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On Pizza Shakers

March 15, 2018

The Tour de NY Style Slice is coming to Schenectady on Saturday! Have you signed up yet? It’s good for the whole family. Don’t be shy. The more the merrier.

Five slices over the course of a few hours is totally doable. And don’t forget, I still contend that the standard for pizza in Schenectady is the highest in the Capital Region. So not only will it be an enlightening experience, but it should also be delicious.

There is one more thing I want to talk about before going into the tour, and that’s the role that shakers play in the pizza parlor experience.

Once upon a time, at my favorite pizza place in Berkeley, I had a shaker recipe. It involved all the shakers. A little bit of powdered garlic, a generous distribution of crushed peppers, an avalanche of grated cheese, and just the faintest whisper of dried herbs.

My thought was that this precise combination of added flavors would produce the most delicious cheese slice possible from this dingy little hole in the wall spot.

At some point down the road, as I grew as a pizza enthusiast, I realized that I wasn’t really tasting the pizza that the shop made. I couldn’t tell you about the seasoning of the sauce, since that delicate layer of flavor became merely a canvas for the stuff in the shakers.

That’s when I went cold turkey, and started tasting the slices I was served.

The idea of reflexively applying shaky cheese to a well-made slice of pizza feels as wrong to me as going to Jean-Georges and dousing your food with Tabasco sauce. Yes, that may be how you like it. But you’re doing a disservice to the craft, and not really tasting the food you came to eat.

Which is not to say that shaky cheese does not have a role to play at the pizza parlor.

Perhaps you remember a different pizza rant I wrote some time ago about the criminal act of blotting the deliciousness off of one’s pizza. Well, there was one corollary that I somehow left out. Actually, that happens a lot on this blog. It’s a side effect of writing the damn thing so late at night.

There may be times when an oil slick on top of your slice is a challenge to manage. Maybe you’re wearing a tie, or have to eat the slice on the go. Instead of the dreaded blot, it’s infinitely better to use the shaky cheese—much like the sawdust from which it’s made—to absorb the surface moisture and maintain the integrity of the slice.

That may have come out a bit snarkier than intended. But hopefully you get the point. Usually, the stuff in the shaker isn’t particular good cheese. Still, it’s salty, it’s powdery, and it will hold all that delicious fat in place.

I’m still loath to use the stuff. It’s just not very good.

More than anything else, these days the one shaker I will occasionally use is the red pepper flakes. I do enjoy how this flavor can brighten up a slice of white broccoli with garlic and ricotta. But before I put anything on a slice, I’ll try a few unadulterated bites first.

Of course, if you’re eating bad pizza, feel free to correct it as necessary. It’s amazing how pizza can sometimes come out underseasoned. Pizza should never need salt. Yet somehow, occasionally, it does.

Consumers may have been conditioned over the years that adding condiments to food is perfectly fine. But great food should be able to stand on its own. I think of the Louis Lunch hamburger, which cannot be consumed on premise with ketchup, and it is simply fantastic in its unadorned glory.

Hopefully, I can convince people to consider the act of putting crap on their food a bad habit. It may be a hard habit to break. And I’m not trying to condemn anyone to a bland joyless existence. All I want is for people to taste the food they were served before they adulterate it with additional flavoring agents.

But I also understand that sometimes the ritual of the shakers is part of the experience. Ritual is a powerful thing. Remember, I’ve been there. That used to be me. But I found the way out.

The transition period can be challenging. Flavors might feel flatter at first. However, you will soon be on your way to appreciating the fine, fresh food in front of you, and not the cheap condiments from a can.

Now, does anyone want to speak up in defense of shakers?

6 Comments leave one →
  1. -R. permalink
    March 15, 2018 10:23 am

    Do you believe there is a corollary between the presence of shakers at a slice counter and the overall quality of their pizza? I do. There isn’t a shaker in sight at DeFazio’s – you have to request crushed red pepper, which they’ll happily oblige. Similarly, while dining in Italy, many pasta dishes come out of the kitchen with no grated cheese whatsoever – many restaurants will flatly deny you grated cheese, believing the flavors of the dish are adulterated with its addition.

  2. EPT permalink
    March 15, 2018 10:53 am

    I’m a firm believer that the chef/cook should season the dish as appropriate, if not they are NOT good chefs/cooks. Yes if you prefer some additional red pepper flakes fine, but Powdered cheese is not acceptable.

  3. March 15, 2018 10:55 am

    I consider spiciness to be as an important seasoning as salt. And red pepper flakes added judiciously definitely improve a slice without covering the other flavors up. Most of the stuff in the slice shops isn’t very spicy, anyway, you’re only adding a little heat. And it’s bland, you’re not really adding any additional flavors.

  4. RogerK permalink
    March 15, 2018 1:46 pm

    I once was told by a former employee at J. C. Penny how its founder, Mr. Penny, would occasionally invite employees to dinner at his house. He would observe their actions during dinner. If he saw someone add salt to a dish before tasting it, they would not be considered for a promotion.

    • March 16, 2018 10:39 am

      Maybe that’s why more and more restaurants decline to put salt shakers on the table. They don’t want to screw up our business lunches!

    • Benjamin Maggi permalink
      March 16, 2018 11:23 am

      That is an interesting story. A family member of my wife told me the exact same story, but it involved an Insurance Company President. I think it is a story that circulates around, with just the name of the company changed. Regardless, there is an interesting lesson there.

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