Ninety seconds is what it takes to cook one of Pizzaiolo Bavaro‘s pizzas in the blistering heat of the wood-fired oven. Four years is the amount of time Dan Bavaro invested in research, planning and testing before opening the doors of his downtown Tampa restaurant and sliding that first pizza onto a customer’s plate.
Now that those hard-earned skills are in place, he’s a pizzaiolo (master pizza maker) for life.
“I knew I wanted to open a gourmet pizza place, with no chintzing on ingredients,” Dan says. So he headed to Naples, the birth place of pizza. There he visited the best pizzerias and ordered the round tile-covered Ferrara oven that would become the focal point of Pizzaiolo Bavaro.
Only an oven like this generates the intense heat needed to create the unique crust–thin, slightly crisp and yet chewy–of a genuine Neapolitan pizza. (Most American pizzerias add oil and sometimes sugar to their dough to make the pizza brown at lower temperatures.)
When I stopped by Pizzaiolo Bavaro, Dan had just plopped an enormous spongy mass of dough on the granite counter. It had been made with nothing more than flour (16 kilos!), yeast, sea salt and water. Dan uses costly Caputo double zero flour, which he remembers seeing made near Naples: “The wheat starts out on the roof of a three or four story mill and by the time it reaches the bottom, it’s been milled to a very fine consistency.”
The natural starter–known as poolish in baker’s lingo– came from a baker in Italy and must be fed two or three times a day with a mixture of flour and water. “Whether we’re open or closed, the beast has to be fed,” says Dan. “There have been times when I’ve come over here in the middle of the night.”
Even the water gets its share of attention. The fluoride in Tampa water, which would affect pizza crust flavor, is filtered out.
Dan learned skills such as “logging” the oven from the Ferrara folks. Most of his dough making and shaping know-how during those four research years came from working with bakers in the New York metro area, where he used to live. After resting for a while, the dough on the counter would be divided into 120 balls (each the right size for a 12-inch crust) and placed in the cooler for a super-slow rise of about 48 hours. This old-school method gives the pizza its characteristic flavor and handling qualities.
Genuine San Marzano tomatoes grown and canned near Naples are the foundation of three all-natural sauces for pastas, lentils and other dishes. As with the pizza dough, ingredients are held to the bare minimum–just organic onions and garlic, sea salt, sugar (only in the marinara) and hot red pepper (only in the arrabbiata). The sauces gained such a following that Dan created a private label. The bottled sauces are sold through 60 venues, including Whole Foods, Fresh Market and Rolling Oats.
It was 3 p.m., a sleepy time of day for restaurants. Dan was thinking his wife Anna Maria might stop by with their five children. Instead, Tony Orlando, a regular, wandered in, sat down at the bar and ordered a pizza Margherita. Dan chatted with him while making the casual-looking but rapid flipping motion that, in a pizzaiolo’s hands, transforms a dough ball into a uniform disk. He brushed a thin layer of crushed San Marzano tomatoes onto the dough, topped it with shreds of buffalo mozzarella (yes, imported from Naples), grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese and a few fresh basil leaves.
Then it rode on his paddle into the oven for that 90-second trip to pizza perfection.
Tony ate his pizza with knife and fork, the intended way. “This kind of pizza is supposed to be savored, not scarfed down,” says Dan. “But you should eat it right away. Within 10 minutes, it won’t taste the same.”