It could be in the water... Or in the oven.
"Californians do a lot of great stuff with their green-market goods," fellow pizza nerd Mario Batali says, but "some of it's just not pizza." I called the Iron Chef to help me figure out why San Francisco — a formidable food town — can't birth a respectable pie. Part of the reason, of course, is that while Rice-A-Roni and zinfandel are native to Northern California, pizza is not.
"New York has a grand tradition of pizza making and holds it dear," Batali says. Which means institutions like Arturo's have been using the same equipment for decades. "An oven captures the gestalt of beautifully cooked pizza. And it imparts that."
I'm not comfortable attributing a pizza's quality to gestalt — it sounds like something a California pizzeria would list as a topping. But Batali's theory makes sense to David Tisi, a food-development consultant who has spent much of his career studying pizza.
"As you cook, some ingredients vaporize, and these volatilized particles can attach themselves to the walls of the baking cavity," Tisi says. "The next time you use the oven, these bits get caught up in the convection currents and deposited on the food, which adds flavor." Over time, he says, more particles join the mix and mingle with the savory soot from burned wood or coal — the only fuels worth using — to create a flavor that you can't grow in a garden: gestalt, if you will.
Why though, Brown wonders, does that not hold true of some of SF's older pizzerias, which have been making pizza for generations?
"Water," Batali says. "Water is huge. It's probably one of California's biggest problems with pizza." Water binds the dough's few ingredients. Nearly every chemical reaction that produces flavor occurs in water, says Chris Loss, a food scientist with the Culinary Institute of America. "So, naturally, the minerals and chemicals in it will affect every aspect of the way something tastes."