The Unemployee in ... A slice of life (with olives)
Irv Leavitt blows a puff of air under the dough to loosen it from the paddle before he slides the raw pizza into the oven.
Updated: September 30, 2011 11:56AM
Even after we wrestled the 120-pound mass of raw pizza dough out of the big steel mixing bowl, it had a starchy little mind of its own.
It reminded me of Jabba the Hutt, only cleaner and quieter.
If you touched it, it moved. If you didn't touch it, it moved.
At times, when I was ministering to it, it seemed to have an eye for the exit.
"You want to push this up here so it doesn't fall off?" boss Todd Denenberg asked me pointedly, as Jabba ventured over the edge of the table.
Denenberg didn't yet trust me to keep all that dough off his floor at the Plaza del Prado location of Viccino's Pizza Factory.
The floor was clean, but not that clean.
Viccino's was the site of The Unemployee's day of training in the Way of the Pizza Guy, starting at the bottom.
That's where the crust is.
Chef Marcos Cortez told me to make 14-ounce balls of dough for medium pizzas and put them on greased pans. He didn't mention it was inefficient to just grab handfuls of dough from the pile and drop them on the scale, however.
Ruyeli Hernandez, 19, showed me the miracle of the dough knife, and things became much easier.
He and I teamed up. I felt fast, but I was much slower cutting off pieces of dough than Hernandez (who'd been at Viccino's only three weeks) was at rolling the balls from the raw pizza lumps I handed him.
And his rounds were much smoother than mine, too.
OK, grow up.
And when it was my turn to fashion the balls, he buried me under 14-ounce parcels of dough.
Uzziel Gorostieta, the sandwich chef, pointed at me and cackled devilishly, announcing something in Spanish which I didn't quite get.
Eventually, Hernandez told me that he'd said, "Just wait until he sees there's another one," pointing to a second giant bowl turning on the mixer.
So it went on and on. As soon as I got used to cutting an exact 14-ounce knot of dough, we had to make 16-ouncers or 20s or 10s for panini.
But eventually, all the balls of dough were in refrigerated storage, rising to the occasion of the next day.
And now I could make something that looked like food.
Cortez chucked a dough ball through the automatic roller, did it again, and handed it to me. I stretched the thin sheet of dough over my knuckles, then spread it to the edges of a floured wooden paddle.
I dipped a ladle into some sauce -- sauce so tasty you could drink it cold, I tellya -- and used the back of the ladle to spread it to within a half-inch of the edge of the dough.
Then sliced mozzarella, covering the sauce.
When Cortez lays on cheese slices, he looks like he's dealing poker in Vegas. I look like a customer searching through his wallet for his AARP card at the register of Old Country Buffet.
Inside the pizza oven, steel trays revolve like a Ferris wheel in a 550-degree carnival of hell. Several archaic-looking knobs can stop and start the wheel, or put it in reverse.
It's not the simplest thing in the world to get a raw pizza off a wooden paddle and onto a ridiculously hot surface without touching it.
Here's how you make it easier: You pick up the edge of the pizza and blow under it. Really.
The air unsticks the dough from the paddle and helps it get ready to slide. If the pizza is light enough, it actually billows, which is pretty cool to watch.
You can slide the thin cheese pizzas into the oven easily this way, and about 70 percent of Viccino's pizzas are cheese. They make good cheese.
So after a while, I was shooting in cheese pizzas without even stopping the wheel. I felt like Danny Zuko in "Grease."
That is, until I threw one on the floor. Then I felt like Putzie. Or maybe Doody.
It could have been worse. Hernandez raised his arm too quickly after sliding a pizza, and got a nice 2-inch sear across the back of his hand.
"Man, I didn't hear you say a thing," I told him, admiring his stoicism.
With an "Oh, this is nothing" shrug, he showed me his forearm, which he had burned a week or so before, much more dramatically. It looked like the stuff on the inside was trying to get out and crawl around on the outside.
Up in the air
Cortez taught me how to flip pizza dough, mainly because I wanted to say I'd done it. Throwing a pizza helps the dough spread out better, or so they say.
I was able to throw one up three times straight without much damage to the dough. But while Cortez's pizzas spun like Frisbees, mine flopped around like a porkpie hat in the wind.
When the evening rush started, we made lots of pizzas, many of them with multiple ingredients. One of the coolest combinations was the Venetian: sausage, Spanish onion and artichokes covered with a layer of shredded mozzarella mixed with spinach.
We got an order, in the house, for a Venetian with green peppers, or at least we thought we did. It came back: no green peppers.
So I remade one the regular way, and we ate the bad one.
The bad one was really, really good. All the tastes of the original, but crunchy.
"They shoulda kept it. They'd have liked it better," I told Denenberg.
"That's not the way they ordered it," he retorted.
"And it's better without green peppers. You're just real hungry."
About an hour before my shift changed, I caught a glimpse of Denenberg talking quietly with Cortez.
"It's OK," he said, jerking a thumb in my direction. "You've got him."
That's how I wound up slicing 35 pounds of provolone cheese.
It's done on an electric slicer, but you don't just clamp a 5-pound brick of cheese onto the carrier and flip the switch.
You catch every slice with your left hand, then grab it with both hands and neatly stack it so that it's easy to use.
I quickly became a non-person.
Not only was I not making anything that required the slightest amount of skill, but I had become the slave of a machine with a whizzy circular blade.
Nobody wants to talk to the guy who might cut off some part of his body if he stops paying attention.
At the end of my shift, I made a large Venetian -- with the right recipe -- to eat with photographer Dan Luedert in the dining room. Denenberg joined us.
It looked good, but the crust in the center wasn't crispy. How come?
"Took it out just a little bit too soon," Denenberg said.
Otherwise, it was very good.
But it would have been better with green peppers.
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