What Is Making Me Happy: Pizza TV

Hi there. I have a bunch of more substantive posts in the works, but I took a beating this semester and it is the Friday before Christmas, so I have decided to take it easy for a couple of days. Enjoy this TV recommendation that I’ve been meeting to put up for a few weeks. I have a Weekly Varia post that will go live tomorrow morning and I expect to be back next week with more substantive thoughts on books, pedagogy, and my usual smattering of other topics.

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format an intermittent feature.

This week: Pizza TV

I wrote about the Great British Baking Show back in 2015 and my interest in both food and food TV has only grown in the seven years since. In the past two years alone, I have written favorably about the scripted show The Bear, as well as Top Chef (three times, actually), and Best Baker in America. My tastes in these shows usually align with the food I like to make and eat, so it should perhaps be of no surprise that I greatly enjoyed two very different shows, both about pizza.

Best in Dough is a deeply silly show on Hulu. The first season, which debuted back in September, consists of ten episodes hosted by Wells Adams and judged by Daniele D’Uditi and a second chair filled by Millie Peartree, Eunji Kim, and Bryan Ford.

Each episode brings on three contestants (or sometimes teams) to compete in two challenges.

The first challenge flips the contest on its head, usually forcing them to cook something pizza adjacent, but not actually pizza and often something that prevents them from using their dough. The winner gets either an advantage on the final challenge or a prize. Since a ten minute advantage isn’t that substantial when you already have your dough, just choose the prize.

The second challenge has the contestants bake their pizza using dough they brought and any one of the variety of pizza ovens on set. This round of competition is judged by the three judges and a panel of “pizza lovers” whose decision in an adjacent room counts both as one vote and the tiebreaker since, as Wells Adams cornily repeats every episode, “pizza is for the people.” The winner walks away with $10,000

What makes Best in Dough so silly, though, is that each episode has a gimmick that feeds into the challenges. The first, which was by far my favorite, was the “Nonna” episode featuring three Italian-American grandmothers. Few shows have made me laugh as hard as I did at an old Italian woman declaring after she steals someone’s tomato “I do what I want to, all the time.” The other themes were often cheesier, like social media influencers or fine dining pizzas, but I enjoyed the lighthearted competition.

The other show, Chef’s Table: Pizza, is about as far to the other end of the spectrum as you can get. I liked the original Chef’s Table that debuted on Netflix back in 2015 well enough, but it didn’t click with me in the same way that some other cooking shows have. However, I recently returned to the project with its new pizza series that also debuted in September. Without doing anything more than looking at release dates, this seems to be a continuation of what the producers did back in 2020 when they applied the Chef’s Table apparatus and aesthetic to BBQ, which serves to both elevate a type of cuisine not usually considered fine dining.

This season offers a spotlight to six notable pizza chefs from around the world: Chris Bianco in Arizona, Gabriele Bonci in Rome, Ann Kim in Minneapolis, Franco Pepe outside of Naples, Yoshihiro Imai in Kyoto, and Sarah Minnick in Portland, Oregon.

At some level, the Chef’s Table formula makes each story interchangeable. Pizza was usually not their calling, even when they were restaurant industry veterans, until it was. Each suffered some sort of professional or personal setback that caused them to suffer for their pizza craft. Each is deeply moved by where the ingredients come from. Each has food critics eager to declare that theirs is the best pizza in the world. By the end of the series, in fact, I would start an episode asking myself when and where the obstacles would come from—would this one be a disapproving parents or a destructive industry work wreaking havoc with a marriage?

Chef’s Table, like many other types of food TV, thrives on the idea of food as a story. The viewer cannot eat the food, so you rely on video of dripping fat (which is parodied to great effect on the finale of Parks and Rec) and sizzling grills, or on Tony Bourdain slurping a bowl of noodles while groaning “that’s good.” Where they thrive, then, is the story of how things get made, both in the historical sense and in seeing the transformation from raw ingredient to final product.

In this sense, I found pizza to be a curious match for the form. The personal history was there, of course, and the show features loving shots of tomatoes and greens, and of Chris Bianco making mozzarella, but it also often struck me that the dough itself was treated as an afterthought in most episodes. There were of course shots of dough being balled up or stretched, but only in Sarah Minnick’s episode where part of her story involved opening a pizza restaurant without really having made pizza before, did I find the dough itself central and, even then, the show focused its praise on her unusual toppings. I completely understand that this show is more about creating an aesthetic than about the process itself and also that watching dough rise does not make for the most compelling television (I’ve even written a tongue-in-cheek story about this), but, as a bread obsessive, I’d love to see a show like this turn the camera in that direction.

And yet, despite these critiques, I thoroughly enjoyed this series. Perhaps the highest praise I can give it is that upon watching Gabriele Bonci’s episode about pizza al’taglio (Roman street pizza), I found myself thumbing through my baking books to see if I could replicate it at home. The answer is that yes, I can, and it is delicious.

Pizza al’taglio with tomatoes, tomato sauce, and a balsamic reductionz

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