Connecticut Pizza Maestro Bruno DiFabio on Food Network's 'Chopped' as Judge

 
The logo of the hit show on the Food Network.

The logo of the hit show on the Food Network.

While the world was watching Super Bowl XLVII Sunday evening, connoisseurs of more refined drama will clicked over to “Downton Abbey” on PBS—and a different type of drama-loving connoisseurs, those who appreciate both amazing artisan pizza and talented chefs competing head-to-head, turned to the Food Network for a new episode of the hit series “Chopped.”

Coinciding with Super Bowl Sunday, “Chopped” rolled out the Pizza Perfect episode—in a synergistic nod to the food many were consuming—and added as a judge Connecticut’s premier pizza maestro, Bruno DiFabio, the six-time world pizza champion and owner of 10 artisan pizzerias around the country, including ReNapoli in Old Greenwich and Pinocchio Pizza locations in New Canaan and Wilton. (His debut spot, Amore Pizza, is in Scarsdale, N.Y.)

DiFabio, who is 44, will joined judges Amanda Freitag and Alex Guarnaschelli in determining which chefs got “chopped” for their pizzas and who would ultimately prevail. “Four up-and-coming chefs compete before a panel of three expert judges and take everyday items and turn them into an extraordinary three-course meal,” the Food Network says in explaining how “Chopped” works. “Course by course, the chefs will be “chopped” from the competition until only one winner remains.”

DiFabio, a master of the Pizza Romana, Pizza Napoletana and New York styles of pies—who is often called a pizza “geek” because of his extensive knowledge, research and study of pizza’s heritage and ingredients—took time recently to talk with Connecticut Magazine about being a judge on “Chopped,” his Connecticut roots and pizza hotspots, his ongoing pizza scholarship, and his exciting plans to bring great authentic artisan pies to London.

The man behind some of the best and fastest-cooking pizzas in the world, is excited about joining “the family” of talented chef-judges on “Chopped”—and if you love artisan pizza but didn't want to turn away from the Super Bowl, fear not; the episode will be shown again in the regular slot of “Chopped,” at 10 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 4.

Being added as a judge on “Chopped,” DiFabio says, represents a culmination of the gourmet artisan pizza credentials he’s been assembling since age 10, and he’s not shy in declaring that he was tapped for the episode because he’s the “premier pizza maker in the country.” (Do you really want someone less confident creating, in artist-like fashion, your Re Napoli pizza, the Best in U.S. winner at the 2010 Pizza World Championships, a white pie with zucchini, pancetta, Parmagiano, fior di latte mozzarella, halved cherry tomatoes, fava bean puree and burrata—or your World Pizza Cup-winning Magherita; dough mixed by hand using (the hallowed) Caputo 00 flour, from Neapolitan wood boxes, San Marzano tomatoes, sea salt, fiore di latte mozzarella, fresh  basil and extra virgin olive oil?)

If those pies from the ReNapoli Pizzeria & Chicago Italian Beef menu suggest the level of rigor, passion and detail that DiFabio applies to everything he does, then you’re sure to be a fan of “Chopped” already, or will be smitten when catching the Pizza Perfect episode. All of the judges are equally invested in the culinary arts as their lives, rather than as a vocation, and they’re great people on top of that, says DiFabio: “It’s like a family. There’s just a lot of love in the room.”

He hopes to be asked back for future episodes, and in the meantime, while always sweating the details at his pizzerias—notably the Connecticut locations because this Greenwich High School graduate lived in Ridgefield for 15 years and thinks of the state as his home base—DiFabio has mouthwatering plans to introduce world-class pizza to London.

Already operating in California, New York, Connecticut and Ohio, DiFabio was approached by two American expatriates living in England—from New Hampshire and Washington, D.C.  “They asked me if I would be interested in showcasing my New York Style pizza in London,” DiFabio says.

The plan envisions five locations by the end of 2015, and areas under consideration for the initial rollout include the Spitalfields Market in the increasingly hip Shoreditch area in the East End of London. “I’m going to turn the pizza world on its ear in London,” declares DiFabio.

It’s hardly braggadocio at this point. The native of New York has been a presence in New Canaan for a dozen years, and has benefited from the immersion of a sort of reverse-order learning curve. Always confident, and eager and competitive as a boy and teen to keep up with older pizza makers, DiFabio’s epiphany arrived like this:

“About 10 years ago I started to realize …  I’m making great pizza,” but instead of simply celebrating his success he began to question—in great detail—exactly why it comes out so good.

“I got a bug for it and I wanted to learn about all the raw materials that were important to me—where did they come from and why were they so important,” he says. DiFabio visited the farms that made the wheat for the crust (“The best wheat comes from Manitoba, Canada, and it’s all in the milling after that”) and he went to tomato farms in Naples, Italy, and Modesto, Calif.

 “All of these things tweaked my technique,” says DiFabio, who also learned about building flavor profiles. “And then I started talking about digestibility,” he says of a European focus of the dining experience that hasn’t gained traction in the U.S.

“I learned a lot of pizza science… and I wanted to delve into other pizza-making styles,” DiFabio says, and that meant studying pizza making in Naples to expand his repertoire far beyond expertise in New York pies. “I learned from the great masters of Naples. I was awarded a VPN certification (Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana). I’m the only one in Connecticut who has that certification.”

From mastering Pizza Napoletana, DiFabio went on to perfect Pizza Romana, which is made in a pan with a very wet dough.

“All of this expertise,” DiFabio says, “has led me to be on a string of Food Network program and talk shows.”

And the rest, as they say, is history—well, except for his obsession with speed. “It was always like a point of pride with me, wherever I’ve worked. Obviously you have to get food out as quickly as you can. … So I’ve always kind of been a speed demon of sorts,” says DiFabio, who is not just a speed demon but the fastest pizza maker in the world.

“There’s no one in the world that’s as fast as I am. I’ll challenge anyone anywhere any time any size,” says DiFabio.

Speed is fun, for sure. But customers come to DiFabio’s cluster of pizzerias because of the other factors—the exacting world’s-best artisan nature of the ingredients, the bold, wonderful flavor profiles DiFabio sculpts with those ingredients, and the difference an authentic experience can make in one’s life.

DiFabio deeply appreciates his Connecticut audience, which he calls “well-educated when it comes to food.”

 

“We totally get it here and we’re willing to pay a little bit more for an independent pizzeria and we’re able to appreciate the artisan component,” he says of the state. “I’m proud to be a pizza maker from Connecticut. We have better pizza in Connecticut than we do in New York.”

DiFabio is asked one last, looming question: Will you open a pizzeria in the gourmet pizza capital of Connecticut, and, perhaps, of the U.S., New Haven?

He responds that he had a New York style place in New Haven for a couple of years and found that, outside of the big three, there was a neighborhood ethic that surrounded many of the other places. Of that big three, Sally’s, Pepe’s and Modern, DiFabio says, “I am very respectful of their style.” He offers specific praise for Pepe’s white clam and bacon pie, calling it “optimal.”

For more on DiFabio and his pizza, see his website.

Bruno DiFabio and His Pizza Styles in His Own Words

In Pizza, I realized I have thirty years in and thirty more to do, but it wasn't till the last seven years that I have dedicated myself completely to the study of this great craft. It started on a trip to a few tomato farms in Modesto, California and Commune di San Marzano, Italy. Seeing first first-hand the quality and dedication farmers and family owned canneries have in bringing a superior quality tomato to the pizza maker was astonishing. My mission for a complete education on pizza continued with some good fortune that was bestowed on me when I was invited to participate on a Food Network program about pizza. During the trip we visited cow pastures in Caserta, Italy. This is where I found artisan cheese makers who shared the same passion for their industry as I do for mine. It made me want to learn more about other ingredients that I was using. During my travels I met a very tall Italian guy from Venice named Ricardo Aggugiaro. He and his wonderful family invited me to Padova, Italy to visit their flour plant (5 Stagioni). To my surprise, I learned that the wheat in Italy was inferior to ours, and even ours isn't the best. The best comes from the Praire Province of Manitoba Canada, Ricardo and many American companies buy a lot of their wheat to blend with their own domestically grown product. I learned that great flour comes not only from superior wheat, but blending and the refining of the wheat kernel is just as important. My quest took me to several regions of Italy, South America and California. I began studying with and under the most respected pizza makers in the world, mastering theory and practical technique in every facet of pizza making. Over the years I have made pizza on three continents, and worked in the most famous pizzerias in the entire world. After many long and truly amazing experiences, I co-founded the International School of Pizza in 2008, with my good friend and mentor Tony Gemignani. The school is backed by the oldest, most respected pizza school in the world Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli (Caorle, Italy) Chef's from around the world come for certifications in different styles of pizza making.

Pizza Romana

Pizza Romana is a unique style that is adored all over Europe, but mainly in central Italy. It is a pizza cooked in a double gauged steel Italian teglia pan, and shared by 5 to 6 people. ReNapoli's version is a medium bodied crust, made from the "poolish" method of dough making. This method is a lost art because of its degree of difficulty. It is a two stage process, which takes four days to complete. Well worth the wait, it creates a crisp crust with complex flavors, superior cell structure, bigger and moister crumb, and the most digestible pizza you have ever experienced. ReNapoli presents three different Romanas to choose from, each named after well accomplished pizzaiolo from around the U.S. and Italy. Each Romana is a complete meal with sumptuous, savory, and sweet components to them, therefore there are no substitutions.

Pizza Napoletana 

Pizza Napoletana is a style that has been gaining respect and popularity in the U.S. since the nineties. The last few years it has progressed into a movement, a revolution, and war amongst artisanal pizza makers all over the country. ReNapoli's Pizza Napoletana is our contribution to this movement. Our dough method is "in giornata" which means made and used in the same day, so some days we do run out. The recipe consists of Caputo 00 flour, water, fresh beer yeast, and Trapani sea salt. Mixed, cut, balled, and matured during an eight hour fermentation at room temperature in Neopolitan wood dough boxes. Our red and white pies are pillowy soft, simplistic in nature, using far less cheese and toppings then we as Americans are accustomed to. It is blistered or charred by the 900 degree Cirigliano wood burning oven, which gives it great flavor, and a sixty second cook time leaves the integrity, essence and flavor of the ingredients intact. Sweet tasting San Marzano tomatoes are painstackingly stripped of the flavorless stems and seeds and the cheeses used are imported from Campania Italy, and made locally from whole milk curds in the Belmont section of the Bronx.

New York Pies

No matter where we grew up, we all had our favorite pizza shop, which had, and probably still has the best New York pizza. I have been making New York Pies for thirty years in Connecticut and New York, and my greatest hope for ReNapoli would be that I meet or exceed the high expectations that you have for this style of pizza. ReNapoli's New York Pies are true to the original, "old school", slice house style that you are used to with an artisinal flair. Cheese used is made from fresh whole milk, harvested daily, with a 5 star Milk & Dairy Board certification. Domestically grown tomatoes are picked and packed within three hours, completely all natural, and never from concentrate. General Mills is the maker of the ultra-refined, All Trumps high glutent flour that we use. Cooked in a Bakers Pride flat top, gas fired brick oven made in New Rochelle, New York. Characteristics are golden bake, crispy, flavorful crust, well-seasoned pizza sauce, and extra cheese. Our dough is made with the "Biga" method. It is a two-step process, using a mother dough and a natural 18 year old starter. Followed by a two day cold rise fermentation, which allows the yeast to develop and break down complex starches in the flour, making a pizza that is much more flavorful, and easy to digest.

Products Used and Raw Materials

Toppings are mostly artisinal and unique to most pizzerias. Vegetables are grown organically, and locally when possible. Fresh meats are pasture raised, cage free and vegetarian fed. Our domestic and imported cured meats, artisinal cheeses, and oils can be purchased at Bklyn Larder (Prospect Heights, Brooklyn), Teitel Brothers (Belmont Section, Bronx), Murray's Cheese (Greenwich Village, Manhattan)

 

Connecticut Pizza Maestro Bruno DiFabio on Food Network's 'Chopped' as Judge

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