Ever get frustrated because you can’t make your favorite dish taste as good as it does in the restaurant? Jeff Varasano, owner of Varasano’s Pizzeria in Buckhead, refused to let the perceived limitations of a home kitchen stop him from creating New York-style pizza at his house. The result? Possibly one of the best pizzas you will ever eat and a truly inspiring story of one New Yorker’s journey to re-create the iconic pies in Georgia.
How it all began.
In 1998, then software developer Jeff Varasano moved from New York City to Atlanta. Despite the many amazing restaurants in Atlanta, Varasano was frustrated because he was unable to find what he truly craved—a delicious slice of pizza with just the right balance of ingredients atop a perfectly charred crust. Given Varasano’s undeniable pizza obsession, the lack of options in Atlanta was just a minor roadblock.
So, where to begin? For Varasano, this was a no-brainer—he was determined to re-create his favorite pie in the City, Patsy’s in East Harlem. On his first visit to Patsy’s, he walked into the unassuming, sparsely decorated pizzeria and waited several minutes for someone to take his order. Once the pizza maker finally emerged from the backroom and presented him with a slice, it was love at first bite for Varasano. Patsy’s didn’t require designer tableware, a professionally decorated interior or even a wait staff. The East Harlem pizzeria had everything it needed—a couple of lightbulbs dangling from the ceiling, some card tables for seating and arguably the best pizza recipe in New York City.
Varasano devoted nearly 10 years to re-creating Patsy’s pizza while immersing himself in New York pizza culture by studying the history, recipes and techniques of the City’s most prolific shops. He sampled hundreds of tomatoes, countless olive oils, nearly 50 types of oregano, searched for the perfect flour and yeast cultures, experimented with kneading techniques and even tweaked his home’s electric oven to achieve the ideal ratio of heat to smoke for a true New York-style crust.
Eventually, Varasano got the recipe just right. He decided to share his NY pizza recipe online and with friends by hosting dinner parties at his house.
Once the recipe was picked up by CNET and Boing Boing, it went viral, crashing Varasano servers and making him known as the creator of the number one Internet pizza. Soon Varasano’s dinner parties attracted more than a few local friends, renowned chefs began traveling to Atlanta to savor Varasano’s pizza creations as well.
The momentum surrounding Varasano’s “homemade” New York-style pizza continued to grow. Within a few years, Varasano opened Varasano’s Pizzeria, offering Atlanta a true taste of New York-style pizza.
I visited Varasano’s when it first opened its doors in 2009, however, actually sitting down with Jeff Varasano himself to eat the pizza and hearing the stories that inspired them was an experience all its own. First up, was Nana’s—based on Varasano’s grandmother’s recipe. He describes this pizza as embodying everything he knows about pizza baked into one. There is something undeniably special about this pizza. It’s filled with flavor but not overloaded with toppings like the specialty pizzas that many Atlantans have come to expect. Nana’s pizza allows the exquisite flavor of quality mozzarella, San Marzano tomato sauce and Varasano’s own special blend of spices to shine through. And the crust? Perfectly thin with textbook charring. Almost too beautiful to eat—almost. I had to find out if Varasano had moved away from an electric oven in favor of a coal-fire oven for the restaurant. He had not. All of Varasano’s pizza are still made in an electric oven.
We moved on from Nana’s pizza to the Bella Chica, then the Nucci, onto an Ultimate Calzone and finally the Italian doughnuts for dessert, which he instructed me to eat the soft middle portion of in order to get a good taste of the sourdough that he uses to make all of the pizza crusts as well as the doughnuts. Delicious. (You really don’t need the raspberry dipping sauce, it only takes away from the flavor of Verasano’s dough.)
As we moved between each dish, a common theme among all of the pizzas began to emerge despite their distinct tastes. That common thread was the intimacy that Varasano shared with each dish. Every pizza had a story, and each was inspired by Varasano’s desire to share his love of pizza with others.
Moreover, Varasano points out that “pizza is more than the sum of its parts,” and that there is in fact an “artistry” to making it. He told a story of how one pizza shop was using the highest-quality ingredients in just the right doses, but something was missing. Yet, some people are able to make surprisingly good pizzas with just the ingredients available at a local grocery store. Clearly, there is something to be said for those like Varasano, who have a true passion for the foods they love.
Feeling inspired by Varasano’s story and ready to make your own masterpiece but not sure which tools you need? Just like his approach to pizza-making, Varasano suggests keeping things simple with just a few high-quality indispensable kitchen utensils and foregoing all of the gadgets. His suggestions? Tongs, a sturdy cutting board, a true chef’s knife and a 12-inch heavy pan, such as those from All-Clad.
Have a culinary passion of your own that you would like to share? Tell us about it in the comments.