An Interview with Daniele Uditi
Daniele Uditi, a native Neapolitan, is currently the pizzaiolo at Pizzana, considered by many to be the best pizzeria in Los Angeles.
AN ARTISAN WHO LEARNED HIS CRAFT GROWING UP IN NAPLES, ITALY, DANIELE INCORPORATES HIS TRAINING FROM SOME OF THE BEST PIZZERIAS IN CAMPANIA WITH HIS FAMILY BAKERY'S TRADITIONAL BREAD RECIPES. SINCE HIS ARRIVAL TO LOS ANGELES IN 2010, HIS SIGNATURE “SLOW DOUGH” NEO NEAPOLITAN PIZZAS HAVE GARNERED A PASSIONATE INTERNATIONAL FOLLOWING OF CELEBRITIES AND PIZZA LOVERS.
When and how did you get into the pizza making business?
I actually started making bread with my family. My aunty used to have a bakery in Caserta close to Naples and all my family would help her out, so automatically I was helping her out too. At the age of 12, it started as a game and then quickly became my passion and my job. I was making pizza with leftover bread dough and it was delicious! Since then I've always used my family bread recipe to make my pizzas.
Why pizza, opposed to other Italian culinary specialties? What is it that drives you?
My mom was a chef, my grandpa was a pastry chef and my aunty a baker — it was in the family already, but since I loved pizza so much as a kid I decided to learn the way of traditional Neapolitan pizza. As a kid, I was fascinated by watching pizza chefs slap the dough and throw it in the air that I wanted to learn the technique and then got hooked — plus free pizzas is a good reason to!
Life—and business—have ups and downs. Can you share one peak moment and one low moment that stands out to you, looking back at your life and career in the world of pizza?
The lowest moment I experienced in this business was when I came to this country. It came with a lot of promises but then I found myself living in a van on Venice Beach and wanted to give up and go back to Naples. I’m stubborn and I think in this business believing in yourself and dedicating yourself to your craft by working hard will pay off in the end. My peak moment was when I met my partners Charles And Candace Nelson and Chris O’Donnell — the people that believed in me and gave me an opportunity and still give me those opportunities everyday. Without them I would have probably left this country.
What's next for you? What do you think is next for pizza, particularly in in L.A.?
The great thing about LA is that 3-4 years ago it wasn’t recognized as a pizza town but lately a lot of amazing people are making delicious pizzas and it’s getting more attention. I like to think that I’m one of those people that have contributed to putting LA on the map as a pizza town. My next step is to keep doing what I'm doing and to make sure that Pizzana keeps making delicious pizza and continues to be a LA pizza destination.
Where did you grow up in Italy? What’s your favorite dish from your hometown?
I grew up between Caserta and Naples, my family is 100% Neapolitan but we bought a house in a small town in Caserta called “San Marco Evangelista“ where everything was made by the hands of artisans and where there were lots of farms. I remember my mom making me Cacio e Pepe as a kid that was a little bit more creamy than the traditional Roman dish. That same Cacio e Pepe flavor that my mom use to make for me is now in the form of my signature Cacio E Pepe pizza.
In your opinion, what is the trickiest stage of the pizza making process to get it just right?
In Los Angeles the most difficult thing was making the dough because there is a drop in temperature between morning and night — that’s a nightmare for a baker, especially when you work with natural yeast. I came to the U.S. with my family's starter that was started 64 years ago by my aunty and keeping it alive was a challenge.
There’s lots of buzz around your signature “slow dough.” What are the benefits of a 48-hour fermentation process?
Basically I want to make sure that all the sugars and starches in the flour break down from the bacteria that are in the starter — this makes the pizzas lighter and easier to digest. This way, your body basically only has to assimilate the nutrients and fibers and all the rest is done by the bacteria. The dough is also made by hand with no mixers or machines involved.
We learned that all your ingredient toppings are sourced from local farmers’ markets, do you have a particular go-to spot in LA?
I love the Santa Monica Farmer's Market because there are lot of amazing people there. Going there reminds me of when I used to go with my mom to the farmer's market in Italy where she taught me how to negotiate a price, simply ask questions about the ingredients, or hear stories about the farmers — to me that’s important as an artisan because I’m really connected to people that work the fields by hand.
There’s a clear trend of people going gluten-free, dairy-free and meat-free, especially in Los Angeles. Can you talk more about your process about creating a dietary-friendly menu? Did it involve a slight divergence from traditional Italian pizza cooking or was the process a harmonic synthesis?
My process is to eat first and then come up with ideas. I like to respect everyones dietary restrictions so I worked hard to come up with an equally good pizza with a gluten free crust. We make a blend of rice flour and buckwheat that we ferment overnight. As for dairy-free, I like to use a lot of vegetables — we have an amazing cauliflower bechamel that we serve on our Funghi pizza that won’t make you miss the cheese.
Feel free to name drop here. How is it like to serve celebrities on a relatively normal basis?
I got really lucky, I get to meet amazing people and have the opportunity to cook for them. I believe the key is to always be myself and to not think about who they are but to think about what I can cook for them to make their day special. It's really rewarding watching someone take the first bite of one of your dishes and then have that little smile of approval — to me there is no better feeling.
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