What is a dream opportunity for a pizza writer? A feature story for a national publication? A trip to Italy? Well, some pizza writers dream of becoming pizza makers. I had the great chance to meet one, sample his unique pizza offerings, and talk about his pie-making future.
James Oley is a guy who genuinely loves pizza. He is he creative force behind the Keystone Pizza Critic blog. Now, he's beginning to leverage his accumulated pizza knowledge; he's making pizza at home and giving it away so that he can gather feedback as he explores entering the pizzamaking business. He's calling it Binge House Pizza; learn more at Facebook.com/BingeHousePizza.
First, my review of the pie he made for me, and then some excerpts of my interview with him.
|Fresh out of the oven|
James is using a conventional oven and baking rectangular pies in deep pans designed for pan pizza. Let's not confuse his pie, though, with Chicago-style pan pizza or deep-dish. At first glance, his pizza looks like a Sicilian pie, but the crust is about half-way between the thickness of a conventional round pizza and a thick Sicilian.
|Ready for home re-heating|
As he describes in the interview, it's a hybrid pie that has elements of Old Forge (PA) pizza and Detroit style pizza. Both of those are pan-baked rectangular pies, cut into squares.
The pizza was just coming out of the oven when I arrived for mine, and James sliced it and boxed it. I was immediately struck by the crispy caramelized cheese along the outer edges, and the plentiful cups of curled pepperoni riding on top. My home was about 15 minutes away; I ate one slice right away, and re-heated the rest in my oven (on a perforated pizza pan) to share with the family about an hour later.
I've never had an Old Forge style pie; nor have I experienced Detroit pizza in Detroit. However, I have had a superlative Detroit-style pie at Norma's Pizza in Manheim, PA. And on the first bite of this pie, I saw some immediate points of comparison.
First, the crispy oiled bottom of the pie delivered an outstanding al dente crust. Then, the body of the crust was lighter and fully flavored. The edges, with the caramelized cheese, added another dimension of savory crunch. Norma's crust is both thicker and lighter - but these pies shared a lot of wonderful crust characteristics.
|Underside of the crust|
On this pepperoni pie, the sauce was applied in about perfect proportion. The cheese had an ideal amount of top browning (not always easy in a home oven). It's noteworthy that pictures of Old Forge style pizzas generally show soulless white blobs of undercooked cheese. Not so here!
Both the sauce and cheese served as role players in the overall experience; the crust and the pepperoni were the stars. The pepperoni yielded up its tasty oil to the pie in addition to its delicately crisped chewiness.
This is not a "light" pie. The medium-thick crust was a bit denser than most, and the tasty oil (top and bottom) added to its presence. Each bite was a decadent delight. Despite it's belly-filling gravitas, I eagerly wolfed down more slices than I care to reveal.
|A look at the thickness of the crust|
This crust is magic. It gets an easy 9, and can get to a 10 if James can keep that crispy texture while using a tad less oil. The sauce and cheeses worked perfectly for this pie, even as role players. The pepperoni is a 10; about as good as that topping gets. I sure would love to have this pie topped with fresh chunks of Italian sausage. Overall, this pie is a 9 and I fully expect James can tune it up to a 10. I'm a fan.
Let's turn now to our interview:
James: I was introduced to pizza by my family as a young boy; we used to go to the same pizzeria every Friday. One of the great things about pizza is that you can go to ten different pizzerias and get ten very different tasting pies. I grew up in NEPA (Northeast Pennsylvania), which has a rich pizza history and is saturated with pizzerias. When I was an adolescent I used to criss-cross over a lot of territory while exploring my freedoms. I enjoyed pizza, it was cheap, and I was always around new-to-me pizzerias, so the pieces just fell into place. As an adult I have a strong entrepreneurial spirit for opening a pizzeria. It’s a food that I love, I am good at making pizza, and it's fun when shared with others.
PQ: What is your earliest memory of pizza?
James: My earliest memory is one that I’m sure that I share with others: Ellio’s frozen pizza. My grandmother would often have a box of Ellio’s in the freezer. My first pizzeria memory is Sabatini’s Pizza in Exeter, PA with my family on most Fridays. Sabitini’s is a thin cracker style crust; we ordered it with extra sauce and onions. Around thirty years later, that’s still what I crave and how I order it when I’m in town.
PQ: What are your current “go-to” pizza places?
James: I can answer in two regions: (1) My native area of NEPA, and (2) My current home in Southeastern PA. There is A LOT of pizza in NEPA, but my short list includes: Ceccoli’s in Parsons/Wilkes-Barre, Sabatini’s in Exeter, and Pizza Perfect in Trucksville. Around Chester County in Southeastern PA, I have come to know several terrific local pizzeria operators, so I don’t want to include or exclude anyone based on personal relationships. Let's say that some genuine artisans have been great role models here.
PQ: Tell us about your dough – the flour, other ingredients, rise times and temps – all that you can reveal without giving away any secrets.
James: I use same five ingredients as most pizzaioli -- flour, water, salt, sugar, and yeast. While ingredient ratios can vary by preference, the keys to different styles of crusts are the type of flour, the amount of water (hydration level), how long the dough is left to rise or ferment, the temperature during the rise, and the cooking method.
I use a bread flour which helps give a soft spring to the inside of the crust. I have several dough recipes; I choose based on when I intend on baking the pie (the same day vs. the next day or two). That also drives variables like whether I use warm or cold water, and if the dough will ferment at room temperature or in the fridge.
A room-temperature ferment allows me to mix a batch of dough and throw a pizza in the oven as soon as a half hour after mixing the dough. An overnight cold-fermented dough allows me to do some prep work the night before.
PQ: What about your pans? What makes them special? Any seasoning needed? I had fits trying to season a steel wok.....
James: I once used cold rolled steel pans that I got from an old pizzeria in NEPA. Those old pans had been neglected in the pizzeria’s basement, so they needed to be stripped of their seasoning and re-seasoned. I found that some pans were seasoned great and would easily release the pizzas, but other imperfect pans would sustain further damage during attempts to get the pizza out of the pan. I recently found a company making new pans, coated with a special non-stick material, that do not require seasoning. It took me a while to relearn how to make my style of pizza in the new pans but they work phenomenally well if cared for properly.
PQ: Do you make your own sauce?
James: I do not make my own sauce. My pies are inspired by a style of pizza that was born in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s. The originators operated a very busy pizzeria and needed a sauce that was readily available. However, I use two sauces; the one that I use 95% of the time has a thin consistency, and the other one that I use is thicker and works well on certain pizzas like my cheesesteak pizza.
PQ: What cheeses go on your pie?
James: That's a Binge House secret! I will say that I use a blend of cheeses, and that I’m always testing different blends.
PQ: What brand pepperoni do you use? We loved it on our sample pie.
James: So far I’ve only used a “buffalo style-cup & char” pepperoni. Upon being baked, the pepperoni’s edges get pulled upward creating a cup-like effect with the ridge of the cup becoming charred; charred in a good way that adds a great flavor, not charred as in burnt. When the pizza is still hot, the pepperoni cups sit there holding their own oil; it’s a magical & tasty moment! When I open up a proper pizzeria I will offer both the "spicy cup" pepperoni as well as the traditional style of pepperoni.
PQ: What is your bake temperature and time?
James: In a home oven, the temperature fluctuates a lot more than it does in a pizzeria. That said, I usually bake pies between 425 - 525 degrees Fahrenheit for 10–15 minutes.
PQ: What style describes your pizza? Detroit? Old Forge? Hybrid? Other?
James: Great question. You might call my pizza style a hybrid of Old Forge style and Detroit style. Still, I haven't settled on a name for my pizza; do I call it a hybrid, or a hyphenated pie, or do I call it Detroit style even though the toppings aren’t applied in the traditional order? How does "Detroit Style Hybrid" sound? Let me know, I’m taking suggestions!
James: I have not yet been to Clank’s, but I have had Pica’s regular square pizza with ricotta on half. I thought it was good, especially the half with the ricotta. I liked that it isn’t thick like Sicilian pizza and that it was well browned on the underside.
PQ: How have people reacted to your sample pizzas?
James: Very favorably. I sometimes hold events at my house where people can pick up a pizza. Since the very first event I held I have had several people become regulars; I have more demand than supply. I can’t tell you how good it feels to get the positive feedback; I just enjoy making people happy. I'm glad to be introducing a new style of pizza to our area. I'm happy to develop my skill in a craft that fuels my passion, and interacting with people who appreciate good pizza.
Of course a pizzeria has to make a profit to survive, but it’s the relationship it creates with the community that is the true measure of success. I want that relationship! A lot of the feedback can be seen on my Facebook page (Facebook.com/BingeHousePizza) under the Reviews section.
PQ: What is your long-range goal in pizza making?
James: I want to be a local small business owner. I want to own and operate a pizzeria in or around Chester County, PA. I'll craft a short menu, because I will only serve what I know that I can do well. I want to be active in the community with fundraisers, special events, and enriching the lives of the youth in our community. I'm also fond of animals, so I’d also like to help out some local rescue organizations. To do all of those things, I would strive to push the boundaries of creativity while maintaining the values and traditions ingrained in me from my upbringing.
PQ: Are you looking for investors or partners?
James: Having help launching a business and growing it could be priceless, so yes, I am open to the idea of having an investor or partner.
PQ: Final question: have you investigated doing a pizza popup, such as offering pizza one night a week in a bagel or breakfast restaurant? Other venues?
James: Yes. I am investigating that option with a few local businesses. I'd be happy to hear from potential partners!
As I noted earlier, my experience eating this square pie and talking with James leads to one very clear comparison - the scrumptious pies at Norma's Pizza. Like Norma, James is friendly person with a pizza passion. His pie is so good that we can talk about it with the same reverence we hold for Norma's pizza.
In a time when there is so much commodity pizza, it's refreshing to meet someone with a passion for great pizza.