Hill's no pizza virgin. In July 2005, the chef launched Pizzeria Picco in Larkspur, smack up against the bistro of the same name. (Hill is also partner and executive chef at Bix on Gold Alley in San Francisco; he's been cooking in the city since 1984, heyday of the Cali brasserie.) And though Zero Zero, which takes its name from the finely milled Italian flour ― tipo 00 ― pizzaiolos favor, will formally start slinging pizzas on Wednesday, Hill's custom-built wood-fired oven hasn't exactly been quiet.
Last Friday we caught up with Hill and Zero Zero chef Chris Whaley ― a Pizzeria Picco transfer ― in the eerie hush of the loftlike restaurant. In front of the black steel, custom-built Mugnaini oven, still hot from earlier pizza tests, Hill described how the process of seasoning a new oven. It's not unlike breaking in a factory-fresh cast-iron skillet or a Camry: the steady application of fire to open the thing up, get it limber. In today's part one of our conversation, Hill talks about learning to become a pizzaiolo, the zen of the pie, and why "leopard spotting" is a good thing.
SFoodie: Talk about seasoning a pizza oven ― are you guys baking pizzas every day to get it ready? And what do you do with the test pies?
Hill: At the beginning of the process there are sacrificial pizzas. We spend four days getting the oven up to temp, building little fires, building little fires, and then on the fifth day you crank it all the way to 900, and you just have to start throwing pizzas in there, and they burn. They get too dark on the bottom and we just throw them away.
So the sacrificial pizzas are just dough? We put a little sauce on them so they don't bubble up too much. We threw, like, 15 pizzas in there, and that cools the deck down. There's a real zen to the whole thing, it's really quite amazing. It's such a simple process but it's really complicated at the same time.Are you still in test-pizza mode? Actually were' really happy with the pizzas. They've been great. I'm actually surprised how well they're coming out at this stage of the game. I was kind of concerned that for the first month we might not be up to the perfect-perfect level that we want to be, just because of the new oven. There's a certain amount of time that it just needs.
And the pies are Neapolitan style? Yes. It's funny, one of my competitors, Tony [Gemignani] over in North Beach, has just announced that he's gonna do another style of pizza, and we're the exact opposite: We make one single kind, a Neapolitan style. But we've taken a little bit of liberty with that. Our promotional stuff says "Calipolitan-style pizza." Because we're not in Naples, we're in California. So although, you know, all the roots of this pizza is in Naples, it's a California pizza. It's Calipolitan now.
What does that mean? It's California ingredients and Naples tradition. And not everything we use is from California. Like for example our flour's from Italy, and our tomatoes are from Italy. Sicilian sea salt goes in the dough, and it also goes in the tomato sauce. And the tomato sauce is tomatoes and salt and nothing else. We don't cook it either. Canned tomato's already cooked, so all we do is get them to the right texture. It's a matter of processing them.
How many types of pizza are you offering? I'll probably do about 10 different varieties. Basically they fall into white and red pizzas. Some veggie. The seafood choices are pretty limited. Typically, seafood pizza is clam right now. We've done shrimp in the past. There's so many things you can put on pizza, so we really try to be disciplined. I think the most intelligent pizza chef is the most restrained. And we really try to have not too many things on a pizza, and hold back on the chicken and ranch dressing and stuff.
Squid? Now squid can be great on a pizza, but it's a very wet ingredient. And that's the other challenge: We go so thin on the pizzas, is that we really have to be very, very careful about moisture. I like squid a lot, but the squid pizzas we've done, we've done without cheese, because cheese is very moist as well.
And what does the oven burn? Almond. And interestingly, you can see we burn logs [points at a woodpile beneath the oven], but we also have chips. [Indicates a plastic container of frayed-looking wood chips.] A log will give you a longer amount of heat to raise the temperature up, but sometimes you'll throw a pizza in and you'll need a blast of heat right away, and that's when you put a scoop of chips in.
So throughout service, as the temperature is wavering, you bring it up to temperature quickly with chips? Yeah. The other thing that's really interesting about the chips is that it's very dark in there. And there's no way to put a light in a pizza oven to light up the inside. So the only way to get light is to put a scoop of chips on it, and then you can see what you're doing again.How did you learn how to make a proper Neapolitan pizza? Trial and error from doing it at Picco? I watched a lot of other people make pizza, but I got certified when I opened up Picco. I went to the school that's down in fabulous ― have you heard about this pizza school? ― it's in Marina del Rey, and it's kind of funny, cuz it's at this pizzeria that's very, very dated. Have you been to Antica in L.A.? It's one of these places that, it's in a strip mall, there's lots of light blues and pinks inside, and then there's lots of faux murals―
Like Naples or something? Some twisted remembrance of Naples. It's a wood-fired pizzeria, and the guy who owns it has the ability to certify people, part of the pizza group out of Naples that ― they call themselves V.P.N., Verace Pizza Napoletana. You work like a dog for three days. They teach you the dough, they teach you the sauce, they teach you how to make cheese, and then they take a check for 1,500 bucks, and they kick you on the street and say, "Go ahead." So my training there was the starting point only. But I knew that that wasn't going to be the end of my knowledge. Whenever I go to pizza place, I always watch the pizza maker. The first thing I do is time the pizza. I'll pull out my iPhone and set the timer and I'll watch how long it takes the pizzas to cook.
So if it's a short amount of time that's a good thing? To abide by the rules of V.P.N., you have to be 90 seconds. To be honest, our pizzas go a little bit longer than that. If you go 90 seconds, sometimes you'll have a wet or a soupy pizza, so sometimes we'll let it go a little longer. The thing about cooking pizzas, is that there's no specific perfect final product. There's a range of what's acceptable.
And there are times when the oven gets too hot. You actually have two oven temperatures: You have the deck [i.e., oven floor] temperature and you have the ambient temperature. When the deck's too hot, you put your pizza in and you get a black ring around the outside. That's when you get your shovel out [picks up a square-lipped, long-handled shovel leaning against the wall], and you actually shovel out hot embers. When you're running so hot, managing the temperature of the oven is that crucial. There are times when you just need to pull embers out to lower the deck temperature. And after doing that you might sacrifice a pizza or two, just to try to get the temp down as well.
What are you guys looking for in a good pizza crust? Bubbles? Blackening? An absolutely rigid bottom? No, it's not going to be rigid on the bottom. But bubbles and blackening are a good sign ― we call that "leopard spotting." If you don't get the spotting, your oven's not hot enough.
Leopard spotting? Is that a Bruce Hill term, or something other pizzaiolos use?
Whaley: [Laughing] It's like a Marin Latino term.
Hill: You want the bubbles, too. It's funny, you know, for commercial pizza places, they actually sell a tool that's like this hook that has a point on the end ― it's a bubble popper. And to us that's like sacrilege. The bubbles are the best part.
In part two of our Bruce Hill Q and A: Save your eye-roll sarcasm about San Francisco needing yet another pizzeria: Hill doesn't want to hear it. And, in true Naples fashion, the sexiest way to eat a pizza.