It all looks so damn easy. You flour and stretch some dough. (It doesn't even have to be perfectly round!) You spoon on a little tomato sauce. (It's literally just crushed canned tomatoes!) You top the pies with whatever looks good. (My young nephews and nieces can do this!) You pop it in the oven for less than two minutes. (It doesn't even matter if the crust burns a little!) And, in return, people pay you $15 for a pizza half the size and thickness of a "regular" pizza.
Of course, if it was so easy to master the Neapolitan pie game, we'd have more than a handful of local craftsman playing it. What we don't see — and, given the open setup of most of these places, we see damn near all — is the time and effort that goes into the dough. And with this pizza, the crust is everything.
It's a bit of alchemy to transform just four modest components (flour, water, salt, yeast) into such a crispy, chewy and flavorful base, one that takes time, patience and more than a little trial and error to master, according to George Goodman, who recently opened In Forno Pizza in Avon. While he's pretty much an open book when it comes to his pizza-making process, even he has his limits.
"I'm not going to tell you exactly how I make the dough," he says. "It took me so long to perfect it. I mean, it's still not perfect. But I'm working on it every day."
If you want some pro tips on how to successfully enter the challenging restaurant world, take a look at Goodman's recent history. For the past five years he has been endeavoring to make splendid pizza using a makeshift wood-fired oven mounted on the back of a truck, often in imperfect weather for hundreds of tipsy, hangry people.
In October, he and his wife Elizabeth invested pretty much everything they had on a small, simple restaurant that focuses mainly on one thing: pizza. What began as a pie-in-the-sky dream for this Romanian immigrant culminated in In Forno, a pie-on-the-plate reality years in the making. Goodman must be overjoyed.
"It's much more work and way more hours than before — and no freedom whatsoever," he says.
Still, if you're going to be chained to your desk, that desk might as well be the Maserati of wood-fired pizza ovens. Crafted in Naples by a 100-year-old company, the gleaming white-tiled Stefano Ferrara oven looks like an igloo for a family of tiny Eskimos. Diners who sit at the pizza counter not only get an up-close and unobstructed view of the process, but they get to bend the ear of Goodman, who happens to be a great listener.
"It's almost like — what do you call those booths in a Catholic church, where they come in and tell you all their problems? I'm so close to people, they tell me everything, from small things to big things — lots of personal things. It's really a gift, one of the best things I didn't expect."
We had the pleasure of sitting at that marble counter as Goodman whipped up pie after beautiful pie. After ordering the antipasto plate ($13), I watched Goodman make what looked like a small white pizza. It turned out to be the warm and fragrant garlic bread that accompanied the thin-sliced prosciutto, zesty salumi, wedge of manchego, meaty green olives and cherry tomato salad.
Apart from that platter, and a couple of straightforward salads like the arugula ($7), topped with tomatoes, heaps of fresh-grated parmesan and lemony vinaigrette, the menu is dedicated exclusively to pizza. There are a dozen models, split between bianca (sauceless) and rossa. There's the classic Margherita ($12), a sacred amalgamation of tomato, mozzarella and basil, and there's the Di Parma ($16), which gilds the lily with garlic, arugula and, after the pizza exits the 900-degree oven, shaved prosciutto.
Goodman shows off a box of pristine oyster mushrooms, so of course we try the Vegetarian pizza ($14), a textbook crust pocked with charred bits and chewy bits topped with sliced 'shrooms, wilted spinach, two kinds of cheese and red onion. Next time, we'll bring along a bottle of wine or a few beers to enjoy with our pizza since In Forno doesn't have a liquor license.
Not everybody is comfortably seated aboard the Neapolitan Pizza Express, an ostensibly expensive, scrawny and undersized relative to our gut-busting American styles. But they're slowly coming around, says Goodman.
"Almost daily we have new people who don't really know about this kind of pizza," he says. "We try to educate them and explain, try to inform as much as possible. But as soon as they try it, they get it and love it. Well, most of them. Some people are never going to change."