PROFILE: POMO PIZZERIA
There is a Naples within Arizona. Although the state doesn’t house a burgeoning little Italy district, Matteo Schiavone, executive pizza chef and partner of Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana brings the Old Country to Phoenix.
Matteo Schiavone speaks with another man, cocking his head slightly forward and bending his right arm at the elbow while simultaneously touching his thumb to the other four fingers making a clam shape with his hand. He wags his hand at the wrist up and down punctuating his speech in the quintessential mannerism of the Italian people. It’s Saturday. Lunchtime. And one of his cooks did not show up for work.
Matteo is a man of principle. He began working with dough at 14 in Ischia, Italy, a small island measuring 18 square miles off the coast of Naples. More than 30 years later he is doing the same thing as the executive chef and partner of Pomo Pizzeria Napoletana’s downtown Phoenix location.
“All my life I make pizza,” said Matteo, who is 47 years old.
He speaks with a thick Italian accent and often repeats his sentences, rearranging the verbs, nouns and adjectives to match proper English grammar. Matteo isn’t tall or particularly thin. His shirt stretches slightly over his stomach. His eyes look tired and slightly sunken with dark circles around them, but he has a kind face and an easy smile over a ruddy, clean-shaven face. His hair is plain, brown and combed over to one side.
His goal is to teach customers what real pizza is. It is not from New York. It is not Chicago style. It came from Naples hundreds of years ago. It is thin, simple and considered “wet” by most American standards.
Bringing real Neopolitan pizza to the United States is an arduous endeavor. It began with his training in Italy.
Matteo’s parents were bread makers who ran a “panificio,” or bread shop, in Italy. They worked all through the night baking different kinds of bread for the following day. In the morning, Matteo would make pizza and sell it for breakfast.
After working for his parents, he spent four years training in an apprenticeship to learn the fundamentals of pizzamaking and has spent the next three decades perfecting his craft. His first “aiutante pizzaiolo,” or assistant to the pizza chef, was in Bologna.
“The first day, I loved this job,” he said.
His parents no longer have the bread shop, but he has begun his own legacy as a pizzaiolo in Arizona with Pomo.
Pomo founder and partner Stefano Fabbri said Matteo’s dedication to the craft is what made him the ideal business partner.
“It’s a job you need to have in the blood,” he said. “Passion is the number one.”
Stefano is also an Italian immigrant and the progeny of bakers. His grandfather owned a bakery in 1949 in Italy and 20 years later his father owned a pizzeria and bar. He grew up in the small town of Sant’Agata near Rimini in the Emilia-Romagna region. In his lunch box every day was foccacia and mortadella.
“I grew up in the family between a bakery and a pizzeria,” he said.
But Stefano never aspired to be behind the counter. Even now with Pomo, he takes care of the restaurant and Matteo manages the kitchen.
In 2006 Stefano married an American woman and began to consider moving to the United States. They settled in Phoenix in 2009 and met Matteo through mutual friends when he was searching for a pizzaiolo. The two resonated with one another and they opened the first Pomo location at the Borgata in Scottsdale in March 2010.
“I like to make things happen, not to make things directly,” Stefano said.
It’s Tuesday morning at the Pomo in downtown Phoenix. Matteo and a few employees are opening up the restaurant for business and preparing for the day.
The white brick painted restaurant houses black leather booth seating and wooden tables scattered throughout the dining area. An open kitchen lines the north side of the building. Lining the south wall above the booths are iconic black and white images of Italy housed in simple, white frames. A close-up of a man working a dough ball. A landscape shot of the Coliseo Romano. The Fontana di Trevi. A 60s-era couple on a Vespa. A portrait of Sophia Loren.
The oven is a monolith. It commands attention from the corner of the restaurant. It stands from floor to ceiling, a cylindrical tower covered in scales of shiny, small, black square tiles. It is monochromatic save for the bold word “POMO” spelled out with white tiles. The center portion alone weighs thousands of pounds and took two months to arrive from Naples, Matteo said. It is hand built by artisan craftsmen using pressed bricks and volcanic sand. Generations for more than 150 years have preserved the secretive process of creating these ovens, he said. The double-dome structure creates a heat chamber that is stable and consistently maintains 905 degrees fueled by a constant source of high-quality, hard grain oak or pecan that is dry and odorless to not disturb the aroma or taste of the pizza.
“This kind of oven is for life when you build it,” Matteo said.
The oven is never off. Ambers always burn low in the oven, even the following morning, dying coals keep the oven at 500-600 degrees Matteo said. Yet the oven has no temperature gauge. It is regulated by feel.
“You just know,” he said.
After walking through the restaurant, Matteo settles in front of the espresso machine and pulls a “doppio,” a double shot for himself.
He dresses modestly in a pair of baby blue Adidas track pants with two white pinstripes down each side and a royal blue shirt accented with a green, white and red striped band around the collar and sleevesthe colors of the Italian flag. He wears a conservative gold chain around his neck tucked inside his shirt, which has on it the Caputo logo, the brand of flour which he imports from Naples.
Sitting at the bar, waiting for Matteo is Frank Colletti, who works for Greco and Sons, Pomo’s food purveyor. Frank knows the ingredients that Matteo wants and imports them from the small towns in Italy where they are grown.
“It comes down to your raw ingredients and what you do with it,” he said.
He has been working with Matteo since Pomo opened in downtown Phoenix in summer 2013 and knows the importance of the proper San Marzano tomatoes to the pizza. Frank, or Franco, as the Pomo staff calls him, is familiar with the Old Country — his family is from Agrigento, a small city in Sicily and he is a first-generation American who didn’t learn English until he started school. He said the quality of the ingredients he provides are unequalled. You cannot reproduce or mimic a San Marzano tomato. It displays a unique texture, size and taste that is the product of the soil — mixed with volcanic ash and fertile.
Matteo knows that authenticity comes with a hefty price tag and makes the sacrifice willingly. His flour, imported from Naples, costs $8 more a bag from a domestic alternative. His tomatoes cost $32 a case; the domestic product costs $22. But most important is his mozzarella. He shells out $13 a pound up from $4 for his unparalleled Italian water buffalo mozzarella from the Campania region of Naples. It is rich, flavorful and more perishable, but all worth it, he said.
“I don’t like to make a deal with the pizza,” he said. “I want to give you the best. I want to give you something true.”
He does not compromise. The pizza stays pristine. He doesn’t care about cost. He’s not interested in cutting corners.
Matteo was a voracious cook during his training in Italy. He strove to understand every aspect of the industry and work in every role including baker, pastry chef, manager and dishwasher.
“If you know everything, you have control of this job,” he said.
Pomo crafts pizza according to the specifications outlined by the Verace Pizza Napoletana and Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani, both organizations based in Naples dedicated to protecting the authenticity of this type of pizza.
It starts with the dough, which takes no less than 24 hours to make. The soft sourdough base for the pizzas is composed of flour, water, sea salt and yeast — no butter or extra virgin olive oil. It is mixed for 30 minutes and allowed to rest and rise for 3-4 hours. Then the dough balls are cut and formed before they mature for at least 20 hours. The final product is light and fluffy without being brittle or crunchy.
The whole process from dough ball to plate takes less than two minutes. Matteo pulls a fresh dough ball from the container where they are housed in neat rows. He pats and opens the ball into a rounded disc, slaps it against the counter and stretches it until it becomes flattened. His hands, burly and thick, work the dough into shape with muscle memory only 30 years of repetition can achieve. His hands work while his mind and eye aimlessly scan the restaurant that is taking in the first customers for the Tuesday lunch hour. After prepping the dough he spreads a thin layer of sauce and sprinkles the cheese and other toppings.
He scoops it up on a pizza peel attached to a long handle and sets it in the oven next to the burning wood. He manipulates the pie, scooping and rotating it so that each side of the crust gets ample face time with the flame.
The outcome is a pizza with a strong aroma of fresh tomatoes, slightly pungent from the acidity. Melted cheese dots the pizza in abstract rectangular pieces that don’t entirely cover the dough and sauce. Garnishing the pizza lay a few pieces of fresh basil, homegrown at the Scottsdale location. Their edges have been rendered dark brown and crispy from the oven, while the center of the leaves remain soft and green.
The crust of the pizza has risen slightly and taken on a brown, toasted color spotted over with blackish bubbles from where the pizza has gotten licked by the intense heat of the oven. The center of the pizza is moist and supple.
He has created the Margherita Pizza, the simple staple.
“It is the mother of all pizza,” Matteo said.
The pizza, which is 11 inches in diameter, is meant to be consumed within seven minutes, Matteo said. Pomo suggests eating slices with a fork and knife, but he prefers to fold the slices over “portafoglio” style or “like a wallet” for ease of eating.
While he’s lax about the proper method of consumption, he’s adamant that each person order their own pizza.
“We don’t share the pizza. It’s a personal thing,” he said. “Just think of a steak for you. You don’t share a steak.”
On the first bite, the tomato sauce gushes, warm and light, mixing with the melted mozzarella, supported by the moist dough that is chewy and flavorful, despite the few ingredients used. Each flavor registers separately on the taste buds.
The “salsa di pomodori” is made fresh daily and by hand. Its pulpy, spreadable consistency is achieved by manipulating a hand crank to remove the excess water over a strainer.
Matteo’s tenacity to authenticity and attention to detail become apparent in every bite of the final product.
Minute daily alterations to the recipe ensure consistency to counter a host of environmental changes. Matteo will add or remove flour or salt according to the humidity of the weather, for example.
Even the Verace Pizza Napoletana certification process is rigorous. A chef must present him or herself to the organization along with video and photo recordings of the location, equipment and ingredients. Then, a representative will visit each individual location and scrutinize the process, culminating in a taste test to validate the pizza’s authenticity. Guidelines and tolerances are set for the approved condiments. Amounts of tomatoes are measured by the gram and the dough’s pH level, density and fermentation temperature is regulated. The certification validates the restaurant and shows that they are different from any other pizza chain.
Pride spills into other areas of the restaurant. Before the store opens, a worker removes all the exotic oils and tomato cans and other ingredients from a silver metal shelf adjacent to the oven and above the pizza prep station and wipes each bottle with a rag. Over the course of the day settling flour will dust the ingredients again in an ever-losing battle to keep things clean.
Despite all of the regulations and rigorous precision involved with making the pizza, the atmosphere is light and upbeat with a friendly vibe, Stefano said.
Jeff Habgood works at the Scottsdale location and notices the customers’ enthusiasm for the culture. The atmosphere is infectious and many attempt to throw in a “grazie” or “buongiorno” of their own.
“People know that this is a place that supports multiculturalism,” he said.
Half of the cooks speak Italian. Habgood is encouraged to speak the language as well. He is studying European history at Arizona State University and pursuing a minor in Italian.
“The first choice for everyone seems to be Italian,” he said.
In the end, the Pomo experience is more than dough and sauce. Matteo said it’s about sharing a genuine and unadultered piece of his culture. He slaves over his work many days from eight a.m. to past midnight. It’s more than a job. It is a way of life. It is his life. Sharing this slice of his home with those in America feels like a duty to him. The cross-culture experience gives him satisfaction and makes him whole.
“Right now I feel more complete,” he said. “This is my culture. This is my life. It is my passion.”
Passion is why Stefano gravitated to Matteo. He is more than his 30 years of experience.
“It’s in your DNA, you know what I mean? It’s there,” he said.