We care a lot about the dough at David Made Pizza. Take the dough away and we’re nothing. A mere shadow of a seasonal nano ghost kitchen. Why’s dough so important? Well my great grandmother Sylvia, who was a great candy maker and baker, passed down a bread recipe to my grandmother that my grandmother made and taught my mom and my mom still makes to this day. My dough’s nothing like that. But baking bread was an important ritual in my house growing up. I’d sit on the linoleum petting Bruce the collie as Mom took steaming golden loaves out of the oven. Deep in the heart of Wonder Bread Country (rural Ohio), I grew up savoring crust.
Much like bread crust in rural Ohio, pizza crust too has a long history of neglect. It dips into antiquity. In Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, the Trojans collapse on Italy’s shores, weary from the journey, probably a little bit hangry, and they whip up a rustic flatbread, heaping it with “fruit of the field” (pomis agrestibus). They’re so famished that after devouring the toppings they turn to the crusty bread itself, ripping into it with “bold jaws”, or malis audacibus.
As they munch gingerly, trying not to break their worn Trojan teeth, little Iulus hollers:
“Hey! We’re eating the tables!”
(It had been foretold the Trojans would reach their new homeland when they got so hungry they’d eat the tables.)
Well, they’d arrived.
Roman crust has come a long way since The Mythic Past. When I was in Rome with students in 2018 I took a couple sophomores to Antico Forno Roscioli to sample their pizza bianca. The crust was sublime, but one student complained, saying they preferred Mallard Mart. At the time we were passing Largo Argentina. Where Brutus stabbed Caesar in the back.
Now I love Mallard Mart. In fact when I taught at Oxford Hills I ate there all the time because it was a shorter walk than the cafeteria. (Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School is to South Paris what Bates Mill No. 5 is to Lewiston, or what the name Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School is to this parenthetical statement.) Still, the student’s remark touched on something I’ve bumped into here and there in the US. Often times we neglect the crust. Not everywhere, not everyone, but like Virgil’s Trojans, we tend to focus on the toppings. Crust then becomes simply a table. A perfunctory precondition for pepperoni and cheese. Something to pile with breakfast staples.
At David Made Pizza though we use our hands from flour hydration to final dimpling. Under our fingers the loose lumpy mass comes together. Smoothens and relaxes as it’s meticulously folded. Lightens and bounces as it comes alive. Several days before baking, we build the starter. The night before a bake we mix the levain. It’s lively and fragrant and tangy. The morning of we hand mix and rest and fold; draw on a few pizza boxes; preshape and shape and rest again; make the dough balls and rest; draw on a few more pizza boxes, fire Forage’s brick bagel oven, pick out the splinters and bake. It’s a really involved and delicate process that’s equal parts hard work and pure joy. It requires a lot of time, and attention, and presentness. Muscle memory.
Ultimately, it’s a process that reminds me of growing up on the linoleum in Ohio, keeping my crust out of Bruce’s malis audacibus. Most importantly it’s a process that’s connected to a larger human tradition of situating yourself in a place and sharing experiences and being hospitable. I think it’s really important.
And moreover I think it’s worth doing even at the scale we do it. Maybe especially at the scale we do it.