Demonstration at the James Beard House
For Mark Bello, pizza-making is not a pastime. It’s not a profession. It is a way of life. Last week, I got to witness this phenomenon myself, during a five hour extravaganza in his quirky Chinatown apartment on Catherine Street. Sometime after the first of the year, Mark’s company, “Pizza a Casa,” will be opening a retail store and cooking school at 371 Grand Street, just east of Essex. The other night, he invited six curious/hungry New Yorkers over for a “hands-on” demonstration.
While we waited for “class to begin,” I thumbed through a large book filled with exhaustive evaluations of every worthwhile pizza joint in the city. Mark had graded each pie for the quality of its crust, sauce and toppings. It was only the first indication this guy was not messing around. Mark created “Pizza a Casa” five years ago, teaching pizza-making at places like the Astor Center and Murray’s Cheese Shop. From the beginning, his boundless enthusiasm and passion made him a big hit at birthday parties and other special events.
Potato rosemary pizza
Mark is a self-taught student of pizza. Through a decade of trial and error, experimenting with techniques and ingredients, he has come up with the perfect at-home formula. He balks at the notion that most home ovens aren’t hot enough to make a high quality crust. The results are convincing. One after another, delicious pizzas (classic margherita, smoked mozzarella, potato rosemary and more) began coming out of the oven, and were devoured in short order.
Then it was our turn to roll up our sleeves and get to work. Noticing my obvious lack of skill as a baker (though he was too nice to say so), Mark tutored me patiently on the finer points of making dough “smooth as a baby’s bottom.” Nothing was left to chance – each of us weighed our balls of dough on a kitchen scale, Mark making adjustments along the way. We were presented with a wide variety of tempting ingredients, sourced from the city’s best specialty shops. My personal favorite: a decadent “bacon and egg” pizza, made with pancetta, fried sage and sunny-side-up eggs. The grayson and honey truffle pie did me in.
Pizza class with Big Brothers/Big Sisters
Mark said his move to the Lower East Side seemed only fitting. His grandfather, Hyman Brechner, lived on Hester Street and owned a printing shop on Lafayette. He buys a lot of his cheese from his friend Anne Saxelby in the Essex Street Market. Alleva Dairy, another favorite destination, is just a short distance away in Little Italy.
At the store on Grand Street, he’ll offer classes (many more than he’s able to teach now), and sell a small number of preferred products: ingredients, utensils, etc. While Mark fervently believes the best dough is made at home, he’ll sell ready-made dough in the store. The shop will feel a lot like his apartment, which is bursting with eclectic items he’s collected over the years, such as a pair of large truffle digging tools.
“Pizza a Casa” will be joining a shopette that includes two renowned foodie shrines: Kossar’s Bialys and the Doughnut Plant. Mark wants to see the retail location become a citywide (perhaps worldwide) pizza lover’s destination. He’s also excited about being part of a community in which he has deep roots.
If you just can’t wait until January, check out Mark’s web site. His next class is being offered this coming Sunday.
All photos courtesy Pizza A Casa