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When it comes to pizza, is there really anything new under the sun-dried tomatoes?
Well, how about an all-black pizza, made with squid ink and black mozzarella? Or saffron pizza? Or a cheddar-apple-bacon pizza made with “Frankencheese”?
Nathan Myhrvold, the techie/foodie who served as Microsoft’s first chief technology officer and founded Intellectual Ventures, laid out that menu today during an online chat with lifestyle guru Martha Stewart that focused on Myhrvold’s latest magnum opus, “Modernist Pizza.”
To Myhrvold’s mind, the sheer breadth of the pizza palette is one of the reasons why it was worth putting in four years of his time to research a subject that has now yielded a three-volume, 1,708-page guide (including more than 1,000 recipes and a kitchen manual).
“It’s amazing how the world took to pizza — street food for poor people from Naples in the 19th century that became the world’s most popular, important dish,” Myhrvold said. “Maybe this could have launched some other way, but that’s a hell of a start. And then, based on that, creative chefs and pizzaiolos can come up with all sorts of things.”
Myhrvold, whose interests run the gamut from dinosaurs and asteroids to next-gen nuclear power and metamaterials, dove into the world of pizza with the same vigor that sparked “Modernist Cuisine” in 2011 and “Modernist Bread” in 2017. He and his team traveled to more than 250 pizzerias around the world and conducted more than 500 experiments to get at the culinary science and culture of pizza-making.
One of the most explosive claims in “Modernist Pizza” — that the best New York-style pizza is actually made in Portland, Oregon — leaked out months ago. But now that the book set has finally gone on sale (at prices in the neighborhood of $400), readers can get the full lowdown on where to go and what to look for when it comes to making or consuming pizza.
During today’s chat, much of the banter between Myhrvold and Martha Stewart consisted of comparing their favorite places.
“We have a local pizza here. You didn’t come to Mount Kisco, did you?” Stewart asked Myhrvold. “Sadly, no,” he replied.
“They make a white clam pizza which is basically a linguini alle vongole, that sauce on top of the pizza, And It is their most popular pizza,” said Stewart, who kneaded dough as she spoke to keep her hands busy. “I went and had it once, because I was quite skeptical. It was actually very good if you eat it immediately. … Did you come across anything like that?”
“Well, we have a whole section in the book about how to adapt pasta sauces,” said Myhrvold, who then launched into a discussion of an algorithm for making clam sauce that won’t become soupy.
In the course of the conversation, Myhrvold busted a few myths about pizza-making and passed along some mouth-watering factoids. Here’s a smorgasbord:
Some pizzerias consider their dough to be the secret of their success, and Myhrvold’s book includes about 50 different dough permutations. But he said most pizzerias view the dough “as the marble in their marble statue … they don’t want it to be that interesting by itself.” The true secret behind pizza dough has to do with how it it is rested: “The best dough is rested overnight,” he said. Myhrvold also noted that throwing dough into the air is done “totally for show.” In fact, the best acrobatic dough-spinners use a special kind of dough that’s not edible, he said.
Around the world, there’s a wide range of crust styles. In Brazil, the dough is stretched “ridiculously thin,” Myhrvold said. “It’s almost like you were stretching phyllo dough.” Meanwhile, in Naples, a style of crust known as canotto has caught on. “‘Canotto’ is an Italian phrase for an inflatable boat, and the idea is that [the pizza] has a super-puffy rim, which if it’s a great dough and it’s tasty, that’s actually really good,” Myhrvold said.
Based on his research, Myhrvold prefers electric or gas-fired pizza ovens to woodburning ovens. “They’re really hard to use, and that’s because the heat source does not remain constant,” he said of the wood-fired ovens. “If you’re an expert, you know how to compensate for that. But my analogy is, it’s like riding a unicycle. It’s really hard, and then, once you master it, you can’t actually do a better job of getting somewhere. For someone on a bicycle, it’s much easier.”
In addition to Lovely’s Fifty Fifty in Portland, Myhrvold’s favorite pizza places include Razza in Jersey City, Enzo Coccia’s pizzerias in Naples and Pepe in Grani in Caiazzo, Italy. Myhrvold praised a different Portland pizzeria, Scottie’s Pizza Parlor, for the way it reheats single slices. “The problem with a slice is that, unless you’re lucky, the pizza has been sitting out for a while before you get your slice, and they’ll reheat it in the pizza oven for a minute,” he explained. “But this guy in Portland came up with a two-stage method — two different ovens at two different temperatures for the purpose of reheating your pizza.”
“Modernist Pizza” isn’t likely to be the last cooking opus to come out of Myhrvold’s kitchen: Although the focus of his next foodie project hasn’t yet been officially revealed, it’s worth noting that his lab has registered the ModernistPastry.com web address. That address currently redirects to ModernistCuisine.com.
And if that’s not enough to go on, Stewart dropped another hint toward the end of today’s chat: “I cannot wait to see what you’re doing with pastry,” she told Myhrvold.
Correction for 6:30 p.m. PT Oct. 21: When Nathan Myhrvold referred to the reheating method at a Portland pizzeria, I incorrectly assumed he was referring to Lovely’s Fifty Fifty. He was actually referring to Scottie’s Pizza Parlor. Sorry about that, Scottie’s (and Nathan)!