"This isn't rocket science," assured John Azzolini, as he methodically attacked a lifeless mound of dough with his trusty rolling pin: four words that were music to my ears.
John's a brilliant electrical engineer at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, and I was a guest at the house he shares with Mary Ann, his bride of 41 years. Both are native New Yorkers and they share an Italian ancestry: Her maiden name was Vinticinquo. What better locale than the kitchen of their lovely North Laurel home for me to receive the secret ingredients that make a genuine New York pizza?
In some circles, this brand of pie-making sparks more passionate debate than debt valleys and fiscal cliffs.
With our wine glasses, John and I, with another pal, Tom Flynn, stood guard over a pot of marinara sauce bubbling merrily on the stove. If only John could have figured out a way to have sent a batch of the liquid gold up during the heyday of manned space flights, I thought. Ah, the antidote to Tang!
To the sauce, the future Food Network icon combined duxelle mushrooms, plum tomatos, green onions, a few garlic cloves, parsely, thyme and "a pinch" of oregano. Except for the tomato paste his mom used when he was a child, it's the same medley. This, John declared, tapping his spatula against the pot, is widely considered to be, with a few tweaks, the holy grail of pizza sauce in the Big Apple.
When it comes to cooking, it helps if you're well-versed, like the chef, in telemetry, electromagnetic propagation and objective analysis. John uses his rational, objective approach, and it's reflected in how all his tools were neatly laid out on the counter — bowls of dough, both corn meal and unbleached flour; olive oil; containers of cheeses, provolone, asiago, mozzarella and even feta — for the last pie of the evening: made in honor of my Greek lineage.
And he uses a food processor, which "takes the guesswork out of it." Tom, an animal scientist who holds a doctorate, weighed in professorially: "That's why they call it culinary science." Then, referring to the species, he added: "Growing up in Philly, the pizza chefs were inherently male."
Back to work, John ladled the sauce on the stretched dough, saying "You don't want it too thick in one place, but you don't want bare spots either." Then, with the oven set at 450 degrees, he slid his masterpiece into the fiery furnace for 12 minutes. When it came out, he let his work of art cool.
"You want a good crust; that's key," John said. "A crust that's not soggy and soft, not totally crispy or chewy. I like it when the cheese is just slightly toasted on top."
I have often heard New Yorkers moan about the inferior tap water here. It can make or break pizza, they claim. John is in their camp. New York water is renowned for its quality, he said. "The limestone bed in the Hudson River reduces the acid which keeps the dissolved minerals down."
Gastronomia Italiana! The pie John made for his guests was A+. The salad, wine and dessert primo.
It's a pity he can't take orders, since he doesn't have a business license or a commercial-grade kitchen. But if you call me, I'll try and duplicate his recipe.
Nah, on second thought, don't bother. Only John can create a pie that's out of this world memorable and mesmerizing — just like the satellites he tinkers with.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun