Inspiration for Za Pi, and New Experiments

So what’s the theory behind Za Pi?  We want Za Pi to be interactive for the people and have thought of three  creative (at least we think so) methods to allow for everyone to be part of Za Pi.

1.  Kickstarter:  The definition of community approval.  We’ve launched the Za Pi kickstarter to help mobilize the oven, provide a nice discount on pizzas in advance, and to hear from the community whether they would be interested in such a project taking off at farmers markets.   WIth 21 days to go, we’re 18% funded with 32 backers.  While it’s a slow start, I’m a firm believer that it takes continued push and presence in order to build awareness for the project which will hopefully get us funded.  Unfortunately, if we don’t get funded, we won’t be able to mobilize, which would stink after all the work of setting up the LLC and stressing out over Amazon payments, not to mention the time our friend spent making the Kickstarter video for us.  I remain optimistic.  😉

2.  Customer voting:  Since we’ll be a mobile operation, we have to limit the toppings we can offer each week at the market.  Because of this, we want customers to be able to vote on the next set of toppings or “specialty” pizzas to appear!  So while we firmly believe that we should always offer the standard traditional pies (marinara, bianca, margherita), we’ll want customers to help tell us what THEY want next week to appear at the market.  Whether it’s straight up pepperoni, sausage and mushroom, or something more non-traditional like like mango pulled pork pie or Filipino breakfast pie, we leave it in the customers’ hands to vote for what’s next.

3.  BYOI:  While we’re still working with the local health department about this one, the goal is for customers to be able to bring us veggies from the farmers market that they purchased same day, and we’ll use them to help top their pizzas at no additional charge!  You’d pay for using our dough, sauces, and any additional ingredients, but this allows customers to really customize their pie with inventive creations!  Inspired by a trip to the Philippines where we went to an open market called D’Talipapa, my wife and I had one of our best experiences and meals ever… IMG_1749 IMG_1789

The center of the market was all the fresh ingredients you were able to negotiate for… fresh caught seafood, fresh slaughtered animals, various veggies, etc.  And surrounding the market were a slew of restaurants where the whole purpose was for you to bring your ingredients to them, and either ask for a suggestion on how to prepare them, or instruct how you would like those ingredients prepared into a dish.  While it’s not quite farm to table, it’s pretty much as close as you’ll get on that kind of scale.  We want Za Pi at the farmers market to reflect the same spirit of turning fresh food into a meal on the spot!  There’s nothing better than the brightness of fresh ingredients… and while we wanted to some how prep fresh meat as well (chicken/pork, etc), the amount of gear and elements we would need to prepare all that ended up being too complicated… so we decided to stick with fresh veggies!

The dream is for Za Pi at the farmers market to be interactive and have customers really help guide the direction of the pizzas.  You’re the designer, we’re just the pizzaolos that will make your design a tasty reality.

But just in case some of you feel like you lack the creativity or need inspiration, we continue to work at different pies to see how we can refine our final pies, and provide some new ideas for you to play with ultimately.  Here’s the three I had talked about last time:

Kimchi bacon pie

Kimchi bacon pie

While the kimchi bacon pie was tasty (it has bacon!  Who doesn’t love bacon!)  I couldn’t figure out what kind of sauce to put on, and just used an olive oil base.  Neither the kimchi nor bacon offered enough wetness to create a great pie, and next time, I”ll have to ponder more on a base sauce for this… perhaps GochuJang?  (Traditional Korean spicy pepper paste)?  Or some diluted version?

Peking Duck Pie

Peking Duck Pie

The Peking Duck pie, while true to form in terms of taste, was a LOT of work… beheading the duck’s head and claws, separating the skin, saucing it, air drying for a day, roasting it, breaking it down, etc. and for very little meat unfortunately.  This one may never make it to market just solely based on how time and cost intensive it was to prepare a few pieces of meat for the pie.  As tasty as it was, I’m guessing this one may be out.

Filipino Breakfast pie

Filipino Breakfast pie

And a Filipino breakfast pie, featuring a blended tomato/vinegar sauce with onions, garlic, sliced longaniza, an egg on top, along with fresh diced tomatoes – every aspect of a Filipino breakfast!  The sauce was dead on, according to the Filipinos in the room (including EyeDoc), and the leaky egg came out just right!  It’s a pretty sweet pie, so perhaps a touch of salt to finish next time… but boy was this good.

In any case, I’m off to work, and then to continue planning for all that we have to get in place for Za Pi to take off… the list of permits/licenses/requirements are astounding for such a simple business.  Who knew serving the food you love to people would require so many steps?  Next time, I’ll talk more about what this really all entails!



Alive and “Kick”ing!

After being out of town in New Orleans for business the last week, I’m long overdue for an update.  But even being out of town, the work doesn’t stop in moving forward to get things ready for the farmers market.  So yes, I’m alive, and yes, I’m “kick”ing!  (Pun intended!)  Here’s the kickstarter link:

We’re looking to raise $8800 to help mobilize the woodfired oven, purchase refrigeration for ingredients, a tent, and other equipment required by the farmers market.  Why $8800?  Because Kickstarter takes 5% off the top, and Amazon takes up to another 5% for processing payments.  If we hit our target exactly, it will leave us $7920, which will just be enough for what we plan to do.

First off, let me gripe on the time it takes to get a Kickstarter going, specifically with Amazon Payments.  I don’t know if they’ve faced a lot of fraud, but it seems like they drag out the ability for new businesses to set up an account by far longer than it would normally take.  When you go to set up an account (which is Kickstarter’s payment processor), they ask for what seems like simple stuff… your bank information, name of company, and EIN.  While I was able to provide all this correctly, the account was “frozen” due to non-matching information.

I called up Amazon Payments to be told that this would be elevated, and it had looked like all my information was entered in correctly.  They would not allow me to speak with a higher level decision maker, and stated I would receive further information via e-mail. I then received an e-mail to fax EIN and bank information to them for verification purposes, which stated exactly what I had put into the electronic system. I faxed the information over, and waited.  No response for three days, so I called Amazon Payments, where the call receiver asked for the verification number of my fax, and again could not help me any further in terms of assuring me things we move forward.  Another three days later, and I finally receive notice that Amazon Payments has verified (which I already input into the electronic system on the first day) all the information necessary.

This took a total of 10 days.  So for those that are thinking about Kickstarting, make sure you plan at least 14 days of leeway time in advance (Kickstarter took four days to verify my project) relative to when you’re looking to end your campaign.  In any case, I’m glad we’re up and running, and we’ve hit 4% within our first 48 hours largely thanks to friends and family!  Here’s hoping we gain momentum as we continue and make it to our goal!

Second, I’ve had a question come up from the pizza making forums asking “Why Kickstarter?  Why not just get a loan from the bank?”  Great question, and here’s why we pursued a Kickstarter…

We probably could go a more traditional route and do a loan, specifically through something like Prosper or other P2P lending sources.  Most banks actually won’t give loans to food/restaurant related endeavors nowadays unless you’ve had at least two years of demonstrated success (this is what two presidents at banks told me) so  that route it out.

There’s a few benefits that kickstarter offers that a traditional loan does not:

1.  You don’t have to “pay back” the donations in cash.
2.  There’s no interest rate that you need to be concerned with.
3.  You don’t have to put up something for collateral.
4.  It’s an initial way to help build awareness for your product/service/idea.
5.  It gives people a chance to voice their own opinions on the project, and help create some of what Za Pi is about (build your own pizza, voting for specials, etc.)

That being said, there’s also drawbacks to using a Kickstarter:
1.  5% of the final raised funds goes to Kickstarter (skim off the top for the service)
2.  Up to 5% of the final funds goes to Amazon Payments (for processing the payments).

All in all, I felt kickstarter would be a better measure of whether people are interested in having a farmers market Neo-Neapolitan pizza service with less risk on my part and more involvement from the public’s part.  While it would be a dream to make pizzas for people, it’s difficult to commit $12,000 to an idea/project not knowing whether people will embrace it or not.  What’s my dream to make and serve great pizza may just not jive with people out there, and this is a great way to first “test” the market to find out whether people will want to enjoy great pizzas.

I’ll be posting a few new ideas soon, as this weekend will be a test for some new specialties… Peking Duck pie, Longanesa (Filipino Sausage) pie, and perhaps a Kimchi Bacon?  Who’s interested?

The difference of four months… and beyond!

When we first started this journey almost four months ago, my partners and I were very limited in our understanding of pizza, much less Neapolitan pizza.  But as with any good science experiment and performance improvement project would dictate, you need to identify your baseline before you can track your improvement.

One partner of the three of us works in the food industry (let’s call him Aku) and has worked in a variety of Italian restaurants (Timpones, Maggianos, and Del Monico), he now lives in Arizona working as a sushi chef and had no experience with Neapolitan style pizzas.  The other partner (let’s call him Gambit, based on his favorite comic book character) is a scientific foodie like me, and works in technology.  As for me, I work as a project manager in performance improvement at a healthcare benchmarking and consulting firm.  With our only commercial food experience between the three of us living in another state, we had a lot of learning to do.

Gambit and I decided to host a pizza night with our wives early on so that we could talk about business, and get some practice in making pizza.  Let me tell you now, it was ugly… how ugly, you ask?  We did a 3 day ferment, but completely roughed up the dough… with no concept of technique, no practice, and no teacher to guide us, we made some ugly looking pies.  Take a look for yourself at some of the pictures below…


And those were just the successful ones that came out of the oven!  We planned for eight pizzas, and four of them ended up sticking to the peel when we tried to deliver the pizza to the stone, and we ended up calling them “calzones”… but even those, the dough wasn’t fully cooked through and we had to toss!  We were at a 50% success rate.  We were terrible at making pizza.  The truth hurts sometimes, but you have to accept the truth.  It’s the only way to recognize how to get better.

And then the journey began… we research techniques online and tried again.  We went to Neapolitan pizza places in any town we were in (I do some travel for my work) and watched pizzaolos work the dough with different stretching techniques and tried again.  We hosted parties with family and friends, and tried again.  (Btw, my thanks and apologies to those who were subject to our early pizza experiments.  You know who you are, and I love you all for being willing to be our test dummies).  I would spend hours after work and on weekend re-watching techniques on video, and then throw more family parties to host people over for pizza so that I had an excuse to make more.  And now, four months later, we’ve vastly improved…


Our pizzas look far better… and more importantly, TASTE far better as well.  But as with any improvement project, the journey has only just begun.  There’s still more room to stretch the dough even more so that I can create more surface area for more toppings, to get the cornicione just right with a balance of airiness and chew, to get the timing just right so that the bottom has a light crisp without overcooking the tops, etc.  The variables, like in any forms of cooking, are infinite and wide.  But one pizza at at time, we continue to strive to perfect our craft.

As we continue to eat out at other pizza places, we’ve come to respect the intricacies of making a great Neapolitan pizza (especially those that are tagged Vera Pizza Napoletana worthy) even more… the acceptable thickness of the crust vs the cornicione, the freshness of the topping used, just how much you can stretch the dough and the skill it takes to learn when to stop stretching… because of this, we’ll probably never come out and say that we make Neapolitan pizzas, as the respect we have for a true traditional Neapolitan pizza is just too high.  But we plan to do our best and create a pizza in the style of Neapolitan pizza (thus Neo-Neapolitan or Neapolitan-style) that we believe everyone will love and enjoy.

We realize that even though we’re at the start of this journey and have made great progress, there’s still plenty of road ahead of us to continue mastering a great pie.  And let me tell you, just over 200 pies later, we’ve been making sure to enjoy every step of the journey as we go along.  (I’ve increased the intensity of my CrossFit workouts to balance out all these pies!)  Between now and the farmer’s market, we’ll probably have made another 300-400 pies (which is over 150 lbs of flour!), and I’ve no doubt we’ll see some marked improvements compared to now.

And with that, I’m off to make some dough… Eyedoc woke up yesterday feeling sick and craving my Neapolitan-style pizza.  I’ll take that as a compliment since I could tell by her face she wasn’t a fan of our first attempts from before.  It’s nice to move along in the journey.. don’t you agree?

The Origins of a name… and some surprises!

So why Za Pi?  Well, the “Za” part is pretty simple… It’s really become the ubiquitous phrase shorthand for pizza.  Some may argue that “za” is strictly an East Coast/New York concept, but the term has carried far from New York thanks to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT).

Those ridiculously cool (and now making a comeback in toys supposedly) green ninjas with a half shell were one of the toy/cartoon crazes of my generation.  And while I can’t find an exact episode where Michaelangelo’s boldly states wanting some “za”, the image of me running around the house with nunchucks asking my parents if we could have “Za” for dinner was inspired by one of those episodes.

So now that we have half the name, why Pi (or 3.14)?  This really symbolizes quite a few things…

1.  It expresses the geek in me, as well as my teammates.  The three of us that are pursuing this journey together all met in high school (Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy) where we were endlessly teased by other schools at sporting events.  (Seriously, some schools were creative enough to dress up as a TI-85 calculator to “insult” us…)

2.  It’s expresses our approach to making great quality Neapolitan pizza.  We research the topic endlessly, run test trials on dough formulas, sauces, flavor combinations, heat temps, etc.  We firmly believe there’s a “scientific” approach to making great pizza and we want to find it to make it part of our culture.

3.  It’s Pie!  Pizza Pie!  Pizza Pi!  Za Pi!  It’za Pi! (Say that last one with the ridiculous Italian accent you know you have in you).  Za Pi… flows pretty well, right?

So after much discussion and playing around with 30 some potential names and hearing feedback from family, we settled on Za Pi for our mobile business.

Before we close out for the day, two things:

1.  We did our first set of sauce tests last night… a blind taste test for six key people to determine favorite sauce flavors to serve as the base of all our tomato based pies.  Here’s the five sauces we tested with some simple Italian bread.  Image

Each person was asked to provide 3 points to their first choice, 2 points to their 2nd, and 1 point to their third choice (assuming they had three they liked enough to rank).  Part of this was to determine whether San Marzanos or DOP based tomato sauces were really worth the extra cash for the pizza.  Guess what we found out:


The 6 in 1 tomato sauce (B) seems to have faired the best out of the taste testers, with the Duomo crushed tomatoes from California (C) in a far second choice.  While the Cento San Marzanos (E) did got some votes, the importaed Flora San Marzano DOPs (D) was left out in the cold in terms of flavor and texture and received no votes at all (not even a third place!).  Make me wonder if pursuing Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) is worth it for what we’re trying to do… But that’s a post for another time.

2.  Here’s a look at where we hope to take Za Pi’s direction.Image

Our first trial of a BBQ pork with mango pizza.  It was tasty, but will need some refinement.  Looking forward to making some more of the “non-traditional” pizzas I have in mind as we move forward in our testing phase of what to bring to you at the market!

Tools of the Trade and Dough Tests

So now where were we…?  Oh yes.  The crazed light in my eye of from tasting that Neapolitan marinara pizza.  It’s not quite as crazy as Jack Nicholas’ face from “The Shining”, but I won’t tell you it wasn’t close.

The next day after work, I headed to the library and checked out Nathan Myhrvold’s Modernist Cuisine from the library to read up on his scientific thoughts and tests around Neapolitan pizza.  (Did I mention that I’m a technique geek in the kitchen?  I should probably get that out of the way now…)  His strongest recommendation of recreating a somewhat comparable surface to woodfired ovens was to utilize thick 1/4 inch steel in ovens at the highest heat possible.  I started seeking out my tools…

After calling nine different steel companies to get quotes for a 1/4 inch thick steel to be cut that would fit my oven and receiving quotes between $250 to $400+, I was disappointed.  As much as I wanted the right tools to make the pizza, $250 before shipping costs was just ludicrous amount of money to pay for making pizza at home.  While I had used heating the back of a cast iron skillet and broiler method with some success, it wasn’t efficient in making large quantities of pizza.  I figured it may be time to just purchase or build a woodfired oven for the house, until someone tipped me off to Andrew Lagsdin’s Baking Steel…  I missed the Kickstarter opportunity already, but EyeDoc ordered one up for me for Xmas 2012, and it was a FAR more reasonable price than the custom quotes I had sought out.   On the day it arrived, I eagerly opened up the delivered package and hugged my new toy with the glee of kid who just got his first video game system.  (Hugged carefully mind you, as I didn’t want to drop this heavy piece of steel on my toes).  I began making pizzas for EyeDoc only at first, then expanded to family members throughout the holiday parties, and then began inviting friends over to share my new bundle of joy.  And since then, over 200+ pizza have been churned out from our little home oven.

“So when are you going to open your own restaurant?”  – Aunt

At one of our many holiday parties, in the midst of chopping ingredients and opening dough, my aunt looked at me and asked.  I laughed and told her this was just a hobby, and that I could never leave my day job as a project manager.  After all, I was raised a nice, conservative Chinese boy who didn’t take risks, worked hard at the job to make a healthy salary.  What did I know about opening a business?

But that night, I couldn’t get her question out of my head… my Aunt and Uncle had opened up their own business and were doing well for themselves.  Could I possibly turn the hobby I loved into a business?  The next morning, I made my way to a farmer’s market downtown to pick up some fresh ingredients for another pizza night, and it dawned on me… why not bring pizza to a farmer’s market on the weekends?  This way, I could not only share my love of pizza with more people, but I could continue to work as a project manager during the week!  And thus, an Za Pi was born… why Za Pi?  That will be for next time…

Before we cut out, I wanted to share some interesting information with you.  Per my geek technique ways, I’ve been wanting to figure out what the flavor and texture differences were in different flours, so this weekend served as the perfect opportunity for just that.  So I prepared three doughs with three different flours for a few family members, all Margherita for test purposes… here’s the results:

Dough Tests

The first pizza was a Eagle Whole Grain white flour at 70% hydration.  Nice rise, but never quite firmed up and very “soggy” throughout the crust.

The second pizza was a Gold Medal Better for Bread flour with 70% hydration.  While this felt the wettest out of the three doughs while working with it, it firmed up the best around the crust and was voted best texture by family members.  It had a nice formation around the crust, and gave away to a soft interior.

The third pizza was a Caputo Tipo 00 flour at 65% hydration, the standard that Neapolitan pizza is made by.  While the rise seemed slightly smaller and the crust wasn’t as firmly formed as the KA flour, it easily had the best flavor crust.

And to reward my family for subjecting them to three straight margheritas, I made three others to end the night with lots of full bellies:


Spinach and fresh mozz, topped with prosciutto right as it comes out of the oven.  The fat from the prosciutto slightly melts into the hot pizza, making a tasty flavor.  While normally prosciutto is done with fresh arugula, I’m not a big fan of the bitterness from arugula and decided to try sauteed spinach directly cooked on.  Not bad, but still needs some modification…


Straight up pepperoni with shredded Sargento mozz.  The crispy edges of the pepperoni are the best bites on this pizza.


And one of the family favorites, Funghi Formaggio.  Sauteed baby bellas with fresh mozz, goat cheese, and gorgonzola.  This has far become the favorite pizza of EyeDoc and the rest of her family and requested every time I make pizza.

Until next time!

“A little bit scarily pizza obsessed…”

That’s what my co-worker told me just two days ago.  She joined the company only three weeks ago, and after a few meals and talks together, has branded me as a pizza obsessed man.

She’s right though, and honestly, I can’t help it.  There’s something beautiful about a perfectly made pizza, especially Neapolitan style.  The gorgeous airy rise in the cornicione (fancy terminology for the outside ring of the crust), the slightly charred bottom, the blend of flavors from the topping… It’s food for your soul when it’s done right.

So why the start of this blog?  Let me share with you the beginning of this adventure…

About 5 months ago, my wife (let’s call her EyeDoc for now) just finished her job at a company and moved into opening her own business.  After she got home late with many sentimental goodbyes, we decided celebrate the occasion with a meal out.   (That, and our kitchen was a mess due to a leak from the fridge making the floors wet… but I digress.)  There weren’t many places open still at 8:00 PM in the suburbs of Chicago, but we found one pizza/wine place on Yelp that was still open, fairly new to the area, and had some strong reviews.

We walked in, and noticed that there was a pizza bar, something new to the both of us.  Since we’ve always sat at sushi bars to chat with hosts, why not try the same with pizza?  We ordered up a burrata appetizer and marinara pizza.  And that’s when my obsession began….  I sat at the pizza bar watching as our pizzaolo turn out and open up the fresh dough, layer on the sauce as an artist paints on a canvas, and in less than 90 seconds, pull it this masterpiece out of the oven… the sauce was salty but not overly so, but the crust is really what won me over… good amount of chew on the outside, thrown beautifully thin and crisp in the center.  Great rise on the edge, perfect amounts of light char…  I was hooked.  And from the look in my eyes as I ate the pizza, EyeDoc whispered “Oh no…”  She knew this was going to be the start of one of my obsessive food projects…

While there’s plenty more to catch you up on, we’ve only just met, and I don’t want to scare you off with my obsession!  So how about we continue the story next time?  And I’ll continue to fill you in on my quest/journey to bring Neo-neapolitan pizza to a farmer’s market of Chicago…