"Fear not the yeast, and learn to make your own dough."
Mark Bello is passionate about pizza—and that's an understatement. For years, he and his friends rated slices with an official rating system; and for the past five years, he has taught New Yorkers how to make pies rivaling those at their favorite pizzerias. Now, this master pizzaiolo has relocated those classes from his Chinatown walkup to a stand-alone school and store, the Pizza A Casa: Pizza Self-Sufficiency Center.
Mark's recently opened storefront on Grand Street is a one-stop shop for all things pizza; we stopped by for the grand opening last week to take a look around and ask Mark a few questions as we nibbled on his thin-crust pies.
Name: Mark Bello
Occupation: Owner/Proprietor, Pizza A Casa
You obviously have a serious passion for pizza. When and how did you shift from being a mere enthusiast to a teacher and pizza professional? I was born at Mount Sinai hospital, and raised on the great pizzas of New York and New Jersey. After high school, I headed to the Midwest for college in Saint Louis, then grad school in Chicago. In a land of deep-dish and dismal fast-food pizzas, my passion for pizza was put to the test, so I took to my kitchen and endeavored to make fantastic thin crust pizzas given the limitations of a standard home oven. FIfteen years later, I believe I'm onto something.
And now you've gone from teaching classes in your apartment to opening Pizza a Casa: Pizza Self-Sufficiency Center. For the last five years, I've been teaching pizza-making classes all over New York and beyond—Astor Center, Murray's Cheese, private homes, a sold-out pizza demo and tasting at the James Beard House. Additionally, since early last year, I was running classes out of my Chinatown apartment. Requests for more classes and events came pouring in; plus, after every class, students would ask where could they go right then to get the gear to head home and make more pizzas pronto!
Opening the PAC: PSSC (as we affectionately acronym-ize it) was a no-brainer. It's got the quirky vibe of my apartment, even further refined, a grand space built to spec, and no longer does anyone need to to climb up five flights of stairs to learn perfect pizza making in a home setting!
What advice do you have for Serious Eaters who may be intimidated by making their own pizza? Fear not the yeast, and learn to make your own dough. Store-bought dough is often impossible to stretch, and pizzeria dough is formulated for a totally different oven. Making your own dough is economical, therapeutic, the best way to ensure your pizzas come out right, and just plain fun.
In your classes, you encourage people to play with toppings, but you offer some suggestions as well. What have been your most surprising combo successes (and your worst failures)? I like to encourage experimentation, though I advise against radical deviations such as sopressata and bananas. A few years ago, finding myself one morning with a fridge full of leftover dough and some sable and smoked salmon, the incredible Pesci Affumicati pizza was born (see here on Russ and Daughter's website).
The Pizza Self-Sufficiency Center is more than a cooking school; tell us what else we'll find there? In the store we offer an expertly curated selection of the finest equipment for the home pizza chef—and offer three weekly hands-on pizza making public classes, plus private classes and events, sharing the secrets of pizza making perfection in a home oven.
What are some of your favorite pizzas around town, other than yours? I'm forever wowed by the pies at Totonno's in Coney Island.
If you could put together a three course meal with dishes from any New York restaurants, what would they be? At this very moment, for an appetizer, the crispy squid tentacles from Jaya Malaysian, for my main dish, the 21 Club burger, and for dessert, a cheese plate from Saxelby Cheesemongers.
What are your favorite local hangouts or places you might be considered a regular? Noodle King on Henry and Catherine. Great Chinese BBQ, homemade wontons and killer broth (a buck a quart to-go: I use it for risotto, paella, matzo ball soup, you name it). Also I've brought my Thanksgiving turkey to them three years running, and they roast it to perfection. 9 Chatham Square. Superior no-frills dim sum. I am addicted to the dai bao. And Alleva Dairy. Not a restaurant per se, but if I walk in and smell fresh smoked mozzarella, I ask for a chunk and eat it like an apple.
What NYC foods do you crave the most often when you're not in town? Properly cooked coal oven pizza, skinny, snappy hot dogs on slightly stale, toasted buns with sauerkraut and mustard, and the availability of seltzer at every corner store.
What is in your fridge that you'd be embarrassed to tell us about? I'm not really embarrassed, but much to the horror of some of my friends, American cheese slices—which I love to top-brown on toast in the oven. For the record, that doesn't work so well on pizza.