Off The Press

September 28, 2010

By Laura Geggel

Earning a pizza Ph.D from the master

Laura Geggel Press reporter

The lights in Tutta Bella Neapolitan Pizzeria glowed dimly as cooks bustled through the restaurant, asking the small group of reporters if we wanted espressos, cappuccinos or perhaps a Danish?

I enjoy eating at Tutta Bella, and since it opened in Issaquah in June 2009, my pizza intake has steadily increased. I could barely stop grinning after receiving an invitation to learn about the inner workings of the restaurant Sept. 14 at its Stone Way location in Seattle.

Before our small group of reporters could even enter the kitchen, Executive Chef Brian Gojdics insisted we learn the history of Neapolitan pizzas. His hair was slicked back into a ponytail, and he spoke of pizzas as well as any Ph.D would discuss a thesis.

So, gather round, readers. I can’t take you to Naples, but Gojdics trained there, and his words paint a picture of a beautiful pizza evolution, starting with ancient Pompeii.

“Pizza is such a part of the Neapolitan way of life,” he said. “In the U.S., there is no such food that holds such high value and has such tradition.”

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., ash buried Pompeii, including flat loaves of bread that archeologists found hundreds of years later.

After the crust came the tomatoes. Following Christopher Columbus’ exploration of the Americas, ships returned with peppers, potatoes and tomatoes. At first, people shunned tomatoes, thinking that any produce from the deadly nightshade family would be poisonous. Someone’s curiosity must have gotten the better of them — probably a peasant — because by 1783, people were eating something called a “pizzaioli” in Naples, which was likely dough and tomato sauce, or a marinara.

Queen Margherita Di Savoia rooted herself in pizza history for so liking a pizza with basil, white cheese and red tomatoes — the colors of the Italian flag — the chef named it after her.

Gojdics led us reporters into the kitchen where we felt the Tipo 00 flour — so fine and soft. They should make beds out of this stuff, I thought.

We eyed the San Marzano tomatoes, flown in from Italy. Mount Vesuvius’ ash, which smote Pompeii so long ago, nurtures San Marzano tomatoes, allowing them to be a low-acid fruit that ripens in the heat reflected by the ash. The fleshy fruit also has a low sugar content.

“San Marzano tomatoes are the most brilliant tomato in the world,” Gojdics said.

He led us by a large dough mixer, using its claws to mix about 100 pounds of pizza dough at a time.

Tipo 00 flour has low gluten content, and felt sticky and warm after it had exited the mixer. Chefs formed eight-ounce balls of dough, making about 800 pizzas a day.

They wouldn’t be anyone’s dinner that night; all of the dough balls went into a refrigerated room, where they could rise and slowly ferment, giving the dough flavor and relaxing the glutens.

We pulled at the dough like children playing with strong silly putty while a cook chopped fennel behind us.

I could hardly wait for the next step, but Gojdics firmly removed thoughts of throwing dough into the air from my mind.

“We don’t throw pizzas in the air,” he said. “We’re not a show kitchen.”

Instead, he handed me a plump disc of dough with a large air bubble festooned like a goiter on its side. The dough felt cool and silky smooth. Gojdics showed how we could press it into a circle with our fingers. Or, we could slap the dough on the counter, rotating it with each smack, simultaneously switching it from hand to hand, though Gojdics admitted this method had taken him years to master.

Next, we smeared the pizza with the San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, topped it with basil and olive oil — in honor of Queen Margherita — and slid it into the six-foot oven that would cause its edges to rise and its sauce to bubble like a volcano.

The ovens reach a scorching 1,100 degrees, fired by apple wood purchased from a pruning company in Eastern Washington. The ovens have dome-shaped tops, allowing the hot air to circulate and cook the pizza in a mere 90 seconds when the temperature reaches 800 degrees.

“It’s light and fluffy with a little patina of crunch,” Gojdics said.

I knife and forked it. Learning makes me hungry.

Laura Geggel: 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment at

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