Saturday, November 23, 2013

NYC Weekend Pizza Marathon with Gabriele Bonci

I first learned about Gabriele Bonci's Pizza book being translated to English when we attended the NYC Book Expo America in early May. My husband, a computer whiz as well as author and self-publisher of the iOS Apps for Non-Programmers book series, was invited to meet with Apple personnel at the event, which we could not pass up. The entire Javitz Center was filled with worldwide publishing companies showcasing their upcoming books. In the age of digital, it was comforting to still see hard print books on the shelves. Going by Rizzoli publishing booth, I was drawn to the beautiful book covers; specifically Bonci's bright red front cover which stood out from the rest  It was great news for me since I had not been able to use the Italian edition that I picked up in Pizzarium. I was happy to share the news with members of the Pizza Making Forum,  many of which are fans of Bonci and the thicker crust of Roman pizza.

For any of you who are not familiar with Gabriele Bonci, he is known as Il Gioco della Pizza or the "King of Pizza" in Rome. He owns Pizzarium, a 200 some sq ft. store front where he showcases his talents as a pizzaiolo (pizza maker), bread baker, and food chef. He's famous for several  reasons. He's a food celebrity known to appear in the most popular weekly cooking show in Rome. His food philosophy is very refreshing. He is opposed to industrial production, and is all about using artisanal products such as small productions of stone-ground flours.  He emphasizes using toppings that are organic and seasonal.  His pizza formula consists of using natural leaven and long fermentation, which produces a textured dough that is light and airy. The end result is a flavorful, more nutritious, and easier to digest pizza crust. The 80% hydration dough made of Mulino Marino flours are made daily in Pizzarium. Formed in rectangular shape, the light and airy dough is baked in electric oven, and is sold by the kilogram, also known as Pizza al Taglio (pizza by the slice). Since he opened his doors, he is famous for using 1,500 unique combination toppings, all of which are fresh seasonal ingredients.  Here's a short clip of what's being served at Pizzarium:

Bonci, who uses fresh stone-ground flour from Mulino Marino, joins Fulvio Marino in the nationally televised cooking show La Prova del Cuoco.

Since stopping by Pizzarium in 2012, I had hoped to take his pizza workshop in Rome someday. Luck would have it that he was scheduled to come to NYC to promote his pizza book to the masses in October. I convinced my husband that seeing Bonci in NYC was way cheaper; my husband doesn't say no to NYC! I quickly signed up for the demo and pizza tasting at Eataly, in the Flat Iron District, and then I  learned that he was going to be a guest at Paulie Gee's pizzeria in Brooklyn, baking his pizzas in the woodfire oven. My husband is so over pizza, but somehow I managed to talk him into joining me for pizza and Italian craft beer. I mean who can resist beer? It was great reconnecting with Katie Parla, a food blogger and food tour guide in Rome, whom I met briefly met at the NYC Travel Show, promoting her travel book Walking Rome. Thanks to Katie, a multi-talented writer and blogger, for orchestrating the luncheon and informing me of Bonci's hands-on workshop at the Sullivan Street Bakery that same weekend. I signed up in a New York minute!

Friday, October 18 : Eataly, Flatiron District

Roman Amphitheater
A passion for learning!
What better place than to start a book tour appearance in Eataly, a food emporium of all things Italian.  I arrived at the Scuola Grande a half hour early, to find a long line waiting to grab the best seat in house. Since I was seated in the next-to-last row, it was really hard to see up close. Fortunately, the TV monitors helped augment the two-hour demo and tasting experience. Although these were somewhat helpful, it was Gabriele Bonci's huge presence and animated body movements that translated his passion for the pizza making.  Eataly 's two hour event paired the focaccia-like pizza with several wines and beer tastings. While written recipes were provided for us to take home, I wished their language interpreter did a more accurate job of translating Bonci's instruction and commentaries.  There was definitely much lost in her translation; I didn't think she was food savvy, which was unfortunate for us non-Italian speakers.  Needless to say, it was an enjoyable evening of watching Rome's "King of Pizza" make a wonderful meal of his famous pizza dough. A highlight of the evening was meeting Ted Rosenberg, a member of the Pizza Making Forum who also came to expand his pizza-making repertoire. We enjoyed discussing bread recipes, sharing pizza stories, and wood fire ovens. He has two wood fire ovens at home. The man rocks!
Elisia Menduni
Elisia Menduni circulated the room with tray in hand so we could get an up-close feel of the texture of Bonci's high hydration dough. It was a pleasure meeting the multi-talented Elisia, who co-wrote the book with Bonci and took all of the photographs in Bonci's Pizza, Seasonal Recipes from Rome's Legendary Pizzarium.

In his book, Bonci provides three pizza formulas. The white dough recipe calling for bread flour can easily be replicated by the home baker. The second and third recipes call for burratto flour, spelt and faro flour which are more difficult to find.  But it's these freshly stone-milled flours in Pizzarium that make his pizzas amazing. He offers recipes that highlight creative combinations of seasonal ingredients. If you find many of the combinations are too unusual,  the pizza book is still worth adding to your culinary book collection especially if you are into food porn!

The photos below show the myriad of seasonal toppings that Bonci used to decorate his highly hydrated dough. Bonci is all about innovation! Toppings were added after the pizza dough was baked, others were baked together with the dough.  He added a twist in one of  his creations where he laid a stretched dough over stalks of broccoli in an oiled pan.  As soon as the pan comes out of the oven, he flips it over, and presents a cooked topping with a crispier and caramelized crust. He also creates a filled pizza (farcita) in which he adds a baked crust on top of a flipped crust.

Not being in his own kitchen, I cannot imagine how difficult and frustrating it must be to try to reproduce a similar quality of food that he is accustomed to creating. I heard that the electric oven broke at the Scuola Grande, so they had to make do with another oven nearby, but with less energy. The dough management alone would be a tremendous challenge to any baker, working in various kitchens with different temperatures, humidity and even ovens!  Mama Mia! But I believe what makes a great baker is his or her ability to overcome challenges that arise. And Bonci did.  Feast your eyes on how airy and light is the crumb.

 All is well that ends well.

pumpkin squash and greens
mushroom medley
caramelized onions
pancetta with potatoes and breast of duck
cod and beans
fresh mozzarella and tomatoes

My favorite toppings were the mushroom medley and pumpkin with greens. I much prefer eating fresh mozzarella with tomatoes on pizza melted in a wood fire oven - the Neapolitan way! Need less to say, I enjoyed tasting the fresh local ingredients that Bonci chose that night, but it was the light and tender crust that I enjoyed most.

I snapped a picture for Ted with Bonci. I love the way he poses with his fans. He doesn't take himself too seriously. In person, he is a big dude with huge bear claw paws to match his passionate persona for sharing his love of artisanal foods. He exudes a positive vibe and is just a genuinely nice guy.

One of my favorite food writers, Anthony Bourdain, paid a visit to Pizzarium in 2012 and experienced the freshest Roman pizza in town:

Saturday, Oct 19: Paulie Gee's, Greenpoint, Brooklyn

This was my attempt to kill two birds with one stone. I've been meaning to go to Paulie Gee's for some time now and this was a great opportunity to celebrate my husband's and friend's birthday at the pizza luncheon and beer sponsored by Paulie Gee's and Katie Parla.  Since seating was limited, I was under the impression that it would be a more intimate setting, but it was just the opposite. We arrived a few minutes late and all but four seats were taken. We had to split up, but it wasn't a big deal since it was a  place filled with a lot of pizza fanatics. My friend Jackie had the best seat in the house, sitting across from Jeremy Shapiro, better known as the baker behind the blog, and across Cristian Georgita, Bonci's Top Gun right wing man. We wedged into the corner, still close to the oven, to watch Christian gently open the soft dough which was cooked in 60-90 seconds and quickly topped by Bonci with unique  toppings ranging from pumpkin with speck, to funghi-potato-tallegio, and swiss chard with guanciale.  

For three hours, Bonci, Christian and Elisia hustled to get the hot pizzas served to a crowd of hungry fans. How lucky were we to sit across from a couple of executive chefs!  Food, travel, and wine were the topics of conversation while we tasted slices with artisan beer.  Kevin was just tickled pink to know one of chefs who as a young twenty-something, hitched from Liverpool (via Afghanistan! ) to India and got to hang out with the Beatles during their psychedelic days!

Elisia and Bonci cutting the pizza with scissors as fast as they cooked in the wood fire oven...

The finale.  Pork necks baked inside dough. Steaming right out of the oven.

Tender pork that melted in your mouth!

Post-luncheon pizza carnage

Sunday, October 20: Sunday Slices: La Sagra NYC

Thanks to Jeanette Catena, owner and pizza chef of Pizzeria Luna in NJ, and business development manager of Orlando Foods, I got to spend to spend a lovely afternoon at the  NYCWFF.  I ran into Elisia and Bonci at the elevators when I arrived as they were leaving after spending the afternoon beside Jim Lahey  at Co. Pizza Booth.  I just couldn't pass the opportunity to taste pizzas from all over NYC and visit with Giulio Adriani of Forcella and Mike Cariglio of Nicoletta's.

I Quickly stopped by Motorino, owned by Mattheu Palombino. With pizzeria locations in East Village and Brooklyn, he has already expanded to Hong Kong, and his next stop is Manila. Asian Domination!

Always great seeing Giulio in NYC who informed me of his new venture, A Slice of Naples, offering Pizza al Metro in the space next to Forcella, his Neapolitan pizzeria in the Bowery.  The only slice I consumed that evening was a green tomato pie from Co. It was very light and tender crust with a nice crisp on the cornicione. Lovely.

green tomato pie

Monday, October 21:  Pizza Workshop with Bonci @ Sullivan Street Bakery

I was very excited to hear from Katie Parla that this workshop was an opportunity to get our hands dirty alongside Gabriele Bonci. And that we did!

I arrived an hour early to make sure I had a good spot due to my poor night vision and the fact that I wanted to be closer in proximity than I was at Eataly. I waited outside the Sullivan Street Bakery for almost an hour listening to regulars when they realized that the door to their favorite bakery wasn't opening that night. Having only heard about the bakery from Jim Lahey's Bread book, I was very impressed at how many depended on their local bakery for dinner that night. I felt so sorry to hear a 4-year old girl sob when her dad told her that she couldn't have her croissant that night, and a poor man lament over the closed sign after spending $20 on a taxi. I was told by a couple of local customers that the croissants were to die for. Note to self.

I first heard about Bonci teaching teaching 2-day workshops at Tricolore in Rome. I heard mixed reviews about the classes. While it was a great experience learning from the maestro himself, I heard the class was held in very tight quarters (not conducive to learning if you're claustrophobic) and it was very pricey. Since the workshop is taking place on this side of the Atlantic, the cost of not having to pay for an international flight was a shoe-in for me!   Since his return to Rome, he is now teaching his courses at Alice Academy which means a bigger space!

There were about eight of us who crowded around two tables put together with a "mise en place" consisting of a bowl of flour (courtesy of Mulino Iaquone ), a container of water at room temperature, and two separate containers filled with salt and instant dry yeast.  The workshop started with Bonci demonstrating the mixture of dry and wet ingredients while explaining the rationale of his methods and technique. This was a much better experience with Katie Parla translating Bonci's Italian almost word for word.

Using imported Mulino Iaquone flour,  he stressed the importance of using organic, untreated flour when baking his bread formula at home.  One difference from his book is the way he mixes the ingredients.  After mixing the yeast with the flour, he adds 70% water to the dry ingredients and mixes for a very short time. A clumpy mixture was fine. We let the almost-runny dough rest for 15-20 minutes before adding the salt and the rest of the 10% of water. After the mixing process, the lesson plan turned to Bonci's kneading/folding technique.

He dumps the wet dough onto a floured surface and kneads the dough by folding over the dough like an envelope. His technique is to fold the dough in half by bringing the top edges towards you (the top of envelope), and then bring the edges of the dough closest to you, fold it over, and turn it 90 degrees. He repeats this folding technique several times. He does this quickly and deliberately without deflating the dough. It's very wet and sticky in the beginning, but it becomes more manageable. Kneading is minimal. In fact, his philosophy is less is more.

For the bulk fermentation, he places the dough in an oiled container and explains that this will rest for 15 min and this folding technique is repeated 2-3 times within the hour. We put our own dough in containers which we set aside for home use. We then moved onto Bonci's technique of opening the dough. With his bear claw paws, he gently picks up the fermented dough and begins to lightly push down the dough to form a round shape. Starting at the edge of the mass, he pushes down, without stretching or pulling, while working his way around the perimeter. He continues to lightly push on the dough so that the round shape has been massaged with his fingertips. Very gently. Fermented doughs were distributed so we could practice his opening technique, as he walked around the room making sure we not kill the fermentation. We decorated our dough with toppings of our choice, and spent the rest of the evening tasting different variations of his innovative moves:  topped, flipped and filled.

Having bread baking experience under my belt, the lesson during the workshop was easy to follow. While having the training experience from various pizza chefs this year, there is always a valuable lesson to be learned from each one. With Bonci, he wants us to be bold and experiment with the pizza dough, different toppings, and fillings.  He wants us to know that anyone can do this!  Using only the best ingredients produces the best pizza!

I was thrilled to see pizza chef/owner, Giuseppe Badalmenti, whom I met back in August when I finished up my pizza training at Don Antonio's. Giuseppe plans on opening his third pizzeria, focusing on authentic Neapolitan. And maybe Pizza al Taglio. What makes workshops more fun is meeting people you make contact with on line about the same interest. I got to meet Joe from Tennessee, also from the Pizza Making Forum!

Up close and personal, we watched Bonci put a creative twist in these pizzas that were cooked in the bakery's deck oven.

First, the sausage toppings..

which is covered by dough...

baked, flipped, and garnished with broccoli...

Cut to serve...

Bonci Bonci Bonci Boom Boom...


Breakfast @ Sullivan Street Bakery!

Our new destination...

Jim Lahey 

Sullivan Street Bakery


  1. Sharlene, Thanks for the great post on your blog. Only wish I could have been there.

    1. I wish you could have been there, Norma! Now I need to spend more time baking and less writing :) Your limoncellos look wonderful!

  2. This was a great read. Thanks for taking the time to write it up.

  3. Hey Sharlene, Thanks for the write up! Say hi to Jackie!

    1. Hey Jeremy! Enjoying your blog and photos of all the wonderful bread and food you create. And it's all work related right?! Hope you are well.