Long Live Pizza
Against the urge to escape to Mars or the metaverse, pizza reminds us of what is real.
What does it mean to be a pizza? Some are soft and deep. Others are hard and shallow. Some are made consistently millions of times. Others are made once and never heard from again. Pizza is in a way permanent. But it is also ephemeral. Many are exploring the question of pizza. And I am one of them.
Pizza world lately has been buzzing with the opening of Mother Wolf in Los Angeles. Like any great institution, there is a great man at its helm, the venerable Evan Funke. Evan first made waves with Felix, which quickly became known for its pasta, much of it personally made by Evan himself.
After dining at Mother Wolf, my biggest question is if Los Angeles deserves such a magnificent establishment. For the first thing to take away from the ever important ambience, meticulously crafted with tile, chandeliers, art, and flowers, were the other guests.
Being Los Angeles, most of the patrons of this obviously fancy restaurant were dressed like slobs, and did not hesitate to grotesquely display, talk on, and capture images with their ostensibly "smart" phones. They looked like trashy idiots, and stood out painfully from the gorgeous setting and well dressed staff.
I had the great fortune to visit Italy last year, and the first thing I noticed on my return was how the Americans were always clutching their phones, while wearing ill-fitting, unflattering grayscale clothing. This alone makes the idea of a truly Italian restaurant in America impossible. But is it worth trying?
Upon hearing of Mother Wolf, I was interested in its claim that it is not Italian. It is Roman. After all, what is Italy? In the scheme of the history of pasta and pizza, the unification of what we know as "Italy" is a very recent event. To this day different regions of Italy have distinct pasta, pizza, and wine styles.
But Evan's distinction is not only geographic. It is temporal. In a world obsessed with progress and the Future, Evan has decided to take his inspiration from the distant past. This is not a bad idea, for say what you want about progress in technology and medicine, but the Romans certainly had better food and saunas than we do. Don't believe me? If you fancy yourself a good cook go ahead and order The Classical Cookbook by Andrew Dalby and see how far you get.
What, then, does Roman style mean? Mother Wolf has no sauna. But my server, who was kind and impeccably dressed, reminding me of Italy, explained Roman style is using fewer, better ingredients, focusing on the quality of flavor, not the quantity.
This is a very important concept, which may sound trite in English, but is related to the Hindu concept of matter and form, soul and nature, the realization that you cannot measure God. In a machine-driven crusade to quantity everything, we will surely forget our souls, and end up in a world with high quantities of terrible pizza. This has happened.
But there is a resistance. And Evan seems to be leading it. Anthony Bourdain wrote that he was attracted to cooking because it seemed like chefs were the last pirates. Evan certainly could have been a pirate in another life, or this life.
One thing I quickly noticed of the restaurants in Italy was how common it was for the owner to be present, even on off nights, and often participate in the service and cooking personally. It is obvious that this would improve the quality. The owner of one of my favorite Italian restaurants, Pace, lives behind the restaurant, and is able to keep a close eye on it. This is clearly a big reason it is so good. But this practice also restricts the quantity of food, as the owner can only run a single restaurant. And this is Evan's second.
True to Italian tradition, Evan was working in the open kitchen on the Tuesday night I visited, and I had the good fortune to sit at the pizza bar, a front row seat to the sacred, ancient craft of making pizza.
Any chef worth his salt knows that heat is an ingredient, and that fire is almost always the best form of it. The Mother Wolf kitchen had multiple blazing wood fires, one in the massive pizza oven, and another cooking Santa Maria style on the back wall.
The efficiency of the operation was incredible. Mother Wolf is a big place, and it was full of people that wanted pizza, myself included. Every few seconds, a pizza chef quickly stretched and formed a ball of dough into a thin flat sheet, covered it in toppings, and pulled it fully loaded onto a pizza paddle.
As a pizza maker myself, I know that good pizza is all about the dough. And pizza dough is one of the most difficult doughs to make well. It must be very high in protein to hold together well enough to handle toppings. It must be dry enough to avoid sticking during transfers. But it must also be flavorful and light, which is aided by softer wetter dough. The quest for the perfect pizza dough is an obsession for some, and Evan is clearly obsessed.
Despite how busy and focused he was, Evan kindly listened to me and answered a few questions I had. I asked him if he was going to Pizza Expo that week in Vegas, as I was. He declined, saying that pizza conferences were for people "dabbling" in pizza, and he was focused on running his pizza business. This seemed like a bold thing to say, but then again, he was telling the truth. He was focused on his pizza business. And the proof was right in front of me.
Then I asked what type of wood he uses, a common conversation topic among chefs that cook with flame. "Red oak," he answered. While I knew "white oak" is commonly used for Texas BBQ, I have never cooked with red oak. Clearly this was a man that understood his wood.
Wood-fired pizza, smoked BBQ, and even wine, depend heavily on the type of wood used. Some use what is locally available, others demand specific species of wood from specific forests in regions like France and Austria.
But the true test was, of course, a matter of grains. A bit boldly, I asked Evan what flours he used in his dough. To my surprise, he answered, but over the din I did but catch it all.
What I did discern was that he used a blend of four flours. I was impressed. Even in my more sophisticated doughs I rarely use three flours, and have never used four. This indicates that he has done a lot of experimentation. And the product is impeccable. It is the perfect strength, elasticity, and flavor for this kind of pizza. I did not see one pie tear, nor fail to come out looking and smelling amazing.
I do remember him mentioning using Tipo 1 as one of the flours. This is borderline heresy in pizza. Everybody knows that you use Tipo 00 "double zero" flour, preferably Caputo brand from Italy. The number refers to the fineness of the ground flour and 00 is a very fine grind. Conventional wisdom is that the fine flour leads to the best pizza. But Evan, despite his traditionalism, has broken with tradition in a big way by using number 1 flour.
Next, Evan mentioned using red wheat flour in the dough. This is very significant to me. For those that do not know, bread bakers like myself often fantasize of a redeemed future in which red wheat is again used by default, which has more flavor than the more commonly cultivated "white wheat". Red wheat, which encompasses many varieties, brings a bold, nutty, "bready" flavor that some less experienced bread eaters find bitter, and so it is uncommon, especially in our current dark age of bread.
Yes, we live in a Kali Yuga of bread. This is an age of deception, of matter over form, of quantity over quality, and fear and lies above all. The "gluten-free" movement has done to food what AIDS did to sex. And in this age of darkness, there is an angel of light, a kind of pizza-pirate-angel named Evan Funke.
The other two flours were equally impressive. One was from fresh milled whole grain – unsifted, which is also tremendously exciting. Bakers know that just like most foods, wheat berries are better fresh. While whole wheat berries will miraculously keep for a century or longer unmilled, and flour is still good years after milling, fresh milled whole grain carries an entirely separate dimension of flavor, largely in oils and other volatiles which do not last as long as conventional flour, which is mostly the starch from the endosperm. Whole grains, especially if milled recently, are delicious in any dough.
Finally, I must admit that Evan stumped me on the fourth flour. He said he used a "blue" wheat. This threw me for a loop. I rarely experience anyone "out-grain" me, but Evan had done it. It is still largely a mystery to me what grain he was referring to. After consulting grain experts I have heard of a "blue emmer," which would be an exciting use of an ancient grain, fitting for the theme of the restaurant. Blue grains are also very beautiful and sometimes grown for aesthetics. I find it strange that when most people plant a garden they rarely think to include wheat. I think it is beautiful and would be at home in any garden.
It was then that the seemingly impervious pizza pirate revealed a rare moment of tenderness. He said that he was struggling with his identity, that many people know him as a pasta maker, and have been reluctant to accept him as a pizza maker. To my eyes and nose however, there is no question that he is both.
The pizza Mother Wolf makes is a thin, crispy crust variety known as “tavern-style” or sometimes “Roman-style” pizza. For years pizza crusts have gotten thinner and toppings have trended toward plant based scarcity. The Roman-style pizza at Mother Wolf however were richly flavorful and even used coveted water buffalo milk mozzarella, which is indeed traditional and very difficult to come by in the United States.
However, I fail to see where thin crust pizza goes from here. I am personally a much bigger fan of Sicilian, deep dish, and pan pizza, and believe this is the future of pizza. There are restaurants like Appolonia's leading the way here with a very popular pan pizza program, and there is Masa in Echo Park that has been busy and popular for as long as anyone can remember for making delicious Chicago-style deep dish pizzas. Quarter Sheets is a promising newcomer as well.
In the thin crust world, Great White also makes a fine pie, but uses a gas pizza oven, meaning it lacks wood flavors. That's fine with me though. The focus is on the burrito, and it is second to none. More restaurants should have a pizza program even if pizza is not the focus.
Gjusta, which largely drove the “Neapolitan” style in Los Angeles, is also worth mentioning, but I never cared for their pizza, which I found small, thin, and soggy. But is that the pizza Los Angeles asked for? The influential acolytes of the wellness cult are even more afraid of cheese than bread and to most of the miserable lot pizza is profane. Gjusta's almost apologetic pizza is understandable coming from this pressure.
The pasta at Mother Wolf was also of course excellent. And I appreciated the inclusion of wild boar meat in the special. I could certainly see more restaurants using game meat. If you're interested in trying some, Saddle Peak Lodge is superb. Evan should also be commended for including oxtail meatballs. This is a very underrated and underutilized cut. An entire article could be written on the wine, cocktail, and beverage selection, but I am here to talk about the food.
The dessert was as impressive as the meal. Mother Wolf clearly makes their own gelato and they clearly do it in the traditional Italian style. It was incredible.
In a bizarre world where people are rushing to buy numbers of pictures of primates, where screens advertise screens, where most people live in a false reality delivered by simulated lights and recorded sounds, I think it is important to remember our sense of taste and our sense of smell.
I have met many people who have given up on the real world. They want to live on Mars or in a non-existent metaverse, or even to accelerate the real world's purported end. But they are fools. Pizza can remind us what is real. It can bring us together to celebrate quality, to remember our souls, to forget about numbers for once and focus on uncountable joy.
I want there to be more beauty in the world, more pizza with thicker, breadier crusts and fresh water buffalo milk mozzarella. I think it's okay to have multiple pizza places on the same block. I think nearly every restaurant could have pizza on the menu somewhere. I think people should dress better, live better, and follow their nose instead of always obeying their screen. Sometimes I feel I am the only one who cares about these things.
Visiting Mother Wolf made me feel like I was not alone. The building was packed with people demanding pizza, wonderful pizza. We were all different people and souls but for this beautiful stretch of time we were all united by pizza. But not just any pizza, pizza with dough dutifully researched and expertly crafted, dough that had been cold fermenting for twenty-eight hours with fresh yeast patiently working their magic. Pizza made by one of the last men in America who can still speak the language of the grains.
I love Evan for reminding us that life can be beautiful, that the old ways are often better than the new, but also that there is always a way to improve on tradition. Evan reminds us what can happen if you really care about something, what is possible if you are dedicated to a craft and willing to get your hands dirty, instead of seeking to delegate everything.
In an era of faceless simulations, Evan is leading the way to a world of better food, and creating a lot of joy along the way. For this he should be commended.
So what is pizza? There is truly something ancient, and permanent to pizza, but it also allows us to change it, to work with it, to make it our own. This comes with the risk of progressing toward mediocrity and shame instead of greatness, as much of our culture has. But Evan is different. Evan took the risk, he did the work, and he created something great.
I pray our culture rediscovers the permanent, the soul, the quality of things, instead of just counting the things. And I pray we remember our own craft and creativity instead of counting on others to do things for us. But for those that do honor us with delicious food, we should honor them.
I hope Mother Wolf helps us remember the lessons of our fathers. And I hope we find and support more men like Evan, men that can honor tradition and seek innovation, men that bear fruitful quantities without sacrificing quality, men that can make both pasta and pizza.
Evan has given me hope for the future, but I still wonder if he might be on the wrong side of history. Will we at last embrace the thicker crust after he put so much work into perfecting the thin? Has thin crust pizza met its apotheosis with Evan, and has nowhere to go from here? Will his obsession set the stage for his own demise? Pizza is dead. Long live pizza.
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