Having a sense of direction in cooking
This is a story of the two most important pizzas I've had in my life and why I think it's important to have specific goals to strive towards when cooking.
Back in September 2020, I was lucky enough to be able to travel to Rome, right after I'd officially quit my job as a data scientist to start a new journey in the pizza industry. The only experience eating Roman-style pizza I'd had prior to this trip was at a place called Pazzo near my old office building. Pizza al taglio in Rome is cooked in a baking tray and displayed in the shop for the customer to then choose slices of whichever pizza he wants. I already knew this style was one that intrigued me, because it was fairly new to me as it is not that widespread outside of Italy compared to its round counterpart, and because there is something quite special about seeing all the pizzas to choose from right in front of you, many bearing toppings that aren't that common in other styles. On the first day of the trip to the Italian capital, right in the historical centre, I got to have my first taste of pizza al taglio at a tiny place not far from the Colosseum. I ordered a few slices of pizza rossa (olive oil, tomato sauce, basil and oregano) and pizza bianca con mortadella (olive oil and mortadella).
That first bite I had of the pizza rossa completely changed my view on this style of pizza. The base was the crispiest I'd had so far, the lack of mozzarella cheese was not felt at all and I finally understood how such a simple dish could be so special (you can read my thoughts on pizza and its simplicity here).
Later during the trip, I was lucky enough to go to Bonci Pizzarium, one of the most influential pizzerias in the city. The pizza con patate there showed me a new way to have potatoes on a pizza, where he blanches them in water before putting small morcels all over the dough. This gives them an almost roast potato vibe, with a crispy exterior and fluffy interior. The rest of the pizzas he creates are unlike any I have ever seen, with unconventional toppings like chicory, steak, chickpeas, sausage meat and whatever product is in season and Bonci feels like putting on a pizza.
The reason why these two pizzerias had so much influence on me is that they gave me a sense of direction, these were "North Star" bites. I first heard about this term in Ugly Delicious, a show created by David Chang, in the final episode of the first season. In it, chef Mario Carbone explains how his trip to Italy when he was a young chef gave him these memorable bites of food to work towards, to essentially recreate those ideas before finding his own way during his journey. This really resonated with me because the pizzas I had in Rome are my "North Stars". I want to succeed in recreating that insanely crispy base of the first one I had, but also gain the same level of creativity that Bonci has reached, where he manages to make unusual combinations work, so that eventually, I can create pizzas that reflect my identity.
If pizza al taglio is something you're interested in, I highly recommend Bonci's cookbooks "Pizza Hero: Viaggio in Italia con il re degli impasti" and "Il gioco della pizza. Le magnifiche ricette del re della pizza". They are in Italian but even if you don't speak the language, the vocabulary is simple enough that Google will be all the help you need to discover new and interesting recipes.