Italian, simple and very American — one of Nashville's best chefs talks pizza

Tuesday, October 23, 2012 at 10:05pm

I’m not much of an anchovy guy.

I carry 30-year-old scars borne of takeout pizza while on vacation in Florida. An uncle, who had been tasked with ordering pizzas, thought anchovies would be a good idea for everyone, including kids whose idea of adventurous pizza was “deep dish.” Loaded up with the slimiest, strongest smelling little fishes you can imagine — the scent still haunts me. The taste? Even worse.

So it was with more than a little bit of trepidation that we ordered one of Tandy Wilson’s signature pizzas at City House: anchovy, mozzarella, tomato and chilies.

Sliced almost paper-thin, these anchovies added salt, which contrasted with the sweetness of the San Marzano tomatoes. Instead of stinky, they were mildly fragrant, adding just a little bit of pop to the dish.

This was clearly not the pizza of my youth. The ingredients were simple and well-considered. There was no gimmick to the crust, just a crispy bottom on bread dough tasty enough to enjoy on its own.

Tandy Wilson clearly knows what he’s doing.

In the middle of prep for another evening of pizza making, he talked to The City Paper about what has become a most American dish.


What is the appeal? Everybody loves pizza.

It’s American food. It may come from Naples or wherever, but it’s American now. Everybody loves it. It’s in every walk of life because it’s delicious. That’s why things stick around — because they’re delicious.


Pizza’s been on the menu since you opened City House.

I had worked with pizzas before, when I was in California, and it wasn’t quite as much of a focal point, even though it was delicious. So it was stemming from that. We’ve got a different setup here, where we’ve got pizza and meat in the same oven. That’s very nontraditional. It’s kind of odd, even. But it’s worked out well.


How many pizzas have you made since the restaurant opened?

Wow. That’s tough. Let’s say [starts calculating on napkin] 75,000. That’s my guess.


Walk me through the dough. It’s simple.

It is. It’s flour, water and yeast, olive oil and salt. That’s actually nontraditional. It’s not Neapolitan, because there’s olive oil in it, and there’s more salt. The thought process was to open this place and import as little as we possibly can. So we said “five ingredients.” That’s all I really want to bring in, and doppo zero (the highly refined Italian flour) got left on the boat. So, just mimicking protein content as best we could, we came up with a ratio of bread flour and AP [all-purpose] flour. But it’s just kind of evolved. Aaron [one of the City House cooks] tweaks the dough here and there, from summer to winter.


When you say “tweak,” what are you tweaking for?

Well, you’ve got all the heat and humidity here, and it likes to run. It’s fermentation, you know. We do a three-day fermentation here to achieve flavor. It’s amazing how little an amount of moisture can affect it in the end. I’ve got a buddy who makes pizza in Raleigh, and he does an all-room-temperature fermentation for two days, and I think he’s insane. He’s a maniac. The humidity in the South, it’s crazy what it does to yeast. But it’s also crazy what it does to flavor. There’s a payoff for that, I believe.


If I’m making dough at home, I’m typically not going to take three days.

Maybe not at first ...


Maybe if I get into it.

Well, it’s not like there’s a lot of work in it. At the end of the process, it’s the same amount of work, it just takes more time. You just have to say to yourself “I want to do that.” That’s why I tell most people to go buy dough at whatever bakery or grocery store sells dough. But if you want to get into it and take the process, it’s a really fun journey.


Of the things I don’t have at home, THAT is the biggest one of them [points to the giant wood oven in the middle of the City House kitchen].

And that’s the most deciding factor in our pizza. I think that’s very common among pizza makers, that they agree that the oven has more to do with the outcome than dough fermentation or San Marzano tomatoes. All of those factors do make a better pizza. But if you want to talk about what makes the biggest difference, it’s a big badass oven.


What went into the build of this oven?

It’s a Doughpro. And they make the oven with the footprint [of the building], but we just had them change the lineup of the doors. Then figuring out the ventilation was interesting. It probably took about a year. I was trying to stick with a domestic company, which I don’t know that it matters that much because the ovens are made in Australia and shipped over.


How hot does the oven get?

We think it’s around 750-800 degrees, but we don’t really know because we don’t run it that hot all the time. But there’s no probe or anything. A guy brought in one of those laser probe thermometers one time and he was convinced he could tell us how hot it was, but it read off the charts again. You can stick your hand in there and see how long you can take it and people estimate different degrees. We use a flour technique where you throw flour in there and count.


Explain to me how that works.

You look at how it burns back out. You put a thin layer of flour and it starts to turn from white to black and then it just burns up. You’re looking how quickly it comes back. And it’s not a scientific thing to determine degrees; it just helps you know how quick to pull out your pizza.


It’s not like the sugar test where you can tell if your oven is running a little high or low.

Right. This is cooking with wood. It’s very primal. You have to judge the wood, because it could be cooler or it’s been raining — that’s gonna affect our cook tonight. We have to react to it during the day and during service, as far as how and when we feed the fire. If you asked me to write a recipe about how we make pizza, it would be a small book that makes no sense to anyone but me. It would be comical. And there’s a whole bunch of people who make pizza here, and they would read it and be like “What the **** are you talking about?” [laughs]


Let’s talk about what goes on top. Most people expect tomato on their pizza. ...

Yeah. That’s just what they grow up with. I didn’t really see many things without tomato until I traveled away. [Wilson grew up in Nashville.] You pick up the phone and somebody shows up 30 minutes later with a pizza — and I’m not knocking that, because I do it — but it’s all got tomato sauce on it. That’s the majority of our exposure: carryout.


About that carryout pizza. Not to use any names — but if I pick up the phone and they guarantee they’re gonna be at my doorstep in a set amount of time or it’s free — what’s the biggest difference between theirs versus yours?

The quality of ingredients is probably the biggest thing. We make our mozzarella on a daily basis. We don’t make the curd, we buy it from a good Wisconsin company, but it turns out some great mozzarella. San Marzano tomatoes. Our anchovies aren’t even packed in oil, they’re packed in salt. They come from Italy, and they’re the highest grade you can find. It’s a whole different thing than what most people think of as anchovies. We don’t really mess around with the ingredients. Basil’s gonna go away in the next few weeks and we won’t offer basil until June of next year. [laughs] Now, people don’t like that sometimes, but I truly believe in it. When you buy basil and it comes from far away, it’s just garbage. It doesn’t taste right.


That’s a little different than — to remain nameless — some of these walk-in, here’s a five-dollar pizza that some places have.

[laughs] That’s pretty much naming names. I watched SportsCenter this morning, man. I saw the commercial. I think it’s making it on the cheap and using commodity ingredients. And if one goes by the wayside [when it’s being cooked] nobody cares. If we throw away a pizza here — and we do it on a daily basis because maybe we burned it or the fire fell or something — it’s a tragedy. And if we can save the anchovies off the pizza, we do it. Because there’s nothing wrong with them. I think that’s the thing, that they’re packing on things we shouldn’t be eating at all.


Let’s say I get a quick takeout pepperoniversus that belly ham you’re putting on pizzas. What’s the difference in the ingredients?

I can’t physically eat pepperoni like that. It doesn’t stay down. That reaction started happening a few years ago. It’s full of nitrates. It’s pumped full of that crap. You’ve got feed-lot pork and beef in there. Watch Food Inc., and that will tell you all you need to know. There’s something to be said for convenience; it’s a big thing in our society. People are going to go for that. But it’s a whole world of difference. If it’s cheese that’s got stabilizers and preservatives in it rather than just rennet, salt and milk, it’s gonna taste worse.


But somebody might say, “Isn’t it all just cheese?”

Pasteurized mozzarella ... it’s so far away from what the definition of cheese is it’s kind of funny. The difference is night and day. It’s one of those things where I say “it’s hard to be simple.” And that travels through all aspects of life. It’s really difficult to put cheese out. You have to have some training to take some curd that’s just Wisconsin milk and some salt and rennet and turn it into cheese. So to ease those difficulties, we process things seven ways to Sunday so people can throw it on a shelf until they’re ready to use it.


When you’re sitting at home and the fridge is empty, what do you order on your pizza?



Just cheese?

Just cheese. I prefer it that way.


If somebody wants to make pizza at home and they get some decent dough, how should they approach that pizza?

When I was testing at the house before we opened here, I used a Weber [grill]. Grill is good. It’s the only thing that mimics the heat. And I think the thing to do at home is to think in a minimalist manner, because when you start loading a pizza up at home, every topping carries moisture. And not having that crazy wood-burning thing [points to his oven], you don’t have the heat that just melts it away, and it’s a soggy mess. I think those are the big things. Stop by your farmers market and see what’s fresh to put a little produce on it. And, look, I understand if you don’t want to do a three-day dough. But it’s one of those things that if you get into it and you start having fun with it, you make one night “pizza night” and you follow through with your routine, I think one of the really cool things with pizza is the journey of it.

1 Comment on this post:

By: mbodayle on 10/24/12 at 1:49

Great interview!

Here are my picks for the best pizza in Nashville - sorry City House but I favor NY-style.