The first time I had Silvio's pizza it was a desperation lunch. I had been walking by the sign outside for "Silvio's Organic Pizza" for several months. I'm not a big fan of the greasy too-cheesy pizza that's endemic to this town, so even the "organic" thing wasn't very motivational. Every time I walked by the Silvio's sign, I remembered instead the chicken salad on a croissant that I used to have at Jacques Patisserie, and the limeade I loved at Drakes before that, and sighed.
I stopped in for pizza finally when I had just 25 minutes for lunch. I was surprised to see potato, blue cheese and rosemary pizza. So I got that and a piece with pesto and pinenuts. By the time I had hoovered up every last crumb and walked out, I wondered what just happened. I went back the next day for more.
From what I've heard, this is the story with a lot of Silvio's customers. I know personally a number of people who have gone to Silvio's every single day for lunch for months on end. Silvio says there are even a couple of people who are there 3 times a day every day. My own conversion to pizza-love and the devotion of others made me curious about why exactly Silvio's pizza is so fantastically good. And not just his pizza is good, but the pasta is also great. My favorite, the ravioli, is made by hand with grass-fed beef he gets from a local organic farm. I asked Silvio if I could come and watch him make pizzas and ask him about what he does that makes that pizza taste so delicious. And I think I now know the secret.
I was surprised to learn that Silvio, his wife Catia, and their 4 children (twins Romeo and Gio, and the girls Manuela and Francesca) have been in the States for the past 11 years. And that Silvio was born in Binghamton, NY, though his parents went back to Italy before he was 2. In Italy, Silvio's parents owned a bakery. That's where he got his start in business and in love, since the bakery is where he met Catia. He says his father made the same 4 or 5 kinds of bread every day and didn't like Silvio interfering. But Silvio would experiment late at night after his father went home. By the time they left for the US, Silvio was making 20 different kinds of bread a day.
On the day we had arranged for my visit, I came in a bit early so I could (of course) get pizza for lunch. It was the typical lunch crowd, about 75% students, and by 12:15 all the tables were filled. I've been there enough that I recognized probably 10% of the crowd as people I'd seen there before, though I later learned that they recognize about 50-60% of the faces as repeat customers. I did a little informal survey asking people what they thought of the pizza on a scale of 1 to 10. 9 or 9.5 was the typical response.
Even though they were still in the middle of the lunch rush and I was prepared to cool my heels until our appointed time, Silvio invited me back into the kitchen. Manuela and Gio were working the front of the house, taking orders and prepping soups and salads, while Silvio and Romeo worked the pizza oven and the stoves.
Inspecting the tiny kitchen space while trying to stay out of the way, I could see it had been designed for maximum efficiency. Facing the huge ovens, the main counter for pizza making has a row of condiments within easy reach and a line of tiny refrigerators underneath. The dough is stored in these low coolers, each pale dough baby in its own little blanket. The dough has to be of the exact right consistency. If it's too wet, it will stick to the fabric. If too dry, it will form an unacceptable "skin."
Silvio makes the dough usually 3 times every day using organic ingredients. In a mixer about the size of a Smart car, he first shovels in 5 or 10 pounds of spongy starter that's been relaxing in the cooler. Then he weighs out each of the remaining ingredients - flour, oil, salt and water - and mixes them in. Every batch makes about 20 pounds of dough, from which they can make about 30 pizzas. There are no timers going off - Silvio just knows when it has the right elasticity and shine and stops the mixer.
After the dough has rested, he cuts off melon-size pieces, weighing each to make sure it is the size he wants. Then in a remarkable feat of ambi-dexterity, he kneads these soft dough balls two at a time. With one in each hand, he makes smooth circling motions until the skin is shiny and tight. He shows me that underneath there is no "bellybutton," which would make the final pizza crust burn where the dough would come out too thin.
Every pizza is patted out by hand, then the dough is pre-baked in the 650º oven lined with stones. Everyone in the kitchen seems to have great respect for this oven. You feel its dragon-breath the moment you pass the swinging door into the kitchen. Silvio says it's important that the oven be very hot when the dough goes in - the poof of steam evaporating is what gives the dough its quick rise and crisp crust. After this, the toppings go on. I think this is Silvio's favorite part. He says he prefers the "white" style of pizza over the red sauce kind, that "with white, you can let your fantasy go."
Indeed, their most popular is the truffle pizza - fontina cheese, shiitake mushrooms, and white truffle oil. The words "rich and savory" were invented to define this pizza. I have found that the more unusual something sounds, the better it will be. Cases in point: potato pizza, grape pizza, pizza stuffed with tuna and hot pickled vegetables, fennel pizza, breakfast pizza with bacon and hard-boiled eggs. If there's a bowl of their fantastic eggplant caponata sitting on the counter, get some before it's gone. If they tell you there's something special that day, you'd be a fool not to order it.
Silvio loves creating new things whenever he gets his hands on special ingredients. Like the prosciutto that he makes from pork that he salts and cures for 9 months. And a very respectable red house wine which he made from 36 boxes of grapes he ordered from California last year. Since I'd already eaten a piece of the breakfast pizza, I say no to a piece of the Sacher torte he offers. I'm already imposing too much on his generosity, though I really want to try it.
In the couple of hours that I spend in Silvio's kitchen, I get to see for the first time how the family works together, how the brothers and sister tease each other. I get to see their individual personalities and how easily they function as a team. They say they like how fun it is when their mom is there and that their dad is too serious. It's apparent that they enjoy being together; they are easy and relaxed with each other.
I had asked Silvio if I could come to see how he makes his dough because I was convinced that the crust is what makes his pizza so remarkable. And for certain, there is no one else in this town putting in the level of care, craft and dedication to doing it right with the right ingredients that he is with his pizza. You can taste that. His crust is unsurpassed and his pizza is pretty close to perfect in my estimation.
I'm a pretty good home cook, but I know I could not replicate it. The knowledge of how hard it is to perfect my own cooking gives me a sense of the skill it would take to reach that level of expertise. I don't know that the fast food crowd recognizes or appreciates the level of integrity and effort that it takes to produce pizzas as good as Silvio's. He is a master at what he does.
I love that there are places like Silvio's. We need more people who care like that. I'm burned out on the homogeneity of restaurant chains - I can get that level of apathy anywhere. While I walk away with a new appreciation for the level of expertise and craftsmanship that Silvio brings to the food he serves, I'm also extremely aware that part of what's unusual here is his incredible generosity and the love he brings to the community through his food and through his family.
And though I know the secrets of the amazing crust now (does it get any fresher or higher quality?) in some ways I remain just as puzzled as I was before. Why does anyone still go to Domino's when there are places like Silvio's? When most of us here are not impoverished, why do people choose something inferior and faceless when there is still integrity and care in the world? Why do people accept things that are simply not even good?
Perhaps this antique quote helps explain the conundrum:
"There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The person who buys on price alone is this man's lawful prey." -- John Ruskin
Something else to puzzle over - though the price of a 50 lb. bag of his organic flour has increased from $9 to $40, Silvio still hasn't changed the price of his pizza since they opened almost 4 years ago. How many businesses in our community are dedicated to providing something truly valuable? And how many to simply extracting our resources and externalizing their costs? I'm glad to know that there are a few, like Silvio, standing in the former camp. Thank you Silvio, Catia, Romeo, Gio, Manuela, and Francesca. And thank you also for letting me get in your way for an afternoon. I'll be back soon for more pizza.
715 N. University Ave.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
Mon - Thu: 10am-Midnight
Fri, Sat: 10am-3am