At temperatures topping 1,000 degrees, the bubbling pizza would take only a minute or two to cook. Dan Parillo’s job was to try to find the hot spots of the fire and manage the dough’s exposure—a task he described as a combination of intuition and guesswork.
Parillo (pictured above) slid the pie in and out of the cave-like oven, rotating it to expose each edge to the wood fire that pulsed to one side.
“It’s uncontrollable heat,” he said. Each day’s fire, he explained, is different from the last. “You can’t really ever know anything about a wood-fired oven.”
If anyone would know something about it, it would seem to be Parillo. The pizza cook at Da Legna on State Street said he has worked with wood-burning pizza ovens since he was 8 years old.
“My grandparents had one of these on their farm in Italy. When I used to visit them in July, my grandmother would cook bread every day for the people that they had working on the farm. So when I was there she’d make me dough, and bring sauce and ingredients where I could play around making pizzas.”
On this afternoon, in the slow period between lunch and dinner, one of the pies Parillo was playing around with was a “Clark Street”: sliced tomatoes, eggplant, fresh mozzarella, ricotta, basil. After the crust had achieved the uniform color he was looking for, he slid it out and held it for inspection on a plank at the end of a long wooden pole.
“See how there’s a perfect balance of darkness throughout the whole pizza?” he said. “That’s what you strive for—a fully complete, cooked product.” The key with such a powerful flame, he explained, was getting the distance and timing right. Hold the pie too close to the flame, and it might darken without cooking through; keep it in for too long, and it will burn.
Most important of all for Parillo was the dough he was using in the first place.
“Anyone can buy the same cheese, anyone can buy the same ingredients,” he said. “What it all boils down to is the crust.”
Parillo uses a sourdough recipe of his own creation. He makes natural yeast from a dough strain, or mother dough, that he estimates he’s been using for the past 20 years. After it’s shaped, each future pie proofs for hours at room temperature on shelves in the kitchen. The dough, Parillo said, makes his pizza special.
“You get a crispy, light, but still moist crust. You still get your crispiness, but then again, you still get your bread.”
Despite his old-world credentials and stated desire to “preserve the trade,” Parillo, who is from New Haven and grew up eating at Modern Apizza, is not a hard-core traditionalist. In addition to toppings that would make a purist seethe—smoked salmon, pulled pork—Da Legna offers vegan and gluten-free pizzas.
That friendliness to dairy- and gluten-averse customers may be a shrewd business move, aimed at drawing in a market not being served by the big three of Modern, Pepe’s and Sally’s. But to Parillo, it’s about including as many people as possible in the pizza tradition.
“I wanted to give the same type of product that I have for my normal pizza and give it to people who can’t eat gluten, who can’t eat dairy, people who don’t eat meat products,” he said. “I want everybody to be able to enjoy a great pizza.”
That desire, he said, came from a realization after his son was born that many children can’t eat pizza due to gluten and dairy allergies.
“I just want to make sure every kid can enjoy pizza, you know?” he said. “To me it was a big part of growing up. Imagine being a kid left out of pizza night.”
“You’ll Be Amazed”
Meanwhile, in the rear section of the kitchen, Frank Pereira (pictured) tossed some diced apples and shallots into a small frying pan and bathed them in honey, balsamic vinegar and what he described tendentiously as “a small piece of butter.” In the oven next to him, a hunk of soft goat cheese baked in a miniature pie crust.
Pereira was assembling a goat cheese tartlet, one of the many small plates on the menu at Da Legna. The Portuguese cook said he spent eight years making pizza at Pizzeria Portofino, a North Branford restaurant with the same ownership. Now, while Parillo manages the pie operation out front, Pereira and fellow chef Dave Foster create dishes that are unusually elegant, and adventurous, for a pizza restaurant.
Pereira described their philosophy in simple terms.
“Our point is, when you try something we make, you’ll be amazed,” he said.
While Pereira tended to the sauce, Foster ladled praise on his colleague and apparent protégé.
“This guy’s got juice, he’s got talent,” Foster said. “If I show him a recipe, he makes it like it’s supposed to be, the first time. He’s like a sponge.”
Soon, the sauce was reduced and the hot tartlet, placed beside a mixed green salad, was ready to be topped. Pereira poured the viscous mixture generously, making sure there would be sauce left when the diner got to the bottom.
“We try to combine the sweet from the honey with the strong flavor from the shallots,” Pereira explained. The greens, meanwhile, were an apt foil for the decadent tartlet. Pereira, growing animated, described the combined effect as “refreshing, and sour, and sweet. All the combination, all those flavors—it’s just amazing.” Eventually, running out of adjectives, he suggested that the dish must be tasted to be understood.
“I don’t have words for explaining to you how good it is.”