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Pizzaiolos: Jeff Michaud of Osteria

Jeff Michaud of Osteria at De Gustibus
Jeff Michaud of Osteria at De Gustibus
Photo: De Gustibus

Chef Jeff Michaud is the man behind the pizzas that Philly loves so dearly at Marc Vetri's Osteria. Soon after opening in 2006, Osteria started getting national for their high-end pies, which weren't easy to find in Philly at that time. Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LaBan even called the pizza here, "the pie that saved North Broad Street." Eater chatted up Michaud about the secrets to great pies, training in Italy, and keeping it simple.

How long have you been making pizza? Since we opened Osteria. It was part of the plan for this place. When I was working at Vetri, we started doing test pies, but that was it. Marc showed us how he learned to make them, and then it was just practice.

Didn't you train in Italy, too? Yeah, actually, right when I was getting married. We went there, and I told my wife-to-be that I was going to train right before the wedding, and work at a pizza shop for a week-and-a-half. It didn't go over well, but we're still married.

How do you make the dough? We have two kinds of dough. The standard is the kind of dough you get all over Italy, and it's a very Roman-style. Made from bread flour, sugar, salt, olive oil, water, and yeast. We mix it up and use it the next day. Doesn't require a lot of special attention. The other kind we make is the Neopolitan crust, which is a little more work. We developed the recipe here. It takes a few days to finish, and we use a bread starter. Then we add the flour, water, and yeast, and let it rise. They make these dough balls that puff up fluffier, and the dough stays crisp on the outside, and follow the standards of traditional dough from Napoli.

How do you stretch the dough? All of that tossing pizza stuff is for show, and, everyone pretty much knows that by now. But, the Neopolitan dough requires very little work, only like three moves and it's ready to go. The traditional dough, though, takes more practice. Lots of flour, one hand to hold it steady, and the other pulls it around, rotating the dough while stretching it. Then, let one end hang off, and the weight of the hanging end helps even out the shape while rotating it.

What about your sauce? Also, really simple. We just use San Marzano tomatoes, and buzz them up with a hand mixer with olive oil, and basil. I like the taste of fresh tomatoes on my pizza instead of cooked sauce.

And the cheese? We get our mozzarella freshly made from DiBruno Brothers. Actually we get most of our different cheeses for the pizzas from them.

What kind of oven do you use? We use a Wood Stone pizza oven. It's a wood-fired oven with gas-assist. The only time we use that is when the restaurant is closed, because it needs to stay at 350 degrees. When firing pizzas, we use a mix of red and white oak. The secret is to use smaller pieces of wood, and use the little pieces to brown the pizza with a quick flame. Otherwise continuous heat just melts the cheese into the dough.

Where else do you eat pizza? Honestly, nowhere. When I'm at Osteria we eat a lot of pizza. The last thing I want to do is eat more pizza when I'm not here. I did like the pizza at Pizzeria Stella when I was there. Sadly, I've never been to Tacconelli's. I know I need to go.

How many diners get pizza when they're at Osteria? Probably 65-70% of our guests. If not just getting pizza, they'll at least get pizza to share at the table.

So, are you guys a clockwork machine, or do you still work on improving the pizzas? You know with the traditional crust, we just go. But, we are always trying to improve the Neopolitan dough.

What pizza is your most popular? We make a ton of just Margherita. The Lombardo and the Parma are popular, too, though. But, I would say Margherita.

What pizza do you wish people knew about or was more popular? We just added a Pizza Bianco like a month ago. It's just dough with pureed lardo spread on it, crisped up with some Pecorino cheese and herbs. It's delicious.

Have you and Marc Vetri talked about opening a pizza shop? Of course, but we're taking this one restaurant at a time. We will see.

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