Connecticut Pizza Maestro Bruno DiFabio on Food Network's 'Chopped' as Judge
The logo of the hit show on the Food Network.
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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.”