Trattoria Neapolis -- an airy, bustling Italian bistro in Pasadena -- is a passion project for owner Perry Vidalakis, who did his research and takes his pizza very seriously. Authenticity is so paramount, he had a 7,000-pound wood-burning oven shipped over from Naples (the floor had to be reinforced to hold its weight), he built a humidity- and temperature-controlled room for his pizza dough, and he hired an Italian pizzaiolo to churn out the wood-fired pies.
This October (Pizza Month, as if you needed an excuse) you can celebrate with one of the chewy pies from that fancy oven -- and pair it with the Pizza Cocktail, a scarily accurate drink that tastes as if your slice jumped into a Vitamix with a bottle of vodka. Tomato water, basil-infused vodka, ghost pepper–infused vodka, porcini powder and muddled basil are shaken together and topped with a Parmesan and mozzarella foam. No kidding.
There are any number of great pies around town but in this super-hot oven they're cooked in less than 90 seconds. When to turn the pizza, how to move it into different parts of the oven, how thin to stretch the dough -- that's hard to learn. We sat down with pizzaiolo Michele Galifi, who mans the oven without breaking a sweat. He's a guy with secrets: He won't share his age, the mix of flours he uses in his dough, the temperature he chills it to or the special cheese topping with which he dusts his pies at the end. But that's what makes them special.
Squid Ink: How long have you been here?
Michele Galifi: I opened this restaurant with the chef and owner a year ago. Last Saturday we actually celebrated our one-year anniversary.
SI: You grew up in Italy. Where?
MG: I'm 100% Sicilian. It's a little bit different from other Italians. Historically, Sicily's been through a lot. First it was the Greeks who came to the island, then Middle Eastern, Spanish, French -- a lot of people coming through and leaving their best stuff behind. The only guy who didn't go through Sicily was Jesus Christ, and he was so close!
SI: You make Neapolitan pizza here. Where did you get your training as a pizzaiolo?
MG: I grew up in my dad's restaurant in Sicily. I made pizzas and cooked -- I basically grew up in the kitchen. We opened the restaurant when I was 5 years old, and when I was 8, my dad made a little stool for me because I couldn't reach the counter. I kind of fell in love with Neapolitan pizza, so I try to use the Neapolitan tradition but make it my own style.
SI: What makes a Neapolitan pizza different from other kinds?
MG: You need a wood-burning oven that reaches 1,000 degrees. If it doesn't, it's not going to cook the same way. The Neapolitan-style pizza has a nice "leoparding" around the crust.
SI: You mean those nice blisters on the crust.
MG: Right, and it also looks thick but it's really thin.
SI: Is this knife-and-fork pizza?
MG: Yes, it is. You have a different experience than when you eat an American pizza; it requires you to sit, take some time.
SI: You moved here five years ago. Did you go to school here?
MG: No, I went to school in Italy. I have a degree in electrical engineering; it's really different, but it helps me understand some things like the science behind the wood-burning oven. I studied chemistry, and that helps, too. When I came to the U.S., I went straight to work. Sette Bello was my first place and I basically saw an ad for this job -- I emailed them and I talked to them and they said, "We got a deal."
SI: Is "pizzaiolo" just Italian for "guy who makes pizzas" or is it a specialty title?
MG: It's not something you get certified for. Experience makes everything. So it's a lot of years I've got, making pizzas. I'm young, but I have an old soul. I'm just a simple person who knows what he's doing, OK? I've been doing this for a while.
SI: What kind of things are you doing here with your pizzas?
MG: What I'm trying to do is I'm trying to see pizza in a different way. I worked in Italy, but I also worked here. I worked with an electric oven, gas oven, all kinds of wood-burning ovens. I'm not really trying to go with 100% traditional -- I'm trying to apply the Neapolitan tradition with new ideas, apply some modern flair to it.
I have this new squid ink pizza -- squid ink is a really traditional dish with pasta. So I'm looking at all the components, pulling them all apart and trying to make them work for the pizza. I also did a rabbit pizza last week. It was like a traditional rabbit cacciatore -- all those veggies like green olives, cippolini onions, capers, tomato sauce and the rabbit. But if I left the rabbit as is, it wouldn't cook. So I ground it up into a really delicate sausage and used the veggies to bind it all together.
SI: What's your next pizza project?
MG: Every week I do a pizza special, so it depends on what is in season. And this month, October, is Pizza Month. So we're doing a contest where the customers can send in their own pizza combination ideas and at the end of the month, we'll decide the winner and they'll get free pizza and their name on a pizza.
SI: Where do you get your products?
MG: The flour is Italian -- it's from Naples. But the cheese comes from Wisconsin, one of the finest mozzarella producers we could find. The water content is really a factor in the pizza.
SI: Right. How do you keep the middle from getting soggy?
MG: Basically I take the mozzarella and I'll drain it. I'll let it drain for a day so all the excess water comes out, and I'm left with just the mozzarella, and then magic happens. The pizza cooks in only a minute. So from 60 to 90 seconds, while it cooks, sometimes it will just flash the outside and won't cook the ingredients. So I'll pre-cook any mushrooms. Sausage I'll cook three-quarters of the way and let it finish in the oven. It just finishes in the oven, but all the flavor and the fat will release into the pizza
SI: I don't trust skinny chefs -- and you sure don't look like you eat a lot of your pizza.
MG: I eat pizza every day and I'm always eating pizza as research! I can't talk about other people's pizzas, but if you eat my pizzas, it's not bad for you. It's really healthy, really clean. You can eat a whole pizza and in half an hour probably feel hungry again because it's really light. I would define it as a healthy food. The dough is just flour and water and salt -- a little bit of yeast, just to help it rise. Nothing else. It's not just that it's light, there's a balancing of flavors.
SI: There are two kinds of people in the world: crust people, and topping people. Which are you?
MG: I'd say both.
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SI: You can't say both.
MG: Well, I love the crust, I eat all of my crust, but it's about how you eat it. When you start eating your pizza, if you eat it with your fork and knife and start in the middle and go all the way out to the crust, you will eat all of it. It's about understanding the way you should eat it. It's like going to a real expensive sushi bar. The sushi chef tells you how to eat it. And if you just dip your sushi in the soy sauce, he's gonna get mad. He's gonna tell you leave. A lot of times I'll tell people that's not the way you eat pizza, and they're like, "Come on, it's just pizza," and I'll say no, no, nothing is "just." It isn't just pizza. I'm so particular about my pizza, and eating it my way, it'll change the way you see it.
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