A Day in the Life of a Pizza Guru
By Jen Doll, the mag
This story originally appeared in print in the November 2014 issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe to our print edition here, and our iPad edition here.
Two minutes into a conversation with Scott Wiener you can tell the man is obsessed. The 32-year-old, who lives in Brooklyn, loves pizza like nobody else. He loves it so much he’s made a career and a life out of it: He’s the author of the definitive book on pizza box design, holds the Guinness World Record for largest pizza box collection (775 and counting), writes for Pizza Today magazine, judges pizza competitions, and founded the only tour in the country—maybe the world—solely dedicated not to pizzerias but to “pizza itself,” he says of the aptly named Scott’s Pizza Tours.
When Wiener was growing up, it had been a joke among his friends that he was “that into pizza,” he says. But he never considered it a career path: He worked in TV and music and spent some time as a caretaker living on the only surviving Ellis Island ferryboat. Then, in 2007, for his 26th birthday party, he went all out: He rented a bus, put together pizza-related goodie bags, and invited a group of friends to join him on a pizza-eating tour of New York City. It was a day that would change his life.
Six months later, he’d taken his pizza-party concept and made it his profession, offering bus and walking tours in New York to paying customers. Around that same time, he traveled to Israel, where he noticed “some stunning pizza box specimens.” Collecting them, too, became an obsession.
It’s hard not to look at a self-made pizza expert without a sense of awe. Hungry to find out if his daily life is as delicious as it sounds, we tagged along with Wiener on a busy day over the summer, through a Skyped meeting for his pizza-box art show in London and Berlin, a walking pizza tour in Greenwich Village, a meeting with a Japanese online magazine (pizza is having a moment in Japan), a comedy show that Scott’s Pizza Tours sponsored, and other random pizza business that came up. Here’s what we saw.
Most mornings, Scott starts out with a swim at the YMCA, followed by a bowl of oatmeal to prepare for a day of pizza eating. (He limits himself to 15 slices weekly, which he tracks with an app.) Settling into his office full of pizza boxes, he fires off a few emails. As his Skype call begins, Scott remembers it’s his mom’s birthday. He jumps up to call her quickly, telling her, “You’re the most important one!”
It’s no surprise that the majority of Scott’s frozen foods fit a certain theme: People are always sending him pizza. There’s also some brisket his mom made. He digs through the foil-wrapped items to show us a pizza he made in January 2013. (Shortly after our visit, he threw it out “to make room for more frozen pizza.”)
People just “give me pizza things,” says Scott. This pizza umbrella was made by a friend and has pizzeria locations noted—with tiny plastic pizzas—on a map of downtown Manhattan that can be read from the inside, in case of a rainy-day pizza-mergency.
Before our Greenwich Village tour begins, a man walks by eating pizza. “That’s the second person I’ve seen eating a slice!” exclaims Scott, who’s changed into his official tour attire. There are nine of us, including two couples from New Jersey and a woman from Korea. Tours vary widely; whoever is there defines the day, says Scott. There have even been marriage proposals and one wedding, which he officiated.
Being buddies with pizzeria owners all over town means Scott gets to play chef every now and then. At Keste, a Neapolitan pizzeria with a dome-shaped wood-burning brick oven heated as hot as 930 degrees, Scott encourages us to touch the dough. “Dough is alive, and pizza is all about how hands interact with the dough,” he tells us as we ooh and ahh over its softness. He shovels it into the oven; within seconds, a focaccia emerges.
“I move fast in the morning,” Scott explained earlier. He also moves fast in the afternoon. There’s a lot to cover where pizza is concerned, so he walks and talks, dropping facts. Here’s one: When pizza chefs practice making pizza, they often use rigatoni (yes, the pasta) instead of cheese—it’s cheaper than fresh mozzarella and weighs about the same. Here’s another: A pizza oven can weigh as much as 3,000 pounds.
At a break between pizzerias, Scott pulls out a binder and gives us a mini lesson on grains. Wheat sourcing impacts flour options, and historically, pizzerias have had to depend on local flour. Some flours are much finer than others; “00” flour is the finest grain you can get and what’s used in Neapolitan pizzas (which is why the dough is so soft). Generally, the coarser the grain, the more time the pizza will need in the oven.
Scott’s infrared thermometer comes from an online tool shop and is typically used to check heating and air conditioning. He pulls it out on tours to demonstrate oven and pizza surface temperatures and “to avoid pizza burn,” which happens when slices are more than 175 degrees. When he checks a few seconds later, the temperature reads 168, and “this pizza is open for business.”
Among Scott’s many pizza hacks is a tip for divvying up a just- baked pie: Just insert a fork between the sliced sections at the crust and twist to separate. (For more hacks, visit mentalfloss.com/pizzahacks.) He shows us this at Fiore’s, where a gas deck oven is used, meaning a longer bake time. Quickly, we eat. As Scott says, “If there’s one thing I respect in the world, it’s the sanctity of fresh pizza.”
The tour completed, we hit Staples, where Scott cuts Slice Out Hunger fliers to pass out at the comedy show. The Slice Out Hunger annual pizza-eating event began six years ago as an anniversary party for Scott’s Pizza Tours. Each slice is $1, and all proceeds go to Food Bank for New York City. Last year, $20,000 was raised, funding 100,000 meals for the needy.
At the comedy show, talk again turns, of course, to pizza. Earlier in the day, I’d asked Scott if he ever got annoyed being asked so many questions about pizza. “That’s what I’m there for,” he said. “If my 12-year-old self thought I would grow up to think ‘What’s your favorite pizza?’ is the worst question, well, that’s still the best.”