The ‘Gandalf of pizza’ speaks to the spiritual side of comfort food

Peter Taylor, Andrews McMeel Publishing

Peter Reinhart, master baker and James Beard-award winning author of the new book Pizza Quest: My Never-Ending Search For the Perfect Pizza.

Peter Reinhart is standing in an uptown food hall in Charlotte, N.C., beaming. The master baker and spiritual force in the world of cheese pies is in his element. He’s about to munch on one of his favorite local slices – a piece of “grandma-style” pie from Geno D’s Pizza.

“The best pizza that’s ever been made in the history of the world is happening right now,” Reinhart says, with clear satisfaction. He takes a minute to appreciate the snap of the crust and its interior creaminess before continuing.

“Part of a quest for a fulfilling life is experiencing the difference between good and great,” Reinhart says. “All pizza is good. Look at how many frozen pizzas are eaten every day throughout the world. There’s something about even an average crust, average toppings that works.”

Reinhart’s new book is called Pizza Quest: My Never-Ending Search for the Perfect Pizza. It’s partly a cookbook, but Pizza Quest might be more accurately called a guide, not just for eating but as a way of life.

Until recently, Reinhart says, the vast majority of U.S. pizza places were good, not great. Truly great pizza was hard to find. But that’s changed, he argues.

Take Razza, in Jersey City, N.J. Pizzaria Bianco in Phoenix. Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage in Boulder, Colo. Metro Pizza in Las Vegas. Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio. Mia Marco’s Pizza in Schertz, Texas. That’s A Some Pizza on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. “The whole pizza scene is elevated to a whole other level,” he says.

Here at Geno D’s in Charlotte, proprietors Geno DiPaolo and his daughter, Gina, credit Reinhart with helping them to elevate their pies with dough hydration techniques and tricks to managing their conveyor oven. “When Peter said to me, ‘You nailed this,’ that brought me over the edge,” Geno says with pride. “Like, wow. Peter liked it.”

Reinhart is a venerated figure in the world of pizza. He’s authored more than a dozen books, three of which have won James Beard awards, and he maintains an active pizza-obsessed blog. As a younger man, he lived in a semi-monastic Christian community that grew out of the counterculture of the 1960s. “For us, religion was a way to experience divinity,” he says. “Ultimately for me, it was about finding a path towards a personal experience of the reality of God.”

Now, Reinhart believes that spirituality can be found in striving for greatness and bringing people joy, even through pizza. “For me, the word religion at its root comes from the Latin word religio,” which he reads as meaning to be connected to something greater than oneself. In the pizza community, he’s been half-jokingly compared to Gandalf, the wizard who launched the quest in The Lord of the Rings. As a faculty member at Johnson and Wales University, Reinhart is revered, says his colleague Quientina Stewart.

“From breads to pizza for sure- and then his ability to just get out there and connect,” she marvels.

The connection, for Reinhart, is part of what he sees as a lifelong search for greatness. Pizza, he says, is a familiar metaphor for something good you may take for granted. But at its greatest, pizza approaches the sublime. That, he says, is worth the quest.

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Transcript :

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

And now we turn to pizza and a man who went in search of the best pie.

PETER REINHART: The best pizza that’s ever been made in the history of the world is happening right now.

SCHMITZ: Peter Reinhart teaches at a culinary school in North Carolina, and he’s the author of a new book called “Pizza Quest.” NPR’s Neda Ulaby met him at a pizzeria near his home in Charlotte.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This pizza philosopher wrote a book about his search for the very best pizza. But pizza, he says, is always good, no matter where you find it.

REINHART: It used to be, like, 99% of the pizzerias in America were good, and maybe 1% I would call great. And now there are hundreds around the country. The whole pizza scene is elevated to a whole other level.

ULABY: Like the pizza at Razza in Jersey City or Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. Right here in Charlotte, this place, Geno D’s, is run by an old-school pizzaiolo who grew up tossing pies on the Jersey Shore.

GENO DIPAOLO: Back in the day when I made pizza, you filled a bucket up. There were three handfuls of sugar, two hand – and that was it. I’m old school.

ULABY: But Geno DiPaolo says Reinhart taught him master baking techniques he’d learned in Italy.

GENO DIPAOLO: When Peter said to me, Geno, you nailed this, that made me – that brought me over the edge.

ULABY: He gets choked up talking about it.

GENO DIPAOLO: Like, wow. Peter, I – (laughter).

ULABY: Before Peter Reinhart became a revered figure in the world of pizza, he was a monk who lived in a semi-monastic community. As Brother Peter Reinhart, he wrote the first of more than a dozen cookbooks, three of which won James Beard Awards. His book, “Pizza Quest,” he says, is fundamentally spiritual.

REINHART: For me, the word religion at its root level comes from the Latin word religio, which means to be connected to, to be connected to something greater than myself.

QUIENTINA STEWART: So there’s ham in there. There’s some fresh tomatoes.

ULABY: This is an appreciation of pizza that verges on mystical, says Quientina Stewart. She’s a fellow baking professor at Johnson and Wales University who describes Reinhart as the Gandalf of pizza.

STEWART: Absolutely. Oh, my gosh. He is the pizza guy.

ULABY: You might remember Gandalf from the quest in the “Lord Of The Rings.”

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, “THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING”)

IAN MCKELLEN: (As Gandalf) All you have to decide is what to do the time that is given to you.

ULABY: That means more than just eating. It means making something meaningful through pizza. Skeptical? Talk to Gina Maria DiPaolo. The 26-year-old runs this pizzeria, Geno D’s, with her dad.

GINA MARIA DIPAOLO: It’s just to fill people’s hearts with love when you come. We want to make you feel like you’re at home. Just munch and eat, relax, you know? Fill your heart, you know?

ULABY: No matter how you cut it, says Peter Reinhart, a slice of greatness is a path to awe, humility and joy. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NELLY SONG, “RIDE WIT ME”) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.