Coppa and Toro chef-owner Jamie Bissonnette is no stranger to pizza. A Connecticut native, he grew up within the Northeast's Pizza Belt, and throughout his years as a chef in Boston he's developed a great love of the city's many pizzerias. He admits that one of his favorite pies is on his menu at Coppa, but he has some strong feelings about other slices in town. For the first ever Pizza Week, Eater spoke with Bissonnette about his top recommendations, the flatbread craze, and just why pizza is such a big freakin' deal.
What do you like in a pizza? Well, it depends on what kind of pizza I'm looking for. I grew up on kind of shitty American Greek pizza in Connecticut, not crispy, always better the next day heated up in the toaster oven, so some days I have a soft spot for that. That's like places like Nicole's. And also places like Little Stevie's, that's not necessarily the best pizza but there's something so satisfying about them. I got more into pizza when I started cooking, and I started really appreciating smaller pizzas that were cooked a little more well done, like Regina's.
That's probably my all time favorite pizza around: a small pizza, well-done, so it's super crispy, not a ton of toppings on it, a good ratio so every bite's a little bit different. I hate when pizza's got so much of the ingredients that every bite has all of the same flavors. It's more fun when you get a piece with cherry pepper, then a piece with anchovy, then a piece with nothing on it. That becomes more rewarding in eating it. And then there's other things that are unique, like Santarpio's, with that cornmeal on the bottom that gets really crunchy, and the fact that they put their sauce on top of the cheese, so the cheese sort of caramelizes but still gets really flavorful, and that's another epic pizza: the way they make their pizzas there is truly unique.
Outside of Boston, I grew up in Connecticut, so I was always a huge fan of coal-fired pizzas, going down to New Haven. And I think the closest thing to that up here would be Regina. And some of those newer pizzas that are a little bit more inventive, with different kinds of toppings, like a white pizza with just mushrooms and arugula, and the pizzas are grilled, you don't see that quite as often. Like at Stella they grill the pizza dough and then roast it in the oven, so it's been grilled but still has that satisfying familiarity.
And I've always liked Sicilian pizza, but I've always found that it's really hard to find a Sicilian style pizza and not just like a shitty focaccia with a bunch of shit on top. Armando's, over in Huron Village, is just so dope. From what I remember, - it's been a while since I've gotten the chance to go over there - but they don't sell it by the slice. There's a couple places where you can get a slice of Sicilian that aren't bad, but they're also not great. But Armando's, you go there and you have to pre-order it, and you get like the whole pizza, you have to take it with you in two regular pizza boxes taped together, like the Frankenstein pizza box, you eat it on your way home, you get home and you eat another couple slices, and then you feast on it for days, unless you're having a party, because it's so much food. But it's, like, crispy on the bottom and doughy and chewy and it's so freakin' good.
I hate to say that I like Coppa's pizza so much, but we started making the pizzas here and we really played around with how long we'd ferment it, how much yeast we would use, how much salt we would use, to kind of really customize it to our palates. We tried it a couple different ways, some times it was too sour and like a San Francisco bread, which was interesting, but with all the stuff on top of it, it tasted like a bad, misshapen Stouffer's. After the course of about five months of experimentation, we figured out exactly how it's supposed to be, and that's how it is now.
What do you think of the flatbread craze? It seems like people are hesitating to call a pizza a pizza. I like them. A good flatbread, a good pizza, is good, no matter what you call it. At Toro sometimes we run traditional coca, that grilled, Spanish flatbread, and when we do that I'll make a batch of the same recipe from our pizza dough, which is totally not traditional for Spain, but I like the flavor of the dough more. As much as I love tradition in a lot of food, I also really like breaking some of those traditions. At places like Trade, all of their flatbreads are fantastic, and if they called them pizzas, I wouldn't bat an eye. They're great. I think sometimes people change the word to flatbread because they're doing a little bit more innovative things. To be honest, at the end of the day, it's delicious, so who cares what they call it.
The ingredients are so simple: what is it about pizza that makes it so popular? It's satisfying. It's got all the familiarities of things that we as Westerners grew up on. I'd say everybody, but I know people from Korea who just don't get the textures and flavors of pizza. In France people grew up on chicken tarts or toasted bread with some sort of meat, some sort of cheese. For me, I grew up with grilled cheese with tomato soup, and those are some of the same flavors. It's cheap and easy, and so it's accessible. You become familiar with it, and it becomes part of your culinary vernacular at a young age.
Jamie Bissonnette's favorite Boston pizzas:
Regina Pizzeria, North End: Cherry pepper and anchovy, size small, well-done. It's the best.
Santarpio's, Eastie: Peperoni and cheese.
Little Steve's, Back Bay: Whichever loaded veggie one is in the case at 2:30am.
Stella, South End: The mushroom pizza is dope.
Armando's, Cambridge: Best Sicilian pizza.
Nicole's Pizza, South End: The Philly Cheesesteak pizza is a hangover cure.
Coppa, South End: I know it's terrible to say, but I love our pizza so much.