Obsessed: The relentless repetition of St. Louis pizzaioli
Simplicity is complicated. To be a Neapolitan pizzaiolo, or pizza-maker, you have to be willing to do the same thing over and over in a monotonous series of tasks that require active attention every time. The Italian Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana demands a certain kind of dough (made with Italian 00 flour and a long fermentation), a specific sauce (hand-crushed San Marzano-style tomatoes), a particular cheese (fresh mozzarella, preferably buffalo) and a precise baking method (90 seconds or less at more than 800 degrees) in a specially designed wood-fired oven. For the uninitiated, the detail of these regulations is a little mind-numbing.
“I always think of Neapolitan pizza as being similar to sushi,” said chef Mike Randolph, who opened The Good Pie in 2008. Randolph was the first pizza-maker in St. Louis to pursue VPN True Neapolitan Pizza certification. “The people coming up have one task, and that’s what they do for years before they’re finally able to touch the dough. And just like the sushi master, there’s one guy that makes all the pizza. There’s something very romantic about that.”
It may be romantic, but being a pizzaiolo is also punishing. Aside from the physical exertion of tending a wood fire and making pizzas night after night, it takes a certain kind of person to devote so many hours working toward an ideal they’ll never accomplish. Even when a shift yields only happy, pizza-praising customers, it’s not uncommon for pizzaioli to consider that night a failure because the crust could have been better. “These places in Naples that have been doing it for hundreds of years – that’s what we aspire to be, right?” Randolph said. “And we’re never going to get there, to be frank.”
It’s hard not to speculate on a pizzaiolo’s psychological motivations. Why do it? What makes an impossible task with inexorable failure rewarding? For some, it’s respect for tradition. For others, it’s the meditative quality of repetition – the absorption of rhythmically recurrent tasks. Some revel in creating a dependable system, while others obsess over the subtle unpredictability of dough and fire. Usually, it’s a mix.
Obviously, this job is not for everyone – not even Randolph. “There are thousands of people in the world that have dedicated themselves – long hours, every day of the week – to making the perfect Margherita,” he said. “I mean, can you imagine making one dish every day for the rest of your life?”
Even as he trained with Roberto Caporuscio, VPN Americas president in 2008, Randolph knew he didn’t want to make pizza full-time. After all, this is the chef who owns three restaurants with wildly different cuisines (Half & Half, Público and Randolfi’s) and still hosts the avant-garde Diversion dinner series to keep himself creatively satisfied. “I totally admire it, but you need to find someone who has that passion to revel in simplicity and feel like he’s the tip of the iceberg of something that’s been done for so long,” he said.
At the moment, that person is Taylor Hamilton, who has been Randolfi’s pizzaiolo since it replaced The Good Pie in 2015.
Hamilton is a traditionalist. He takes his time. “It’s bigger than yourself – like anything worth doing,” he said. “There is a certain level of insanity to it, I suppose. But when everything comes together to make a really good pizza – when all the conditions work in your favor and it comes out – it’s almost a euphoric experience.”
“Conditions” is a word usually reserved for something like sailing, but Hamilton is so dialed in that he can notice the weather’s effect on his pizza making. Temperature and humidity alter how dough ferments and wood burns.
“If there’s ever a personality that meets a station, that’s Taylor,” Randolph said. “He’s very particular. He’s very studious. … And he’s living pizza right now. Pretty much every day of the week, that’s his life. [On his day off], he’s asking how the dough is and he wants to know what’s going on.”
For someone who believes he’ll never master the thing he spends all his time doing, Hamilton has a pretty good attitude. “If you have a bad night, if the dough’s not to your liking, you just have to take it – you just have to eat it all night,” he said. “You try your hardest, and when those things are working against you, you just have to stay in the moment and hope to do better the next time.”
Pizzeoli owner Scott Sandler has a different perspective at his Neapolitan-style pizzeria in Soulard. “You’re always a student, but I have to say I’ve reached the level where I wanted to be as far as making pizza,” he said. “Now it’s just making sure day by day I’m putting out a consistent product.”
Sandler’s pizzaiolo personality is systematic perfection. “Consistency is important for a restaurant’s success,” he said. “So every day I make the dough at the same time. I use the same recipe, follow the exact same procedure. … If you’re not focused on the details, then you’re not going to be successful.”
All this attention to detail doesn’t mean Sandler is a born rule-follower or loves jumping through hoops. Though he traveled to Naples and trained at VPN’s Accademia della Pizza Napoletana in Inglewood, California, before opening, he didn’t apply for the official Neapolitan certification. Why pay for such an expensive assessment – more than $2,000 for rigorous VPN inspections of your pizzeria and process, then annual fees – when he already knows his pizza is impeccably Neapolitan?
For Sandler, it’s practice that really makes the pizza. He’s fired around 40,000 pies since Pizzeoli opened in October 2014. He’s the engine that runs the whole place. “This is a one-man operation,” he said. “I have total control. Maybe I’m somewhat of a control freak, I don’t know. It’s possible.”
Control freak or not, it’s risky and expensive to hand over the peel. It’s hard to find someone capable, and a serious investment to train them. “It requires a tremendous amount of skill to work this oven, because not only do you have to make the pizzas, but you have to maintain the temperature, you’ve got to know where the hotspots are on the deck, you’ve got to turn the pizzas at the right time,” he said. He’s only just now found someone he trusts enough to train.
That’s why Sandler is going in a very different direction for his next project, Pizza Head, scheduled to open on South Grand Avenue in March or April. He plans to make New York-style pies using an electric pizza deck oven at Pizza Head – a machine for which Sandler can create a system that’s equally consistent and dummy-proof.
Melo’s Pizzeria pizzaiolo Joey Valenza learned about his wood-fired oven the hard way. “I never worked one before, to be honest with you,” he said. He never even trained with an expert. “I probably should have. It would have saved me a lot of headaches.”
Instead, Valenza watched YouTube videos and MacGyvered a grill into a makeshift pizza oven. “I had a Weber grill, and I put a steel ring around it and cut an opening just like the opening in the oven,” Valenza said. “Then I put a pizza stone on the inside – I cracked, like, five of them.”
For every 50 pizzas, he said a couple turned out decent. “But I was so obsessed with the transformation of raw dough – transforming into that typical spotted crust,” he said. “I didn’t even care about eating it. It was more like creating art.”
He experimented for a couple years before his dad, Blues City Deli owner Vince Valenza, bought a wood-fired oven and converted the garage behind the restaurant into a pizza place.
The younger Valenza only had two months to train on the real deal before Melo’s opened in December 2015. “The day we opened I was so sick, probably because I was so stressed,” he said. “We sold like a hundred pizzas and, seriously, I don’t know how we did it. They looked all right. It’s just a miracle – divine intervention.”
Melo’s is clearly less traditional than Randolfi’s and Pizzeoli, turning out Italian-American pies somewhere between Neapolitan and New York-style. Valenza uses fresh and low-moisture shredded mozzarella and makes a sturdier crust more suited to the tiny shop’s primarily carryout business. He and his brother, Johnny Valenza, currently fire all Melo’s pizzas. Influenced by their Blues City backgrounds, the brothers operate an assembly-line version of the lone-wolf Neapolitan tradition.
“It took a while to even figure that out,” Valenza said. “At first we had this mentality from working at the deli: We would go super fast all the time. And then we realized that oven would cool down too much from having pizza after pizza in there. You have to let it heat back up.”
The Valenzas are honing in on the right recipes, the quirks of their oven and running another business. They still work at Blues City, which is why Melo’s is only open two days a week. “I have three kids, too. I used to have a lot of energy – now I just have a normal amount,” Valenza said. “I think over time, hopefully we’ll get enough people trained up so that we can expand our hours. Until then, we’ll just get a lot of complaints. … They love the pizza. They don’t love that we’re not open.”
As a pizzaiolo who learns by doing, Valenza doesn’t get bored doing the same thing every day. “I think it’s important for anybody working in a trade – even though you think you’ve got it all figured out or you couldn’t screw up – to keep doing it over and over and over again,” he said. “You will slowly become a better craftsman.”
Despite occasionally waxing poetic on the artistic expression, the Sisyphean punishment and athletic accomplishment of working the oven on a busy night, Hamilton, Sandler and Valenza don’t lose track of what’s important: They get to eat pizza almost every day.
“Everyone loves pizza,” Sandler said. “If they don’t eat it, it’s not because they don’t love it, it’s because they’re on a diet or something. I mean, who doesn’t like pizza?”
Melo’s Pizzeria, 2438 McNair Ave. Rear, St. Louis, 314.833.4489, melospizzeria.com; Pizzeoli, 1928 S. 12th St., St. Louis, 314.449.1111, pizzeoli.com; Randolfi’s, 6665 Delmar Blvd., University City, 314.899.9221, randolfis.com
More stories like this
What I Do: Suman Shekar of Companion Bakery
Suman Shekar shares how her eye for detail benefits her in her vital role at Companion ...
Some of St. Louis' best Thai food is served at Spirit House dinner parties in Dogtown
Ekkachai Danwanichakul and Chelsie Hellige host Spirit House, dinner parties showcasing an array of Thai dishes ...