As we find ourselves in the age of affordable luxury, we are, perhaps, reaching the peak of the artisanal food movement. Burgers, hot dogs, cupcakes and even doughnuts have been given a high-end makeover – simple small pleasures done exceptionally well. The traditional pizza, too, has been touched by the hand of haute cuisine over the past decade, and one name that stands out is Mathieu Palombino.
The Belgian-born, French-trained chef moved to New York in 2000 and worked at high-end Manhattan restaurants Bouley, Cafe Charbon and Cello. At 27, as chef de cuisine of BLT Fish, Palombino led the restaurant to three stars in The New York Times and one Michelin star. Then in 2008, he decided to open a pizza parlour in Brooklyn, and Motorino soon took New York by storm.
Palombino’s pizzas were called “one of the best things to eat in NYC” by New York magazine and “the best of a new generation” by The New York Times. And being the best pizza in New York is like being the best footballer in Brazil. Now open in Dubai Marina at JA Ocean View Hotel, Motorino aims to bring its artisanal ethos to the Middle East.
“The worst thing that has ever happened to pizza is industrialisation … mass-produced, over-processed, frozen. But the trend of artisanal pizzerias has brought justice to this modest but noble speciality,” Palombino tells The National.
These days, there’s no need to put up with bad pizza alongside an increasing desire to seek out the best. “If people are eating it every day, they want it to be good, wholesome, and chefs are there to give people what they want.” Of all types of pizza, Neapolitan is the one for the purists, he says. It ticks the most important box for the everyday gourmand: authenticity. And that starts with the dough. The 00 flour is favoured for Motorino’s Neapolitan because it has a low gluten content and is finely ground (“it gives the dough a little less stretch than a stronger flour”).
“The crust has an excellent light, airy, structure that many Neapolitan pizzas don’t achieve,” Palombino says. “You know how pizza gets soggy in the centre; the dough won’t hold? Our crust doesn’t have that problem because we don’t work pizza dough the way pizzerias usually do; we approach the dough production as a bakery would.” As in a fine-dining restaurant, his team employs a precise schedule and a crew of people are dedicated solely to making the dough. “It is a very different job from the pizzaiolo in front of the oven, and being able to separate the production from the preparation is what allows you to maintain the quality of this dough for so long.”
Further, a Neapolitan pizza needs to be cooked in a Neapolitan oven. “It could not possibly be more low-tech – it’s a stone and cement chamber with fire on one side and pizza on the other. The Neapolitan pizza oven is a beast – rough, powerful and fascinating to work with … it has no match,” says the chef.
Palombino uses only authentic Acunto or Stefano Ferrara ovens, the two remaining Neapolitan oven-makers in Naples. In the pizza movement, however, there’s a split between those who prefer wood and those who choose coal for the oven, so what’s the difference? “The two fuels are for different applications, and when it comes to Neapolitan pizza, wood is the appropriate fuel,” he says. “Coal is meant to heat an oven in a separate chamber from the food – it has no place in a Neapolitan oven next to a pizza.”
The secret to the toppings is to keep them light and simple, believes the chef, who says there’s no shortage of access to the best ingredients in the Middle East. “I visited the Italian importer in Dubai and was very impressed to see the best of Italy in front of me in the warehouse – there are things available here that I had only been able to get in Italy, not even in New York.”
What we’ve been seeing over the past decade or so is an elevation of the everyday. Sure, you can go to a fine-dining restaurant and eat creative tasting menus, but that’s something you might do only a couple of times a year. And that’s one of the reasons we’ve seen so many high-end places closing down – they’re fantastic, people love it, but they only go once. A great pizza place, however, can be a second home.
“There is a lot of professional satisfaction and rewards to be had by cooking in trattorias, pizzerias, brasseries … places that people use on a daily basis,” Palombino says, and baulks at the idea that some might see it as a step down for a chef’s career. “It is a healthy environment to progress in as a chef, with a rich culture to pull inspiration from. It is accessible, inclusive, and I’d advise any young chef not to discount it because it is ‘common’ – these places are fun and full of life.”
Palombino says he doesn’t miss his time in Michelin-starred restaurants. In the world of pizza, he’s currently one of the best and that’s as much of a thrill and, these days, brings as much kudos as working in a fine-dining establishment. “Watching a gorgeous pizza passing by is a very fulfilling achievement for a chef. The satisfaction of a job well done is its own reward no matter what you’re cooking, whether it’s a pizza or a chocolate souffle.”
For The National – click here for original