Zach Pollack is soft spoken, but firm. He's humble in that he's not boisterous, and is careful with his words. But, he speaks about the Neapolitan pizza that he's making at Sotto, the Italian restaurant on Pico he co-owns with chef Steve Samson, with the kind of confidence that only comes from experience. Everyone calls him "Chef Zach." His pizza has been cited many times across the city as being as close to a true Neapolitan pie as one can find in LA, and for good reason.
Pollack is using Caputo flour and his own house-made starter in the dough. "People that are using some 500 year old starter from Italy aren't necessarily making better pizza... it's all about how you feed your starter and what you do to make your dough." When asked about how long he lets his dough rest, he gets a stern look on his face, "I can't tell you that. I can only tell you that it's longer than 24 hours."
For a pizza Margherita, Pollack plays with the ball of dough a little bit – dips it in flour, tosses it around – before beginning to stretch it out. Carefully, he levels the center of it while maintaining a distinct edge along the side. "We're looking to make a container," he points at the shallow, even hollow he has created, "not a lot of people understand that." The dough is almost the texture of putty. Containing only flour, water, salt, and Pollack's starter (which is made from flour, water, and the yeasts that grow in it over time), the dough is much more tender than others around town.
A purée of Italian tomatoes, salt, garlic, and oregano comprise the raw sauce. It's a very wet sauce, noticeably less viscous than others. Sotto uses Gioia brand mozzarella. The owners of Gioia are a family from Puglia that now make their cheese in El Monte. "I'm looking for the transparency and glossiness that comes when the cheese melts on top of the sauce," Pollack explains. He then tears basil on top of the pizza before it goes in the oven.
Sotto's hand-built, Italian stone oven (the stone is made from volcanic composites) is fed with White Oak and the floor of it heats to 900 degrees. The atmosphere inside can reach 1200 degrees. This is the key to Neapolitan pizza, the direct and instant heat that will cook a pizza in less than a minute. Everything – the dough, the sauce, the cheese – has to be just right for the pizza to cook properly. If the dough is too thick, it will burn on the outside before cooking on the inside. If there's too much sauce, the moisture from the cheese and sauce will create puddles on the pizza. "We're looking for what's called
'leopard spotting,'" Pollack announces, as dark black spots begin appearing on the edges of the crust. He rotates the pizza towards the flame to encourage the spotting throughout. Meanwhile, tufts of steam rise from the pizza's center.
When the pizza comes out, about 30 seconds later, it's glistening, steaming, and smells like a fireplace. That aroma floats away and is replaced by the smell of warm cheese and sweet tomatoes. Pollack drizzles on a bit of California extra virgin olive oil. Right away, he rushes out of the kitchen to grab a fork and knife. "This isn't a pizza that's meant to be eaten with your hands. People often complain about that, but this is what Neapolitan pizza is – it's meant to be eaten with a fork and knife." He pours us each a glass of Gragnano, the sparkling red that plays off of the smoky, creamy flavors of a Neapolitan pizza. Next time you find yourself at Sotto, close your eyes as you eat a pizza and daydream of the Amalfi Coast. Then it will all make perfect sense.
·All Pizza Week 2012 Coverage [~ELA~]