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Monday, December 5, 2022

Los Angeles’s Neapolitan Pizza is being refined with assistance from Tokyo

Every day at Pizzeria Sei, the pizza is a little bit different from the one served the day before. I know this because I can’t seem to stop myself from visiting Pizzeria Sei.

When the pizza is hot, it is nearly buttery in texture, the dough thin and floating, the top salty and freckled with char, yet the perimeter bubbling and soft, a delicate network of steam-filled rifts. This is to savour the pizza when it is hot.

But it’s also to account for the minute differences between one pizza and the next, and from one night to the next, when Sang Woo Joo settles into his rhythm on the piano. Some nights the toppings may be a little lighter, while others will be more firmly clustered in the middle of each pizza. The next day, the crusts will be more soft and the colour will be a little darker.

I’m not referring to a lack of consistency. I’m referring to the fact that pizza, like you, is always evolving in little, almost imperceptibly subtle ways. When you go into every new pizza, what looks to be a frantic evening rush is in reality someone’s obsessive, repeated, and never-ending adventure to build and preserve the establishment’s aesthetic.

In terms of food, the menu is simple and straightforward – a few salads, some well cut and suitably supple prosciutto, a number of pizzas topped with largely Italian ingredients, and tiramisù for dessert. When you look at Mr. Joo’s pizza, you may think he produces Neapolitan pizza — small, manageable pies with puffy edges that are baked fast in a wood-fired oven. On closer inspection, though, you’ll see that he’s also drawing on the work of neo-Neapolitan pizza makers in Japan who sought out local ingredients when they believed they were superior, and who altered the method of shaping and seasoning the dough.

This may seem inconsequential, but there are few codes in the world that are more tight and impenetrable than the one that governs Neapolitan pizza. Other pizza styles may have a handful of general criteria — the heat source, the pan, the thickness of the dough — but only the Neapolitan style is protected by a formal body known as the Associazione Verace Pizza Neapolitana, which has a set of precise international regulations in place to protect it from imitations.

In spite of the fact that Seirinkan is now endorsed by the Associazione, when Mr. Kakinuma travelled to Naples and fell in love with the local pizza style, restaurants were so sceptical of a Japanese cook attempting to make Italian pizza that it was impossible for him to apprentice himself there decades earlier.

Mr. Kakinuma, on the other hand, consumed a large amount of pizza. Moreover, he scrutinised the hands of the pizzaiolos, the textures of the dough, and the timing of the ovens with each bite. He then went on to bake, learning as he went along.

For many people, pizza is a joy because of how it grows through time, via digressions, quirks, oddities, and adaptations. Because of the overlapping efforts of the individuals who prepare it on a daily basis.

He learnt to create pizzas at Pizzana, a Los Angeles restaurant owned by Daniele Uditi that specialises in gorgeous, and at times irreverent, neo-Neapolitan pies. Mr. Joo is a South Korean native who emigrated to the United States as a youngster. Later, he looked up Mr. Kakinuma’s skills on the internet and watched videos of Pizza Studio Tamaki and Savoy Pizza to learn more about them.

To make Sei, he buys fruit from the Santa Monica Farmers Market twice a week, including basil, mushrooms, garlic, and eggs, and he works with a yeasted dough that is proofed slowly over the course of two days. His pizzas are influenced by both of the neo-Neapolitan styles he studied, but they’re not totally influenced by either, since he’s still working on developing his own.

The salty margherita has a moist, but not mushy, core, and the Bismarck arrives with a tender-to-runny egg on top of the toasted ciabatta. For me, nothing beats a white pie, made by rolling out the raw dough on the counter till it’s shiny, then covering it with a swirl of heavy cream and fior di latte mozzarella, sprinkled with preserved lemon and generous glugs of olive oil.

On the pavement at the sun-baked metal table and in my automobile speeding down the Santa Monica Freeway, this pizza has served me well – a slice is just about structurally sound enough for this. Nonetheless, the most delicious way to taste it is right off the counter, hot from the oven, directly off the peel and into a plate, the crust still full of steam and sizzling with life.

Jonathan James
I serve as a Senior Executive Journalist of The National Era
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