Monday, October 17, 2016

Making Things Pizza

Paulie Gee's Hampden
3535 Chestnut Ave.
Baltimore MD

In a perverse way, Pizza Club is grateful for the logistical complications that stalled the opening of Paulie Gee's Hampden for lo these past three years. The resistance of the smoke-encrusted old Republican Club building, which had to be stripped down to the bricks, helped us reflect on our own knee-jerk feelings of resistance to the new and trendy. In the interval between proprietor Kelly Beckham's announcement that he would open a branch of the pioneering Brooklyn craft-pizzeria in Baltimore and the unveiling of said local branch, we walked past the building for weeks and months, watching it slowly metamorphose.

The passage of time mellowed our suspicions of parachute Brooklyn imperialism; Beckham was committed to his colleagues in the local pizza scene and to his Hampden location. Most neighbors we queried were unfamiliar with the Brooklyn Paulie Gee's and its status as a darling of national pizza tastemakers. The Baltimore location would have to stand on its merits; the whole trend that it embodied had already spread locally with venues like Verde and Hersch's working in the same vein of finely-crafted high-end Neapolitan pies in a casual-but-classy setting. When we finally walked through the glass doors into the high-ceilinged dining room of Paulie Gee's Hampden, we were simply curious to taste their pizza.

The pizza, however, is not entirely the point. I mean, it is – this is a business where workers devote their time to optimizing the number of charred spots on a round slab of dough. There's like a 90% chance that you'll eat a pie complying with the most stringent metrics of quality. But the underlying ethos of Paulie Gee's Hampden seems to center on process, experimentation, and technical mastery, an ethos very connected to PG's humble roots in deep pizza-nerd culture.

Indeed, pizzas are complex interactions between humans, objects, and physical laws. In a fast-food setting, the process is automated and black-boxed to maximize efficiency and consistency. In a high-end setting, the process is fetishized as the artistry of a “chef” who has total creative control. Neither of these is correct; neither invisible systems nor Great Men determine pizza's fate. Many contemporary theorists suggest that things are running the show.

With its cooking area fully-exposed in the center of the space, Paulie Gee's declares the networked nature of the human and non-human. The ovens have individual names and dispositions; people maneuver with and around these infernal agents, discovering their dynamic properties. Inches, degrees, and seconds execute powerful entanglements. A fickle mixture of flour, water, and bacteria sets the entire agenda.

Granted, this is the start-up phase of PG's operation, so everyone is focused on learning how to use new tools, combine ingredients, and run a restaurant. But the spiritual essence of the place is also being formed, and at its core is a characteristically American paradox. We want the authenticity of time-honored Old World traditions – ovens hand-built by Neapolitan craftsmen, meat slices that taste like pepperoni but have fancy Italian names so you know they're legit. At the same time, we're obsessed with innovation, optimization, and novelty. You can actually taste this paradox in Paulie Gee's pizza. Cognitive dissonance tastes really, really good sometimes, but its weird moments are a reminder that we're all adrift on the same greasy flow of global capital, grasping at signifiers of authenticity.

The menu itself is testimony to Paulie Gee's postmodern condition. Each pie is named with a goofy wordplay, often on a pop culture reference, concocted to make people on dates feel foolish when they order. However, beneath the celebrity puns we find perplexities. “The toppings seem random,” Kate said of their specialty pies. Mike concurred, “these descriptions aren't grabbing me. It all sounds the same.” Another Mike added, “there are lots of different kinds of pizza but not a lot of variety. If you're gonna have all these options they should be distinctive.” PG's is assertive about not doing gluten-free crust until they develop a recipe that meets their standards of excellence. They do, however, offer a strong slate of vegan pies with house-made cheese and meat replacements. At one point, we mistook the vegan sausage for real sausage.

Over the course of a marathon 4-hour pizzafest, Pizza Club got to sample a wide range of pies (and we tried making some ourselves, with mixed success). PG's workers were friendly and accommodating of our shambling party, and we were in very good hands hospitality-wise. The baseline, a cheese pizza (dubbed the “Regina”) featured pure and strong flavors, a sauce made only of crushed tomatoes under a perfect lacing of mozzarella and basil leaves. PG's Neapolitan stylings function optimally under these simple conditions: the crust has crunch, the moisture balance is good. 

As we ventured deeper into the specialty realm, things got soggier – an arugula-topped pie was “a little watery, but very light and fresh.” More maximal options, like the “In Ricotta da Vegan” with house-made cashew ricotta and vegan sausage, were laden down with their topping bounty. These are delicious, high-quality toppings; more is always better in America, but they strain the traditional delicacy of the crust.

PG's deploys an array of flavor-infused oils and reductions to add complexity to their pies, equivalent to what their down-market competition calls “afterbakes”. One Pizza Club member coined the term “post-oven philosophy” for this trend. At PG's “Mike's Hot Honey” is a mainstay, a spin-off product from the original Brooklyn restaurant. Pizza Club enjoyed how this honey layers sweetness and heat on top of salty mozzarella and tangy sauce, but some felt that it was overkill and certain pies became cloyingly sweet.

To highlight hand-made ingredients from other local establishments, PG's was offering a Blue Pit Brisket (BPB) pie. This proved controversial in our group. Some declared it an abomination against pizza (“Nothing is ok about this”), while others loved its “balance of sweet, smokey, and bitter” flavors. The individual toppings were “all good...but the sweetness [of BBQ sauce] is overpowering. I'd rather just eat brisket,” said one Pizza Club member. A fan of the pie deemed it “nice synergy, something that can only happen here. Well done!”

We recognized the BPB as a novelty pie, meant to jazz up the menu and cure pizza fatigue by smashing together two beloved food genres. Which is fine – that's a thing all pizza places do (see: taco pizza, Philly cheesesteak pizza, mac and cheese pizza) and it doesn't have to be a masterpiece for the ages. But given the great abundance of Baltimore food-makers who pickle, smoke, jam, and ferment, we'd hope for more considered use of local ingredients. “They get the kind of nice things people are into – honey, mezcal, balsamic infusions – but not how to combine them,” said one Pizza Club member; Mike concurred, “they have the nice tools, the nice techniques, the nice ingredients, but not the nice touch.” Faced with infinite possibilities, it kind of feels like PG's is systematically trying out every permutation, which worked for Paul Ehrlich.

We attest that at Paulie Gee's Hampden the practice of Neapolitan pizza-making is being pursued at a high level of technical proficiency. The crust is thin, crisp, and delicate, pillowing out around the edges and characteristically spotted. Some felt that the leopard spotting made their slices taste burned, but natural variation is part of the deal with this style, and if you don't like oven-char, Neapolitan might not be for you. Conceptually, Paulie Gee's is like very serious cosplay: an enthusiastic, obsessive, sometimes-artless appropriation of a thing that it recognizes it did not create and does not own. For Paulie Gee the man, pizza was an elective affinity cultivated through the internet. As in cosplay, there's a sheer joy that comes with giving this affinity concrete form, enmeshing it within the world of vital materials.

In short: the cost of PG's craftsmanship runs from $8 to $18 for a specialty pizza that feeds two moderately-hungry people. There is variability from pie to pie, both in terms of how they're cooked and the success of the ingredient combinations. These variations will fall below the noticeability threshold for most patrons, who will find a similar experience to other local mainstays of Neapolitan style. Pizza lovers who pay special attention will have the unique pleasure of participating in a living experiment. “In 20 years,” said Mark, “they might have the perfect pizza. Or maybe 2 years, who knows. It's kind of exciting because you can watch their craft grow. It's very ambitious.” Paulie Gee's offerings may not cohere into a culinary vision, but that's because its model favors process, enthusiasm, and technique over authorship, a practice-based approach to pizza and networked modernity.

6.5/8 slices

Photo credits: Graham