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The 'Gandalf of pizza' speaks to the spiritual side of comfort food

Peter Reinhart, master baker and James Beard-award winning author of the new book <em>Pizza Quest: My Never-Ending Search For the Perfect Pizza.</em>
Peter Taylor
Andrews McMeel Publishing
Peter Reinhart, master baker and James Beard-award winning author of the new book Pizza Quest: My Never-Ending Search For the Perfect Pizza.

Peter Reinhart is standing in an uptown food hall in Charlotte, N.C., beaming. The master baker and spiritual force in the world of cheese pies is in his element. He's about to munch on one of his favorite local slices – a piece of "grandma-style" pie from Geno D's Pizza.

"The best pizza that's ever been made in the history of the world is happening right now," Reinhart says, with clear satisfaction. He takes a minute to appreciate the snap of the crust and its interior creaminess before continuing.

"Part of a quest for a fulfilling life is experiencing the difference between good and great," Reinhart says. "All pizza is good. Look at how many frozen pizzas are eaten every day throughout the world. There's something about even an average crust, average toppings that works."

Reinhart's new book is called Pizza Quest: My Never-Ending Search for the Perfect Pizza. It's partly a cookbook, but Pizza Quest might be more accurately called a guide, not just for eating but as a way of life.

Until recently, Reinhart says, the vast majority of U.S. pizza places were good, not great. Truly great pizza was hard to find. But that's changed, he argues.

Take Razza, in Jersey City, N.J. Pizzaria Bianco in Phoenix. Audrey Jane's Pizza Garagein Boulder, Colo. Metro Pizza in Las Vegas. Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio. Mia Marco's Pizza in Schertz, Texas. That's A Some Pizza on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. "The whole pizza scene is elevated to a whole other level," he says.

Here at Geno D's in Charlotte, proprietors Geno DiPaolo and his daughter, Gina, credit Reinhart with helping them to elevate their pies with dough hydration techniques and tricks to managing their conveyor oven. "When Peter said to me, 'You nailed this,' that brought me over the edge," Geno says with pride. "Like, wow. Peter liked it."

Reinhart is a venerated figure in the world of pizza. He's authored more than a dozen books, three of which have won James Beard awards, and he maintains an active pizza-obsessed blog. As a younger man, he lived in a semi-monastic Christian community that grew out of the counterculture of the 1960s. "For us, religion was a way to experience divinity," he says. "Ultimately for me, it was about finding a path towards a personal experience of the reality of God."

Gina Maria DiPaolo helps run Geno D's Pizza at the Market at 7th St in Charlotte, N.C. The "grandma-style" pies are a local favorite.
Neda Ulaby / NPR
Gina Maria DiPaolo helps run Geno D's Pizza at the Market at 7th St in Charlotte, N.C. The "grandma-style" pies are a local favorite.

Now, Reinhart believes that spirituality can be found in striving for greatness and bringing people joy, even through pizza. "For me, the word religion at its root comes from the Latin word religio," which he reads as meaning to be connected to something greater than oneself. In the pizza community, he's been half-jokingly compared to Gandalf, the wizard who launched the quest in The Lord of the Rings. As a faculty member at Johnson and Wales University, Reinhart is revered, says his colleague Quientina Stewart.

"From breads to pizza for sure- and then his ability to just get out there and connect," she marvels.

The connection, for Reinhart, is part of what he sees as a lifelong search for greatness. Pizza, he says, is a familiar metaphor for something good you may take for granted. But at its greatest, pizza approaches the sublime. That, he says, is worth the quest.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.