Business

As pizza popularity soars, chef and scientist share secrets from 12,000 pies

BELLEVUE, Wash. — Inside a nondescript commercial office complex east of Seattle, an acclaimed professional chef and an ex-Microsoft tech executive have been quietly perfecting the art of pizza making and redefining possibilities for the perfect pie.

Over the last three years, the chef, Francisco Migoya, and ex-exec, Nathan Myhrvold, have baked more than 12,000 pizzas and run 500 scientific experiments to produce what they call the definitive guide to one of the world's most popular foods.

"We didn't eat 12,000 pizzas, but believe me, there was a lot of pizza eaten during that time," said Migoya in an interview. "There is no such thing as too much pizza."

Their book, Modernist Pizza, is a 1,700-page tome whose three volumes weigh in at more than 35 pounds. The history and secrets of pizza perfection also carry a hefty price tag of nearly $300.

"The most important objective is for people who love pizza to have a deeper understanding of it, to learn ways of making it better, to -- I guess you could say -- perfecting it," Migoya said.

Myhrvold, who founded the franchise Modernist Cuisine out of a passion for food, said the pizza project is also about culinary evolution.

"Continuous improvement is what brings you things that are just fantastically delicious," he said.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, pizza sales have soared at popular U.S. delivery chains and many struggling non-pizza restaurants pivoted to get in on the take-out game. The crisis also fueled an interest in pizza making at home, data show.

"It's a food that is very close to our heart and not just Americans but the world over," Migoya said.

ABC News Live was given an inside look at the kitchen laboratory at Modernist Cuisine where a team of chefs and scientists were studying pizza techniques, from the making of dough to developing sauce and pioneering new methods.

A dehydrated whole Neapolitan pizza is pulverized into a spice powder to intensify the pizza flavor in dough. A gyrating distiller turns ordinary winter grocery store tomatoes into a flavor-packed fresh sauce. Industrial centrifuges churn out experimental pizza toppings, like pea butter extracted from frozen green peas.

"We are unapologetic about loving pizza, and part of that says, hey, you can make a very traditional one. But if you want to step out a little bit on the wild side and try some stuff that might seem crazy, you might find you like it," Myhrvold said.

A 3D scanner analyzes freshly baked pies to measure volume accurately and discern how ingredients interact with each other on top of the sauce.

The data have been used to produce more than 1,000 pizza recipes as well as tips and tricks for home cooks and professional chefs.

The team examined whether the type of water you use matters (it doesn't, they say); differences between sliced and shredded cheese; why pepperoni curls and how much topping you should put on; and strategies for enhancing leftover pizza at home.

The team also drew from pizza intelligence it gathered from trips to more than 250 pizzerias around the globe.

While the truly perfect pizza may be in the eye of the beholder, Portland, Oregon, has the best pizza scene in the country, Migoya said. The worst pizza he tried was from Argentina: "Bananas, pizza cheese and tomato sauce. It's as bad as you think it is, maybe worse," he said.

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