John Cesarano is a seeker of truth and knowledge. About pizza. For years, the head pizzaiolo (and partner) at King Umberto in Elmont has been exploring artisanal pizza traditions that use more time rather than more yeast to leaven the dough and amplify the flavor of the wheat flour. In 2018, his long, rectangular "metro pie" soon took its place in the pizzeria — alongside grandma, Neapolitan and Sicilian — and became a hit that the pandemic could not stop.
But that wasn’t enough for Cesarano. This summer, when King Umberto expanded its glass-enclosed dining pavilion into a marble-tiled, covered terrace, he set up a little shed along one side of the terrace, got himself a fancy new oven, and started working on his own personal holy grail, a pie that has the structure and refinement of a Naples-style pie, but with the crunch and crackle of New York.
As much as he admires the classic, puffy-rimmed Neapolitan pizza, he acknowledges its big weakness, the dreaded crust flop. "That soft crust that just droops when you pick up a slice — in Naples they eat the pizza with a knife and fork, but New Yorkers don’t like it."
So he set about making a pie that was stiff enough to pick up by the slice, but that still had a puffy rim (cornicione) that allowed you to really appreciate the flavor and texture of the dough, itself a product of relentless experimentation with flours and fermentation times and temperatures.
Joining Cesarano in his quest has been Patrick D’Ignazio, a consultant who spends about half his time apprenticing himself to chefs in Italy, the other half working with American pizzaioli who want to integrate traditional methods into their process. The two men were not interested in coming up with just a great recipe, but, rather, a great recipe that could be followed by cooks who were not necessarily pizza savants. "It’s all about balancing artistry with efficiency," Cesarano said. "We feed hundreds of people a night and I — or any one person — can’t be tied to the process. Other people have to be able to replicate it."
For this reason, Cesarano decided against a wood-burning oven; it requires a lot of time to bring up to temperature, and a lot of skill to operate. Instead, he is working with a Pizza Master deck oven that is almost infinitely customizable in terms of how hot it gets and where the heat comes from. Taped to the side of the oven is a checklist that is used to assess every pie. The 10 qualities he’s looking for include: even cornicione, no burns around crust or bottom, crumb structure throughout the slice, crispy and what he calls the "tricolor," a variegated finish on the crust that goes from light gold to a toasty brown to a soft gray that has an almost snakeskin-like texture.
Once a pie comes out of the oven, it gets a brief rest on a wire rack so that the bottom doesn’t steam. To further maintain the integrity of the crust, the standard round metal serving pan has been eschewed in favor of a heavy plastic tray that has a pebbled surface to allow air to circulate underneath.
The Margherita is a thing of beauty, made with canned Alta Cucina tomatoes from California (Cesarano staged a blind taste test; they won against Italian San Marzanos), both cow and buffalo mozzarella from Pecoraro Dairy in Brooklyn and imported Parmesan. There are also more fanciful pies such as those inspired by cacio e pepe and Amatriciana pastas as well as the white "Hot Boy Summer" pie with regular shredded mozzarella, ricotta, sweet and hot peppers, spicy sausage and Mike’s Hot Honey. (The "Hot Girl" has arugula and prosciutto.) There’s also a calzone that is filled with ricotta and either meatballs or eggplant and, in a break with tradition, topped with tomatoes and mozzarella.
All "patio pizzas" measure 14 inches and range between $23 and $27. They are available on the patio and terrace and in King Umberto’s pizzeria (to stay or to go) but not in the main dining room.
King Umberto is at 1343 Hempstead Tpke., Elmont, 516-352-8391, kingumberto.com.