Fresh from his year-long retreat in Maine, where he played a latter-day Thoreau in a Billy Reid blazer trying to confront his inner meat-eater, Joe approached Tim’s desk with the innocence of a lion tracking a wildebeest. The boss wanted to suggest that they consider pizza for this year’s Super Bowl Smackdown.
Tim thought the idea was reasonable enough. Super Bowl Sunday, after all, is fresh meat for the pizza industry, which sells pies as though America had been reduced to a country of teenagers out on a Saturday night bender. But the more Joe talked, the more his “idea” felt to Tim like a setup: an ostensibly sound plan designed to play to his strengths as a trained cook, one whose Lonely Guy cookbook contains an entire chapter devoted to pizza.
Plus, he kept muttering something about a “secret weapon,” missing only the dull gray trenchcoat and the briefcase handcuffed to his wrist to complete the John le Carre, Cold War caricature. As a hedge against Joe’s plot to steal this year’s Smackdown, Tim suggested they try to rip the seven-layer dip out of the hands of the prepared-foods industry and re-engineer it for the modern eater.
That’s when Joe turned to his known accomplice, Deputy Food Editor Bonnie S. Benwick, who nixed the seven-layer-dip idea. Pizza was determined by executive fiat, the signs of conspiracy clear.
With no ally among his colleagues, Tim turned to another source for help: Peter Pastan, the proprietor of 2 Amys. Sure, Pastan, a Neapolitan true believer, was an unorthodox choice to assist with a Super Bowl recipe. How many couch jockeys were going to ferment pizza dough for 24 to 36 hours when a Papa John’s driver could deliver a pie to their doorstep within an hour? Still, Tim trusted that Pastan would have his own secret weapons. Like maybe one for developing flavor without the interminable fermentation.
This was Tim’s approach to a Super Bowl pizza: Why bother with a homemade version if a) it couldn’t top a delivery pie, b) it would take 20 times as long as delivery, and c) it would just include a pile of kimchi on top, which is Joe’s method of improving everything.
Pastan admirably refrained from laughing at Tim’s request to circumvent a lengthy fermentation, a query tantamount to a child asking to reach adulthood by skipping past a long and unpredictable adolescence. Pastan then remembered a pizza dough that the kitchen used to make at the Tabard Inn when he worked there in the mid-1980s: It incorporated a little buckwheat flour for flavor.
Once Pastan gave him some pointers on the best method for a bright, no-cook tomato sauce, Tim narrowed his toppings to a few muscular yet harmonious ingredients: hot Italian sausage, fresh and creamy mozzarella from Maplebrook Farm, thin slices of pungent red onion, sweet basil leaves and coarse sea salt. Tim knew that Joe would opt to force his pro-veg agenda on readers.
Balderdash, Joe thought. “Just because I’m not eating meat doesn’t mean I forgot how to cook with it,” he said. Would Tim pull out some Benton’s bacon as a last-ditch effort to make up for the fact that his crust, the most important part of a pizza, would surely taste no better than Domino’s (or perhaps Domino’s with a little buckwheat bitterness thrown in)? The best pizzas use a fermented dough for good reason: That’s how you get flavor.
If Tim had Pastan, Joe would draw on his own experts: Jim Lahey of New York’s Co. had already advised him in techniques for a no-knead dough — easy as, well, pie — that sits for a day, no tending required, and gets mighty tasty in the process. With the help of the oven’s broiler and that aforementioned secret weapon — called the Baking Steel — he’d mop up. Especially if the pizza got topped with, yes, a little kimchi (no piles here) and a runny-yolk egg, the bacon of vegetarians.
Then memories of that year in Maine caused him to veer in another direction. His weekly obsession on eating jaunts to Portland had been the Sicilian slab pizza at Micucci, where baker Stephen Lanzalotta has developed a cult following for his pillows of crunchy-edged rectangles topped with sweet-and-sour tomato sauce and mozzarella, nothing more. “Slab” does this pie a disservice, as it makes it sound heavy, when it’s heavenly.
Lanzalotta plays his pizza cards close to the vest, but he pointed Joe to a recipe for rolls in his 2006 book “The Diet Code” and told him to turn those into a pan pizza. To get his crust to approach the ethereal puffiness of the Micucci slab, Joe upped the liquid, remembering that Lanzalotta boasts that his dough is almost equal parts flour and water. The dough is quickly mixed by hand, then sits in the refrigerator for up to a day before baking. For the sauce: crushed San Marzano tomatoes, a good dose of olive oil, slivers of garlic and a hefty pinch of sugar (for that sweet-tart flavor).
His biggest advantage over Tim, he thought, was the fact that the one pie serves a crowd, while Tim would be chained to the oven to crank out pie after pie, missing the action in order to keep the football fans happy, a little slice or two at a time.
For the first time in Smackdown history, the challengers agreed to bring in professionals to judge their dishes, independent masters of the pizza trade: Pete’s New Haven Style Apizza chef and co-owner Thomas Marr and pizzaiolo Edan MacQuaid, formerly of Pizzeria Orso and now at Bryan Voltaggio’s Range. Joe, worried that neither pro makes the style of pizza he had settled on, unilaterally decided that Bonnie would cast the tie-breaker vote, if needed.
If there’s anything more nerve-racking than cooking for pros, it’s cooking for pros in a kitchen other than your own. Joe and Tim prepared their components at home, then had to lug the dough, sauce, toppings, a pizza peel, baking sheet, pizza stone and more to The Post. They prepped their pies in one area and had to carry them two floors down to the paper’s cafeteria kitchen, whose convection oven burns hotter than Joe Pesci’s temper.
As Nixon used to say: Mistakes were made. Plenty of them, in fact. Tim forgot to bring his pre-cooked hot Italian sausage, which he’d bought at Whole Foods. He had to borrow rubbery, emulsified, commercially produced links available in-house. Joe couldn't master the temperamental oven, which browned his cheese and crisped his pie’s edges but left the interior as soft as bread pudding. Gummy is not a word you want to associate with pizza.
Despite those and numerous other flaws, the judges were kind. They pointed out objective mistakes, such as undercooking and poor rolling technique, but also exhibited personal biases, such as a preference for a no-cook, tart sauce verses a cooked, sweetened one.
The judges were asked to rate the pizzas from 1 to 5 in six categories: appearance, overall taste, crust, sauce/toppings, creativity and ease of preparation. “Flavors meld nicely. Good tomato, good cheese, basil,” Edan wrote about Tim’s pizza. “Well done, excellent distribution of top + bottom doneness,” Thomas noted about Joe’s pie.
The highest possible score was 30 points. In the final tally, Thomas scored it 19 to 17 in favor of Tim’s pie. Edan’s scorecard was even tighter, but the pizzaiolo eventually sided with Tim’s pizza, 18.5 to 18. Which should have meant the clock had run out on Joe, right?
Not in Joe’s underworld of ever-shifting rules. The boss — a term that was beginning to take on more nefarious connotations by the second — decided that he would now include not just Bonnie’s scores but also those from Becky Krystal, the Food/Travel sections’ editorial aide. A generous scorer, Becky preferred Joe’s pizza, 23 to 21. Bonnie, the hangman of pizza judges, initially had them deadlocked at 15 points apiece. But she had not yet scored on ease of preparation, because she had reviewed only Tim’s recipe.
Once Joe finished a verbal description of his pizzamaking, Bonnie rewarded him an extra point for ease of preparation. The final, final tally: Joe, 77, and Tim, 76.5.
But then a funny thing happened to Joe’s North Korean-esque victory: Once Bonnie reviewed Joe’s written recipe, she downgraded him for ease of preparation, erasing his lead and returning the victory to the pizza professionals’ original choice.
Joe responded as “bosses” often do: He threatened to add his thoughts to recent staff performance evaluations. And he demanded a rematch — with the pizzas made not in the Post cafeteria, but at home. Just like they would be, come Super Bowl Sunday.
Four days later, the pies were remade in the more dependable oven at Joe’s Dupont Circle apartment. Joe cut down on the sugar in his sauce and coated his dough in flour before transferring it to the baking sheet, a technique that allowed the olive oil to stay under the dough for its browning duties. Tim ditched the rolling pin and formed his round by hand — okay, with more than a little help from Edan, who showed up for the second tasting. (Thomas was out of town.)
Neither Edan nor Bonnie was asked to score the pies this time. Both agreed, though, that they were much improved — so much so that Edan declared, “They’re two of the best home pizzas I’ve had.” Joe started talking about opening his own pizzeria.
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