Head Chef and founder Calvin Kitchin talks proper Neapolitan pizzas, chasing Michelin recognition and how Cal’s Own started on a building site
You started off as a joiner – how did you make your way to pizza?
Basically, I just couldn’t get a good pizza anywhere. I’d seen pictures of pizza in New York and just thought, why is it that they’ve got that pizza, and we’ve got this pizza?
When did you decide to open a restaurant?
I’d come to a point where I was making the pizzas amazing – you couldn’t get a better pizza in Newcastle. I was making them for myself, friends and family, then people started to buy pizzas from the house. They’d have to ring up two days in advance because it was taking us that long to make the dough. They’d come and collect pizzas off us, maybe a couple a week. I thought, ‘I’ve got to open up a restaurant’.
So are you completely self-taught?
One hundred percent. When I was doing this research on New York pizzas, I came across a place called Totonno’s. There’s a guy in New York called Paulie Gee, and he started the same way. He went down the same path as me: he was in IT and he founded Totonno’s in Coney Island.
What makes your pizza stand out in the North East?
With the pizza that I’m doing at the minute in the wood-fired oven, it’s what’s called Vera Pizza Napoletana; it’s all regulated, it’s all in line with this association in Naples. It’s 100 percent correct.
Is that the standard you compare yourself against now?
Yeah, there’s literally only two pizzerias out of about 500 in Naples that make pizza like me, at the minute.
What ought a proper Neapolitan pizza be like?
It’s soft, it’s foldable, it’s easily digestible, the crust’s one inch; the crust is the best part. I’m literally having people come in the restaurant and they’re eating the centre of the pizza and leaving this circle of crust! That’s what we’ve been working on! That’s the main thing! People just don’t have a clue what’s going on. But it’s a learning process.
What difference does using a wood-fired oven make to a pizza?
Basically, with a gas oven the temperature’s going to be a lot lower, and to make Neapolitan pizza you need a very high temperature. It’s the ingredients that you use as well: the flour, tomatoes, cheeses. You couldn’t use the dough that I make in a gas or lower-powered oven.
So it changes the whole pizza-making process?
That’s one of the reasons why they used those ingredients in these gas ovens: the flour’s correct for that temperature, the tomatoes and cheeses are made for that temperature, whereas with these New York elite pizzas in these coal-fired ovens, they were importing tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella, flour, olive oil from Italy to use in these ovens, because they were trying to emulate these pizzas in Naples. People in New York are starting to shun the sliced pizzas from the gas ovens in favour of not just New York elite pizza from the coal ovens, but Neapolitan pizza. It’s turned 100 percent full circle.
How did you try to emulate that yourself?
I got a gas barbecue for Christmas one year. I was working on a building site, and they were doing the bathroom out with these marble tiles from Italy. They cut us a tile to fit this barbecue, then I put the hood down on it and got the temperature to about 500 degrees. I put the pizza on the stone for about 30 seconds and it cooked the bottom, then I had my oven on fan-assisted grill, as hot as I could get it, and I put the pizza on the top shelf of the oven to cook the top. So, I was doing two, three-minute pizzas in the house.
Why is the oven temperature important?
Basically Neapolitan pizza is cooked from the top down, so you want a lot of heat in the dome. The crust is a bit thicker than, say, if you got a pizza in Rome. That’s because the heat in the top is helping it rise very quickly. When they put pizzas in the oven, you put in a few little woodchips for each pizza and you get a flash of heat over the top. So you’ve got residual heat in your stone that’ll cook all night, but you want that flash of heat over the dome to help that crust rise very quickly.
There’s a lot of momentum around Cal’s Own at the minute: what’s next?
I want to be recognised by the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana. Also what I’m aiming for is a Michelin Bib Gourmand. That’s what I’ve designed the restaurant for: I’m not aiming for a star, I’m aiming for a Bib Gourmand. There’s only one in Newcastle at the minute, and there are very few in the world really; it’s a very difficult accolade to achieve. There’s something like 2,000 one-Michelin stars, and there’s only 1,700 Bib Gourmands. The Bib Gourmand is like doing Michelin-star cooking, or just below, at a reasonable price.
1–2 Holly Avenue West, Jesmond, Newcastle NE2 2AR
0191 281 5522