At essential Brooklyn pizzeria Roberta's, playfulness with a healthy measure of perfectionism is the order of the day. "We use a lot of traditional techniques," says pizzaiolo Anthony Falco, "but Roberta's is not in any way an Italian pizzeria. We're an American pizzeria." Case in point: the wildly popular Speckenwolf, a pizza topped with speck and mushrooms that was inspired by tarte flambée (an Alsatian dish made with lardons, creme fraiche, and onions) and the desire to build a pizza around speck. Falco says while tradition mandates that cured meats like speck stay out of pizza ovens, Roberta's quickly discovered that the meat takes on new life when it gets crisped.
While happy to fly in the face of precedent, the team at Roberta's is obsessive about the intricacies of their pizza-making operation. From hiring wood choppers, to making their own cheese, the team at Roberta's leaves no detail unconsidered. Except, says Falco, the exact way their pizza-makers should do their job. "There's that final product that we're looking for, and the people have autonomy to get to it," says Falco. "We have a huge stable of talented people."
That team must be doing something right, since on a slow winter day the pizzeria sells some 700 pies, a number that more than doubles in the busy Summer season. Eater NY editor Greg Morabito explains the allure of the Speckenwolf pie:
"Roberta's excels at unfussy dishes where all the ingredients work together, and this pizza is no exception. The saltiness of the speck is cut by the acidity from the red onions, and the mushrooms add an earthy kick. It's like a good antipasto plate, in pizza form."
Below, the elements of the Speckenwolf pizza at Roberta's:
1. The Dough
While the Roberta's recipe takes inspiration from Neapolitan pizza doughs, there's a key difference in the final product. Where a Neapolitan crust gets wet with its toppings, the Roberta's crust is chewy and crispy, even at the center of the pie. The secret? American King Arthur flour. Falco says that by combining the American flour with classic Italian Caputo flour, the pizza ends up with more structure, even though Roberta's recipe creates a wetter dough. The dough is made in the restaurant's temperature-controlled prep area.
The next day it is moved into the pizza kitchen. Falco explains that the pizza-makers must be extremely careful with dough. In the 24 hours it proofs, the carbon dioxide from the yeast in the dough creates an airiness that must be preserved, even as the pizza-makers "slap out" the dough into the desired round shape. Each person has their own techniques for creating that shape, but Falco notes that it seems the better his team gets, the less and less they actually touch the dough as the shape it: "It's kind of a zen thing."
2. The Oregano
Roberta's prefers to get fresh oregano and dry it themselves than purchase pre-dried oregano. In so doing, the team can assess the quality of the herb as it arrives, and then can make sure it hasn't been dried for an extended period of time, allowing them a greater degree of quality control. This allows the team to ensure that their oregano has that floral note they're looking for.
3. The Cheese
Another testament to their commitment to controlling as much of the process as possible, Roberta's uses fresh, house-made mozzarella on the Speckenwolf. Roberta's uses curds from Narragansett Creamery, breaking them down in hot, salted water. The cheese is then balled and cooled down for about an hour. They are used as soon as possible, and always on the day it's made.
Falco explains that the cheese is tasted and tested everyday to make sure the flavor and texture are consistent. "The reason we make our own is that we can't buy anything better," he says. Because the Speckenwolf is a white pie, it's important that there's total coverage, Falco explains. To that end, he uses smaller chunks of cheese than normal, which melt faster in the oven.
4. The Speck
The central ingredient to the pie is speck, a cured and smoked Italian ham. While Roberta's does do some in-house curing, Falco explains that the sheer volume of pizzas (in the busy season the restaurant and it's mobile cafe can sell upwards of 2,000 a night) means the restaurant cannot produce the speck themselves. Falco isn't tied to a particular brand, rather he keeps his eye out for purveyors (both Italian and American) who produce nicely smoky and salty speck that isn't "tough and leathery," as speck can sometimes be. Tender speck cooks better in the oven where, Falco says, the speck gets crispy, salty, and smoky, "almost like a bacon."
When it comes to slicing the speck, Falco says there's a sort of sweet spot. Sliced too thick, the speck will become leathery in the oven. Sliced too thin and it will burn. Sliced just thin enough, the speck is then torn into pieces so that it can be evenly distributed across the pie. Tearing the speck has the added benefit of creating more end pieces, which curl up nicely and get crispy in the oven and provide a needed textural contrast to the dish. Each pie contains three slices of speck, about 20 - 30 grams worth.
5. The Vegetables
The final toppings on the pie are Cremini mushrooms and red onion. Falco says Creminis were an easy choice: they're meaty and readily available so "you're not beholden to a forager." Before ever going onto a pie, the mushrooms are seasoned with salt and roasted in the oven, losing about 90% of their moisture in the process. Falco explains that by pre-roasting, the mushrooms have more of a chance to release their full umami flavors when they get their second roast on top of the pizza. Falco also notes that even after having been pre-roasted the mushrooms do add moisture to the pie, helping bind the ingredients together without sauce.
The onions are sliced extremely thinly, which allows them to cook quickly. Because they cook so fast, the onions become very sweet. Falco says that sweetness "is a great balance with the smoky meatiness of the speck" and a critical element of the overall flavor of the pie.
6. The Assembly
Falco notes that while the way ingredients are layered on a pizza always has an impact, it is especially important with the Speckenwolf. The oregano is the first topping to be added to the pie. Falco says the oregano should be a "base flavor beneath the other components." Aside from taste, there's another practical reason why oregano goes on first: Because the oven runs at such high temperatures, the oregano would burn if it weren't protected by the barrier of the other ingredients.
Next comes about 80 grams of mozzarella. The mushrooms are added next, having already been pre-cooked. The torn speck is then added, again with an eye towards even distribution. Next come the thinly sliced onions, which form a protective barrier preventing the speck from becoming burnt. The final step is adding a swirl of mild extra virgin olive oil before the pizza goes into the oven.
Roberta's has an enormous wood-burning oven that the restaurant purchased from a restaurant in Italy that had closed. While many Neapolitan pizzerias use custom-built masonry ovens, the Roberta's oven is a factory-built "workhorse" concrete modular oven. ("It's another example of us breaking the rules," says Falco.) Like those custom Neapolitan ovens, the Roberta's oven burns at an incredibly high, near thousand-degree temperature.
Roberta's uses oak in their oven because it is local and widely available. There is a dedicated team of wood choppers at the restaurant, cutting the large pieces of wood down into small pieces. Using small pieces in the oven allows Falco and his team to more precisely control the temperatures inside the oven. Once the pizza goes into the oven there's no prescribed choreography: Each pizza-maker is tasked with watching the cooking process closely to make sure they deliver a perfect pie, so they decide whether the pie needs to rotated, moved, or "domed." The pie only takes about a minute to cook in the oven.
Once it's taken out of the oven, the pizza is finished with fresh ground black pepper, a final bit of seasoning to bring out the savoriness of the speck and the mushrooms.