Don McWhirter, head pizzaiolo at Settebello in Marina del Rey, spreads the gospel of true Neapolitan pizza
By Richard Foss
Don McWhirter has strong opinions about pizza, as is appropriate for someone who makes hundreds of pizzas each week.
A Cordon Bleu Culinary School graduate, McWhirter became fascinated with traditional pizza and trained in Las Vegas under chef Carmine d’Amato. He’s now the head pizzaiolo at Settebello, a new restaurant in Marina del Rey that specializes in making pizza the way they do in Naples, the birthplace of the modern pizza.
What’s special about pizza from Naples?
There are regional styles within Italy — they say the farther north you go, the thinner the crust. The way they make it in Naples, where [pizza] originated, you have a nice cornicione — that’s the outer crust of the pizza — about an inch thick, and in the middle it’s very thin, an eighth to a quarter inch. There’s a little sauce and basil, always basil, olive oil and oregano and buffalo mozzarella. They use San Marzano tomatoes with just a little salt; they’re a sweet tomato with very little acid, so we add no sugar. Lots of pizzerias add sugar to their sauce. In Italy it’s all about the flavors of the natural ingredients, so the tomatoes and the fresh basil are right there up front.
So those simple toppings make a big difference?
Pizza isn’t about the toppings, but about the dough. True Neapolitan pizza takes hours to rise: There are lactic acids that build up as the dough ferments, almost like sourdough. We use a little yeast over a long time, and most American pizzerias use a lot more yeast over a short time, and they mix it long which makes a hard dough. Our dough is very moist; theirs is dry and elastic. Those have a lot of gluten and are mixed a long time, so the dough oxidizes. Those are the pizza makers that you see tossing the pizza — you can’t do that with Neapolitan-style dough because it would fall apart in the air.
What does belong on pizza?
There are three pizzas that are truly traditional: the Margherita, the colors of the Italian flag in basil, mozzarella and tomato; the marinara, which has little or no cheese along with basil, tomato, olive oil and garlic; and another that has small anchovies. We have more varieties than that, but we don’t serve the modern pizzas with crazy ingredients. Everything we do here is Italian, though it may not be on pizzas served in Italy. The carbonara is a pasta dish, and we present those flavors the traditional way but on a pizza. Same with the osso bucco. That’s our special today — it’s a real osso bucco, but on a crust.
So far it sounds like something our readers could do at home if they have the right ingredients.
If they’re patient and dedicated, they could get this far, but here’s the step where we can do something they can’t: We have an oven that can get to 1,000 degrees. It takes an hour every morning to get it up to temperature, using a combination of oak and apple wood. That’s a secret of cooking pizza — you have to have a very hot oven. We say the pizza kisses the oven floor; it takes from 45 seconds to one and a half minutes, tops, before you take it out. You know it’s done when the crust develops what we call leopard spots, the dark brown areas where the crust has charred just a little. Any oven under 800 degrees, you can’t make a true Neapolitan-style pizza.
Is there anything that should never be done with pizza?
I hate when people ask for crispy pizzas or well-done — that’s an American way of making pizza, and it’s not bad but it’s not what we do. To ask me to make a crispy pizza is like putting a dagger into my heart. You can do that, but please don’t call it Neapolitan-style pizza. And no chicken — no chicken ever on a pizza. It’s against everything about pizza-making in Italy.
So how are pizzas eaten in Italy?
In Italy the pizzas are served unsliced and eaten with a knife and fork. Pizzerias are where people hang out and socialize — it’s not just a meal, it’s a gathering place. If somebody is on the go, they might fold a pizza in half and then in half again and eat it like a burrito. I’ve seen pictures of people on the streets, on mopeds, eating pizza like that.
How about takeout?
We do takeout, but I don’t like it. A good thin-crust pizza gets cold very fast, and you can’t reheat it —even a good home oven doesn’t get higher than 500 degrees, far below the right temperature. Your oven will crisp the crust, and it may still be delicious, but it will be wrong.
Don McWhirter is at Settebello, 13455 Maxella Ave., Suite 250 (second floor), Marina del Rey. Call (310) 306-8204 or visit settebello.net.