May 29, 2009

Pizza Politana: The Quest for the Perfect Pizza

pizza_figEditor’s note: In case you haven’t heard, we’re starting a new market! Beginning July 2nd, CUESA will host a Thursday lunchtime market focused on street food and a few select farmers bringing the best of the season. Stay tuned for more in the coming weeks!

 

Ever since they found a way to attach a Neapolitan wood-fired oven to a trailer two years ago, Joel Baecker and his wife Naomi Crawford, of Pizza Politana, have been on a quest for the perfect pizza.

Because they are made by hand, each rustic pie is a little different. Some pizzas spend a sliver more or less time in an oven that stays around 800 degrees but fluctuates every time a log is added to the fire; if it’s too hot the crust will burn, if its too cold, it will dry out a little. For these reasons, Joel and Naomi have grown their operation slowly, taking ample opportunity to fine-tune their craft. “We don’t want it to be too precious,” says Joel, “but we want it done well.”

The Petaluma-based couple had been running a catering business together when they decided to start selling made-to-order organic pizza in farmers’ markets. They began in a small, seasonal market in Novato and now, with two ovens, travel to eight markets around the Bay Area.

“We’ve grown as it feels right,” says Joel, who makes pizza at five markets a week, alternating with Naomi, so they can both visit all their markets.

This personal touch means Pizza Politana’s pies are also far from typical. Joel makes his own sauce from fresh, raw San Marzano tomatoes because he says he prefers a bright, acidic flavor to the sweet, heavy sauce that comes from hours of cooking it down. They’re not covered with a thick blanket of mozzarella either, but many of them do rely on a smattering of high quality, flavorful cheese.

pizza joel“At first shoppers will come up and they say, let me get a slice of pepperoni, and then I explain that we’re doing something a little different,” says Joel. In the summer, that might mean fresh Bellwether Farms ricotta, pesto and cherry tomatoes. Or shaved summer squash with lemon, fresh mint and feta cheese. Later in the summer, Joel likes to feature gypsy peppers with red onions, Pecorino and marjoram. On top of seasonal veggies and their own homemade pancetta, Joel often tops his pizzas with Prather Ranch bacon and sausage, to round out the options. And because Politana sources most of its toppings from the very markets they visit, the menu is wholly unpredictable. 

“What’s been great about doing more markets is we can get produce from the farmers and then take it back, clean it and use it at the next market, so we kind of get in the rhythm. If we only went once a week, it’d be hard to stay in that cycle.”
 
While market shoppers are often as educated about the farms and their products as he is, Joel likes to think he’s helping expand market shoppers’ understanding of how to make the most of things like Star Route spinach and County Line radicchio at home.

“We’ve had people tell us they wouldn’t have thought to shave zucchini or to cook down the radicchio with balsamic vinegar to take the bitter edge off.  So, yeah — they kind of get a sense of that simplicity —  and without all that sauce and cheese they say, wow, I can really taste what that is and how good it is.”

If there’s no line, each pie takes around 2-3 minutes to bake. Of course, when it comes to the new Thursday market, we probably shouldn’t make any promises.

About CUESA

CUESA (Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture) is dedicated to cultivating a sustainable food system through the operation of the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market and its educational programs. Learn More »