New England-style Greek pizza? Tangerines? Corn? Chex mix? Here's a homemade pizza adventure like you've never seen...
If you like making pizza, and you want to push the boundaries a little, it’s fun being inspired by other people’s pizzas.
For me, it’s usually the easy-to-find pizzas of high-profile pros like Dan Richer, Chris Bianco or Nancy Silverton.
But there’s a pizza amateur who is may be the single most inspiring pizzamaker I’ve ever witnessed. Serhan Ayhan and I met in Atlantic City at the Pizza & Pasta Northeast (PPNE) trade show. Serhan was there not as a pizzeria pro (though he’s been one), but as an enthusiastic pizza amateur.
By day, Serhan works in financial due diligence with a famous multinational investment bank. You may have seen him and his wife in the New York Times’ Real Estate section in a feature called “The Hunt.” The two stories there detail their hunt for a new home—including an oven big enough to accommodate his pizza peel. (We've all been there, right?)
By night, Serhan is a hardcore pizzamaker. The Times calls him a “pizza influencer.” He makes some of the most fantastic looking pizzas you will ever see on Instagram.
Serhan grew up in a restaurant family. When he was young, they owned a multiple outlet fast-food salad concept called The Salad Bowl. Later on, his parents had several pizzerias around New York.
And it’s probably important to note that these weren’t artisan pizzerias. These were a kind of everyman pizzerias with one notable exception (which we’ll be discussing in the interview). It was a little surprising.
After meeting at PPNE, Serhan and I sat down on a Zoom call. And I began the conversation with the same question I like to ask everyone…
Blaine: So, Serhan. What’s your favorite pizza memory related to eating pizza?
Serhan: I have a lot of them. Too many. But one that I'll pick out is my family. They made a particular style of pizza known as New England Greek-style pizza.
Blaine: Yes! In a pan? I have fond memories of that from when I lived in Boston.
Serhan: Yeah, in a pan. And I don't think they even knew what the name of the style was or the origins. It was just, like, “pizza.” It was just pan pizza for them. Despite being from New York. That's what I grew up with because by virtue of being my family's pizzeria.
So that was mainly what I was familiar with. And because that's so important within my own pizza story, being able to recreate that pizza, it was pretty important to me, and I was able to do that.
About two years ago, I reverse engineered it and put my own spin to it. I think there's a difference between making something better, and capturing the spirit of it, right?
I think a guy like Tony Gemignani [multi-award-winning World Pizza Champion and restaurateur] does this a lot, where he's not exactly trying to make something across-the-board "artisanal better," so to speak. But he really does a good job capturing what the intention of that style is. I think he does this with his Detroit style, and his Chicago Tavern Pizza.
So I think I was able to do this with my family's Greek style pizza two years ago. And I used unbromated flour. [NOTE: Bromide is a common dough conditioner that is suspected to create health issues, yet many pizzerias still use it.] And I was very particular about the fermentation, but not to an extent where the pizza is, like, artisanal. It was just an elevated version of it.
And being able to recreate that was a very happy moment for me. And I think for my family, too, because they’d retired and we didn't have our family pizzeria anymore. And I was able to bring this familiarity to them and they really enjoyed it.
Blaine: So let me ask you this then. If you believe you successfully recreated this pizza, when you take a bite of that pizza, does it take you back in time to the family pizzeria?
Serhan: Yeah. There's certain aroma to it and the texture. It's definitely like seeing an old friend you haven't seen in a while.
Blaine: Were you a little kid in that pizzeria, and did you work there?
Serhan: We opened the pizzerias when I was 10 years old. Just by virtue of having always been at the pizzeria after school and later on weekends, during the summer when I would help out.
I graduated from college 2009, after the financial crash, and it was pretty tough to find a job, so I did the very logical thing of going to graduate school. Sarcasm emphasis. [LAUGHTER]
Blaine: I heard the quotes around "logical."
Serhan: Around 2015 or so, I was doing AmeriCorps trying to pay off my [student loan] debt and my family said, “We have to move the pizzeria, and we need your help.” And this was around a time when neighborhood when the pizzeria was in Astoria, and gentrification was full force. The culture had really changed, so they needed some young blood in it.
And I got involved, and around that time I got a full-time job as well, doing financial due diligence. So for a while, my life was Monday to Friday, suit and tie desk job, and then Friday nights, Saturday nights from 9:00 PM to almost 5:00 AM, baseball cap & T-shirt pizzeria.
I tried having as much fun with that as I could, but I was exhausted and trying to help the family's pizzeria until they could retire. So it was like, four or five years of just diving in.
And you would think growing up in a pizzeria, I’d just know how to make pizza. I didn't know. My family wasn't like, oh, here, this is how you make dough. They just wanted the young blood in there to help out, and they didn't want me to take over.
Blaine: You decided not to go into the restaurant business, which I certainly understand, but you are one of the kings of amateur pizza. Just looking at your pizzas, I gotta to tell ya. Fantastic. But what inspires you? What is it that drives you to make pizza?
Serhan: Part of it is carrying on my family's legacy. They were in this business for over two decades. It doesn't really make sense to me for it to just exist and then not exist. It needs to be kept alive in some fashion. And I think in today's environment, you can participate in an industry in multiple ways through writing, through recipe creation, sharing ideas, what have you. So part of it is through trying to keep a legacy alive.
But I draw my inspiration from multiple channels. And the other day, I was actually trying to write an article for my website. And I came up with three roadmaps. And I think there are more roadmaps than what I've come up with.
But one of them was come about the farm-to-table approach--going to farmer's markets, and learning about new ingredients, learning about where local farms are growing, and learning how to work with those ingredients, that's one approach. And that's something I've learned from people like Sarah Minnick [of Lovely’s Fifty Fifty in Portland], Chris Bianco [of Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix], and Gabriele Bonci [of Pizzarium in Rome]. That's one approach. Just what's local, what’s an ingredient that farmers are using that you can just express through pizza.
Another approach I kind of look to is nostalgia, right? And that doesn't always involve a farm-to-table approach. It can be something like a dish your mother made when you were younger, it can be a snack that you had when you were a kid, which doesn't always have to be farm-to-table. So I think when you and I met, I showed you my Hawaiian Pizza.
Serhan's Hawaiian pizza with ham, pineapple,
furikake Chex mix, and white cheddar.
So that's not something nostalgic to me. But it was something that I wanted to put together after the fires in Maui [as part of a fundraiser by Slice Out Hunger]. I wanted to put an actual Hawaiian twist, nostalgic twist to something that it's called Hawaiian pizza. It doesn't really have Hawaiian origins. I think it was made by a Greek guy in Canada. There are other stories to it, but using nostalgia as a roadmap is another approach I came up with.
And the third roadmap was looking to others. I came up with a tangerine pizza, tangerine slices. And I came up with that after looking at a cake that Claire Saffitz came up with, a blood orange and olive oil upside down cake. I was just like, "Wow. Oh, it looks so beautiful. How can I recreate that on a pizza?" Right? So yeah, looking to others kind have another roadmap.
Blaine: I'm curious. How did that tangerine pizza work out?
Serhan: It was a pan pizza with thinly sliced oranges, red onion, mint. Yeah, unreal. It was nice. Yeah, just like the visuals of it came out.
So that's three kinds of roadmaps that I came up with for my pizzas. There are others that I can probably distill. But those are the three I've kind of been thinking about lately.
Blaine: And I think not only are they all valid, but I completely understand them. I think what inspires me is similar, and nostalgia is definitely a part of it. But you take it to a much grander place than I do. So, I’m going to ask you possibly the most controversial question in all of Pizzadom: pineapple, yes or no?
Serhan: Pineapple. Yes. If you can make it work. Not pineapple for the sake of pineapple. Pineapple for the sake of pineapple? You’re wasting your time. I think the pineapple and pizza question, it bothers me not because of pineapple, but because it puts people in a mental prison of what pizza can be. And I think once you get over that, you can see that there’s so many things you can actually put on pizza that work beautifully. I use all kinds of fruit on my pizza. I use mango, strawberry, cranberry, blueberry. What else have I used? Apple, peach. Yeah, fruit on pizza should not be a big deal.
"Fruit should not be a big deal." Serhan's mango, mozzarella, feta and scallion pizza,
finished with homemade shichimi and pineapple habañero hot sauce.
Blaine: No. But also, I understand why somebody might be put off by those big chunks of canned pineapple.
Serhan: You got to do it right. I think pizza style and crust style in relation to your toppings are very important. I think pineapple on a Neapolitan, maybe not so much. Right? It could be very messy. Going back to that furikake Hawaiian Bar Pie made, I think it worked very well. Why? Because it had a crust with structure to it. A bar pie, which usually because of how it’s baked, it’s not flopping so much. There’s one that used white cheddar, which is a saltier kind of cheese, which I think works well with pineapple. And the furikake that I used on it, I think worked really well with the salt, the umami, it melded well with the pineapple.
Blaine: That whole flavor profile there really intrigues me and now I want to try it.
Serhan: I thought people would just be like, “Oh, what the hell is this?” People loved it when I posted about it. If you go to the post, I think I have at least three people—I don’t want to toot my own horn—but at least three people here use the word “genius.” I was taken aback by the response on that one. I was ready to get all kinds of hate from it because Hawaiian pizza and pineapple and pizza, but it resonated really well. And Chex Cereal, actually, they shared it on their socials a month or so later. They really liked it. And yeah, I was very proud.
Blaine: So you made furikake Chex mix to put on this?
Serhan: Yes. So I knew about Chex Mix, right? I think everyone knows about Chex Mix. But I wasn’t familiar with the Hawaiian variant of it. But for furikake Chex mix, everyone has their own recipe, their own version of what kinds of Chex they put in it, what kind of rice crackers, whatever. But I did research on it and like, oh, okay. This is something that they eat in Hawaii. And I looked up a recipe and kind of retooled it to make it work on a pizza. So it uses a little soy sauce, butter and furikake, which has different spices.
Blaine: That’s a great looking pizza. I also need to ask you about this pizza with corn, leek, bechamel and black pepper. It's a non-traditional pizza, obviously, at least for an American. It's a different thing abroad. There is a lot of corn on pizza in other countries.
Serhan: Yeah, corn is pretty common abroad. Places like Domino's in India, or when I was abroad in Japan over 10 years ago, I remember seeing corn on pizza. It was very, very common. It was a very takeout-style kind of pizza. I think in Turkey, too. It's pretty common. I don't know if it's because corn is so easily grown, maybe it's because of the corn lobby in the US. There's just so much of it. But I think in the last couple of years, you're seeing it becoming more accepted as an actual artisanal ingredient. Guys like Dan Richer at Razza, making this beautiful corn pizza using local corn, very high quality stuff.
Blaine: For anyone who doesn’t know, Dan Richer’s Razza in Jersey City is considered one of the nation’s top pizzerias. And Dan Richer’s book, The Joy Of Pizza, is one of the most rigorous exercises in making pizza that I’ve ever experienced. It offers academic-style rubrics for improving pizza. He suggests that for the best flour, you should establish a relationship with your local miller. His pizzeria measures each of their pizzas using a pair of calipers to be sure they’re within spec. I find the man and his pizzeria fascinating.
Anyway, all that said, I believe people underestimate the quality of the agricultural produce that comes out of the state of New Jersey.
Serhan: I'm from New York City and I think New Jersey's incredible place. I’m not too proud to say that
Blaine: Me neither. I'm not a pizza chauvinist.
Serhan: People’s pride probably get in their way. But I think that's maybe another topic. But corn on pizza, right? Dan Richer’s made beautiful stuff with that at Razza, and corn's actually very easy to work with on pizza. You shuck it off the cob and it cooks very easily. You don't have to do much preparation.
Blaine: You don't have to roast it beforehand or anything? It doesn't make a wet pizza?
Serhan: I think it provides enough moisture that it blends well with whatever cheese is on it. I'm not usually a fan of cheese pull, but I feel like it's a nice combination with the mozzarella.
Blaine: You’re not a fan of cheese pull? Really?
Serhan: Usually. I feel like if there’s too much cheese pull, it’s underbaked. I like something that’s not as heavy-handed. I think there’s a limit. If you have so much cheese where it’s like you have a gummy crust and it’s difficult to eat. I want to enjoy it. I’m not saying I don’t like cheesy pizzas, but it's balance.
END OF PART 1. YOU CAN FOLLOW SERHAN ON INSTAGRAM @serhan_ayhan or at NextLevelPizza.
ALL PHOTOS COURTESY OF SERHAN AYHAN
If you’re still thinking about starting your pizza journey, one good place to do so is inside Free The Pizza. Really, it’s A Simple System For Making Great Pizza Whenever You Want With The Oven You Already Have. It’s a manual that takes you from zero to pizza with a few laughs along the way. Also, if you buy a hard copy, I'll send you an autographed book plate. If you buy the Kindle edition, know that there are printable cheat sheets on this website so you can take them into the kitchen and spill red sauce all over them.
Blaine Parker is the award-winning author of the bestselling, unusual and amusing how-to pizza book, Free The Pizza. Also known as The Pizza Geek and "Hey, Pizza Man!", Blaine is fanatical about the idea that true, pro-quality pizza can be made at home. His home. Your home. Anyone's home. After 20 years of honing his craft and making pizza in standard consumer ovens across the nation, he's sharing what he's learned with home cooks like you. Are you ready to pizza?
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