Saturday, August 16, 2008
"This is really something!" A number of people pulled me aside to say those words at our third meeting, held August 12, 2008 at Jeff Varasano's private pizzeria.
Jeff 's personal, informal research into the technology of pizza making over the past 200 years shows how studying culinary history can result in becoming a better cook today. His pizzas have a thin, crispy, slightly charred crust and an addictive flavor. "I can't stop eating these!" was another comment I heard over and over.
In 1999, Jeff Varasano, a native of New York City, moved to Atlanta. He expected to find the kind of great pizza that he could get on every street corner in Brooklyn, but he was disappointed. His experience was not unusual. Most every Northerner who moves to Atlanta is appalled by Southern pizza. The average person complains and then adjusts, but Jeff is anything but average. He went on a quest to understand pizza in order to duplicate it in his home kitchen. He visited great pizza parlors all over New York City and Naples, Italy (where pizza was invented) to study their techniques -- and their equipment. He found that the old-style pizzerias in both places were simply housed in bakeries - using the same ovens that the baker had used. Most of the great old places had coal-fired ovens. Some were wood-fired, and more modern ovens are powered by electricity or natural gas. The electric ovens are incapable of the highest temperatures needed for the perfect thin crust, necessitating the development of thick, bready crusts. Jeff figured out how to make a thin dough (hint: it must be wet) and how to rig up his home oven to cook on the self-cleaning cycle, at about 800 degrees F. I could go on, but Jeff says it best in his website -
The same evening, we also discussed the classic book, Food in History, by Reay Tannahill. Most of our members really liked it. It's a lively read, as Tannahill was actually a novelist by trade and this non-fiction book shows off her ability to tell a good tale.
We also agreed to have a swap table at every meeting - a place to share extra books, kitchen implements, etc. And we'll have a "for sale" table, too.
Millie Coleman offered up the culinary biography of Epicurus, whose name is the basis of our term "epicure". Epicurus was a Greek philosopher born in 341 BC. He taught that knowledge is gained through the senses and that happiness is based on tranquility and peace of mind -- and how can one have peace of mind without being well fed? Epicurus was a teacher who was generous, kind, and a good friend to his students. He included women equally with men in his classes, leading to rumors by outsiders that the coed classes were not just interested in philosophy, and the naughty reputation that epicureans face to this day.
Thank you, Jeff, for hosting this wonderful event. Best wishes for a brilliant career as a restaurateur.