Chef News

Gasper Manno of Gasper's Casual Italian Dining/Pizzeria

Gasper Manno is a true pizza man: born and raised in Italy, trained in New York pizzerias.  He has lived and breathed pizza since his childhood in Sicily when his mom topped leftover bread dough with tomato, parmesan and anchovies to his days tossing pies for the very particular New York crowd. Now, he puts on a pizza-making show at the pizza bar in his very own place: Gasper's Casual Italian Dining/Pizzeria in central Phoenix.

"The pizza I make is the pizza that's been made since the 1860s," Manno says. "It's exactly the same method."

Manno's perfected the Neapolitan pizza-making method: Thin, airy crust, not too many toppings, light, fresh, and downright tasty.

He's even won over native New Yorkers of the Italian variety. During our visit, a customer popped in to pick up takeout and confesses she comes to Gasper's three to four times a week. Sounds like an upgraded version of dorm-room diet, one we could easily resume.

Today Manno breaks down the difference between Italian and American pizza, dishes on the pizza he craves and the toppings he won't touch, and shares the best advice he's ever gotten.

What's the difference between Italian and American pizza? Italian pizza is the original, authentic pizza, which has very set rules as to how the dough should be prepared, how the dough has to be handled making the pizza, and how it was baked, traditionally in a wood fire oven. And that's how we do it here. We follow the strict rules of the traditional Neapolitan pizza. I remember my mom used to make it after she made bread. Whatever dough was leftover after making bread, she would stretch it out and put some tomatoes on it, some Parmesan cheese, and maybe some anchovies and bake it. That was the pizza that we know.

What are some of the rules of Neapolitan pizza making that you'll never break? The preparation of the dough. The ratio of the water, flour, yeast and salt - I use Sicilian sea salt. The time for proofing is very important. And once you've done that, you've pretty much everything. That's what gives the texture and quality of the dough: Those ingredients you should never vary from and the timing of proofing the dough.

What were your favorite dishes growing up that you'd ask your mom to make? Really, we didn't have a choice as to what we wanted mom to make: Mom would make dinner and that's what you ate. There was no such thing as "I don't like beans" or "I don't like pasta." You ate what was in your dish. Meat was very rare. If you were lucky, you'd get a couple meatballs on Sunday.

How many kids in your family? Seven children. And where we you in the pecking order? In the middle: Two older, a twin and three younger ones. Did you and your twin ever switch places? No, because she happens to be a female.

What's your first memory of cooking? Working in a pizzeria on 32nd and Broadway (in New York). 1972. Starting the kitchen, cleaning, preparing, and then, if they feel you're good enough, they'll let you try the counter where you start by serving and then you start playing with the dough and make pizza.

Anything you'd never put on a pizza? Pineapple.

Do you eat frozen pizza at home? I don't think I ever have.

What does your ideal pizza have on it? My ideal pizza is the tomato, fresh mozzarella, extra virgin olive oil, and fresh basil. That's your traditional, traditional Neapolitan pizza. I also have a very good pizza that comes with tomato and fresh mozzarella, then I add fresh baby arugula, prosciutto very thinly sliced, and Parmesan Reggiano, and then I finish it with extra virgin olive oil.

Best advice you've ever gotten? Keep it simple. And use good ingredients. Because whatever you put in it, that's what you're going to get out.

Check back tomorrow to get the dish on Manno's pizza making process and his pizza topping limit and Thursday for a recipe to try at home.

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Hannah E Williams