Pizzaiolo. PEETS-eye-OH-low. He’s the guy who makes the pizza. (She’s the pizzaiola.) Take the best dough, the best oven, the best toppings — without a pizzaiolo who knows what he’s doing, you’re not going to get the best pizza.
Jerry Miele, pizzaiolo and co-owner of The Gristmill in East Rockaway, remembers the first time he made a pizza, almost 20 years ago. In his early 30s, he took a job as a prep cook at Villa Mare in Atlantic Beach, one of whose owners also had a piece of Lombardi’s, the coal-oven pizzeria on Spring Street that is New York City’s oldest. The owner thought Miele was a good-looking, personable guy and that he’d be good “out front” making pizza, so he sent him into the city to train at Lombardi’s.
“It came to me quickly,” Miele recalled. “Ordinarily, it would have made me nervous to be making something in front of people. But making pizza, I just didn’t feel nervous.”
Miele bounced around South Nassau, eventually landing at Grotta di Fuoco when it opened in Long Beach in 2014 and, in 2016, at Milan’s Brick Oven in Hewlett. The Gristmill, which he owns with another Grotta alum, John Orphanos, opened in June. Now, Miele spends about eight hours a day in full view of his own restaurant’s dining room, making pizza.
The first few hours of any pizzaiolo’s day are spent mixing and shaping dough. First, he mixes a batch from flour, water, salt and yeast. Neapolitan-style individual pies such as Miele’s use finely milled Italian “tipo 00” flour. The dough goes into the cooler to rise for 24 hours. Next, he lugs out the dough he made yesterday and shapes it into small balls that weigh about 10 ounces each. Forming the balls takes skill: The surface of the dough must form a skin that will preserve the pizza’s round shape when it is pressed into a circle.
All this prep work — plus making sauce, cutting the cheese and other toppings — must be performed before the customers arrive because once they do, the pizzaiolo becomes a machine, simultaneously making pies, loading them into the oven, removing them from the oven and cutting them to serve. It’s multitasking at its most frenetic. On a busy night, a lone pizzaiolo can make up to 60 pies.
The elements of a pizza are engaged in a dance with the oven it is baked in. The shape, building materials, heat source and temperature determine the rate at which the pie bakes, and the pizzaiolo adjusts the amount of sauce, the size of the cheese pieces and the toppings to ensure that when the crust is properly browned, the other ingredients have melted and melded appropriately.
Miele’s pie, made in a domed oven that burns both gas and wood and stays around 800 degrees, has a classic Neapolitan cornicone — a thick, puffy rim — but he mitigates that style’s characteristically soggy middle by laying down the cheese (slices of firm, fresh mozzarella) before the tomato sauce. That sauce is nothing more than a puree of tomatoes (he prefers Alta Cucina brand from California to imported San Marzanos) with salt. Miele makes a roster of creative pies, but his favorite is the Margherita, which echoes the Italian flag with its red sauce, white cheese and green basil leaves.
At Pomodorino Rosso in Valley Stream, Sal Apetino has modified the Neapolitan pie to suit his gas-powered oven. The Naples-born pizzaiolo started learning his craft at Angelo’s in Flushing , one of the first wood-burning pizzerias in the city. He went on to work at Il Forno and La Pala in Glen Cove before teaming up with Antonio Bove, the chef-owner of Pomodorino Rosso, which opened in June.
Apetino has modified the traditional cornicone — he forms a rim, but it’s not as high or puffy. Instead of the traditional leopard spots of char, his crust has a more uniformly golden hue, and the pie is altogether crisper and less floppy than you’d find in Naples. Like Miele’s, Apetino’s sauce is an uncooked puree, but he prefers Italian DOP San Marzano tomatoes. (DOP, short for Denominazione d’Origine Protetta, signifies a tomato that has been grown and harvested in a specific area and in a regulated manner.) His mozzarella is a bit moister than Miele’s, and he pumps up the pie’s flavor with a shot of Parmesan cheese before it goes into the oven.
Apetino’s favorite pie? The Margherita. “I could eat it lunch and dinner,” he said. “Sometimes I do eat it for lunch and dinner.”
Having cooked with wood for more than 30 years, Apetino was surprised to find happiness with a gas-driven oven — though he adds a touch of wood smoke by putting a metal box of wood chips into the oven.
Out in Wading River, Dean Sackos, a recent convert to the cult of wood, is grooving on man’s oldest cooking fuel. Sackos grew up in Lake Ronkonkoma and started working the gas-fired deck oven (standard equipment at Long Island pizzerias) across the street at Cara Mia when he was 14. Two years later, he bought the pizzeria and ran it for the next 16 years.
When, a few years ago, he began talking to Maria Tranchina about managing her new Wading River pizzeria, Pazzo, the two decided to install a wood-burning oven right next to the deck ovens, and Sackos enrolled in a course to learn how to use it. He was smitten at once. Since Pazzo opened in March 2017, Sackos has to prepare two different doughs, one for each oven. “It’s a major hassle,” he admitted, “but the results are worth it.” He figures about a quarter of his customers opt for a wood-fired pie, and the percentage is growing.
“Pazzo” means crazy, and the toppings there do not disappoint. Pies are topped with braised short ribs and portobellos in a Cognac cream sauce; rosemary-fig jam with Gorgonzola, Fontina and prosciutto; spinach, artichokes and bacon in a cream sauce. This is also the rare wood-burning pizzeria that makes vegan pies with dairy-free cheese.
Sackos’s favorite pie? The Margherita.