Lincoln Tavern & Restaurant, located in South Boston, has earned quite the reputation for their pizza. Eater chatted with executive chef Nick Dixon to learn about what it's like to develop a pizza concept for a restaurant, hang out with a pizza guru, and attend a pizza convention.
Let's start from the beginning. I know that you knew you wanted pizza on your menu, but how did it get from concept to fruition?
Basically we knew that we wanted a really lively bar and atmosphere, we wanted to showcase pizza as one of our highlight points, and we wanted to focus on freshness. We wanted to create "raves" — it's a Danny Meyer thing. Like, our pizza and wings are our raves, and our scallops and short ribs are too. You just want to create as many of those dishes, the ones that people really want to come back for, as you can.
With the pizza, I sort of knew what kind of pizza I wanted, because when I worked out in Vegas, there was this place that had that leopard print crust, and it was sort of charred on the top, and bubbly, and when you bit into it, you tasted that char and got the acidity from the tomatoes. It all came together, and it was just awesome. So I had this image, and I ended up taking a trip out to Las Vegas to attend a pizza convention. It was a very fun trip, and when we went to the pizza expo, we met up with this guy who was a "pizza guru." He just knows everything about pizza. He's like the Alton Brown of pizza.
Did you already know about him, or did you just happen to meet?
I did a lot of research, and his name popped up. I knew that he was a pizza consultant, so I called him up, spoke to him, and then met up with him in Vegas. He took me around the convention, and I described to him what I wanted. I think at the time I was reading a book, Tartine, and I fell in love with the part in the book where their oven broke. It was super hot, and they didn't have a way to regulate the heat, so they took their sourdough bread and made it into pizza. They talked about how amazing it was to make this artisanal thing with a starter.
So I'm talking to the pizza guru, and he asked me what I love about pizza. I say that I love the look of the char and the spottedness, and I wanted an artisanal-style pizza. We started going in that direction, and I started playing around with my own starter that spring and into summer. I realized that unless I was the only one making it, it could get really dangerous in the sense that if someone doesn't feed it or it's not maintained properly, I'm in trouble. If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it right, and I'm not going to cheat, so I talked to the pizza guru more, and we talked about doing another style of pizza that is still Neapolitan.
He recommended that I take some of the ideas that I had and combine them with traditional Neapolitan methods to sort of develop my own style. So he takes me around the convention, and my biggest thing was trying to figure out what oven I'm going to buy. He takes me over to a couple of different ovens, and then we see this EarthStone oven. It's this crazy, bright, fire engine red piece. It was a showcase piece, but I fell in love with it instantly. It was just awesome.
Caputo was there trying to pitch their flour, and they were making Neapolitan-style pizza, and I told the guru that I wanted to make that. He said that that was good because there is really only one way to make the dough. The biggest thing is figuring out what kind of flour you want, and that's going to change the flavor of your pizza. We figured out the oven that we wanted, and we started testing different flours. Then we had to figure out what day we wanted to sell our dough. You basically have up to three days of proofing your dough. Day three produces this amazing sourdough flavor, but the problem that you have with it is that it can lose its steam on you and give up.
The worst thing ever is being in a shift where you have people coming in for the pizza, and it doesn't live up to what its supposed to. When we first opened, we were trying to do day-three dough, but now I'm much more confident in day-two dough. You still get that sourdough flavor, but when it hits the oven, it's sort of alive. It just springs right up, and it really gets those leopard spots on it.
The pizza guru then came down and showed me how to do things like start my oven — basically you have to cure it for three days. We then did a pizza training course with my original kitchen crew and myself, and we just made pizza for a week. At that time, the other sous chefs went off to train on the other menu items, and I spent another three weeks really figuring out everything about the oven and making pizza. I then had some of my friends come in, and we'd do little pizza parties. I think I really started getting comfortable with it. It's been about a year and a quarter, and now I just feel really confident with it and proud of it.
What is a pizza convention like?
It's the worst thing in the world. It sounds a lot more exciting than it is. It was actually a pizza and night club convention — they had two conventions going on at the same time, but in different parts of the building. So you pay for the pizza convention, and you walk in, and there was one pizza food truck and, like, a million people selling just pizza boxes and different types of shredded cheese. Then there were different types of tomatoes, tomatoes in a can and tomatoes in a bag. Partially chopped, whole, totally crushed and with oregano — so many of them.
And it's also a lot of boring stuff and a lot of crap. Then they have people doing stuff on stage, things like dough-stretching and pizza-tossing contests. They also sell things for people who don't want to stretch their own dough; they have machines for that and all sorts of peelers, literally everything that you could ever have, but it doesn't focus on anything that we do. To me it was more for little pizza and sandwich shops and stuff that I don't want.
So what did you get out of it?
I found the oven that I fell in love with, and I figured out what sort of pizza we wanted to have. We also went out to a couple of pizza places out there that were doing Neapolitan pizza, and we settled on what we were going to do. And then I was telling Eric [Aulenback, owner] to trust me fully even though he didn't know if I could fully make it, and then the fall comes around and he sees me making the pizza, and he says that it's amazing. It was that leap of faith and us just deciding that we were going to do this. And that's how we got our pizza.
Did you all anticipate that the pizza would be what it is?
I knew it was awesome pizza. I really did. If I get excited about something, like how I felt about the pizza, then I know it's going to do well. The people that I want to cook for are my friends, and if they really like it, then I think I'm onto something. When they ate my pizza, they said that it was amazing and that they didn't know that I could make pizza like that. Once my friends sort of blessed it, I knew we were going to be okay.
I mean, everyone knows that the top sellers are things like pizza and burgers, but how many places are there out there that just make bad pizza? I feel like if you're not good at something, then you shouldn't put it on your menu. I've been there before when I was making pizza, and I didn't feel confident with it, and I've taken it off the menu. Here, it's different and I'm just super psyched about it. If I'm in a room with 100 people, I want to sell the pizza that 99 people want. There's also not a lot of people doing traditional Neapolitan pizza; I think it was just so new to the area. People have seen it before but may not have had it before.
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