The Philly or Philadelphia cheesesteak (or cheese steak; or, Philly…
February 9, according to several sources, is “National Pizza Day.” While I take such arbitrary proclamations with a grain of salt, I never take pizza arbitrarily. Hands-down, it is one of my favourite foods.
There are many schools of thought for aficionados of the tomato-sauced, cheese-laden and otherwise dressed and trimmed flatbread called pizza. The pie stokes desires and passions, and warms the heart and soul at the same time it satisfies hunger. There should be a day dedicated to the popularity of pizza. A few of them, in fact.
A multiplicity of pizzas
There’s even a book called Where to Eat Pizza (Phaidon, 2016). I mean in the entire world — that’s a pretty good indication that just about everyone loves pizza. Accordingly, pizza — as diverse a foodstuff as any — gives back to those who revel in its awesomeness: ultra-crisp cracker crust-thin pizza; glorious wood-fired Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana (VPN)-certified pizza with origin-protected ingredients and charred and black-blistered crust; stone-baked pizza; classic deep-dish pizza in the Chicago exemplar; super-cheap industrial conveyor belt take-away-late-night-drunk pizza and its 2-4-1 cheapzza pizza brethren; even, dare I breathe it, frozen grocery store pizza (which has come a long way).
The pizza, when I sampled it, instantly reminded me of my Nonna’s pizza — virtually the same shape and a similar bread-like dough. I smiled, in fact, as I saw it delivered to the table.
The current tendency toward a specific kind of pizza — the pizza that gets the most accolades — is likely the VPN-prepared pie: a thinner crust with specially sourced and sanctioned ingredients, Neapolitan pizza is the pizza that gets the most press. You can certainly make a case for that — even in as short a time as the 90 seconds it takes for the “00” flour crust to blister in the 900-degree roll-over heat. (My favourite in this regard is Bread Heads, Kitchener.)
But there’s another pizza that I’ve just had which is neither thin- nor thick-crust and which needs to be remarked upon amidst the crowded pizza landscape: Levetto’s moderately thick-crust pizza. It’s a Roman-style pie with a more bread-like dough and a rectangular shape.
From Rome to Racalmuto
The first Levetto opened in Vaughan in 2013; the Waterloo location was next to open in 2014. The pizza, when I sampled it, instantly reminded me of my Nonna’s pizza — virtually the same shape and a similar bread-like dough. I smiled, in fact, as I saw it delivered to the table. The odd thing is that my Nonna Concetta Scime was from Racalmuto, Sicily, some 1,000 kilometres and an entire Italian food-culture away from Lazio and Rome.
“The trick after that is to take this very wet dough that’s very difficult to handle and, almost like a puff pastry dough, build layers by folding.”
— Shahir Massoud
Shahir Massoud is Levetto’s Executive Chef and the energy behind the concept; you might recognize him from the new CBC television show The Goods. The Levetto concept started as a quick-casual operation for people who wanted something better than fast food but wanted it quickly and at a good price, but it seems to have grown from there.
“It’s a fast casual concept in terms of price point and menu size,” Massoud says. “But each of our locations has taken on a personality of its own. That’s been part of our evolution.”
From McGee to Massoud
Massoud, a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York City who has worked at Batali’s Lupa and Vongerichten’s The Mark Hotel, has created a dough that’s unque and actually quite difficult to work with. “We made our mind up pretty quickly that we would have to centralize our production with this dough, primarily because it’s a very, very technical, time-consuming dough that’s hard to make,” he says.
What makes for the difficulty, he adds, is proof-time and hydration and having a feel for ambient temperature and humidity: those are the baker’s challenges. There’s lots and lots of water in the Levetto pizza dough, making it sticky and complex to work with. You can just imagine food scientist and writer Harold McGee thinking things through and experimenting.
“In batches recently, we’re pushing upwards of 89 percent ratio of water to flour. Reaching even 85 percent is really remarkable. You see the dough and you see the cell structure and the small pockets of air, and there’s a lot of water in this dough which makes it light, crispy and fluffy. Time is important too. If you add the flour and water in those quantities all at once, you won’t get a dough. You’ll get a flour soup.”
The science behind the creation includes a time factor and feel of the bakers which allows maintenance of cell structure and strength. “The trick after that is to take this very wet dough that’s very difficult to handle and, almost like a puff pastry dough, build layers by folding. It’s almost like a lamination.”
The dough is proofed three times in the process– about seven hours, which helps air-pocket development — before being par-baked and delivered to Levetto locations. The system and its science works, because the result is delicious thicker crust pizza that takes a time investment and yet with prices ranging from $7 to $16 depending on size.
With local locations in Baden, Ont., and the Waterloo restaurant, Levetto now has seven locations. The menu is small and sensible: salads, pastas and pizza. The former are rustic and shareable — the misticanza includes mandarin segments and shaved fennel — while pastas are made in-house using a bread box-sized extrusion machine. There are nine pizzas on the menu.
You might notice the magical, heady, siren-song aroma of truffle oil wafting through the air. It might not be on your particular pizza, but if it doesn’t make you instantly hungry nothing will. Items like prosciutto, deeply rich funghi, fennel and pesto show up on the pizzas, as does the heaven-sent prodigy of milk fior di latte cheese. There’s even a medjool date topping — which isn’t at all out-of-place among the foodstuffs of Sicily. And in one particular bite I had, the sweetness of caramelized onion punctuated the mouthful with a remarkable contrast of flavour.
Waterloo Levetto owner Karen Hammond, who arrived from Calgary where she was with the Fairmont Palliser for 20 years, has a passion for good food and wanted to be able to share her kitchen with guests. So, she bought a restaurant. She says she wants Levetto to have that welcoming quality, describing the menu as simple, casual and suitable for the table, noting that the prices are accessible and the portions ample.
“It’s a good menu for sharing items family-style,” Hammond adds. She’s right.
The tables, with seating for 32, run along the large windows and just across from a line of about a dozen bar stools that look into the open-concept kitchen. The decor is chic and urban and perhaps faintly industrial. The restaurant serves only wine and beer and will add ciders and special beers at certain times of the year. The patio looks out onto the soccer pitch of Waterloo’s RIM Park athletic complex.
They are geared for a quick visit if that is what customers want, and they also want to be able to serve students too, Hammond says.
The two Levetto pizzas I had — Salsiccia and Verde — were very good. The dough is fluffy and has a few air pockets, just like my Nonna’s. Not at all dense, the bottom of the crust was a light brown toasted colour and with a gentle and slight snap of crisp to it. Again, a lot like Nonna’s.
No restaurant is there to match expectations of a Nonna, but it should strive to satisfy and give customers a relaxing experience (and without the plastic covering the furniture and lampshades as my Nonna did).
“We want people to be comfortable here,” says Hammond, indicating that they have many returning guests who like the cozy ambiance. “We like to know the regular’s names and we strive for quality of food and affordable prices so that people can come back regularly.”
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