Pizza So Good, He Broke The Oven "In order to properly bake a Neapolitan-style pizza, the most important aspect is heat — hot heat," Jeff Varasano says. Conventional kitchen ovens don't get hot enough, but Varasano found an expensive solution.
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Pizza So Good, He Broke The Oven

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Pizza So Good, He Broke The Oven

Pizza So Good, He Broke The Oven

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

A few months ago, after he relocated to Atlanta from New York, Jeff Varasano fell into a deep funk. He was working as a computer consultant, and aside from the fact that he didn't get much out of it, he struggled to find a decent slice of pizza in the city.

Now, before I go on, I should mention that Jeff Varasano is obsessed with pizza, so he took matters into his own hands, literally. He started cooking pizzas at home and over time, nearly 1,000 of them. He experimented with ingredients and oven temperatures, and he documented the whole thing on his now very popular Web site. He talked with me from his new restaurant, Varasano's. Here's how he describes the perfect pizza.

Mr. JEFF VARASANO (Owner, Varasano's Pizzeria): Real Italian pizza is all about balance. It's very sparsely topped. It has just a little bit of tomato, just a little bit of cheese, and it's really all about the crust.

High-end pizzas are typically made much, much hotter than regular pizzas. Typical pizzas take 12 to 18 minutes, something like that. Our pizzas here bake in just about two minutes or so.

RAZ: Two minutes. You bake your pizzas for two minutes.

Mr. VARASANO: Yes. Actually, if you go over to Italy, if you go over to Naples, Italy, I've seen pizzas made in as little as 40, 45 seconds, and it's really a very different style of pizza than most people have become accustomed to.

RAZ: You actually started cooking pizzas at home before you opened your restaurant.

Mr. VARASANO: Right.

RAZ: How did you get your oven at home hot enough to make the kinds of pizzas you're talking about?

Mr. VARASANO: Yeah, it's funny. That's one of the things that made my Web site so popular, I think, was that I had gone to such extremes, it just left an impression on people.

I moved to a new house, and I had an oven that had a cleaning cycle on it. And the first time I ran the cleaning cycle, I realized it had cleaned by basically incinerating the contents. So I got a pair of garden shears, and I clipped off the lock, and I bought an infrared thermometer so I could test the temperature at different points in the oven, and I started baking my pies in it.

RAZ: I understand that you'd actually get it repaired several times.

Mr. VARASANO: I was making a pizza one time, and I had a whole party at my house, and a clam - I was making a New Haven-style clam pizza. And a little piece of clam rolled off the pizza and rolled underneath the stone and immediately ignited and caught fire because it was above the kindling temperature.

Well, I couldn't notice this. I didn't see this because the glass of my oven was completely covered in aluminum foil to protect the glass from shattering from splattering sauce, which is another interesting experience that I've had in the past.

So the oven was on fire, and I didn't really notice it until the smoke started billowing out of it. So I opened up the door, and we put out the fire. I threw some baking soda and salt on it, and the fire was put out.

RAZ: Now, it's not just the heat of the oven. It's also sort of the recipe. And I read on your Web site that you actually experimented with a variety of recipes over a period of six years. How did you come up with sort of the perfect recipe?

Mr. VARASANO: Right. One thing I noticed right away was that even if I could get the char, it just didn't have the flavor profile that I found in some of the top pizzerias. So I started to experiment with sourdough cultures and probably over 50 brands of flour or different varieties of flour, probably an equal number of cheese, close to 100 olive oils, and certainly over 50 types of tomatoes. So a lot of it was just trying everything and seeing what I liked best.

RAZ: So is it possible to make a great pizza at home? Is that realistic?

Mr. VARASANO: Like I said, I did have a dozen or so visits from repairman to repair the pieces of equipment. But no - but it is realistic. I used to do tastings in my home for 10 to 25 people, and I actually had about 700 people come to tastings over the course of years, and you know, most of the people who came said it was the best pizza they've ever had in their lives, and a lot of these people had been to all the world's top pizzerias, as well.

RAZ: Jeff Varasano owns Varasano's Pizzeria in Atlanta. It just opened a few months ago. Mr. Varasano, thanks for joining us.

Mr. VARASANO: Thank you very much.

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