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Thursday, October 23, 2008

[Chicago Pizza Interview] Leo Spizzirri

Giordano's, probably the best known purveyor of stuffed pizza in the world, has been using largely the same recipe since it was started by the Boglio brothers in the mid-1970s. The man currently responsible for making sure Giordano's stays on top of its game is Leo Spizzirri, Executive Chef. I sat down with him recently at his office, which is Giordano's biggest location, on the corner of Rush and Superior. He filled me in on Giordano's, pizza history, and the World Pizza Champions.

The son of Italian immigrants, Leo grew up in the Chicago area. He learned how to make pizza in teglia (an Italian precursor of stuffed pizza) from his family and he learned how good stuffed pizza is thanks to the Nancy's that was across the street from his house.

Largely self-trained as a chef, Spizzirri has studied pizza-making under some Italian masters, including classes at Scuola Italiana Pizzaioli (Google-translated version is here), where he studied under Grazzaino Bertuzzo.

A little over a year ago, he came to Giordano's as Executive Chef. He filled me in on some of what makes Giordano's pizza so good. The crust features high gluten flower and is allowed to rise for 3-5 days (4 being ideal) before it is made into pizza. The cheese, toppings and sauce are all fresh. Giordano's gets its whole milk mozzarella in large chunks and shreds it themselves, ensuring the cheese has the proper moisture when cooked. The toppings are all fresh, as are the tomatoes that are used to make the sauce.

A number of Giordano's restaurants are franchisees, but none of those are in the City of Chicago. And even the franchises are subject to oversight from Spizzirri, who cites consistency of product as one of the most important functions of his job.

Spizzirri has done so well at Giordano's that Tony Gemignani, one of the founders of the World Pizza Champions, invited him to join the team. That team is the winningest team at the annual World Pizza Championships in Salsomaggiore Terme in Parma, Italy. As Leo put it, they are the Yankees of the World Pizza Championships. This April, thanks to lobbying by Spizzirri and his teammates, stuffed pizza will be allowed in the pizza in teglia category. Many at the competition are unhappy at this development since it's not a traditional pizza style, and Spizzirri has no expectations of winning the category. But once they get a taste of his Chicago pies, who knows what will happen?

I did learn one shocking piece of information about Leo Spizzirri. Despite his upbringing and his job, Leo's favorite place to grab pizza is Chi-Town Pizza, a New York-style pizzeria that I thought was primarily there to serve partiers leaving Division Street bars. Actually, that may its primary purpose, but Spizzirri swears they have great pizza. Of course, the pizza he eats most often is Giordano's, which he says he eats three times a day for "quality control."

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