Late last year I had the opportunity to sit down with Caleb Schiff, a NAU grad student who left a pretty solid career post grad-school to open his own pizzeria. It's the kind of story we are drawn to because, in this case, it worked. Caleb made his dream a reality, no question, but not before putting in a lot of blood, sweat and tears.
Readers of Food 'n Whine know I'm located in a bit of a culinary desert, so when I discover a place that "works" and I can get there and back in one day, I feel a responsibility to share that find.
I've been a fan of wood-fired pizza since it's inception and while there is a lot of good pizza to be had in northern Arizona, Caleb is the only one cranking out "authentic" wood-fired pies which anyone who has ever had one will tell you is a completely different animal than the majority of 'Merican pies.
From his efforts to grow in a way that's smart and sustainable to the time he puts into his natural fermentation process, Caleb and Pizzicletta are leading people to look to the small college town of Flagstaff, Arizona as a great food destination.
HEIDI: Thanks for meeting with me, Caleb. So I do have a little background history on you. I found where you did a blog with Serious Eats. You started blogging about your goal to open Pizzicletta in 2011, is that right?
CALEB: I started documenting way before we opened, which was in July, 2011. I think I started writing in March when I signed my lease here. I love writing. I dabbled with blog writing when I went to Italy for 40 days. I wrote a lot during that trip. That trip was so important. I had just quit my job at NAU – and it was a good job! I’d made the commitment to go forward to open a restaurant and I went to Italy on a shoestring budget. Forty days, all on a bike. That was October/November of 2010.
The restaurant has been open for four and half years now. But like any big endeavor, it had been building slowly for some time. I suppose it all really began when I built my first pizza oven in my backyard. Serious Eats covered that.
HEIDI: You built a pizza oven in your backyard – did that happen after your trip to Italy?
Caleb: Yeah, so in 2006 I was a grad student here at NAU and I had an opportunity to go to Europe for a conference. It was a business trip with benefits. I didn’t have a lot of money but I had a lot of time. My brother was living in Germany, and to make a long story short, after that conference I decided I was going to come back to Italy and Germany for four weeks and bring my bike. I could get around on my bike and stay in hostels and it was awesome. I cycled about 1,600 miles - mostly in northern Italy. I saw a lot, ate a lot, and I just really fell in love with the food in Italy. I’ve always enjoyed baking at home. When I was in Italy it was my first experience with wood-fired pizza. Pizzeria Bianca in Phoenix was around but at that time, the whole wood-fired pizza scene wasn’t a a big thing like it is now.
I came home and finished grad school, bought a home and got a job at NAU. But the first thing I did was to build an oven in my backyard. It started out really as a hobby. You know, when you actually own a home you can do things with it. This was the first home I owned and I wanted to make it my own. I called the project pizza oven in the backyard “Little Italy” and that’s how the whole thing got started. I never had the intention of opening a restaurant or even having such an interest in food.
I decided to name the restaurant “Pizzicletta” which is a play on “pizza” and the Italian word for bicycle which is "bicicletta".
HEIDI: That was my next question – there’s obviously a strong “cycling” theme apparent both in the name, the location (next to a bicycle shop), the logo … I also noticed this theme in the section on your website welcoming stagiaires (a "stage" is someone who will "intern" for free at a restaurant for the experience).
CALEB: Yes, we welcome stagiaires from all over the country and the world, actually. It’s gotta be the right fit, I’ve had to say no a couple times.
HEIDI: You’re probably limited on space I imagine.
CALEB: Yeah, a little bit. Mostly I want the people to be really sort of independent in a way that they know what they want to do, they just need a little guidance. They kind of have to have something to offer us. I’m always sensitive to people who say, “I want to create a place just like yours!” and I think, well, that’s not very authentic. They need to have their own dream. It’s flattering I suppose but it’s not the goal. It’s neat because we’ve had people from as far as London, Jakarta, California, Tennessee. We had a woman from New Jersey. It’s great to get to know people with a passion like ours and they help us grow, too. It’s nice sometimes to hang out with people with similar goals and have them share their viewpoint with us. We both walk away having learned a lot.
HEIDI: The definition you gave for a "stage" on the website has to do with cycling.
CALEB: I believe that term was first used in France in cycling and restaurants kind of picked up the terminology. That is a wonderful coincidence to me because I love cycling so much, but also that there’s a bike shop right next door to us. That was not planned, they were there before we moved in, and sometimes people think we named the restaurant what we did because we’re next to a bike shop, but it’s really just a happy coincidence.
The name is really about that trip I took in 2006. If I hadn’t taken that trip, I really don't think I’d be doing what I’m doing today. Working in geology, believe it or not.
HEIDI: I myself enjoy seeing a person live their dream, even though they started out doing something completely different.
CALEB: Writing the blog for Serious Eats was so great because we got so much feedback from the readers. I think the process I was going through, making a big change that was so risky, struck a chord with a lot of people. Starting a restaurant is insanely risky – I think something like 75% fail within the first year of opening. I had a super cushy job with benefits and decided to just give that up. I think a lot of people would like to do that at some level. I happened to be in a relationship and financial position to be able to do that. The timing was crazy - we were in a recession after all, but personally, it was a good time for me to make that change.
I had a lot of belief back then, and I still do, about Flagstaff being a great food destination, and I did not think it was happening at the time. There was a possibility for that. I spent a lot of time in grad school going to awesome food destinations like San Francisco and New York and I felt like this town deserved better food. That’s a continual theme here at Pizzicletta, to push the envelope of what good pizza is considered to be, but also what a good restaurant experience is. The food has to be good, of course, but it’s the complete experience. Being able to create a memorable experience for people is going to lead to success. Pizzicletta, partly out of necessity, partly out of the way it’s designed, is to be welcoming but also entertaining.
HEIDI: The first time I walked into Pizzicletta I felt “the vibe” that I personally look for when I’m looking for a good restaurant experience. Everyone loves the food, the only complaint I identified is the size … are you planning on any kind of expansion?
CALEB: I do have plans to expand, but not in a traditional, physical way. I suppose I’m not interested in trying to duplicate what we do here at Pizzicletta in multiple locations. Even though we are tiny, we have seen massive growth – and this is one of things I really geek out about. How can make the MOST out of this tiny space. From a business standpoint it makes sense – your fixed costs are staying fixed but you’re focusing on a different type of growth. Our sales are up 40% from last year and they were up 25% from the year before that. This past summer was incredible. First and foremost in my mind is maintaining that – maybe not at that rate, but I still think we can do better, more volume out of this place. That sounds crazy, but I think we can do it. It’s something I think about a lot
I am working on some projects within the Flagstaff area that I hope will come to fruition as soon as this summer (2016). I’ve been working with my landlord and Mother Load Brewery, and we’ve got bigger plans for food in this town. It’s something that as an entrepreneur I think is important, and as someone who’s young and has the energy, I should have aspirations to want to do more. I think people get concerned that when you grow it’s not going to be the same. It’s a perception I think that is just not true. I think our food is better now than it’s ever been and I work many less nights than the first two years where I never had a night off – that’s just not sustainable. Now I have a really great group of people in the kitchen who can make a pizza just as good as me.
People often ask me if what I do should be considered a type of art, but I look at it more as a craft. It’s really about the repetition. I’m convinced that with practice a person can make really great food. I do have aspirations to grow within the next year or so, and it does mean more seats and a second kitchen - doing pizza but also other food that I really enjoy, including some kitchen techniques that this town doesn’t really see a lot of. Small plates, things like that. People will also come to us for pizza but I want to introduce other food that I enjoy cooking at home and for our new seasonal dinners.
HEIDI: Without divulging any secrets, walk me through your dough-making process.
CALEB: there are a lot of things about our dough that aren’t necessarily unique but that do require extra effort. Those include really long fermentation times, naturally leavened dough and a fairly high hydration dough for pizza.
We don’t use commercial yeast – I say it’s naturally leavened using a sourdough starter. Take some rye flour and water, mix it up and set it on a shelf, and in a day or two it’s going to start bubbling. Bacteria in the air will start the fermentation process. We started that about four years ago and have used the same starter ever since. So it’s all ambient yeast falling from the air and it helps us in a number of ways. It’s healthier for people, actually. We do have to maintain that leaven and feed it, keep it happy. The fermentation from natural leaven is more uniform. If you take a scoop of instant yeast there are billions of bacteria in this little teaspoon. You put that in dough and it does it's job, sure, but it's ability to ferment is so much more powerful than ambient yeast and you get to the point where if that dough hits a certain temperature it just takes off. The dough gets blown out and it doesn’t have the same “life” as natural leavened doughs.
What I’ve discovered since opening is the longer you take the dough, the fermentation is breaking down the glutton and that's what you want. We ferment our dough in the refrigerator for sometimes as long as five days, but typically it’s around three days. That creates a softness to the dough because there’s less structure there. It makes it really easy to work on the marble countertops and it makes the final pizza amazingly tender. Those two things, the natural leavening which is easier on your guts (some people with glutton intolerances find they can eat Caleb’s pizza, though he doesn’t recommend it for full-blown celiacs) – it’s similar to foods like kimchi and sourkreaut. Lots of fermentation going on there so those foods are easier to break down. Natural leavening, extended fermentation and a really hot oven (900+ degrees using Arizona pecan wood) – the combination of those things that make our pizza unique.
Same day dough produces a very different pizza than the three-day dough I’ll use for pies tonight. Same day dough will have less or none of the “leopard spotting” our pizzas are known for. The dough will be browner and crisper. Most pizzerias make dough the same day or the day before. Our dough produces a spotty pizza and the char is really heavy. It’s the style that we like and it’s more along the style of what you’ll find in Naples.
I think the hallmark of a really great pizzeria is to be distinct. I want to make sure we're always genuine.
203 W Phoenix Ave
Flagstaff, AZ 86001
Open 7 nights a week
Monday - Thurs and Sun - 5-9pm
Friday and Saturday - 5-10pm