Sure, Al Mancini Can Dish It, But Can He Plate It?

Our dining critic takes his turn in the kitchen.


Photo by Jon Estrada

Ask a few chefs I know, and they’ll tell you that food critics are just frustrated cooks, taking out their culinary insecurities on the folks who toil in professional kitchens. I actually consider myself a decent home cook when I go all out for a special occasion. But I’ve never deceived myself into believing I could reproduce those dishes in a restaurant setting. I do, however, have a bit of professional kitchen experience. From 1991-95, I tossed a pretty mean pizza at CBGB Pizza, a New York spot adjacent to the infamous punk club of the same name. So when my editor challenged me to flip the script and critique my own cooking, it didn’t seem unreasonable to think I could still twirl some dough.

al_mancini_metro_pizza_by_jon_estrada_03_WEBI chose Metro Pizza as the site of this challenge for two reasons: First, they offer the kind of New York-style street pizza I made in my youth. Second, owner John Arena is one of America’s foremost pizza experts. Any time spent with him is guaranteed to teach you volumes about the history and philosophy of pizza making.

Of course, making a pizza in one of Arena’s kitchens is nothing like making one at CBGB. In the punk-rock pizza world, nearly every employee was nursing a beer in a paper cup for the entirety of his or her shift. Mice scampered from the stove to the counter. Pot smoke wafted in from the basement we used as a break room. And I occasionally had to eject a junkie who had passed out in the restroom. In all, I received about an hour of training before I made my first pizza at CBGB. And my creations were simply intended to sop up the beer in the stomachs of punk-rock fans who needed a bit of sustenance to make it to the encore.

al_mancini_metro_pizza_by_jon_estrada_04_WEBBy contrast, Metro is a professionally run operation, and almost all of its pizza chefs started their careers as dishwashers before eventually learning to make dough, then later to stretch it, and finally to assemble a complete pie. That hierarchy is infused with Arena’s Zen-like approach to pizza making. For him, no two pies should ever be the same, and each should reflect what’s in the heart and soul of the person who makes it. Think of him as the Yoda of the pizza world.

After a tomato tasting and a lesson on why Metro’s dough takes up to four days to rise, Arena began to work a ball of dough into a pizza crust, first creating the outer crust, then spreading the center by guiding it outward before massaging it between his palms or letting it stretch from his clenched fists. It was a lot more complex and delicate than the way I used to bend a piece of dough into submission in the East Village. But it looked vaguely familiar and relatively simple.

With Arena looking over my shoulder, I proceeded to desecrate dough ball after dough ball. Time after time, he was forced to rescue my monstrosities, repairing in seconds my 10 or 15 minutes worth of manhandling. While my technique improved mildly al_mancini_metro_pizza_by_jon_estrada_02_WEBwhen we moved from small pies to large, after two hours of training I’d yet to demonstrate an ability to make a single pizza without my mentor’s assistance. Whatever skills I may have had two decades ago (which still wouldn’t have met Metro’s standards) had faded like Henry Rollins’ street cred. On the bright side, I did manage to toss one pie into the air and catch it, reliving my pizza-making glory days for a second or two.

After Arena assisted in the dough stretching, the rest should have been easy: Add the sauce, cheese and herbs (I never got to toppings). But even my skills there were clumsy by Metro standards. I wasn’t spreading the sauce close enough to the edge. I was concentrating my cheese in the wrong spot. I wasn’t holding my hand high enough to distribute the herbs evenly. Sure, my finished products were better than any pizza I’d ever made before, with a perfect crunch to the crusts. But it took me forever to get there. As the dinner rush started, it was obvious I couldn’t take a spot on Metro’s cooking line without bringing the operation to a standstill.

No, it turns out, I cannot cook in a professional kitchen—even doing a job I once legitimately held. If you think you can do better, give it a try at one of Arena’s bi-monthly pizza-making classes. Me? I’ll stick to critiquing the work of others.


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