Food

A Field Report From Pizza a Casa’s First Class

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Now that everyone and his investment banker is opening a pizzeria, it may come as some surprise that pizza is, in fact, something that can be made easily at home, even if you don’t happen to have a 700-degree wood-burning oven in your apartment and a Doppio Zero flour supplier on speed-dial.

And that’s where Mark Bello comes in. The founder of Pizza a Casa, Bello will on Thursday open the Pizza a Casa Pizza Self-Sufficiency Center on Grand Street. PAC’s proximity to the former home of the ill-fated Isabella’s Oven is a reminder of both tumultuous fling the neighborhood had with something approaching quality pizza and how regular home cooks can have access to great pizza by literally taking matters into their own hands.

Bello, a native New Yorker who spent many years in Chicago (he and his sous chef, Lara Pira, sport wristbands that say “Better Dead Than Deep Dish”), will hold classes geared towards the needs of home cooks on Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Fork in the Road spoke with Bello and attended a preview class last weekend, and learned — and ate — quite a bit.

Bello’s four-hour classes, which cost $150, accommodate 12 students, who all gather around a long table lined with individual stations outfitted with a marble slab, stainless steel bowls, plastic pint containers, a packet of Fleischmann’s yeast, and a red apron, the latter of which they’re invited to take with them after the class.

The humble yellow packets of Fleischmann’s are indicative of the way in which Bello tailors his classes to the average home cook: he uses ingredients available at any grocery store, and the Viking ovens in his classroom are set between 525 and 550 degrees, a range that’s attainable with most apartment ovens.

Bello, whose own Chinatown apartment has what Bello calls “a no-frills gas oven,” first became convinced of the necessity of being able to make pizza at home when he was living in Chicago as an MFA candidate at the Art Institute. Having been born and raised in New York — his Jewish maternal grandfather lived on Hester Street — he despaired at Chicago’s “Domino’s or deep-dish” pizza culture. So great was his longing for New York-style pies that when he would come back to visit during winter break, he would buy pizzas, cool them completely on a rack, and then put each slice in a Ziploc bag, freeze it, and pack it in his suitcase.

But the slices, however perfectly preserved, would only last so long, and one night, Bello and a friend found themselves hungry. “My friend Neil said, ‘Let’s make pizza,'” Bello recalls. “So we began making our own dough.” A rooftop garden with five types of basil, 12 kinds of heirloom tomatoes, and an arugula patch planted in a kiddie pool followed, as did numerous “awesome parties.” Bello, who with Neil went on to make a living in the furniture business, began teaching people to make their own pies out of his apartment, and continued to do so after moving back to New York, where he worked for a time behind the counter at Murray’s Cheese.

Encouraged by Taylor Cocalis, Murray’s manager, Bello began giving pizza classes in the store’s classroom. Demand grew, and Bello began holding classes in people’s homes and doing some catering. For the past year, he’s held classes in his apartment and at the Astor Center — after his experience in the latter’s expansive lecture hall, he says, “I was itching to do something like this.”

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Last Saturday, Bello, recovering from a bachelorette party he’d taught to make pizza the night before (“there were two cases of wine and 14 women,” he recalled, looking a bit dazed), led a friends and family class. He began by talking about dough. Bello has two recipes — an overnight and 45-minute dough, which took “12 years of trial and error to perfect.” He’s a firm believer in using regular AP flour — he prefers King Arthur — to which he adds yeast, water, olive oil, and salt.

After demonstrating how to measure out the ingredients for each 2.2-pound batch of dough, he showed students his kneading technique, which is where the marble slabs came in. Bello and Pira, a veteran of Chicago’s Blackbird and Avec, walked around helping everyone knead their dough into smooth, shiny balls that were split into four 8-ounce sections before being shut into the plastic pint containers to rise.

Bello likes to warn his students to come to class hungry, and about an hour and a half in, we found out why. As the dough rose, Bello and Pira began making pizza, deceptively light, thin-crusted specimens decorated with mozzarella and sundried tomatoes from Alleva Dairy, “umami-packed” pecorino, and slivered new potatoes that had been tossed with olive oil and rosemary. All of the ingredients were applied with a light hand — Bello adheres to a “less is more” philosophy. As he made each pizza, Bello expounded upon shaping technique — he doesn’t believe in tossing the dough, instead stretching it with his knuckles and a move he calls “the DJ” — and the benefits of using a pizza stone, which he explained helps to maintain oven temperature, pull moisture from the pies, and promote a nicely charred bottom crust. “Keep the oven door shut,” he advised. “Heat is your friend.”

By the time the dough had risen, we’d already sampled quite a few of Bello’s excellent pies; appetites duly whetted, many of the students began to go wild. Bello provides a menu of the different kinds of savory and sweet pizzas students can make, but so long as the ingredients are on hand, pretty much any combination is possible. Armed with enough dough for four crusts apiece, students let their stomachs guide them.

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Several pancetta, egg and fried sage pizzas came and went, as did margheritas anointed with Alleva’s fresh mozzarella and La Bella San Marzano’s tomato sauce and punched up with lemon zest. The potato and rosemary pies also proved popular, as did a variety Bello refers to as the vegetarian meat-lover’s pizza, a combination of smoked mozzarella, sundried tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, and basil. Because the pizzas took only 6-8 minutes to bake, they came and went quickly.

As the class began to disperse, students packed their leftover slices into boxes. Several seemed like they were ready to invest in a peel and baking stone, which Bello sells along with numerous other products and ingredients in the front of the store. Most students had long since hit a pizza wall, though a few endowed with heartier gastrointestinal tracts persevered. Bello gamely sampled everything that emerged from the oven, though admitted that even he was close to hitting the wall.

“There is no pizza wall!” insisted one strapping pupil. He’d braided some leftover dough into bread sticks, which he showered with herbs and salt and then put into a red-checkered cardboard container, and in doing so unwittingly giving this stretch of Grand Street the closest thing to a pizzeria it’s had in quite awhile.

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