Printed for personal use only

The Life of Pie

A genuine Neapolitan pizza is not easy to make. As more and more L.A. restaurants try, they’re turning to master pizzaiolo Peppe Miele for guidance. One writer works the oven at Miele’s pizza school to learn firsthand the diabolically treacherous art

The story goes that the one true pizza comes from Naples. It has a fat, coiled crust gently flecked with char and is distinctly wet in the middle. The ingredients are as simple as they are delicious—the finest flour, high-quality plum tomatoes, real mozzarella, grated Parmesan, fresh basil leaves. The pie of pies is elastic, not crispy, sparing in its use of cheese, and wood-fired for 60 to 90 seconds. It is 11 inches in diameter and served uncut on a white porcelain plate. To eat it, fold the whole thing once, twice, three, or perhaps eight times—al portafoglio, “wallet style”—and devour.

This covenant was handed down to the Italian people at the foot of Mount Vesuvius—if not from on high, then by an enterprising 18th-century Neapolitan pushcart vendor who determined that New World tomatoes were not, in fact, poisonous, as was popularly believed. In the 300 years since, styles evolved, Hawaiian pineapple barbecued chicken pizza appeared, and artificial cheese somehow got stuffed into industrial crusts. But the original pizza, vera pizza Napoletana, endures.    

Each pie begins the same way. “Fingertips, fingertips,” Peppe Miele says, standing alongside me. At 59, he is tall and thickset, with a high forehead and a close-cropped mustache. Miele is what you might call a close talker, and he can be imposing when he’s next to you. He flattens out an imaginary dough ball as I bear down on an actual one. Gooey stalactites hang from my hands. “Don’t overwork it. You’re overworking it,” he says, and sprinkles flour in my direction. The flour comes from Naples. Almost every ingredient does—even the water I used to dissolve the yeast.

I take a breath and press the mound into a disk. With a circular motion, I spoon out sauce I made by crushing and straining peeled tomatoes. I scatter slices of mozzarella di bufala around the circle. I add a few basil leaves. I drizzle extra virgin olive oil from a traditional copper dispenser, again in a spiral motion—“a reverse six from the center moving out,” as Miele instructs. He’s wearing a purple button-down shirt under a blue sport jacket and has the sort of European dash Americans appreciate but can’t often match. Like all great teachers, he makes you crave success. I grab a long-handled wooden paddle, add a dusting of flour, transfer the garnished pizza onto the peel, and slide my masterpiece into an oven heated precisely to 905 degrees Fahrenheit. Perfetto!

“OK, no, no,” Miele says, peering into the flames. Apparently I pushed when I should have pulled, and a hairline crinkle has rendered my pizza kaput. The sauce is leaking and burning. With a stainless steel peel and a touch of swagger, Miele skims it out and scraps it, and I’m back to punching dough.

I have come to Miele’s hidden-away Marina del Rey pizza school with a hunger that’s both real and cosmic. As a student in his Professional Pizzaiolo Training Course, I am here to immerse myself in the age-old techniques of Neapolitan pie making with a man said to be the foremost authority outside Italy.

A longtime L.A. restaurateur, Miele in 1992 joined the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana, a Naples-based governing body—yes, for pizza—that trains, certifies, and regulates chefs looking to display the VPN’s red, white, and green seal of approval. For 20 years his trattoria, Antica Pizza, which closed in 2011, was the only place in L.A. to bear the seal. But that was before the recent renaissance of Neapolitan pizza. Around Culver City alone this past summer, four Neapolitan-style joints—the renovated Ugo Café and neighborhood newcomers Settebello, WildCraft, and Blaze—installed fire-breathing hearths that turn out delicately blistered pizzas in slightly over a minute. There are currently more than 300 VPN-certified pizzerias in 25 countries, including roughly 70 in the United States. In all of L.A., only Ugo and Settebello (there’s a location in Pasadena as well) have gone the distance.

As head of the VPN’s North American delegation, Miele is equal parts brand protector, international trade booster, and pizza policeman. He and his five-person team have consulted in almost every new Neapolitan pizza operation in town (and in many across the United States, Mexico, and Canada). The acidity of the dough (pH 0.14), the temperature of the cooked tomatoes (167 to 176 degrees), the shape of the spatula (triangular), the handle of the spatula (beech or acacia wood)—all are bound by arcane musts spelled out by the VPN.

 


This feature originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

In this age of artisanal everything, Naples-style pizza is fetishized like few other foods. From the yeast (mandated by the VPN to be “compressed, biologically produced, solid, soft, and beige in color with quite an insipid taste and a low degree of acidity”) to the way the VPN sign is displayed (outside the restaurant in a light box), each element must adhere to strict association standards; if those standards are not met and maintained, “the restaurant will be rejected or taken off the list,” Miele says. It costs about $3,700 for training and certification. The course itself—three eight-hour classes—is $1,650. Restaurants really do observe the edicts laid down by the VPN. “It’s not so much that we’re afraid of losing certification,” says Settebello’s owner, Brad Otton. “It’s more that we want to keep up the quality and tradition.” 

Educating chefs and inspecting restaurants may be Miele’s profession, but the job alone can’t explain the intensity he brings to the post. This is a man who will debate for a half hour the relative merits of San Marzano dell’Agro tomatoes as opposed to Pomodorini di Corbara, of apple firewood versus oak versus almond. I once saw him get teary-eyed talking about the fresh bread smell of crust.

In Naples it requires 15 years of apprenticeship to become a true master pizzaiolo. This class, open to anyone, is a mere introduction to the rules, Il disciplinare. As I pull my latest creation from Miele’s oven, I discover how far I have to go. To me, the pie looks like a winner: puffed, wet, and toasty in all the right places. But what do I know?

“Not bad,” Miele says, Napoli still resonant in his voice. “Next time a little rounder, a little more time in the oven.”

////

Most everyone has a favorite pizza they are willing to fight for to the death. The New York City slice. Chicago deep dish. New Haven thin crust. Detroit twice baked. I grew up with the fat red-and-white mini mattresses of cheese known as Old Forge pizza in northeastern Pennsylvania. Little Caesars has a million and a half fans on Facebook. Domino’s has more than 8 million.

Miele believes these interlopers have done lasting damage to the Platonic ideal. “In the United States all pizza was basically Neapolitan pizza until World War II,” he says. When pizza-loving GIs returned home from Italy, they began to regionalize the dish, commercialize it, franchise it, and, naturally, supersize it. Right now in Los Angeles, Big Mama’s & Papa’s Pizzeria will deliver a 2,916-square-inch pie that serves 40 to 60 people. It costs $199.99 plus tax and tip.

“The further we move away from ‘by hand’ and wood fire and natural ingredients, the more we lose,” Miele says. He is standing at a marble counter in his teaching loft, waiting for an espresso machine to get hot. Behind him is a gold-framed photograph of Sophia Loren. “When I sit down to eat, I want quality, lightness, and taste. You guys were brought up on slices and deep-dish pies,”—meaning we Americans—“but you know what’s delicious. I’m trying to protect that.”

The VPN’s American headquarters are in a cinder-block business park next to a boxing gym and a film production company. Costco is half a block away. Inside the office loft, it might as well be Campania. Miele constantly appears to be coming from lunch or heading to lunch or sitting down for coffee with an olive oil importer or a local chef. He keeps a collection of model sailboats on a shelf and has a golf club leaning against a wall of cookbooks. But he has zero time for boating or golf because pizza keeps him so busy. “I mean, look at this,” he says, rubbing his belly. Miele and his wife, Nancy, a school psychologist, live in Beverlywood with their two children, Louis, 20, and Josephine, 16, who both work part-time at pizza restaurants. “Even at home we are talking and talking more about pizza. About making it or eating it or dreaming about it,” he says.

On a typical day, if he’s not overseeing his instructors or showing off his skills to students, Miele is working with restaurants hoping for VPN certification, inspecting their ovens, pantries, and so on. When 800 Degrees sought VPN certification for the outpost it was installing in the Tom Bradley Terminal at LAX, Peppe declined. The problem? The outfit uses a gas oven.

Miele hands me an espresso and walks over to a shelf to retrieve an antique stufa, the copper container used forever in Naples to deliver pizza. He removes the top to show me a metal plate that lifts off to reveal a hidden reservoir for boiling water. Vents in the lid release the steam and aroma. “You knew the pizza was coming before it arrived,” he says, thinking of his life back in Italy. He makes a wafting motion and closes his eyes. “The smell would drift up through the building.”

 


This feature originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

It’s a scent that has trailed him ever since. After he arrived from Naples in 1981, Miele worked the line at Il Fornaio and later turned out plates of veal scallopini for the Sunset Plaza crowds at Nicky Blair’s, in which the singer Kenny Rogers was a stakeholder. “Barbra Streisand would come in. Frank Sinatra would call and come down with 20 friends,” Miele says. “It was an influential experience, but even then what I was thinking about was pizza.”

By 1992, he had opened Antica Pizzeria on 3rd Street, later the home of the restaurant A.O.C. , and served pies in the traditional style. It had taken almost a decade to hit on what should have been an obvious formula for him. On one of his regular visits to Naples around that time, Miele met with Antonio Pace, who had founded the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana with a group of distinguished pizza chefs. They talked about the fact that pizza in the United States had become unrecognizable, “if not a little obscene,” Miele says, particularly in L.A. At Spago, Wolfgang Puck and his pizza chef Ed LaDou had sparked a worldwide craze for “California pizza” with more than 250 toppings and recipes, including their famous “Jewish pizza”—smoked salmon, crème fraîche, capers, and dill. LaDou then created the first menu for California Pizza Kitchen, which all but buried the one true pie. A few weeks after Miele returned to L.A., Antica Pizzeria became the first restaurant in the United States to display the VPN logo, with its masked figure of Pulcinella, the character symbolizing Naples and its people. “It was probably the proudest moment of my life,” he says.

Pizza purists often said Antica made the best pizza napoletana in Los Angeles, maybe in the country, but Miele’s by-the-book approach (No shrimp! No goat cheese!) raised eyebrows. In an early L.A. Weekly review, Jonathan Gold wrote, “L.A.’s notorious sushi-bar Nazis have nothing on Peppe Miele,” though he conceded, “Even if you prefer muscular Brooklyn-style pies, the crust is unimpeachable.”

Peter Reinhart, a highly respected baker and the author of American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, is of two minds as well.  “On one hand it’s a contrivance and a distraction to say pizza’s got to be Naples style or nothing. It’s simply not true,” he says. “Then again, the idea of preserving old methods and flavors the way Peppe is doing is valuable. When pizza sailed out of Napoli and caught the world by storm, it was because it tasted so good, and it’s great someone’s safeguarding that.”

Miele smiles when I ask if he’s being a bit overzealous. “I’m not saying there is only one way to make pizza,” he says. “But I am saying that for me, there’s only one way to make it, and that’s using the traditional Neapolitan method.”

Even among Neapolitan lovers, however, there are factions within factions. The napoletana-inspired pies at Mozza, for instance, are worshipped by many, but Naples adherents would sooner go gluten-free than top a pizza with Ipswich clams or Yukon gold potatoes. I love what Zach Pollack and Steve Samson are doing at Sotto, though again, a pizza disguised by kale, Nduja sausage, and onions isn’t really a pizza in Miele’s eyes.

As day two gets under way at ten the next morning, I’m still in “wax on-wax off” mode. Miele is on the phone having an animated discussion about fermentation as instructor Jose Barrios has me do pizza drills. I make the dough, massage the dough, stretch the dough, dress the dough, and fire the dough, then do it again and again. Although Barrios grew up in Mexico, people often assume he is Italian because he has been around pizza for so long (he worked beside Miele at Antica for 18 years). My two classmates, both accomplished chefs, have flown in from the East Coast. One is opening a high-end pizza place in Boston; the other is upping his game for his restaurant in New York City. Miele and his team will train 100 or so cooks—a couple dozen serious amateurs among them—this year.

Our growing pile of discarded ovals and rounds would feed a small and very grateful Neapolitan army. We work mostly in silence, even through bits of slapstick. The Boston chef accidentally flings his dough into my flour bowl. The New Yorker somehow makes a pie in the exact shape of Texas. My once-crisp VPN apron and T-shirt look like props from Dexter. With time, each new pie gets easier, the quality more consistent. An hour before class ends at 5 p.m. every Thursday, the workshop opens its doors to friends and family. As we prepare for their arrival, I’m envisioning adoring smiles as they alight on my pizza and pronounce it better than any they’ve tried in L.A. I take out my phone to snap an Instagram shot of my pizza quattro formaggi—crushed tomatoes bubbling under homemade mozzarella as well as Gorgonzola, fontina, and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

“Very, very nice,” Barrios says, lifting the crust. “A little overcooked.” He’s sweating from the heat of the fire, and now I am, too.

 


This feature originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine

Settebello’s brad Otton came to making pizza in a roundabout way. As a starting quarterback with USC, he led the Trojans to a victory over Northwestern at the 1996 Rose Bowl and later signed with the Washington Redskins. When knee problems ended his football career, he had what he calls “a turnaround moment.” Remembering the two-year Mormon mission he went on in Italy after graduating high school, Otton decided to devote himself full-time to pizza. He spent three months training as a pizzaiolo in Naples before opening Settebello in 2005 in Henderson, Nevada. “I just loved everything about the process: the slowness, the technique, the personalities,” he says. Settebello now has locations in Las Vegas and Utah in addition to Pasadena and the new Marina outlet. The restaurant has an oven constructed with bricks hand pressed in Salerno, Italy, and held together with mortar made with volcanic sand from Vesuvius. “Our tomatoes, our flour, our paddles, the dough boxes, the olive oil cans—they’re all from Naples,” says Otton. “We know it works. We know it tastes incredible. Why mess with it?”

It makes good business sense, too. Pizza’s cheap to make, even using the finest imported ingredients, and Neapolitan pies typically sell for $10 to $20 apiece. As several dozen customers sat waiting during the soft opening of Settebello at the new Marina Marketplace Mall last July, head pizza maker Carmine D’Amato was still tweaking a server’s Italian (“It’s mah-ree-NAH-rah,” he said slowly after she pronounced it the American way).

Feeling the glow after that last batch of pizzas, I asked Otton if I could try my hand on the line at Settebello. One night after class at the VPN, I don a fresh apron and go to work with D’Amato. The basics are the same: grab dough, press dough, dress, fire, serve, and repeat. But the pressure of turning out pizzas to actual customers is like jumping from flight simulator to 747 cockpit. Instead of one pie at a time, it’s five all at once, each requiring different toppings, each at a different stage of baking, and each needing to go from prep counter to oven to table in about two minutes. D’Amato has my back, but there’s no room for a misstep. He grabs my paddle more than a few times, has me redo three of four pizzas, and ends up serving the majority of what I make to the kitchen staff. And this is the 5:30 p.m. crowd.

I enter my third and final day of class slightly rattled by the experience, but I also have a better understanding of Miele. There are hundreds of ways to churn out a pizza, but a genuine Neapolitan is rare.

I reach for another ball of sour-smelling dough, drop it in flour, knead it, stretch it, lightly accessorize it, and slide it into the oven. Just over a minute later, my pie is steaming on the plate. This one’s a beauty. The cornicione, or rim, is swollen and gently scorched. The mozzarella and sauce and basil are as vibrant as the colors on the Italian flag. I feel a surge of pride as I hold up my plate for Barrios to behold. He looks at Miele, who offers a half smile as he looks back my way.

“Good,” Miele says, pressing the button on his espresso machine. “Do it again.”  

David Hochman wrote about Totoraku, the secret Japanese beef restaurant, in the March issue.


This feature originally appeared in the October 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine