Tuesday, February 07, 2006

The Pizzaiolo of Sessant

“Tell me” Paolo asked reflectively “do you like pizza?” It was a simple enough question and easily enough answered. “Of course I do!” I replied, knowing full well that we have not even scratched the surface of the question. To me, pizza is a measure of a connoisseur. Pizza is complicated and complex, great pizza cannot be completely understood in only one day. Pizza takes time, much more time than you might think.
Most of us think of pizza as fast food but in reality it is a true slow-food. Great pizza takes years….perhaps a life-time to perfect. Pizza is ancient and there has never been a dish created that can compete with the popularity of pizza.
“I know a place,” he told me…“it is a special place...” Now, when an Astigiani tells you something like this you need to pay attention. What he is really telling you is a secret and secrets don’t usually flow easily in the Monferrato. “I know a pizzaiolo that is champion of all of Europe,” he informed me “and he has a little place near here.” This revelation surprised me because the north of Italy isn’t that well known for pizza. Usually you hear about great pizza coming from Naples or Sicily.
Some days passed by with no mention of pizza so I thought I would ask again about the famous pizzaiolo. “Yes, yes,” Paolo assured me “we can go there." “How about this Thursday?” I asked, and with a quick phone call the date was confirmed.
We met at a crossroads north of Asti and Paolo guided us up the hill to the restaurant. It was an unassuming place with a sign hanging out front that did little to indicate the greatness that was contained within the four walls.
For me, walking into a restaurant with a trusted friend that knows the owner must be one of the most satisfying feelings in the world and this was certainly our case. Paolo introduced us and there was a comfortable feeling between Mario and I right from the beginning.
Mario is Sicilian, he and his attractive Spanish wife Alicia, from Marbella, run the place single-handedly. It only took a matter of minutes for us to become friends, in spite of the language barrier. He took us upstairs to see the extra dining room and we discovered that the entire stairwell was covered with his awards and certificates. He has one degree after the other and countless awards including no less than three European championships. “I won first place three times in a row so they decided I can no longer compete. I have to allow someone else a chance.” he told me. It is a good thing they didn’t apply the same logic to Michael Schumacher or Tiger Woods, I thought out loud!
Back downstairs the wall were covered with pictures of Mario posing with various celebrities including famous footballers and several with the various reigning Miss Italys. Apparently a good pizzaiolo has more staying power than a beauty queen!
We got a chance to see his work station and the wood burning oven. He had a chilled mise-en-place set up with all the toppings and a big marble work surface. The oven was roaring with burning wood and the balls of dough were all lined up, limp and ready to be worked into pizza crusts.
“Ok, let's go.” he said and he slapped down a ball of dough. He moved incredibly fast and the pizza crust was formed in a matter of seconds. A quick drizzle of olive oil and the whole thing was scooped up with a big stainless steel peel and in one quick movement, deposited on the floor of the oven. "Test pizza," he said "just to check the temperature." The crust immediately began to bubble and in a minute or so it was brown and delicious. Out it came and was cut up and piled on a plate for our “apero”.
Happy with the temperature, he started our order. In seconds he had formed each crust and almost as quickly he had the tomato sauce spread and the toppings distributed. He worked with lightening speed. Paolo told me he can build 10 pizzas at a time and not miss a beat. I never saw a wasted movement nor a single mistake.
Now, I have to admit, I become immediately infatuated when I encounter brilliance. I am often nearly in tears when I hear a perfect aria by Maria Callas and I can stare at a good painting for hours without feeling the time. I have paid huge sums of money for the opportunity to try the food of a famous chef and the experience I had at Mario’s was no less important than those things. Was it the best pizza I ever had? Easily! But what was more important was that it came from such a nice guy, whose entire life has been devoted to making the best pizza possible. A true artisan! I couldn’t have enjoyed the pizza more if my own brother had made it!

Mario and Alicia Giangreco
La Malagueña
Piazza Umberto 1,
37-Fraz Sessant str Asti - Chivasso (a few kilometers north-west of Asti
Tel/Fax: 0141 21 05 47 or Cell 339 32 54 11 10
Open for lunch but he only serves pizzas in the evening.

Dear Edorovio,
I wanted to share the experience with someone who would appreciate it. I was enthralled with your blog on Mario's that I stumbled into doing research for our vacation to the Langhe. We were moving from our 3 day stay in Neive down to La Morra and I decided to go up through Asti and try to find Sessant in the daylight. You know how that goes at night in the region. Well it was about 11:30 am and there was the yellow building in your photo. I'm a pizza fanatic and I go everywhere that I can to try the latest and greatest. Your blog got me fired up. So we pull off on the right hand side and I walk up to the building. The metal door was still down and I was reading the hours for a nighttime return. I turn around to get back in the car and out comes a guy who looks like he just woke up dressed in his pizzaiolo whites. My Italian is non existent but I blurted out something stupid in half Italian/half Spanish about "Hey you are el Campione Pizzaiolo del Mundo and we came all the way from California "blah blah. I think he got the gist and was flattered/incredulous.
Anyway, we returned that Sunday night after spending 3 hours at the annual Barbaresco tasting and not spitting very much. Probably not advisable, but I'm not missing Mario's for nothing. Well, It was jammed that night but we got the little corner table for a great view of the man in action. Fantastic to see a real pro at work in any field of endeavor. The one minute in the oven was a mind-blower also. My wife put her digital in movie mode and now we have a 2 minute or less film of Mario making 6 pizzas. He made 50 or 60 while we ate ours. The people of Asti region are so lucky, a lot of them probably don't even realize what they've got there. Anyway, we got up to pay our respects upon leaving and he stopped what he was doing (very busy) and poured some Limoncellos and we went to the stairway to look at the hall of fame. Mama brought the bambino up at this time to put him to bed.
Class act all the way around and fantastic pizza.
Thanks for your blog.
I told him Edorovio sent us.
Jeff M. from California



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