Drinking a Pizza Cocktail With Trattoria Neapolis' Pizzaiolo
Trattoria Neapolis -- an airy, bustling Italian bistro in Pasadena -- is a passion project for owner Perry Vidalakis, who did his research and takes his pizza very seriously. Authenticity is so paramount, he had a 7,000-pound wood-burning oven shipped over from Naples (the floor had to be reinforced to hold its weight), he built a humidity- and temperature-controlled room for his pizza dough, and he hired an Italian pizzaiolo to churn out the wood-fired pies.
Chris Jolly Michele Galifi at Trattoria Neapolis' oven
This October (Pizza Month, as if you needed an excuse) you can celebrate with one of the chewy pies from that fancy oven -- and pair it with the Pizza Cocktail, a scarily accurate drink that tastes as if your slice jumped into a Vitamix with a bottle of vodka. Tomato water, basil-infused vodka, ghost pepper–infused vodka, porcini powder and muddled basil are shaken together and topped with a Parmesan and mozzarella foam. No kidding.
There are any number of great pies around town but in this super-hot oven they're cooked in less than 90 seconds. When to turn the pizza, how to move it into different parts of the oven, how thin to stretch the dough -- that's hard to learn. We sat down with pizzaiolo Michele Galifi, who mans the oven without breaking a sweat. He's a guy with secrets: He won't share his age, the mix of flours he uses in his dough, the temperature he chills it to or the special cheese topping with which he dusts his pies at the end. But that's what makes them special.
Squid Ink: How long have you been here?
Chris Jolly The Pizza Cocktail
Michele Galifi: I opened this restaurant with the chef and owner a year ago. Last Saturday we actually celebrated our one-year anniversary.
SI: You grew up in Italy. Where?
MG: I'm 100% Sicilian. It's a little bit different from other Italians. Historically, Sicily's been through a lot. First it was the Greeks who came to the island, then Middle Eastern, Spanish, French -- a lot of people coming through and leaving their best stuff behind. The only guy who didn't go through Sicily was Jesus Christ, and he was so close!
SI: You make Neapolitan pizza here. Where did you get your training as a pizzaiolo?
MG: I grew up in my dad's restaurant in Sicily. I made pizzas and cooked -- I basically grew up in the kitchen. We opened the restaurant when I was 5 years old, and when I was 8, my dad made a little stool for me because I couldn't reach the counter. I kind of fell in love with Neapolitan pizza, so I try to use the Neapolitan tradition but make it my own style.
SI: What makes a Neapolitan pizza different from other kinds?
MG: You need a wood-burning oven that reaches 1,000 degrees. If it doesn't, it's not going to cook the same way. The Neapolitan-style pizza has a nice "leoparding" around the crust.
SI: You mean those nice blisters on the crust.
Chris Jolly Galifi making pizza
MG: Right, and it also looks thick but it's really thin.
SI: Is this knife-and-fork pizza?
MG: Yes, it is. You have a different experience than when you eat an American pizza; it requires you to sit, take some time.
SI: You moved here five years ago. Did you go to school here?
MG: No, I went to school in Italy. I have a degree in electrical engineering; it's really different, but it helps me understand some things like the science behind the wood-burning oven. I studied chemistry, and that helps, too. When I came to the U.S., I went straight to work. Sette Bello was my first place and I basically saw an ad for this job -- I emailed them and I talked to them and they said, "We got a deal."
SI: Is "pizzaiolo" just Italian for "guy who makes pizzas" or is it a specialty title?
MG: It's not something you get certified for. Experience makes everything. So it's a lot of years I've got, making pizzas. I'm young, but I have an old soul. I'm just a simple person who knows what he's doing, OK? I've been doing this for a while.
SI: What kind of things are you doing here with your pizzas?
MG: What I'm trying to do is I'm trying to see pizza in a different way. I worked in Italy, but I also worked here. I worked with an electric oven, gas oven, all kinds of wood-burning ovens. I'm not really trying to go with 100% traditional -- I'm trying to apply the Neapolitan tradition with new ideas, apply some modern flair to it.
I have this new squid ink pizza -- squid ink is a really traditional dish with pasta. So I'm looking at all the components, pulling them all apart and trying to make them work for the pizza. I also did a rabbit pizza last week. It was like a traditional rabbit cacciatore -- all those veggies like green olives, cippolini onions, capers, tomato sauce and the rabbit. But if I left the rabbit as is, it wouldn't cook. So I ground it up into a really delicate sausage and used the veggies to bind it all together.
SI: What's your next pizza project?