Food & Drink | November 11, 2021 7:25 am

The Overlooked Qualities a Pizza Sommelier Wants in the Perfect Slice

We picked the brain of "The Joy of Pizza: Everything You Need to Know" author and Jersey City pizzeria owner Dan Richer

A pie to the liking of Jersey City pizzeria owner Dan Richer
A pie to the liking of Jersey City pizzeria owner Dan Richer.
Eric Wolfinger

In a 2012 TED Talk, sexuality educator Al Vernacchio made the argument that the perfect metaphor for sex is pizza —  and not because even if it’s done bad, it’s still good.

“When you sit down to have pizza with someone, you decide the kind of pizza you both like,” Vernacchio argued. You can go half and half, or decide to try one kind of pizza one night, and another kind the next night. The question you ask each other after is: ‘Are you satisfied?’”

Vernacchio was probably onto something, because satisfaction level is addressed multiple times in the 56-point rubric that The Joy of Pizza: Everything You Need to Know author and Jersey City pizzeria owner Dan Richer uses to evaluate the pies he serves at Razza.

In addition to addressing pizza characteristics such as cheese-to-sauce ratio, crust crispness, tomato texture, Richer’s rubric mandates that pies at Razza be evaluated for their ability to leave a “deeply emotional and longstanding positive impression,” capacity to be “greatly enjoyed during the moment of consumption” and being served “at the appropriate temperature (HOT).”

"The Joy of Pizza" author Dan Richer
“The Joy of Pizza” author Dan Richer.
Robin and Sue

“Let’s say you hit all of the points and nailed every aspect of a pizza, but it was a terrible pizza for some reason. That’s got to play into the evaluation system. It doesn’t matter how technically perfect is,” Richer tells InsideHook. “If a pizza doesn’t make a deep impression and bring joy to the person tasting it, then why does structural integrity matter? It’s more of a philosophical thing. I believe a highly emotional food and connectivity surrounding it matters. If somebody really didn’t like a pizza, then it doesn’t matter how well the cheese melted, right?”

Remind you of anything?

The satisfaction level of Razza customers clearly matters to Richer, but the production elements as well as the technical aspects of his pizzas, many of which might be overlooked by an average slice-head, are also matters of great import.

First up? Ingredients.

“There’s a huge misnomer that it’s all about the water and it’s just scientifically proven that it’s not. Pizza in New York is not better than anywhere else in the world because of the water. It’s the ingredients,” he says. “Let’s talk tomatoes. Tomatoes are a ubiquitous product. There are so many different brands coming from many different locations. We try to taste tomatoes based on individual characteristics like sweetness, acidity, color, positive flavor attributes, negative flavor attributes and their seeds and skin. If you taste five different tomatoes, there’s usually a clear winner that’s the best to you. That’s the one that you should use. We take that approach to all the ingredients when it comes to pizza from olive oil and cheese to the flour and toppings. There’s a range of products you can purchase, and the only way to know you’re using the one you like the most is to taste them side by side and really pick them apart.”

Ingredients are a pre-baking concern for Richer, but he also has several other major areas of concern once a pie enters the oven.

“I evaluate every single pizza as it’s baking and after it’s bakes,” he says. “The main thing I want to see after a pizza goes in the oven is a rapid rise in the first few minutes. That’s going to tell you a lot about the textures and the fermentation that the dough underwent. I’m always looking at the oven spring. The second thing I’m looking for is the way to crust browns. I’m looking for shades of brown, grey and even some auburn. I want many different shades of color. I’m also looking at the way the sauce reduces in the oven. I can’t stand it when tomato sauce is overly reduced. It becomes thick and pasty and I don’t like that overly aesthetic tomato. The last thing I’m looking for is the way the cheese melts. How fast or slow did it melt? Did it melt fully? Did the cheese overcook and begin to create an oily puddle on top? Cheese is an emulsion of fat and water held together with this matrix of protein. When you cook it too long, the fat and the water in the protein separate and you get that oily puddle on top and I don’t like that. I want it to be fully melted with a little bit of browning and nice long cheese poles. Another aspect I’m looking for is structural integrity. I want to be able to pick the slice up with one hand and not have the tip sag and droop. Structural integrity is very important to me. Nobody likes saggy, sloppy pizza.”

"The Joy of Pizza" is out this week
“The Joy of Pizza” is out this week.
Eric Wolfinger

And nobody likes pizza with too much or too little sauce or cheese, which is why Richer is looking for a 60:20:20 surface ratio with the two principle pizza components.

“I’m looking for a pizza that has clearly visible areas of just sauce, clearly visible areas where it’s just cheese and then another area where the sauce meets the cheese and they get married and intermingle together to create this rich, rosy-pink area that just drives me wild. I love it,” he says.

But just because the 60:20:20 ratio is what Richer wants at Razza, a pizza that doesn’t have it isn’t necessarily a bad pizza. It’s just … different.

“Pizza is highly personal, and you shouldn’t listen to anyone who’s telling you that you’re doing it the wrong way, as many people have told me over the 20 years I’ve been making pies,” he says. “The end goal is fantastic pizza, but to get there you have to understand the sum of its parts. You have to understand each part in order to put them back together in a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Pizza-making is a series of choices and techniques. It is so simple, but there’s a whole world pizza can open up for people. Everybody knows what pizza is and everybody understands it, but what mysteries can be unlocked by searching and really thinking about it and learning about it is what makes pizza so special to me.”

Amen.