Mark Bello, who owns Pizza a Casa, and Jenny Philips, who helps run the shop.
By Olivia Smith
One by one, they eagerly bit into slices of premium pizza – topped with everything from bananas to bacon and eggs. But the mix of tourists and New Yorkers packed into Pizza a Casa in the lower East Side weren’t just out for lunch. They were evaluating their handiwork.
Pizza a Casa has been offering pizza-making classes for almost two years. The four-hour classes are offered daily and cost $150. That price can buy 150 slices at $1 pizza places like 2 Bros on St. Marks. Pizza cooking classes in New York City don’t seem to come much cheaper. Rustico Cooking in midtown offers them for $110.
“It’s an investment,” said Mark Bello, who owns Pizza a Casa.
Bello explained that making pizzas at home could be cost-effective if consumers take time to purchase inexpensive ingredients.
“Once you make your own you’ll never want to buy a pizza again,” Bello said.
Bello has a slight beard and a buzz cut. His dark features reflect his Italian heritage. Pizza a Casa opened in 2010, but this November the number of pizzas his students have made surpassed 7,000.
“The time went by fast, but it was very educational,” said Beth Dettman, who took the class while on a trip from Wisconsin with her husband. “It was the best crust I’ve ever had.”
Bello, a native New Yorker, runs the shop. But he has a few helpers, including Jenny Philips, originally from Dallas, who occasionally teaches as well.
Their students range in age, from families with young children to people who just want to learn how to make their own pizza pie. In each class Bello takes the first hour and a half to teach his students how to make dough from scratch.
The small shop is one large room. Books and ingredients are sold at the front of the store and at the back is where the cooking takes place. The space is split down the middle by a long, wooden table, which serves as the workstation.
On a recent day, students stood around cooking utensils, large bowls and various ingredients, ranging from peanuts to puréed tomatoes.
After the students mixed together the dough’s ingredients including water and flour, it took 45 minutes for it to rise. Bello used this time to demonstrate stretching techniques.
“Tossing the dough is fun, but it may make the pizza taste like cardboard,” Bello explained. “It results in a soulless crust.”
If his students want to learn the air-toss tricks, Bello gives them silicone based practice dough. But he always encourages kneading, over throwing.
After he highlighted the benefits of kneading, Bello handed out menus with three types of options: red pizza, white pizza and dolci. The red pies include margherita and grilled eggplant. The white ones vary from potato rosemary to bacon and eggs. And the dolci choices are made up of sweet items like banana, nutella and pear.
Everyone sampled the pizzas, and each person chose three to create on their own.
After this step, Bello overlooked as his students experimented with their new hands-on craft, and he reminded them of a few expert pointers.
“For margherita put the cheese on before the sauce,” Bello said. “Don’t add too much salt to the sauce because we add a lot of salty items later.”
Too many toppings are never a good thing, he repeatedly reminded the class. The two most important things to remember are the order of the items and the balance of ingredients, Bello told his students.
The menu acts as a well-detailed guide. Alongside each pizza is a list of ingredients with crosses that mark when to add what item. One cross means add towards the end, two crosses mean add when the pizza is out of the oven.
The bacon and egg pizza starts, for instance, with pancetta (vegetarians substitute red onion). The farm fresh eggs are added last, and after it’s cooked comes the black pepper and fried sausage.
“It is a very intricate process,” said Pete Christener, a gray-bearded Swiss tourist. “Now that I learned how to do this once, I can do it again anytime at home.”
And that is the point of the class, Bello explained. For this purpose he uses a conventional, domestic oven that takes six to 10 minutes to cook the pizzas, as opposed to frozen pizzas like DiGiorno which take about 20 minutes.
As the room filled with the smell of fresh baked bread, students wondered if their pizza would taste as good as New York City’s famous slices.
“I do this because it’s fun,” Bello said. “If I owned a restaurant I’d never have time off.”