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Marc Vetri and co-author David Joachim were caught in a bit of a spat. Wedged by the side of the brick oven at Pizzeria Vetri Callowhill, trying not to take up too much space in the open kitchen during a busy dinner service, the pair were working out details for some of the final recipes going into Mastering Pizza, their fourth cookbook.
Vetri was adamant the dessert pizza they were discussing should be made with a smaller size crust than most of the other recipes.
“We can’t do that,” Joachim said. “They’d have to split the Roman dough recipe into sixths, and…”
“We can do whatever we want,” Vetri shot back. “We’re writing the fucking book!”
Turns out some parts of writing a guide to cooking can be as messy as a flour-strewn countertop left behind from one of the recipes.
To test an invention he termed “Pizza Carbonara,” for example, Vetri moved quickly, without advising his partner of his next move.
Into a large metal bowl he began adding ingredients, deftly cracking eggs and then tossing in spices and grated cheese without measuring them. He stretched a portion of dough, filled it with ice cubes and set it in the oven. As the bottom crisped up, the ice melted on top, creating a pool of hot, starchy water. In went the egg mixture, then back on the lip of the furnace. Shaking the center slightly as it cooked, Vetri dropped in bits of pancetta.
All the while, Joachim peppered him with questions, tapping at his laptop with each answer. How many eggs was that? (Two.) Just salt or also pepper? (Both.) How much cheese? (A handful.) Crushed ice in the pizza or just cubes? (“Just regular ice!”)
Edges appropriately leoparded with char, Vetri pulled the “carbonara” pie from the oven, drizzled a swirl of olive oil over top, and cut it into eighths. The center had transformed into a layer of custard that both melded into and floated above a crisp crust. Biting into it revealed a much lighter texture than appearance suggested, with salty pops of bacon punctuating each mouthful.
“That is some next level shit,” Vetri said, repeating the mantra as he handed out slices for staff to taste. “Next level. Next. Level.”
Joachim nodded appreciatively, then went back to furiously typing, trying his best to capture the process in text.
An experienced professional chef doesn’t realize how much they take for granted, Joachim explained. Throughout their research trip to Italy and during practice sessions like this one, it’s his job to translate what Vetri does by inspiration or whim into detailed instructions that can be replicated by regular people in their own kitchens — and make sure the results they come up with are not just edible, but also delicious.
“It’s not too tough anymore,” Joachim said. He’s worked with Vetri for many years, so by now, the food writer observed, “I’m fluent in ‘Marc.’”
“I speak ‘David’ too,” Vetri pointed out. “I know that when he was needling me about the size of the dough, he’s really saying, ‘The publisher is going to push back on this, so let’s think it out.’ We’re a good team.”
Good enough that a new book was actually requested by the publishing house, as opposed to pitched. Vetri and Joachim’s prior release, Mastering Pasta, sold more than 40,000 copies in its first year, far outpacing the pair’s freshman and sophomore efforts.
Not that the process was a piece of cake. Figuring out how to organize the new tome was one of the big hurdles, Joachim said.
Like Mastering Pasta, each chapter of Mastering Pizza starts with a story somehow related to the recipes that follow. The idea of adding ice to a crust before it’s slid into the fire so a sauce can be made in its center was something Vetri ran into for the first time in Rome, and the description of how famed pizzaiolo Stefano Callegari introduced him to the unorthodox technique forms the beginning of the chapter titled “Baking.”
Joachim was there to experience that anecdote firsthand, but sometimes the tales that introduce the chapters are relayed to him by Vetri over the phone. “I’m lucky I can type fast,” he said.
Once the narratives for this book were dictated and typed up, there still remained the question of how to arrange the various recipes.
After much deliberation, Joachim and Vetri settled on a structure based on hydration levels, because one thing that would set this book apart from the many other texts out there on the topic, Joachim explained, is that Mastering Pizza discusses and offers instructions for baking in all kinds of ovens — regular home stoves that only hit 550 degrees, sure, but also the wood- or coal-fired backyard behemoths that have been getting more and more popular.
“You need more water for dough in a home oven because it takes much longer to cook,” Joachim said. “But if you’re cooking in a brick oven at 900 degrees, that same recipe will turn out soggy.”
The manuscript for Mastering Pizza has an Aug. 1 due date — hence the rush to finish R&D — but it’s not due out until fall 2018. Until then, those looking for Vetri pie wisdom will just have to catch him at one of the pizzerias.