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Master Pizzamakers: Rick Katz of Picco

Photos: Cal Bingham

For the latest in the Pizza Week pizzamaker interview series, Eater spoke with chef-owner Rick Katz of Picco in the South End. Katz's background is in pastry. His first job in Boston was at Harvest, in Harvard Square, thirty years ago, and he's since worked at Legal Sea Foods, at Lydia Shire's former restaurant Biba, and he also owned his own bakery in Newton. Pizza is a big part of Picco, which stands for "pizza and ice cream company," but Katz says that after eight years in business, perfecting his famously well-done crust still presents a daily struggle.

What made you want to focus on pizza? I like it. I had the bakery for four years and then I swore I would never have another business of my own, and I didn't for almost 10 years, and when I decided that I would have another business, I needed something that I thought I could do. Because I've been in pastry for so long I thought I could do the pizza dough, and I worked in restaurants for many years so I thought I could do pizza toppings, and then the other half of the Picco equation is that I didn't want to throw away years of pastry experience and I love ice cream.

What would you say is the most popular pie? Oh, you're killing me here. Tomato sauce and cheese. We fight against that every day. We just can't beat it. The Margherita is the best selling pizza, and then the pepperoni, which is just the Margherita with pepperoni added to it. So really, when you add those two together, tomato sauce and cheese with something added to it outsells everything else by so much that it just makes me want to cry every time I look at the numbers. We spend so much time trying to come up with what we think of as interesting pizza and all people want is tomato sauce and cheese. Don't get me wrong, I like tomato sauce and cheese on a pizza and I think we do a nice job with it, but it would be nice if people would give other things a try.

What do you feel is your signature pie? Is there one that you're most proud of? The one that gets mentioned the most is the Alsatian, so in that sense I think it's a signature pie. It's unusual for a pizza, though it's not unusual for a tart, and people do talk about it and very frequently like it. If you add bacon to something, it sells better.

What's the most radical or experimental pizza you've created? Oh, I don't think we do much that's really radical or experimental. All we do is try and use really good ingredients and make things from scratch. We don't really try any bizarre flavor combinations, and if there's anything that we do really differently it's the crust.

Tell me about it. That was the thing that sort of was the foundation or the genesis of Picco, the idea that I could make a pizza because I could make a good crust, and I was completely wrong about the latter half of that. We're still working on the crust. It's been eight years and it's still not a finished product. We're struggling with that all day, every day. We're feeling the dough constantly: is this ready? How much time does this need? We're up at the line, 'is this good, is it past its prime, do we need to throw it out and bring up a new tray?' And in addition to that, every day isn't the same. One day the dough needs to be a little warmer, one day it needs to be a little cooler, one day the dough's a little softer, one day it's a little stiffer. It's a real nightmare! And it's a lot of work. It needs constant attention, there's no way around it. If you talk to people here, they'll tell you that I'm completely obsessed with the dough. And I guess I can't completely deny that.

What about the oven? We have a Wood Stone. It's gas fired, and it's intended to simulate the old brick ovens. It has an infrared element in the deck of the oven and then it has two flames, one on either side, which you can turn it from very small to roaring inferno. We have it set at approximately 605, but that's really just the temperature at one point, so we have an infrared thermometer that we can point at different parts of the oven to take the temperature. We keep the flames on one side pretty low and on the other side pretty high, and we start the pizza on the low side so that it gives a chance for the oven rise, and then we move it over gradually to the hot side to get the color and finish the crust, give it some flavor. Some people would say we burn it. Many, in fact.

Do people order pizzas more or less well-done? We have a certain percentage that ask for them lightly cooked. An occasional person asks for them well-done. We actually have had customers for years who are neighbors, a father and son who live across the street, and when the son was maybe five or six years old he would order a Margherita extra well-done. I mean he liked it black. And we knew him, he would come in and we would say oh, black Margherita! I mean I like pizza well-done, but even for me, he just wanted it burned. He would send it back if it wasn't black enough. And how he must be twelve or thirteen, and he's moved onto pasta.

What do you do for the red sauce on the Margherita? We use Stanislaus tomatoes that come from California. We're actually in the process of seeing if we can get somebody to grow tomatoes for us and have them canned locally, but I'm not sure what's going to happen with that. We add a pinch of pepper flakes, a little bit of salt, a little bit of garlic. We basically just cook off some of the water, so the tomatoes soften a little bit. When they're done we give them a brief whirl with an immersion blender and then we add fresh basil and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Will the dough ever be perfect? We have a platonic ideal for the dough, and we achieve it on occasion. There's a day, or sometimes a week. There was one fall where we had two months of really good dough, and then we found that the walk-in was running a little warm, and we had a repairman come in and fix the walk-in and it screwed up the dough. We've certainly gotten better over the years, but we still tweak it. If you talk to people who bake bread, it's not just a job, it's an adventure. And pizza is trickier than bread in some ways: we have to have dough that's ready when the pizza is ordered. We want a really open crumb, we want the outside to be crispy but the inside to be delicate. We want a deep, rich wheat flavor. We're getting closer. We have days that are really good, we have days that are not as good. Occasionally we have a day where I wish we could just not serve pizza, but that's not really an option.

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