Suzanne Hoffman
Behind the Scenes
Vail, CO Colorado

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December 30, 2012
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Zino: Neapolitan pizzas in the heart of Vail Valley

Editor's note: This the second story in a two-part series about Zino's in Edwards. Visit www.vaildaily.com to read the first installment.

Nick Haley, co-owner and executive chef at Zino Ristorante in the Riverwalk at Edwards, delights in making pizzas. Although it is technically baking, Haley calls it "cooking by building." And what Haley and pizzaiolo Ryan Bowne do at Zino is build a variety of pizzas worthy of any Neapolitan pizzeria.

Most restaurant kitchens are truly in the back of the house, hidden from diners. But in restaurants such as Larkspur, Splendido and Zino, the fast pace of the hot line is in plain view. Only a few times have I been granted the opportunity to work on the line during service. It's the heart and soul of the kitchen once diners arrive, and it's not a great place for rookies like me. But I've held my own. At Zino, I received my biggest challenge: going behind the scenes - in plain view of diners - to work as a pizzaiola at the prominent wood-fire oven at the end of the hot line.

Once introduced, Haley asked if I was "ready to spin some pizzas?" Spin pizzas? As in tossing in the air, praying the dough will come down on my fists, not my face, spinning? Well, sort of, as you'll see. Willing to try anything at least once, I happily followed him to the kitchen. I knew this was one of those special learning moments I could share with readers.

This winter, Haley, who rightfully considers his pizzas "the real deal," decided to revamp his pizza dough recipe to the more traditional Neapolitan method. Dough is prepared daily from Abiga starter (yeast, flour, water) and 00 flour. Next comes a 24-hour fermentation. The fermentation makes the signature bubbles that char during baking bigger and easier to control. Charring is a good thing, and diners shouldn't consider that a defect worthy of returning the pizza to the kitchen. It's authentic!

The dough is cut and then shaped into balls, carefully placed in a container, covered and placed in the pizza station's chiller until needed. The clicking sound of the printer spitting out orders is akin to a starting gate flying open in a horse race. If a pizza was ordered, we were off and spinning.

In the true Neapolitan way, no rolling pin is used to shape the crusts. Making rustic pizzas is great because ovals or semi-round shapes I have a penchant for making are acceptable. These aren't perfectly round, factory-made crusts that serve merely as a vehicle for toppings. Haley's crust is part of the total experience, something to enjoy even on its own. That's a hint, Chef, to start serving plain pizza crust in the breadbasket!

When an order arrived, I carefully transferred a satiny dough ball to a small bowl of flour. After flipping it about four times, it was suitably covered with flour, making it easier to handle.

Grasping an edge of the floured disk, I pinched the dough about 1⁄2 inch from the edge and rotated it, hoping to form a circular piece of dough. Gravity was both my friend - it helped stretch the dough - and my enemy - it stretched the dough too much. With practice, I managed to make about three turns of the dough - that now resembled the preferred disk shape - before gingerly moving it over the knuckle of one hand and then sliding the other fist under the dough. So here I was with this roughly 6-inch disk of pizza dough draped across my knuckles thinking, "What next?"

Spinning at Zino doesn't mean tossing the dough in the air. Instead, the dough is rotated and stretched around clenched fists until it is the right size and thickness. Haley and Browne can whip out a beautifully shaped crust in no time. It took me a few tries to find my rhythm. My crust was far from perfect, shaped more like a football than a frisbie, but I quickly got the knack, thanks to Haley's good-natured encouragement and Browne's coaching.

Transferring the dough from my fists to a floured pizza peel without tearing it was tricky. With only a few tears that Browne patched, I succeeded with the transfer. Once on the peel, a few jiggles to make sure the crust wasn't sticking, and I was ready for the real fun: topping the crust.

Increasingly, to control costs, Haley is making products in-house. Bread - which Zino also makes for Sweet Basil, Mountain Standard and Eat Drink - pasta, burrata, mozzarella, ricotta, marinara sauce, pizza dough and most of the pizza toppings are some of the housemade products.

Of the five types of pizza on the menu, I made four that night: Margherita, Funghi, Pear and Prosciutto, and my personal favorite, Salsiccia, basically a charcuterie and cheese pizza. Your cardiologist might not approve, but your taste buds will!

With the pizza crust topped, it was time to slide it off the peel into the wood-fired oven. This is when it's crucial the crust doesn't stick to the peel. Although the rigid rules of the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana require the pizza be baked for 60 to 90 seconds in a 905-degree wood oven, Haley has to make do with 650 degrees. This is the high country, and in its rarified atmosphere, a 650-degree temperature is more easily maintained.

I'm a bit height challenged, so reaching into a 650 degree "fireplace" with burning aged Palisades peach wood on one side was a little dicey at first. But on my tippy toes, I got the knack of sliding pizzas onto the oven's stone floor, turning them while baking, then successfully sliding the long-handled pizza paddle under baked pizzas and accomplishing the balancing act of transferring them from oven to counter, not the floor.

I love the snap, crackle, pop sound of a pizza in a wood-fired oven. There's nothing more authentic than the sight, sound and smell of a pizza baking in the traditional manner. That night, we made about 14 pizzas. The oven comfortably holds seven pizzas, but on a busy night, Browne can cram nine in at a time, producing approximately 70 pizzas during service. The wood oven is also used to finish other menu items, such as salmon and branzino, so it's in heavy demand on a busy night.

Obviously, pizza is but one popular item on the Zino menu. The Italian-American menu is full of delicious choices for omnivores and vegetarians alike. Skillet-roasted mussels in lemon butter are also crowd favorites. On a busy night, Sous Chef Alfonso "Pancho" Espinosa, who has been with Haley since his Campo di Fiori days, prepares about 120 pounds of Prince Edward Island mussels Zino receives fresh daily. Come on Mussel Madness Tuesdays, and you can enjoy this delicious dish for half price! It's great with a bottle of Vietti Arneis Giuseppe Bosco has on his eclectic, Italian-centric wine list!

I hope you get a chance to visit Zino in winter and in summer, when you can enjoy their patio. Whenever you go, if you order the pizza, please do me a favor and enjoy the charred bubbles.

Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney and Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is a passionate gastronome. For more background information on her "Behind the Scenes" series, go to www.facebook.com/vailvalley

secrets. Email comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.


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The VailDaily Updated Dec 30, 2012 05:09PM Published Dec 30, 2012 05:02PM Copyright 2012 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.