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The War on Pizza

Gentrification is a loaded term, especially in Buffalo.  As much as we complain about “sprawl without growth”, we play the same game with gentrification. The dictionary definition is: the process of renewal and rebuilding accompanying the influx of middle-class or affluent people into deteriorating areas that often displaces poorer residents. You know, like bourgeois white kids “discovering” Buffalo’s West Side or New York City’s outer boroughs. 

There’s nothing and everything wrong with gentrification, depending on who you are and to whom you’re talking, but in recent years it’s become an epithet, which isn’t altogether fair. Perhaps because in Buffalo, gentrification is not accompanied by any significant population growth

This article in the print edition of Artvoice hurls the “gentrification” epithet in a somewhat hypocritical way. It highlights the way in which the term has become a weapon, and how threatening any change might be. 

The College Street Gallery, a well-loved fixture of the Allentown art scene since 1997, is being evicted from the space it now occupies at the west end of Allen St. near Nietzsche’s. The reason is to give more room to the gallery’s next-door neighbor Crust Pizza, who wants to expand a full service bar in the gallery’s 500 sq. ft. space. Crust Pizza has been on Allen St. less than a year.

Photographer and College Street Gallery operator Michael Mulley said the changeover would occur this summer. He called it “Gentrification pure and simple,” and contrary to the social and commercial best interests of the neighborhood.

I don’t have any problem with – or any animus towards – either Crust or the gallery.  I think both businesses – and types of businesses – help make Allentown the unique and special neighborhood that it’s become in the last 30 years. But this smacks of an art community overreaction.

In most cases, when a landlord cuts a deal to expand one tenant and displace another, the displaced tenant looks for a new space. It doesn’t become a cause celebre. Have a “lost our lease” sale and start looking for a new space – it’s not a unique or unconscionable situation. 

This isn’t Manhattan’s SoHo becoming a parade of high-end chain storefronts, but it would seem as if Crust is the biggest criminal since Hitler invaded Poland. 

When we came here, to this end of Allen Street, there wasn’t much here,” he said. “Art makes other things happen. People go out to see art, then they say: ‘Let’s go get a piece of pizza, let’s get a beer.’ It’s not the other way around. That was the whole idea of Allentown originally, what made it work. Art first, commerce after. We brought energy to this corner. Now this whole end of Allen is going to be just bars.”

Look at that highlighted sentence – isn’t that gentrification? Renewal and rebuilding? What do you call it when you place an art gallery in an empty, underserved, or blighted neighborhood? Art definitely made Allentown what it is today, but it’s a misconception to suggest that people don’t do the exact opposite of what’s being suggested in Mr. Mulley’s statement – go out for pizza and a beer, and then go look at art. 

But by seeking to expand a legal business, Crust is now the enemy. The Infringement Festival had planned to host something there, but has instead decided to take its toys and go home. 

Infringement Festival music programmer Curt Rodderdam, who lives a few doors away, said the Crust plan “hurts the neighborhood.” He said the changeover “bothers me on a personal level and a social level—what it’s doing to the community. They’re taking the last piece of culture in the neighborhood and destroying it,” he said. Who wants to live on Chippewa?” he asked rhetorically.

Infringement Fest programmer for outside performances David Adamczyk said the planned changeover “didn’t represent what we [the Infringement Festival organizers] were all about.”

You would think Crust was selling crack or whores. 

Did Mark Goldman get this much pushback when he displaced a took over a spot most recently occupied by a hardware store? Hardware stores aren’t especially creative, but they are a dying breed, being replaced by Home Depots and Lowes. I figure no one wants to live on Chippewa, but Allen is known for its nightlife, too. Rather than flashy clubs, it has the upscale Allentown Hardware alongside gritty spots like the Pink, Mulligan’s, Nietzsche’s, and Duke’s Bohemian. Expanding a pizza place so that it can have a bar on a street that’s known for its nightlife isn’t going to destroy the neighborhood. It isn’t going to destroy the community. 

Crust, for the record, is a charming little quick-serve pizza place that makes really great “al taglio” Roman- style pizzas.  The crust is baked from scratch, and the toppings are added on demand throughout the day – you pick your toppings and get a great little personal pizza.  Their arancini are pretty great, too, and they serve craft beer already.  Crust’s push to build a bar is its own business, and it has an agreeable landlord. No one likes to see another business be displaced, but that’s business

The gallery is also fantastic. It’s a co-op of local artists, and their work rotates on a monthly basis. Wouldn’t the better way to handle this be to highlight what a great opportunity a move would be to help grow the concept? 

Mulley said the gallery change “is bittersweet. Maybe we’ll come up with a bigger and better space ultimately.” But for the moment he has no place identified, much less negotiated. Mulley said he wants to stay in Allentown, preferably in another storefront–less preferably an off-the-street venue.

“There are a lot of great memories here,” Mulley said. “A lot of good things happened here. A lot of artists got to show here who might not have had another chance to show. And musical groups got to perform here.” He said the gypsy flavor jazz group Babik made its first public appearance on the street outside the gallery. “And I couldn’t name how many aspiring young writers read here for the first time.”

The College Street Gallery is a cooperative, supported by the forty or so artists who show new work there every month. Mulley said there was a waiting list of applicants wanting to become members, if there was room to show their work.

So, the gallery has effectively outgrown its location and it’s being forced (never a fun thing, admittedly) to go and find a bigger one. I’m unmoved by the “things happened here” flavor of “this place matters” nostalgia. How about working with the guy renovating this place

I don’t like it when people demonize a legitimate business that isn’t doing anything wrong except trying to continue doing its legitimate business. Crust isn’t the enemy, and it isn’t single-handedly destroying Allentown. 

To that end, we’ll have a cash mob show up for lunch next week at Crust. Perhaps someone will host a cash mob for the College Street Gallery, too, or you can donate to help fund its search for a new space. But let’s treat business like business, and not turn a pizza place, of all things, into the enemy. 

Everyone just relax. 


Mercado WNY and Neapolitan Pizza

Back in 2010, we were driving home from a Spring break trip to the Destin when we stopped off in Knoxville, TN for the night. Having no idea where to go for dinner, I thought pizza would be good, so I looked on Yelp and Urbanspoon for the best pizza in Knoxville. The answer was “Hard Knox Pizza“.  A quick-serve location, it had a simple menu with a boxing theme, a few beers on tap, and a wood-burning pizza oven. It was one of the first and most successful purveyors of what’s known in pizza circles as “Neo-Neapolitan” – taking the basics of Neapolitan pizza-making and giving it a contemporary twist. I spoke with the owner back then and learned a lot about how he got started and what it took for him to make a successful business.  Here’s a picture of the pie I had in Knoxville in late April 2010: 

Pizza snobs will tell you that proper Neapolitan pizza is done in such a way that it’s even governed by a few ad hoc bodies approving places as being “Verace Pizza Napoletana”, or similar. Under the VPN guidelines, you have to use a specific type of flour, San Marzano tomatoes, “00” flour and a very simple dough recipe, specific types of cheeses, a dollop of olive oil, and a few basil leaves to make the proper Neapolitan “Margherita” pizza.  The only other two official Neapolitan pies are the Marinara and the Margherita “extra”. There are several authentic VPN-certified locations in Toronto that offer up not just great pies, but a fun atmosphere; Queen Margherita Pizza, Pizzeria Libretto, and Pizza e Pazzi, to name a few. 

There are none in Buffalo. There are a few places that do something very close to the real thing – the 99 Brick Oven in Lancaster has a Marra Forno gas-assisted oven and produces a good pie. Rocco’s on Transit in East Amherst has a certification from a competing Neapolitan pizza group, and produces quality pies in wood-burning ovens, but you have to ask them to not spread olive oil over the cornicione for it to be really good. But no one in WNY consistently does anything resembling what’s happening in Toronto and the rest of North America. 

Last February, we traveled to the Southwest US and one of the stops we planned was to visit Pizzicletta in Flagstaff. Caleb Schiff had bicycled throughout Italy and built a wood-fired oven in his backyard, and we followed along on Slice.com as he set up his tiny Neapolitan pizza place, and we had to try it. It was a revelation – again, simple little place with simple ingredients making outstanding pies – with no certification. My favorite was the Amore oi Mari – 

Pizzicletta's Amore Oi Mari

Mascarpone, arugula, pecorino, prosciutto di Parma, and a drizzle of Meyer lemon olive oil – it was a rich, satisfying concoction the likes of which I haven’t had before or since. Well, since – I’ve tried to duplicate it a few times, but the mascarpone gets too gloppy and I haven’t figured out how to spread it more evenly. That’s a picture of the one we had in Flagstaff last February.  If I could, I’d drop everything and fly out to Arizona right now to have one and spend the next day at the Grand Canyon. 

Here’s Caleb hard at work: 

Caleb at work

Simplicity. Simple, fresh ingredients and a pie made in a Stefano Ferrara oven with love. It’s art. 

This past week, we went to one of our favorite local pizza places – La Hacienda in Niagara Falls. The owner is a great guy and he makes one of the best pizzas in the area. His menu contains an entire history of the Margherita pizza, and a funny quote about how they’re still “learning the ropes” and they hope to get it right someday. 

So, Mercado Revolution is introducing a European market concept to WNY. It’s something that’s been done in other cities, and will be modeled after the markets in Spain and the Union Market in D.C. It’ll have tapas, cheeses, chocolate, coffee, nuts, ice cream from Lake Effect and a Lloyd’s Taco test kitchen. The ambitious Kickstarter campaign concludes this Thursday, and it has a way to go to meet its goal, but it’s almost halfway there. It needs your help. 

One of the foods on offer will be wood-fired Neapolitan pizza. Whether it’ll be certified VPN or not, it’s too early to tell.  I can tell you that I intend to be involved in that venture in some capacity. I want to introduce this product that I think is so awesome to WNY – one of the simplest and oldest Mediterranean foods there is. If all goes well, we’ll have a Ferrara oven and it’ll be done right – it will be done to my satisfaction and in a way that will hopefully convert people over to the Neapolitan way. I will be your wood-burning pizza proselytizer-in-chief. 

If you want to see this happen, kick in to the Kickstarter and get Mercado over the hump

(This is not an April Fool’s prank, BTW)


L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele

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I don’t understand 95% – 99% of what’s being said in this video, but who cares? This is L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele, regarded as the best pizza in the world. Here’s how it’s made. 

 


More Pizza

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Recently, my pizza hobby was the subject of a Buffalo News write-up. Well, yesterday I got to try out a new device born out of a brilliant collaboration between the people behind the KettlePizza and the company behind the Baking Steel. They are, coincidentally, both Massachusetts-based companies that did not collaborate until now. Their products are proudly made in the USA.

Before, I used the Kenji Lopez-Alt hack, where a Baking Steel was positioned on the top grate, on top of the KettlePizza, and then covered with tin foil. The unique properties of the steel help radiate heat downward to get the tops of the pizza done – always a tricky thing when most of the heat is coming up from below. Now, thanks to the KettlePizza and Baking Steel people getting to know each other, I have this: 

That’s the new Baking Steel that will soon be available as an add-on. (UPDATE: It’s available now). The folks at KettlePizza sent me one gratis to get my thoughts on it. I used one chimney of briquettes, a bit of hardwood charcoal, and two pieces of wood – one with the coals, shoved as far back as possible, and one sawed in half that was placed in the back basket. I tried to keep as little heat directly under the stone as possible, and the results with the new setup were fantastic. 

For instance, here’s a “before” (onions, cheese, fried eggplant, sauce): 

Here’s the “after”: 

The tops got done better and faster than before, and it was infinitely easier to do set-up and to add fuel as the heat began to go down. 

 


Backyard Pizza in the Buffalo News

I’ve been sort of obsessed with pizza for many years, and Neapolitan is my thing. I love it, I seek it out, and I’ve finally gotten around to try and do my best impression of it in my backyard. It’s not quite there yet, because the dough and the fire always tend to vary in consistency and quality. But part of the fun is trying stuff out and seeing what works and what doesn’t. 

Andrew Galarneau, food editor for the Buffalo News, and photographer Bob Kirkham came over to try some of my pies and he did a great piece on my efforts to make great pizza in my backyard. You can check it out here

I use a 22.5″ Weber kettle grill, with the KettlePizza attachment (with the optional tombstone pizza stone), and the Kenji Alt-Lopez Baking Steel hack, found here. One chimney of charcoal and a quarter of a log to get the fire nice and hot, and you’ll be ready to bake in about an hour. 

Here are some of my winners: