Peter Reinhart's Class -
Learning to Make American Pie

Cary took a pizza class with Peter Reinhart!

We'd written in our newsletter about a pizza class being given by Peter Reinhart (author of American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza) at his Pie Town restaurant in Charlotte, NC, how we'd wanted to go but the class sold out so quickly we couldn't get in.

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PieTown logo

Lillian suggested we email the contact person for the class and ask to be notified if there was a cancellation. Lillian is brilliant. The next thing we knew Cary was enrolled in the class and we were on our way to Pie Town in Charlotte.

Cary: I was asked recently, "How far would you travel for a good slice of pizza?" The answer at the time was "Forty miles each way." We beat that record handily - our house to Charlotte is 688 miles each way! Lil drove all night so I could sleep and be fresh for the class.

Peter Reinhart is a friendly, outgoing man who loves to teach, and like most teachers, loves to talk. He is eminently listenable. As we drove through the night, we listened to a recent NPR interview with Reinhart, Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix and Brian Spangler of Apizza Scholls in Portland, Oregon. We realized that we could easily listen to those guys talk about pizza all night long. Unfortunately, the interview was only an hour. You can find it here.

We arrived in Charlotte, a charming-looking city with an interesting, modernistic skyline, early Saturday morning for a ten-o'clock class. It was still cool in the shade, but on the way up to 96 degrees. Lillian tried to nap while Cary took a few pictures and waited to enter the restaurant. A few of the other attendees arrived, and the front door opened.

Pie Town interior

We were admitted by a friendly fellow named Arthur and ushered to tables in a comfortable, low-key dining room. Pie Town is an attractive, upscale-looking place that somehow remains warm and inviting.

As more people arrived (the class maxed at fifteen people), Peter Reinhart came out of the kitchen and sat down to talk to the students and segue into the beginning of the class. The practical part of the class would take place in the heat of the kitchen, but for the introductory portion we sat in cool comfort.

Reinhart was wearing a t-shirt and spoke about Albert Grande's website. He also graciously mentioned too!

Peter talked about dough, the history of American pizza, some of the great pizzerias around the country, and the passion and styles of the new breed of Artisan pizza makers. He said that what he found was the key to great, memorable pizza was the connection between the pizza maker, the ingredients, and the person eating the pizza. He referenced Chris Bianco and the 'communion experience' of pizza.

Pizza as sacrament, Cary thought, and felt blessed to be a part of this experience.

Peter Reinhart speaks

While 'gourmet' pizza is all about the toppings - artisan pizza, Reinhart told us, is all about the crust. Toppings won't save a bad dough, but if the dough is right, it almost doesn't matter what you put on it!

He talked about the passion of the older pizzaioli like Dom DeMarco of Brooklyn's DiFara's pizza, who makes every pie himself and who decided after knee surgery that he would rehab at work, making pizzas (we visited DiFara's during that time, and we'll be writing about it soon).

Reinhart described what we would be doing in the kitchen -- he would demo making two kinds of dough: a Neo-Neapolitan pizza dough and a Genovese focaccia dough (both recipes are in American Pie). Then we'd get to make pizzas using Pie Town dough.

He told us about the things that made Pie Town special as a pizzeria, including their commitment to using organic ingredients, obtained from local sources whenever possible. They even cure their own bacon.

Peter shared a few tips and tricks for making better pizza in a home oven (we'll share a few of these with you over time in our monthly e-newsletter).

Then we headed into the Pie Town kitchen.

Peter Reinhart at the prep table

We circled around a large prep table to watch Peter Reinhart make dough. With classic simplicity and eloquence, he mixed the ingredients together in a large stainless steel bowl while talking about yeast and flour and water and oil. Answering questions about kitchen temperature and fermentation ("when it's hot like this, we work pretty quickly"), he gave us all the opportunity to feel the dough in its "coarse and shaggy" state, then he kneaded, let it rest, kneaded some more.

Reinhart likes to work with a wet dough -- a little more difficult to manage, but produces a superior bread. He used a scale so that the dough balls would be 8 ounces each. He placed baking parchment into a pan (he never puts dough right down on the metal) and moved the dough into the refrigerator. Reinhart prefers an overnight fermentation, and the pizza crust of a Pie Town pizza speaks for itself. It is exquisitely good bread (which we expected).

Dough balls that had been made the day before were brought out for the class to make pizzas. Cary was particularly excited, since he felt that stretching the dough was his weakest point in making a pizza. Now to learn from a master!

stretching the dough

Flattening the doughball, flouring the backs of our hands, we stretched the dough across our knuckles, gently stretching the edge, not the center. "Let gravity do the work," Reinhart encouraged. "Let the dough rest between stretches."

As the first group finished stretching the dough, placing it on peels and moving to the ingredient station in front of the oven, the next group began working their dough. There was a fresh, uncooked sauce waiting for us, and we learned just how much (or how little) sauce to use to create a balanced flavor. A wide assortment of cheeses and toppings was available. Cary went basic - the four-cheese blend, a sprinkling of herbs, a few pieces of caramelized garlic, and into the oven.

Cary: That was the moment for me. Ever since I was a little kid I'd been fascinated by pie men sliding those wooden peels into the mouths of monstrous ovens, and I'd always wanted to do it. And here I was. And of course the pie stuck to the peel! I pulled it back and Peter pointed out that I'd spilled a little sauce on the peel, which caused it to stick. I would have cleaned it off, but the ever-gracious Mr. Reinhart took the peel from me, cleaned the sauce off, jiggled the peel to make sure the pizza would slide, and handed it back to me. Now I could have my 'oven moment.'

Peter Reinhart and Cary

Peter Reinhart, a pizza, and Cary

Three minutes later, the pizza was ready. Lillian came in to see the finale. As each pizza came out, the student plated and sliced it. Cary put some fresh basil on top of his, and he and Lillian took it into the dining room. As all the students came in to eat their creations, Peter grabbed a slice and sat down to talk a bit more about home pizza making, the primacy of dough, and his joy at the progress of Pie Town. For us, it was a great moment in our passion-4-pizza journey. Before we left, Peter suggested a few pizzerias for us to visit on the road back to New York. He left us with his pizza benediction: "May all your pizzas be perfect!"

We can't thank Peter Reinhart enough for this class. It was informative, enjoyable and extremely helpful - especially for this newbie! When he does another one, if you can get to Charlotte, go!

The rest of this pizzadventure can be found in the June 23 edition of our e-newsletter. You can subscribe using the form on the left side of this page.

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