The Neapolitan version of pizza, classic as it is, is not necessarily the highest expression of the form, writes Mark Bittman in his last column for the New York Times magazine article titled A Slice of Heaven in Pittsburgh.
“There are other legitimate pizzas, and chief among these is the Roman-style pizza al taglio — ‘‘by the cut,’’ which mostly refers to how it’s sold — a crisp, sturdy, thick-crusted pie that can be topped with anything (within reason) and is almost as good served at room temperature as it is straight from the oven.”
His search for the finest landed him in Pittsburgh, at a bakery that has been wildly popular since opening last year.
“So maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising that the best pizza al taglio I’ve tasted in the last few years — including all but a couple in Rome itself — can be found in Pittsburgh, at Bread and Salt Bakery, the scrappy place owned by 39-year-old Rick Easton.
“Easton is the personification of the notion that a sharp palate, detailed knowledge and brilliant execution can converge anywhere, not just in a few self-important coastal cities. The tall, schleppy smoker of roll-your-own cigarettes drives a beat-up ’93 Corolla and rarely talks about anything but food. He isn’t Italian, and he doesn’t cook only that way — the spicy kabocha squash he grilled in his backyard one night last winter was memorable — but he has spent much time in Italy, and clearly it’s the best of that country’s food (not only bread and pizza but also vegetables, cured meats and cheeses) that inspires him.”
Bittman traces Rick Easton’s return to Pittsburgh and how he opened Bread and Salt bakery for $62,000.
“Easton had cooked in wood-fired ovens before, but here all he could afford was gas. So he asked himself, ‘‘What can I do with a lower temperature?’’ Having obsessively eaten his way through Rome, he knew one answer. Easton’s Roman-style pizza is chewy, crusty, slightly and beautifully sour. (He uses a sourdough starter at the bakery; working together, we adapted his recipe to use yeast.) Neapolitans might not deign to call this pizza, but a friend calls it ‘‘grandma pizza,’’ and that’s really spot on: It’s rectangular and made in a pan, without any special equipment or ingredients.”
Bittman spent a day with Easton learning to make his pizza and then experimented numerous times with various toppings in his own kitchen before sharing the recipe.
“The technique takes a while but is largely unattended; you can start it on the morning of Day 1 and finish it for dinner — or even lunch — on Day 2, and have pretty much whatever passes for your normal life in the meantime. For all but the most experienced home bread makers, the dough will be a surprise; it’s about 80 percent water by weight. For that reason, handling it can be messy, especially at first, but as long as you wet your hands, it’s not too difficult.”
In fact, he concludes, the whole thing is pretty simple.
In wrapping up, he added, “This will be my last Eat column. When I started writing it, I never would have guessed that it would end in Pittsburgh. That it does confirms that good food here is hardly limited to a couple of smug metropolitan areas, and validates my feeling that cooking in the United States is as interesting as it is anywhere in the world. That change began some time ago, but it has accelerated in the past five years and will only continue. I’m glad to have been able to witness it.”
Get Rick Easton’s awesome pizza recipe here.