Something was very wrong. My first ball of dough sat in front of me ready to be shaped and stretched into a pizza after fermenting overnight. I cupped it in my hands and encountered a rough skin—a bad sign. As instructed, I placed the ball on a mound of flour, formed a diamond shape with my fingers, and began pressing the orb into a flat circle. That’s when the skin cracked and out spilled what looked like the guts of a ball of burrata cheese—a soupy mess of stringy dough and cloudy water unworthy of any oven.
These are the tells of overworked dough. When mixing this batch by hand the previous day, I worked it, reworked it, and worked it again. It made sense. That’s what editors do. We work things to death. But what was an editor doing away from her desk for three days dusted in flour? I was training to be a pizzaiolo at Pizza University and nervous as hell because my bust of a dough ball didn’t bode well for the practical and written exams looming at the end of the intensive course. Could I make a Neapolitan pizza in two minutes? Would I be able to do dough math?
Thumbing through the syllabus, it became clear that the ideal Pizza University student is a professional cook who aspires to lead a pizzeria kitchen. Nerves took over as I pursued lessons that covered complex pizza-making techniques with some business advice baked in. Meeting my classmates brought some comfort.
On day one, a retired police officer, an attorney, a small business adviser, and a handful of chefs were among those who shuffled into a shiny test kitchen to don matching coats and aprons to meet our instructors. You could suss out the professionals by how they tied their aprons around their bellies instead of behind their backs.
Brothers Francesco and Enzo Marra founded Pizza University in 2018 as an extension of their brick oven pizza business, Marra Forni. The classroom is located in one of their manufacturing facilities in Beltsville. Francesco says he’s graduated close to 250 Pizza University students as a part of his mission to mold the next generation of pizzaiolos.
“We could have better pizza if it was part of the foundation of culinary school,” Francesco tells the class as we take our seats. “People want to open pizzerias but can’t find trained labor. Italy is the size of Florida and has hundreds of pizza schools. The goal here is to build the prototype.”
Francesco also launched the program because he doesn’t want to see anyone take their 401K and open a pizzeria without the business acumen. “As an immigrant that went through a lot of pain and obstacles learning the culture and language, you never wish anyone to fail,” he says. “If we can, with our education and training, we can put someone in a better place to start this journey.”
When Francesco came to the U.S. from Naples at 21, he didn’t speak English. He started cooking in local restaurants and then ran a distribution company that he sold before he and Enzo shifted their focus to manufacturing brick ovens around 2014. Now the entrepreneur speaks in adages. “A business without a plan is a plan without a business,” he says. “Cheap is expensive,” he issues as a warning when discussing equipment. “Fire fast, hire slow.”
Most of the ovens, which cost $7K to $60K, are destined for restaurants such as newcomer L’Ardente and standby 2Amys. But during the pandemic, when restaurants went dark, Francesco says he sold more residential ovens than in the previous six years combined. Pizza was a way of life. Fine dining restaurants such as Reverie and Oyster Oyster sold pies and a number of ghost restaurants entered the market. Pizza boasts a good profit margin. Dough is slang for dollars.
Maybe pizza’s momentum contributed to the fact that my September class was the largest to date with 16 students; 14 men and one other woman came from as far away as California and Florida, most of whom were middle-aged and White. The class costs between $1,900 and $2,100, depending on who’s teaching. In order to report this story, City Paper participated at no cost.
Francesco says he has plans to attract more diverse participants with strategies like bringing in female instructors. After he doubles the size of the classroom, he wants to introduce programs for veterans and returning citizens to enroll with some costs covered.
The instructors had their work cut out for them with this group. Six trained chefs and experienced restaurateurs stood alongside wide-eyed amateurs with dreams of second careers in pizza. Their mission was to teach both groups something new.
Enter lead instructor Giulio Adriani and assistant instructor Aurelio Petra, whose almost sibling-like rapport comes from their relationship as friends and business partners. They have pizzerias in Brooklyn. Petra can be found at Rosie Pizza Bar most nights, while Adriani is a globe-trotting pizza consultant with every title from certified Neapolitan Pizza Master to World Pizza Champion.
“I’d like to be a role model for passion,” Adriani says. “Techniques? Everyone can get my techniques. Not everyone can have my passion.”
Neapolitan pizza is the focus of the course. There are strict requirements governing how to make it, according to a nonprofit established by heads of historic pizzerias in 1984. The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana preserves the pizza style by issuing certifications and offering courses. Even UNESCO added Neapolitan pizza to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2017.
The first two pizzerias opened in Naples in the 19th century. Your choices were marinara or Margherita. The latter calls for peeled tomatoes crushed by hand, buffalo mozzarella, basil, and a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil. Containing flour, yeast, salt, and water, the dough only needs a minute to cook in a wood-fired oven heated to an impossible-to-replicate-at-home 900 degrees.
One standard has some wiggle room in the modern era—what fuels the oven. Gas or gas-assisted ovens achieve more consistent results than wood-fired ovens with their wide temperature swings. “You never want to teach judgment to employees,” Adriani advises. “It has some aroma, but it’s mostly a marketing tool.”
The instructors are aware that Neapolitan pizza isn’t everyone’s favorite and also argue it isn’t fully understood in America. “True Neapolitan pizza, you shouldn’t slice it,” Adriani explains. News to me. “It ruins the integrity of the pizza, so you cut it with a fork and knife from the inside out. Americans say it’s soggy. Italians say it’s juicy.”
When Italian immigrants such as Gennaro Lombardi opened the first pizzerias in New York City in the early 1900s, they had to adapt when they couldn’t find the ingredients or equipment to make the pizza they knew. From there came new styles like the ones with crispier crusts that New Yorkers fold today.
Much of the course was spent uncovering how much variety you can create in a crust formed from only four ingredients. We learned about dough hydration, how to choose flour for its protein content, cooking temperatures, and various fermentation approaches. Fermentation and maturation of dough creates enzymes that make pizza easier to digest. There’s nothing Adriani hates more than feeling like one of the bricks from a brick oven landed in his stomach after a meal.
There were formulas to memorize, such as how to calculate the right water temperature when it’s introduced to the mixer, but nothing boggled our collective minds like biga. The Italian term refers to a portion of dough ingredients that are set aside to ferment in advance, kind of like a sourdough starter. Using a preferment like biga helps pizzaiolos achieve in 24 hours of fermentation what would normally take 72 hours, according to Adriani. The more fermented the dough, the lighter and more fragrant the crust.
I was still trying to wrap my head around easier strategies like bulk fermentation. So following formulas to calculate what percentages of flour, water, and yeast to set aside in the biga preferment felt like running hurdles when I signed up for a sprint.
Finally, when it was time to rest our brains, we started working our fingers. First we learned how to mix dough by hand to mimic what happens when the mixer breaks. The instructors told us to reach for the wood bins beneath our work stations. With horror, I realized that’s where we’d be kneading. My purse was in there. I thought that was its purpose, having seen similar vessels at fine dining restaurants. For those who’ve never carried a purse, the bottom has touched the floor of public bathrooms on drunken nights, the sidewalk when unloading groceries, and other unspeakables. Rookie mistake.
After the manual experiment, we watched Adriani and Petra make large batches of dough in mixers for later practice. They poured one batch into a trunk-size plastic box where it would bulk ferment overnight—meaning it would rest as a large blob instead of pre-rolled dough balls. The dough got too warm overnight and bubbled out of its bin.
“As in the real world things can go wrong so we learned how to overcome an issue,” says my classmate Mike Boyer from Pennsylvania. “We now know what an over-proofed dough tastes like, why it happened, and how to avoid it.”
“Problem solving is the real secret of a pizza place,” Adriani says. “It’s not, ‘How can they make pizza when everything is perfect?’”
Next we learned how to shape dough balls, press them, stretch them, top them, and slide them on and off giant paddles called peels. My visions of throwing dough in the air while “That’s Amore” played in the background was wrong. There are other techniques: We tried a slapping method where you tug one side of the dough to gently stretch it using one hand and then slap it over the other hand, then rotate and repeat.
Presentations from brands such as BelGioioso, Orlando Foods, and General Mills were interspersed with learning about the art and science of pizza. Corto, for example, spelled out the difference between olive oil made from olives harvested in the fall versus the winter. Corto uses fall harvest olives even though the process is more labor-intensive, arguing they produce a fresher tasting product. The company representative drizzled his olive oil on top of gelato to prove how it accentuates other ingredients.
“I think they took up too much time,” says my classmate Yvette Imhof. “We didn’t get to some of the stuff we were supposed to learn.” She and her business partners recently purchased a Marra Forni oven and were hoping to get some pointers on how to use it. “If you look at the itinerary, some stuff didn’t happen. I’m sure they have a reason for it.”
The sponsors who presented the course wanted some face time. “Any type of contribution you make, you look for some kind of return,” Francesco says. He also thinks they’re selling some of the best ingredients on the market. “These food manufacturers are looking out for the well-being of our industry.”
Imhof co-owns Lakeside Famous Roast Beef and Pizza in New Hampshire and is opening a pizza restaurant in Aruba with two other classmates. She knows her way around pizza and has worked at several pizzerias starting with Papa Gino’s when she was 15 years old. Still, she says she’d take the class again and would recommend it to peers.
Others ate up the experience, especially pizza fanatics such as Ernest Kollias. He says he’s logged 446 hours in an online forum called pizzamaking.com since 2018. The president and CEO of a business advisory service and tax preparation firm in Pennsylvania got serious about pizza making in 2007, and by 2008 he was building a wood-fired oven in his backyard.
“For years I’d make pizza on weekends for parties and gatherings while fine tuning my recipes and dough management,” he says. He references the principle from Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, which says it takes 10,000 hours of intensive practice to master something. “In that case, I’m a master of my career and pizza making.”
Kollias says he signed up specifically to learn from Adriani, which was obvious because he was glued to his side. His goal is to establish a foundation that incorporates pizza into a mission to support youth struggling with substance abuse and mental health. He thinks young people—drained by time spent on devices—would benefit from something hands on. He also thinks cooking pizza is uniquely social in the way it’s brought people together for hundreds of years.
Our Floridian classmate, Omar Saleh, geeks out about pizza in the Pizza Dough Addicts Facebook group with 140K members. He’s been practicing with a small portable oven, but sought an apprenticeship or a hands-on course to level up. “I was looking for a reality check, and that’s what I got,” he says. He’s hoping to open a pizza pop-up down the line when his career allows. “Giulio didn’t give us the golden nugget, but he gave us great mining tools. He wasn’t teaching us the perfect pizza. He was giving us the foundation to make our own.”
There were no other students from D.C., but local restaurateur Peter Bayne of Franklin Hall and Penn Social studied at Pizza University in 2018. Adriani was also his instructor, and the pair hit it off even though Bayne answered too many calls during class. “You could see he never cut something in his life,” Adriani says. “His brain is the businessman’s brain. I like him and the fact that he’s a funny guy.”
Bayne calls the course a “master’s degree in pizza-making.” He didn’t expect there to be so many ways to manipulate dough. “Something so simple in nature is so complex and has so many nuances,” he says. I share his takeaway and this one too: “I’m not very good at this, but I’m going to make friends with Giulio.”
Mission accomplished. Adriani came on as a partner in the pizza shop Bayne is opening on 14th Street NW this fall. Slice & Pie is steering clear of Neapolitan in favor of New York pizza by the slice. Bayne hopes to spend some time alongside his staff making pizza even though he graded himself as a C+ student.
I made it through the written exam like it was no “biga” deal. So did my classmates. Adriani was shocked because the class was full of beginners.
“We had a great final result,” he says. “It surprised me to go through the questions. Most people got it all right. I thought it was impossible.”
“You were knocking yourself down,” Adriani says when I ask how I fared as a student. “Our job with you was, ‘Let’s reinforce positivity.’ Sometimes you need to enforce negativity because some students think they’re too good. They’re the ones that made more mistakes on the test.”
With the written exam behind me, it was time to prepare a Margherita pizza for the oven in two minutes. This task was the culmination of the course. I pressed and stretched and topped in record time. At this moment I had pie-in-the-sky confidence that I could fill in at 2Amys. But then I failed—not once, but three times.
When it came time to pull my first attempt onto the peel, it got stuck and crumpled in on itself. Adriani was standing by to ball it up and throw it out, but not in a cruel Gordon Ramsay way. He gave me a rare second shot. This time my perfect pie smushed into a heart shape when I slid it into the oven with a flick of the wrist.
To speed things up for my third and final try, Adriani made the pizza himself. All I had to do was slide it into the oven and rotate it near the flame for an even cook. I burned the shit out of it, but they still gave me a handshake and a certificate that sits on my desk back where I belong. It might be a university, but everyone passes.