Neo Papalis is the latest project by Joe Sheena, the man behind’s Detroit’s famed deep-dish Pizza Papalis. Sheena is a savvy businessman. His Neapolitan pizza is more than personal interest. He’s investing in the next big thing. Whereas Mani is a boutique, Neo Papalis represents mass-market commercialization. His ovens are gas and steel versus Mani’s brick and fire. The space is designed for high-volume and replication. This would not exist if there were not a compelling business plan. Neo Papalis is proof that Neapolitan pizza has officially gone main stream.
Pizzeria Biga (opening Summer 2013) Perhaps the bigger story is that Washtenaw will soon have restaurants worth visiting. Biga joins Café Zola and another yet-to-be named concept in the still under-construction Arbor Hills Crossing (formerly Arlington Square, formerly Goodman Oldmobile, Cadillac & Isuzu).
For those of you who don’t venture Beyond Washtenaw County, Chef Luciano Del Signore owns a celebrated fine-dining Italian bistro in Southfield named Bacco Ristorante. After the financial crash of '08 he decided to diversify and open a casual dining concept. Enter Pizzeria Biga.
Many will compare Biga to Mani. On the surface they are very similar concepts. Emotionally Chef Luciano and Adam Baru connect with their community in very different tones. I am confident that both can thrive simultaneously. The fact that they will exist in such separate ecosystems, downtown and suburban, lends tremendous distance to their competition.
What do you think?