We are wrapping up the year with Rich’s adventures in kitchens across Dallas during 2012. This story was originally published in September.
That Dino Santonicola would assume my knowledge of the Italian language is so broad that I would understand what he is yelling at me right now is beyond my comprehension. I have only just met him, and the introduction was held in English, during which my distinctive manner of oral expression was – as usual – uncolored by any significant regional accent, not to mention any sort of a European one.
Vai! Vai! Vai!
The pizza pit at Cane Rosso on a Wednesday night is crowded, loud, and busy. I am desperately attempting to remember what the difference is between an Emma and an Ella when Santonicola, who is standing next to me, downshifts into English.
Emma? No Soppresata! Sausage!
I move my hand from the previous to the latter and apply said sausage to the pizza. A scant two seconds after its application, a pizza peel appears, slides under the raw dough and transfers it into the 900-degree, wood-fired oven mere inches away. In 70 seconds, the Emma will be ready to serve to its intended guest. On a typical night, it is a seamless, efficient operation that sees a ball of dough transform into the City’s Best Pizza in fewer than four minutes.
But tonight is no typical night. Tonight I am working at Cane Rosso.
There is more, of course, to Cane Rosso than just the pizza pit. Yes, the two-ton, red brick oven stationed in the middle of the restaurant steals the show, but the activity in the pit is really just the final few steps of the whole pizza-making process. Two other kitchens of very different stripes put massive amounts of work in to make the operation up front work smoothly.
There is the appropriately named dough room; its purpose is singular. A Cane Rosso employee will spend hours at a time in this 4×10-foot room making pizza dough in batches that exceed 50 pounds. Flour, water, yeast and salt into the Hobart Mixer, out onto the table, and then measured into 300-gram pieces, one by one. My participation in this process would be even more than usually slow and ineffectual, and would leave me with the understanding that getting a single piece of dough to weigh exactly 300 grams is an incredibly precise undertaking. Getting hundreds of pieces of dough to weigh exactly 300 grams borders the bounds of sanity. I save my time here for other purposes with the understanding that I lack the patience of a baker. Or, for that matter, a hyperactive five-year old.
But then there is the hot kitchen: stoves, ovens, knives, fire, pots and pans. I would not say at this point that I am in my element in any professional culinary setting, but if there is an element most suited to my developing comfort zone, this is it.
“So, you’re the writer?” Asks Kitchen Cook Mike Knapek, “What do you want to do in here?”
“Just put me to work.”
There are metal containers above where the pizzas are topped at Cane Rosso that, if you look carefully, are loaded with the pizza’s toppings: fresh basil, Jimmy’s sausage, soppresata, caramelized onions, bacon marmalade, mushrooms, garlic and tapenade, to name a few. These containers are lined up neatly and cleanly. Not viewable from the dining area are the refrigerators, full of pizza sauce, sliced and sweetly seasoned fruits for the desserts, and other miscellany crowd the cold compartments. These things, almost all of them, are the responsibility of the kitchen: the quart of caramelized onions started as a five-pound, fresh onion mountain encroaching all borders of the griddle; the basil could have hours before been mistaken for a bush before being stripped; the mozzarella came into the kitchen in curd form. The bacon didn’t start out as marmelade and no, the olives didn’t make their own tapenade. The sauce? A tomato transformation. The peaches? Sliced and cinnamon-ed by hand. Simply put, the kitchen at the back of Cane Rosso is the reason that those in the pizza pit get to make more than plain bread.
And Knapek – aka ‘Rambo’ thanks to the bandana he wears while working – has me try my hand at just about all of it – bearing in mind, of course, that the kitchen has to account for much more than just pizza. There are pastas and salads and desserts that are all the responsibility of those behind the partition – a point made bluntly by Knapek as he asks me to address a quarter wheel of parmesan (for the salads) with the deli slicer.
“Hey man, you know how to use one of these?”
“Cool. Can you slice this?”
“Sure. How much?”
“Can you do all of it?”
“Oh. Yeah. Of course.”
I wasn’t being misleading when I told Mike that I knew how to use a deli slicer – it’s not a terribly complicated operation – but this Parmesan had to weigh five pounds if it was an ounce, and Knapek was talking about paper-thin slices. I got to work. Fifteen minutes later, my forehead bespeckled with tiny beads of sweat, Knapek asks how I’m doing.
I can’t feel my right arm. I have to take a break for every five slices. I have been pushing down on the cheese with each slice to ensure uniform thickness, and I’m pretty sure that at this point my shoulder is at least partially disconnected. I’m not really up to snuff on the whole human anatomy thing, but I’m pretty sure that can happen.
“Great, man,” I lie. “You got anything else for me?”
“Yeah, why don’t you go ahead and slice that other piece, too? Might as well, right?”
I laugh and concur, convinced that this is the hardest anyone has ever worked for the sake of a salad.
There is a pile of flour – Type 00, the only appropriate flour for a true Neopolitan pizza, I am told – on the left side of the counter in the pizza pit. Edgar Valdez takes two of the 300-gram pieces of dough and flips them onto the pile.
“You do that one,” he says.
I take one of the pieces and attempt to follow his every move: flip it over so flour is covering both sides. Put it on the counter and begin shaping.
“From the inside,” he says, using his fingers to expand the ball into what is beginning to look like a pizza crust.
I obey. My ball of dough still looks like a ball of dough. He flips his over and continues the process. I follow suit.
Edgar picks up what is now a raw pizza crust, holds it in the air with two fists, and begins to expand the dough by gently flipping it up and rotating his fists under it before it fully lands. I look at what my efforts have wrought – a slightly thinner ball of dough – and take a look at his now-completed raw crust.
“It’s okay,” he says, catching me comparing the two. “That’s a good first try.”
I want to ask him what’s so good about it, but I appreciate the confidence too much to shatter it. Rather, I inform him that by the end of this lunch shift – my first shift in the pizza pit – I am going to be better than he is at it. He laughs accordingly.
“Oh yeah, you’ll be a professional!” He says. I will find out on my next shift The Professional is Edgar’s nickname, and it won’t surprise me. Though I have seen it already, he feels compelled to take me to the dough room, whereupon he grabs one handful of dough after the other – all within five grams of 300 – and rolls them into the required ball shape in a matter of seconds. He can measure and roll two different pieces – one in the right hand, one in the left – at the same time. Likewise, in the pit his actions are second nature, whether it’s shaping, topping or cooking pizzas – or all three nearly simultaneously. Getting trained by Edgar is like an 8th-grade Algebra student getting tutored by Albert Einstein.
“Really, it’s hard – it’s a hard thing to get good at,” he says after a few more. “You are doing good, though. You’ll get it soon.”
The shaping is difficult, but as the leisurely lunch shift draws to a close, I have come close to mastering the technique of the topping at this point – though not with the speed that might be required for a dinner shift. Mozzarella can get clumpy, soppresata slices stick together and basil doesn’t always fall in the right place – nonetheless, as I finish topping the final pizza Edgar congratulates me on a good first try, and informs me that at this pace, I’ll be good enough to do this in a matter of weeks.
I have six hours left.
The dinner shift. It would be easy to say that the suspense is the worst part, but that really wouldn’t be true. In retrospect, the worst part is getting yelled at by an Italian Master Pizzaiola for going too slowly while you’re trying to separate two stubborn slices of soppresata. But the suspense isn’t terribly enjoyable, either.
As five o’clock hits and the doors open, nothing happens. I ask Jose Altmarina, who is also working in the pizza pit, when things get busy. He shrugs.
“Seven. Maybe seven thirty.”
That’s two and a half hours. I am shifting from foot to foot, agitated by an abundance of nervous energy. I propose putting another log of Mesquite wood in the oven.
“No, we don’t need to yet. You want to try to make foccacia?”
As Jose explains the process of shaping the foccacia – similar to the pizza, but with no extra thickness at the edge – a few people stroll in. I take the peel, remove the dough from the counter and slide it into the oven. I wait 20 seconds, and lift the bottom of the dough. As the gases inside the dough begin to heat up and expand, the bread begins to inflate. As I take a moment to be impressed with my creation, I notice it beginning to blacken. Quickly.
It is at this point that I observe that the pizza peel is about five feet long, and the foccacia is about two and a half feet deep into the 900-degree oven. Maintaining control over the thing isn’t terribly easy, and by the time I remove the doomed bread from the oven, it provides to be more entertaining than edible.
“Yeah, that one’s rejected,” Jerrier says from the other side of the counter. Dino just narrows his eyes and shakes his head disapprovingly. I turn and look at Jose, who is smiling.
“You’ll get better,” he says. “It’s hard.”
It is. And what else is hard is noticing that the customers that came in moments ago chose to sit at the bar, witnessing the whole affair. Mercifully, their ticket comes through quickly – it’s time to make the pizzas.
Given the Foccacia Incident, I spend the next couple of hours topping the dough – and very occasionally shaping it, though my efforts are molasses. My talents with the peel will remain untested through the dinner rush, and for that I am grateful. There is enough to do otherwise. As the pace picks up, Dino steps in and starts shaping, topping, and cooking the pizzas as well. There is just enough room for three people at the counter, and several times a smoking hot pizza peel darts past my head as I reach for the bacon marmalade or the garlic.
The dinner rush is here.
As the orders line up across the counter, I notice that my sense of urgency and my pizza-topping efficiency are inversely related. This revelation occurs to me as Dino is yelling at me in Italian.
Vai! Vai! Vai!
I apply the sausage and he picks up the pizza with the peel. I observe his smile.
An couple of hours or so later, as the rush slows down and the last few customers trickle out, Jose asks me if I want to try the foccacia again.
“No,” I say. “I want to make a pizza.”
I made the dough and made my own off-the-menu pizza with sausage and garlic. The peel, for the most part, worked in my favor, and the end result – though perhaps a little blackened – was a highly satisfying effort. Jose boxes up the pizza and sends it – and me – on my way.
“Are you coming back tomorrow?” He asks.
I have pushed my luck with a dinner shift already. Jay will later inform me that a weekend dinner will, on average, be five times busier than it was on this particular evening. I wonder to myself how long that smile would be on Dino’s face if I made an effort to return.
“Maybe,” I respond, pointing to the seats by the counter.
“But I’ll be sitting on that side.”