It’s hard to find a good food story. It’s not that people aren’t writing about food – there are plenty of reviewers, bloggers, tweeters, posters, and assorted other characters (myself included) chiming in with their take on the best cuisine. But the stories I want to hear aren’t about the latest trends or the craziest concoctions; they’re about the soul of the restaurant.
I’m a food guy – I love the history of food, talking about food, cooking food and playing with my food. I like hearing how a place was started. What inspired the chef or restaurateur to build the place? What should I expect when I take a look at the menu? Are there any themes or core food beliefs that guide the place? I know that décor is an important consideration for any restaurant, but the carpet and the ceiling should be a side note, not the main event. (In fact, I’ve been told that there are only two people who look at ceilings: architects and prostitutes!) So let’s stick to food talk shall we?
On that note, let’s talk Centro. We’ve been hard at work there for the past 11 years, so these stories might give you flashbacks. But for those of you who are unfamiliar with the place (I’m always surprised with how many there still are), maybe it will give you some insight into the soul of the place.
Like all of my restaurants, Cento was around long before it actually opened – it was a place I dreamed about opening since I was just getting started in the restaurant business. My childhood was filled with Italian accents and fresh food made with ingredients from the backyard garden. In a time when supermarkets were hawking packaged, frozen and canned foods, I was eating fresh pasta. These dining experiences created the core of what I wanted Centro to be.
I wanted Centro to feature a wood fired grill. Although it’s a very difficult way to cook, wood fired grilling offers a flavor and quality you can’t find anywhere else. I wanted to cook with as many fresh ingredients and local products as I could. But most of all, I wanted pizza.
As many of you know, I adore central Iowa’s pizza scene. I have often said that if we were going to do a NCAA bracket-style tournament of pizza, I would have no fewer than 12 number one seeds. But I wanted Centro’s pizza to be completely different than any of the other great pizza joints around town.
The challenge was creating a unique world-class pizza that could stand the test of time while also appealing to what we Midwesterners have come to expect in a pizza. This to me left two choices: Vera Pizza Napoletana style or New York Style (which were inspired by those same Italian Napelotana pies).
To make this style of pizza, I recalled those old broken down brick ovens from ancient Italian ruins and the modern equivalents (like the backyard wood-fired brick ovens from my grandmother’s house as well as the original South Union Bakery). We’d used these in the past to recreate pretty good Naples-style pizzas, but I wondered if softer dough, minimalist approach and knife-and-fork approach would be a problem.
So to help guide my decision, I established a list of my primary pizza principles:
1. Details. People would have to drive by other pizza places to get to Centro, so we had to be unique while also getting all the details right. Everything came down to nailing a few key techniques and quality ingredients for a world-class pizza. If I could not make a pizza that could stand alone as plain cheese or Margherita pizza, then it’s not worth making at all.
2. Cooking method. I decided against wood and went with coal (not an easy task to find someone to build a coal oven!). I’d been carrying an ad from a pizza magazine for 10 years with the number of a Brooklyn-based coal oven company; although we didn’t use them for Centro, they did help us along on our journey.
3. Crust. Centro’s crust had to stand up to midwestern sensibilities, so I went with a New York style crust rather than Napoletana. For an authentic taste, the crust would be charred with “New York blisters” – burned marks creating a leopard spot-like pattern on the bottom of the pizza.
4. Cheese. I wanted something a bit different than what everyone else was using, so I flew out to New York to source the top-secret mozzarella cheese we use today.
5. Sauce. We focused on specially-selected tomatoes with very simple seasoning. This is not Mom’s Sunday sugo on a pizza (as good as that might be).
So, there you have it. The five principles that led to Centro’s famous pizza. From here on out, I want to dedicate Mondays as “Pizza Days” and offer you suggestions, simple tips and crazy ideas for your own pizza enjoyment. And if you ever want a good excuse to try out Centro’s take, swing by on Monday nights for half-price pizza and Peroni beer. If you haven’t tried it yet, there is no better time – thanks, and enjoy!