Pizza by Certé - The Trailblazer
A revolution is underway at Pizza by Certé, a small shop on East 56th Street in Midtown Manhattan. Its pizza pays tribute to the New York pick-up-fold-and-eat model, but the chemical-free ingredients they use are a rarity in the slice business. And, as if that’s not enough, Pizza by Certé offers its pizza at the not-upgraded price of $2.50 per slice.
Is this Eco-Pizza? Pizza by Certé has received three (out of four possible) stars from the Green Restaurant Association, a distinction not often pursued by small pizza shops. This means they do a lot of things right when it comes to the sourcing of food and supplies, the environment, and the efficiency of their physical space. The Pizza by Certé model of responsible restauranting — complete with gentle pricing — ought to function as a blueprint for how restauranteurs can do things right with food in the twenty-first century.
Every item on PbC’s menu reflects the same approach to sourcing, but let’s focus on the pizza. They use fresh mozzarella that was handmade by a small producer in Rego Park, Queens — not low-moisture processed mozzarella. They make their dough with King Arthur flour (a bleach-free, chemical-free brand sold at places like Whole Foods). And their sauce stands alone as something truly unique: they make it from fresh tomatoes all year round. No cans.
Let me repeat: it’s a New York pizza shop in the heart of Manhattan that makes its pies with fresh mozzarella and a sauce of fresh tomatoes, and sells a regular slice for $2.50.
To witness the preparation of PbC’s tomato sauce is to observe a task so Herculean in scope that one understands right away why other places don’t bother to do this. Why would they? In the American Northeast, the best tomatoes are grown in the summer and early fall; most winter tomatoes are tough or mealy and bland — probably because they were picked too soon and too far away, or they were grown indoors. But restaurants require consistency. Pizzerias need the same sauce throughout the year. Thus, cans.
Most of the canned tomatoes I’ve seen in the backs of pizzerias are from California or Italy. Because producers pick tomatoes from vines not a week (or even a day) too soon, canned tomatoes can offer natural sweetness all year round. Canned tomatoes can be very good.
Here is what pizzerias do: they open cans and follow one or more of these steps: strain away the liquid; crush, squeeze, or puree the tomatoes; add olive oil, salt, spices, and/or sugar, and finally, spread the result onto some dough with scattered cheese to make a pizza.
Pizza by Certé, on the other hand, prepares each batch of sauce with about one hundred pounds of fresh Roma tomatoes, four large onions, a pound of garlic, two cups of olive oil, and herbs.
First, they remove the tomatoes’ cores and score their tops. Then they blanche them to loosen the skins. Next, they ice them down to stop the cooking process, peel and discard the skins, and remove the seeds and the juice. (They use the seeds and juice to make a top-notch tomato seed vinaigrette. It’s served for free with garlicky scraps of cooked pizza dough every late afternoon.) What remains of the tomatoes (ie. the “meat”) gets pressed through the meat grinder attachment of a large stand mixer.
Tomato processing for forty pounds takes time, so while that's happening they also mince and cook the onions in olive oil until they’ve caramelized. About ten minutes before the onions are done, minced garlic is added. These steps take about fifty minutes.
Once the tomatoes are “ground” and the onions are done, the two parts are married together and simmered with bay leaves and sea salt for another twenty minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated.
Pizza by Certé employee Diego Ayala, as he tastes the sauce for salt and doneness. Here's a link to Pizza by Certé's sauce recipe (scaled down for home cooking).
The sauce is then removed to heatproof containers and industrial “ice sticks” are inserted to speed cooling. The sauce is refrigerated. When it has cooled, finely minced fresh thyme, marjoram, and basil are added. The sauce is now ready for pizza-making.
(Photo at top of this post links to a video that shows how Pizza by Certé's makes its sauce.)
Imagine you own a pizza shop. Would you process three hundred pounds of tomatoes each week? Or would you open cans of perfectly good Italian or California tomatoes? Because really, why would you want to deal with inconsistent quality, inferior winter tomatoes, and fluctuating product costs?
Pizza by Certé owner Edward Sylvia told me that customers, after trying the pizza, often ask what tastes different and if there’s something missing. He replies to them, “Yes, something is missing. The can is missing.”
Yes, the can is missing. Sylvia believes that cans impart a metallic flavor to tomatoes and that we don't notice it because we are so used to them. When you taste Pizza by Certé's pizza, you will notice that its sauce is clean and bright and sparkly.
And it's sweet — even in the wintertime! How?! The trick, as you may have surmised, is with the onions. When tomatoes are sweeter — as they are in the summer and early fall — PbC uses fewer onions; in the winter, when tomatoes aren’t as good, more onions. One hundred grams of onion contain about four grams of natural sugar. Slow cooking onions sweats those sugars out into the open.
So why did Edward Sylvia, a busy Long Island guy with three kids and a successful catering business, decide to open such a thoughtful pizza shop?
“It’s what happened to Midtown,” he told me. “I wanted a good slice of pizza and I couldn’t get one. And when I began to think about what I wanted to do [with the pizzeria I was planning] I knew I wanted to put my own philosophies into it. I hate fast food. My kids — I have young kids — I don’t want them to fall victim to that.”
When it comes to food, there is much to fall victim to in the world these days. Take pizza. It says on the Domino’s website that the “really good ingredients” they use are the “oldest secret to [their] success and the key to a delicious meal.” Yet, a quick survey of the ingredients list on the Domino’s website reveals that their foods are (of course) chockfull of chemical additives. Dozens are listed, but here are a few of the gems: L-cysteine (an amino acid produced from duck feathers, human hair, or hog hair), “Butter Flavored White Shortening Flake (wow), and dimethylpolysiloxane (an anti-foaming agent).
I realize Domino’s Pizza is fast food, but it happens to be the pizza that many people eat. According to its annual report, Domino’s 2011 revenue totaled over $1.6 billion (includes worldwide sales for company- and franchisee-owned stores).
They had to pre-bake the pizzas at the restaurant because the tiny oven at the park burns extremely hot.
Do not mistake the rainwater-fed basil that grows along the walls, the sauce from fresh tomatoes, the pH-filtered water, the “green” pizza boxes and the twice-a-week composting, the gluten-free “socca” pizza option, and the dozens of other health-oriented and environmentally-responsible features of Pizza by Certé’s business model as gimmick. Edward Sylvia is the real deal and maybe, just maybe, his model can be come the model for responsible and price-accessible restauranting.
How does Pizza by Certé offer this pizza at such a competitive price when the other shops in this high-rent area charge the same or more? Sylvia leverages the buying power of his catering company to purchase good ingredients at good prices. And because he believes that pizza should be affordable, he passes his savings on to customers.
(Ray Bari, around the corner, sells a plain slice from an eighteen inch pie for $3.00. Its fresh mozzarella slice (called “margherita”) is $3.85. At sixteen inches in diameter, Pizza by Certé’s round pies are a little smaller than standard, but because the pizza has more nutrients and no chemicals or excess grease, you feel better from eating it.)
The gift PbC gives, however, is not just good slice of natural pizza for $2.50, but that his restaurant serves foods prepared with chemical- and preservative-free ingredients at all, and does not charge excessive prices for anything on the menu: TK ingredients sourcing details. These foods should be affordable and there was a time when this was what all food was — before corporate food took over and decided to do things with chemicals and hormones and other non-food ingredients.
I wish — and Sylvia does too — that more restaurants would challenge this Quality ↑ --> Price ↑ paradigm. As it is now, most inexpensive restaurant food is junk food. But chains with buying power can do better. And so too can businesses without high volume purchasing.
“I’m hoping that we can draw enough people and get a large enough interest where other business people and maybe young chefs will see that by doing the right thing they too can pick a food," Sylvia said. "I know the burger thing, good burger places now doing the right thing as far as being anti-McDonald's — but there are still a lot of fast foods that need to be done the right way. Because people still need to eat quickly and move on quickly. But it doesn't have to be pre-prepared."
I'm sure he would agree with me that it would be nice if everyone had the time to sit down to a healthful one hour lunch every day. Sadly, this cannot be the case — at least not for the countless many who work long hours and would rather get home earlier than spend "unnecessary" time eating in the middle of the day. Those people, if they happen to work in Midtown Manhattan, should give Pizza by Certé a try. They will know that the food they are eating is 100% from natural — not processed or chemical — ingredients.
Perhaps McDonald's and Domino's and Dunkin' Donuts and the others will catch wind of a rising consumer preference for unprocessed foods.
Wanna open a restaurant? Or do you already own one and you wish to change your approach to sourcing? Click here to view Edward Sylvia's guidelines for responsible restauranting.
PIZZA BY CERTÉ ESSENTIALS
Who: Edward Sylvia and a number of employees who share his enthusiasm for fresh ingredients and sustainability.
What’s there: The only mozzarella is fresh mozzarella and the only tomato sauce is made from fresh tomatoes. All ingredients are smartly sourced. All the food I’ve had is good, but there’s much I’ve yet to try. Thus far, my favorite pies are: Margherita, Lafayette, and Farmers (all round pies); and the Italian Wedding square pie (meatballs, spinach, grana padano, mozzarella, and hot peppers). The gluten free Margherita socca pizza (chickpea-based flatbread) oozes with cheese; it’s delicious. Chicken Parmesan sandwich is made with not-fried cage- and hormone-free chicken, fresh mozzarella, and the incredible fresh tomato sauce.
Where: 132 East Fifty-sixth Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues in Midtown Manhattan.
Why go: For a fresh food spin on pizza, hero shop favorites, and other naturally prepared foods at very reasonable prices. Warning: there are only about six stools for sitting, so most orders are to go. That said, I’ve never had a problem snagging a seat during lunchtime.
How: Proactive approach to food sourcing. Emphasis on freshness above all else. Owner loves and respects New York slice pizza style.
Quote: “ I love the crust. I like crusts that are airy, I like bubbles, I love big crispy bubbles, I like it chewy. I like a slightly charred bottom, not overdone but slightly. I like a tangy sauce. I want the cheese to play texture but not so much for the flavor but more of a texture feel. And I love herbs. I love biting in and getting an explosive herb flavor.” -Edward Sylvia, chef-owner of Pizza by Certé
411: 132 East Fifty-sixth Street, between Park and Lexington Avenues in Midtown Manhattan. Tel. 212-813-2020. 4, 5, 0r 6 train to 59th Street; E or M train to Lexington Ave / 53rd Street; or F train to 63rd Street. Map Pizza by Certé. Hours: Mon - Friday: 8 am - 9 pm; Sat: 11 am - 9 pm; closed Sunday. Pizza by Certé website.