June 07, 2006

A Day In The Life The Pizza Maker: Mark Caltabiano

Take flour, salt, sugar, yeast, and water. Add a touch of oil. Mix everything in a large dough mixer. Stretch individual dough balls to a diameter of about 16 inches. Spin it in the air, if you have the skills and the daring. Add a ladle of sauce, tomato- based, with salt, sugar, a dash of basil and oregano, and some grated cheese. Add mozzarella, and, if you're like the average customer, pepperoni.

What next? "Just bake it in the oven at 500 degrees, and eight minutes later, bam, you've got a pizza," said Mark Caltabiano, the owner of Francesca's Restaurant and Pizzeria in Hampton Bays.

And with those seemingly simple ingredients, man has learned to create one of the most sublime foods ever to grace a table or so generations of students, people on the run, really anyone with the least bit of sense, have come to agree on.

New York's love for pizza is well known; people tend to show the same devotion to their pizzamaker of choice as they show to their barber or a good tax accountant. In these parts, the word pie doesn't summon up images of apples or blueberries, but rather piping hot cheese, pepperoni, mushrooms, sausage, and a delicious, bendable crust.

Most devotees to the form recognize that such culinary goodness should be left in the hands of professionals, and in the 18 years since Francesca's opened, thousands of pies have passed through Caltabiano's hands—so many, in fact, that he recently had carpal tunnel surgery on both hands to correct the nagging pain that came with the 12 hour days of making pizza for the hungry hordes.

"Everybody always asks, 'How many have you made in your lifetime?' I don't know. One day I should sit down and figure out the formula," Caltabiano said.

Last Friday evening, Caltabiano kneaded his way through tin after tin of dough, requiring little more than a minute to make each pizza. "Boy, you're really flying, man," said one customer as Caltabiano moved between the counter and the four-doored Baker's Pride oven in which he deposited the newly made pies and checked on the crusts of the pizzas inside. It was a process of constant repetition— the pizzas were pounded into shape, the order checks were moved down the wall, the containers of mozzarella were replenished, and new pizza boxes were bent into shape, a scene of controlled madness under the lazily circling fans and the colorful neon signs.

Caltabiano's movements were economical and rapid. He rarely spins the pies in the air: "That's kind of an art," one that he is good but not great at, he said. Customers trickled in and out, exchanging pleasantries with Caltabinao as he tried to keep pace with the chiming of the phone. Chances are few of the customers were being adventuresome about what they ordered; most people are "creatures of habit" when it comes pizza, Caltabiano said. "Some people get the exact same thing, time and time again."

Caltabiano has a number of theories about what makes New York pizza a cut above the rest. It's not the water—he and his brothers Nello and Tony, who transformed a beaten-down laundromat into Francesca's in 1988, brought back jugs of water from Florida on one occasion and found the pizza made with that water was the same, if not better. Part of it is the taste: "The flavor appeals to most everyone," Caltabiano said.

Competition raises the bar, too; chain restaurants have nothing on the individually owned restaurants that line the streets of the East End. Fierce competition "pushes people to make a better product," Caltabiano said.

One thing he is certain about, hundreds of thousands of pies after he and his brothers made good on their dream to open their own pizza place, is the universal appeal of the eight part circle. "It is something that everyone eats, whether you are rich, young, poor, old," Caltabiano said. "You can enjoy a slice of pizza."

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