Life of Pie A History of Pizza in Baltimore--From an Old School Favorite to the New Upper-Crust Artisanals. (Hint: Thin is in)

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“The idea” says Marianne Kresevich, “is to push all the air to the edges.” Her fingers—nails blunt and unfussy—press into the pizza dough on the cool marble counter. The tiny air bubbles comply, traveling in the direction of her gentle massage or simply giving up with a slight exhale. Kresevich continues her prodding until the diameter is 12 inches (yes, size matters here), dresses the pie with a scoop of tomato sauce, soft fresh cheese and flat basil leaves, and slides it into the 800-plus-degree wood-fired oven. Once the pizza is cooked—90 seconds later—the rim will be puffed with hollow air bubbles and the bottom will be leopard-spotted with black char marks from the hot oven floor.

The dough, about 260 grams per ball, was made with special flour from Italy. The tomatoes are macerated San Marzanos (also imported) and the cheese is blobs of creamy mozzarella made that afternoon in the restaurant.

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The sleek scene at Verde, where they recently added brunch offerings to their menu.

Kresevich and her husband and business partner, Ed Bosco, opened Verde in Canton a little over a year ago, but only after doing their homework. The couple—he a former commodities trader, she a software consultant who still works on projects for Fortune 500 companies—has set about to create an authentic Neapolitan pie, one that lives up to standards set by the Vera Pizza Napolitana (VPN), an association founded in 1984 to enforce strict guidelines for the real deal.

The Caputo double-zero flour, the special tomatoes, the fresh mozzarella—even the counter surface, which must be natural stone—along with the size, the heat and the cook time are all set down by the VPN. The Verde owners, who apprenticed with Roberto Caporuscio, owner of the famed Keste in Manhattan, take these mandates very seriously.

The result, unsurprisingly, is iconic. It’s the pizza from “Eat, Pray, Love,” when Julia Roberts orders a pie oozing goopy mozzarella and bright tomatoes that seem to throb atop the wafer-thin crust. If Verde had been around when I saw that movie, I would have made a beeline here to mimic her gluttony—as I’m sure plenty of folks did to Pizzeria da Michele in Naples, the spot Elizabeth Gilbert described in the book that became the movie.

Verde and a handful of other newish joints notwithstanding, Baltimore is a pizza greenhorn. We don’t have a hometown style like New York, Chicago or New Haven. But in the past few years—eight to be exact—the pizza here has gotten decidedly more sexy. It’s more sophisticated, dressed in imported attire, or authentic homespuns, and yes, it’s quite a bit thinner.

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Matthew’s crab pie: backfin crabmeat, a blend of hand-grated mozzarella and imported reggianito cheeses topped with caramelized onions and Old Bay seasoning.

Matthew’s Original

For years, what Baltimore knew about pizza, beyond delivery chains, was cornered by Matthew’s, which opened in 1943 and until recently claimed pretty much all the accolades and “best of” awards available here. The pizzeria’s customers included not only its Highlandtown neighbors, but well-heeled adventurers from the north, who chewed on the thick, airy crust before or after performances at the Creative Alliance across the street.

In the early years, says Chris Maler, who purchased Matthew’s from a family friend 18 years ago, Matthew’s didn’t even call itself pizza. “It was tomato pie,” he says. “It was crust with tomato sauce. If people wanted cheese, they’d grate some on top.”

The Matthew’s crust is a variation on deep dish, crispy on the outside and airy inside—perhaps owing to the “minuscule” amount of lard (according to Maler) in the recipe. The cheese is a thick blanket of grated mozzarella, and at least one of Matthew’s most popular pies has no tomatoes.

The crab pie, loaded with lump crab-meat slathered in cheese, was developed by a friend of Maler’s, Bill Hughes, who now owns Barracudas in Locust Point. Hughes was a chef at Pimlico and was in the middle of overseeing food for the Preakness throngs when Maler called for advice. “I told him I’m trying to make crab pizza,” Maler recounts. “He tells me, ‘I don’t have time for this,’ and then he says, ‘take your white pizza, put crab on it and throw a little Old Bay on top.’ It took him 10 seconds to come up with it.”

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The flag pizza at Joe Squared: crushed tomato, roasted garlic cream and pesto sauce—split in thirds.

Thinning down: Joe Squared and Iggies

In 2005, Joe Edwardson opened a pizza place on the unlikely corner of Maryland and North avenues. His pies created a bit of a sensation in Baltimore—a town that, while already on its way to food-fetishdom, still mostly experienced pizza as a stack of cardboard boxes at kids’ birthday parties. The crusts at Joe Squared are thin, almost crackly and pies have innovative toppings like eggs—their yolks still jiggling—Granny Smith apples and herbs that chef/owner Edwardson grows on the roof. Plus they are square. The vibe, however, is not—with a cool (rotating) assortment of local art on the walls and live bands playing nightly.


The corn flour-based, gluten-free pizza at Iggies.

At about the same time, a storefront on Calvert Street in Mount Vernon strung twinkle lights on the trees outside, graciously placed water bowls for dogs on the sidewalk and started serving up small, thin-crusted pizza with such add-ons as delicately sliced sopressata, duck confit and pistachio pesto. These elegant pies—created assembly line-style in the airy, no-frills, BYOB Iggies—quickly became a favorite in the neighborhood and among patrons of nearby Centerstage.

Both restaurants use the special Caputo double-zero flour specified by the Neapolitan gurus, but in other ways they diverge from the VPN standards. Joe Squared uses a mix of provolone and mozzarella cheese—Ohio-style, Edwardson calls it. And the dough is pressed through a “dough sheeter,” two silicone rollers that the restaurant also uses for pasta. “We used to use it to crush sugarcane for mojitos,” Edwardson says. “But someone got their hand stuck in there so we stopped.”

Two years after opening, Joe’s invested in a coal oven, and became the first restaurant in Baltimore to sell pies baked on a 900-degree floor fired by anthracite coal—a uniquely American approach that dates to early Italian immigrants’ response to the crippling price of wood. The crust crackles and splits in the heat, which leaves blackened spots on the bottom and brittle charred edges.

Iggies is more conscientious of the Neapolitan style, using San Marzano tomatoes, housemade mozzarella and a variety of toppings—both seasonal and far-flung. The restaurant even uses distilled water, says Peter Wood, who runs the place with his wife, owner Lisa Heckman. “We don’t like the inconsistencies in the city water,” he explains. “After a big rain-storm, the dough isn’t as smooth.” He pauses. “Yes, it’s geeky.”

Pizzas are cooked in a gas oven with a ceramic interior at about 700 degrees; it takes about three minutes to achieve the crisp Iggies crust.

Harbor Feast: Bagby and Chazz

Blake Smith opened Bagby Pizza in Harbor East after doing some market research. “About 98 percent of America eats pizza on a regular basis,” Smith says. “It’s the best option for getting people to come through the door [of a new restaurant]. I figured, let’s do pizza and do it well.” Smith visited a few pizza spots around Maryland and, he says, “found that most of the places I went to that were mob scenes were offering thin crust.”

He and Kyle Gillies a local chef who had cooked a bit for Smith’s father, David, owner of Sinclair Broadcasting, as well as in a few local restaurants (he has since moved to Los Angeles), opened a smallish place in the former furniture factory in 2009. Bagby puts out a thin-crust pie made with Neapolitan-style, double-zero flour and baked in a gas-fired brick oven between 550 and 600 degrees. Bagby dough, like Joe Squared’s is sent through rollers before being formed into pies, and the resulting crust is more crackly around the edges than the puffy Neapolitan. The seasoned sauce is made in-house from California tomatoes, and like the Bagby Group’s other restaurants, the pizza place relies heavily on the Smiths’ farm in the county for fresh produce.

Bagby Pizza had barely carved its niche as the only thin-crust pizza in the newly chic neighborhood when movie star Chazz Palminteri thundered into a space the size of Columbus Circle station just a block down the street, promising an experience reminiscent of his own Bronx upbringing. The restaurant’s name, after all, is Chazz: A Bronx Original.

While the coal-fired oven at Chazz promises something authentic, chef-partner Sergio Vitale is hesitant to lay claim to a New York pie. Chazz’s “Bronx” pizza, he says, is a contrivance—designed to trigger memory more than adhere to a definition.

He calls Chazz pizza a hybrid, thin-crusted but not limp in the center. The slices are foldable and can be eaten with one hand—a characteristic often associated with New York pizza. The cheese is burrata mozzarella, made with cream, and there’s a thin layer of unadulterated tomato sauce. Pizza, says Vitale, “is highly subjective,” and even New Yorkers may not agree on the definition of their hometown pie (see sidebar). Even so, he says, “When you ask a New Yorker what their favorite pie is, invariably it will be from a coal-fired joint.”

GLUTEN FREEDOM

If one of the shared ingredients of really good pizza is the high-gluten flour, it’s easy to see why making a really good gluten-free pizza can be a challenge. Peter Wood doesn’t even try. The gluten-free offering at Iggies is made with corn flour and water, flattened into a pie that doesn’t rise—more tortilla or cornmeal cracker than pizza.

Sergio Vitale at Chazz wanted to have a gluten-free option for the beautiful people who stroll Harbor East, but didn’t want any fuss—or the cross-contamination that can come with mixing gluten-free dough from scratch in a wheat-flour-dusted kitchen. So Chazz uses pre-made dough with a kind of slimy texture on the tongue and not much flavor (sorry, Sergio).

Verde purchases expensive bags of gluten-free Caputo flour called Fiore Glut (an 11-pound bucket of the stuff costs about $70 on Amazon) made from rice, corn, soy, potato flour and sugar. Other pizzerias don’t want to spend the money—especially with a process that requires a two- to three-day rise—when it’s hard to anticipate how many gluten-free pies will be sold. For my palate, Verde’s gluten-free option is the only pie that would satisfy a craving for real pizza. They also serve gluten-free beer and flourless cake—which has brought at least one customer to actual tears. “She kept saying, ‘I can’t believe I can have a pizza and beer with my boyfriend,’” says owner Marianne Kresevich.
—Martha Thomas

Pizza Town: Birroteca, Hersh’s, Earth Wood and Fire

Recently, a friend, who relies on me to keep her apprised of the go-to restaurants of the moment, suggested dinner on a Friday night. “If you’re OK with pizza,” I told her. I was researching this story on a tight deadline and every carb counted. She hesitated. “Why would anyone want to use up a good weekend night on the town by eating pizza?” she wanted to know. Had she never been to Birroteca? I wondered.

When Robbin Haas put the rustic wooden sign outside of the old stone building on Clipper Road, he listed pizza and beer. The crowded gravel parking lot makes the place, stuck in the midst of light industrial buildings and construction sites, look more roadhouse than restaurant, but inside is a whole ’nother story. For one thing, the place is packed. For another, pizza, while not an afterthought, represents only about a third of the restaurant’s food sales—a supporting player on the menu of what Haas calls “rustic Italian cooking.”

Even so, Birroteca’s pies, cooked in an electric 700-plus-degree oven and brought to the table (or your stool at the bar) atop an elevated pizza stand, are thin-crusted and topped with a variety of enticing ingredients. The most popular is duck confit with fig jam and a goose egg, charmingly called the “duck, duck, goose.” While it’s made with the ubiquitous Caputo double-zero flour, the dough would raise eyebrows among VPN judges; ingredients also include honey and white wine, for a slightly caramelized, crunchy crust.

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Hersh’s uovo pizza: housemade mozzarella, garlic, olives, red onion and egg.

Hersh’s Pizza and Drinks is another obvious pizza-on-the-town option. The spot, in the South Baltimore neighborhood known as Riverside, was opened by Josh and Stephanie Hershkovitz in 2012. The industrious sibling business partners adhere to the Neapolitan standards with the correct oven and cook time, the proper flour, San Marzano tomatoes and housemade mozzarella. And there’s more. “We make just about everything here,” says Stephanie.

The restaurant makes its own pasta and cheese, tomato sauce, sausage and much of the bread. The “Drinks” part includes such hipster concoctions as fig-infused bourbon, cucumber-infused vodka and grenadine made on-site with fresh pomegranates. The place is crowded with the 20- and 30-something urbanites who populate the outer fringes of Federal Hill as well as folks from farther out, who arrive harried from circling the block in search of parking. Some of Hersh’s customers may be seeking the vera pizza, but probably not everyone.


Earth Wood & Fire

As Baltimore has become more accustomed to these artisanal pies, it only makes sense that the thin-crust style would expand to more suburban settings. Earth Wood & Fire’s niche seems to fall somewhere between the goopy stuff of chains and that favored by geeky VPN adherents.

Mark Hofmann, head chef and co-owner, had a 3-ton coal oven shipped from Bellingham, Wash., to make “the first coal-fired pizza in Baltimore County,” he says. Hofman makes the dough from unbleached high-gluten General Mills All Trumps flour with scientific precision.

The restaurant has a bar with windows overlooking Falls Road and Princeton Sports across the way—and the airy space, with simple tables and booths along the wall, is well designed for families or groups heading home after a sports practice or game. Hofman, former general manager of Tark’s Grill, started the place with a couple of buddies from the financial world. Their goal is to expand to become a chain; stay tuned for location numero due (keep your eye on Bel Air).

Verde is also a prototype for a chain, according to its owners. Kresevich and Bosco purchased the building on South Montford and put plenty of time and money into it. The floors are glistening penny tiles, the booths and tables made from reclaimed wood—some from an old church the couple rehabbed in Chicago. The dovetailed concrete panels that clad the booths, stained a soft grass green, were made by an artist whose work Kresevich admired at a yoga studio. Everything here is conscientiously selected, from the menu of Italian beer and wines to the imported serrated pizza knives.

The two moved to Baltimore with their young daughter five years ago. Kresevich had been here on an assignment with Laureate Education and liked what she saw. “I could see the revival of the city going on,” she says. “We saw it happen in Chicago, but Chicago was already there.” Baltimore reminded Kresevich of her native Seattle, still in the nascent stages of a revival when she left in the 1980s. Baltimore, the two decided, still had a ways to go in its renaissance. And in its pizza.

 

FOLD IT LIKE BECKHAM >>

 

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