I haven’t eaten many pizzas in my lifetime, but the few encounters with Pizza Hut’s ‘pizzas’ back home taught me an important lesson: like searching for true love, it’s best to pass on mediocre substitutes and wait for the perfect one to come along. And so I waited. It wasn’t until my mid-twenties, when pizzerias started appearing on Singapore’s restaurant scene, that I started to consider pizza as a legitimate dining option.
With M’s promptings, I slowly reacquainted with one of America’s favorite foods, but only those of a certain pedigree. The pizza had to possess a thin crispy crust that was also thick enough to cushion the ingredients from the searing heat of the oven’s floor. The ingredients had to be inventively paired and of good quality, and the pizza had to come straight from a wood-burning oven.
Few pizzas boasted this trifecta of deliciousness. So when we discovered Howie’s Artisan Pizza in our neighborhood just over a year ago, we were excited, after a promising meal, to be relieved of 45-minute drives to San Francisco just for decent pizza. Apart from nailing the crust, Howie’s homemade fennel sausage really swung my vote, leading my pizza-naïve palate to even forgive their use of gas ovens.
“Howie” is Chef Howard Bulka, an Economics graduate of San Francisco State University who corrected what he says was an “enormous vocational error” by cooking professionally straight out of school.
For someone who rose through the ranks at restaurants like La Toque and Chez Panisse, was a former executive chef of Silks at San Francisco’s Mandarin Oriental and has worked with the likes of Paul Bocuse and Alain Chapel, the pizzeria completes an illustrious circle, bringing Howie back to what drew him to the kitchen in the first place: simple food that tastes good, away from the ‘glitz and glamor’ of hâute cuisine.
“Working in fine dining showed me the limits of my passions in the kitchen,” says the Chef who sees himself as an artisan first, chef second.
“I wanted to do something that was less rarefied, and to create the type of restaurant that I’d take my family to when we eat out,” he said. “I wanted to be a part of the community, and also to answer the question: ‘How little can a family of four spend to eat wholesome food?’”
“If you look at the mid-Peninsula (referring to the towns that lie between San Francisco and San Jose), there are few dining options that offer good quality food that’s moderately priced. You’ve got high-end restaurants like Manresa and Chez TJ, and many cheap ethnic restaurants, but hardly anything remarkable between these price points,” he explained. “The fact that we get lots of repeat business is saying something. People find value in what we offer.”
Because of its temperamental nature, pizza dough is the perfect artisan’s grindstone, demanding a high degree of commitment before yielding the perfect crust with the right balance of crisp and chew.
“When you’re making pizza on this scale, every little change makes a big difference – from the temperature of the tap water to the humidity in the atmosphere. We spent the first year refining the recipe, based on customer feedback and adapting to the variables present everyday,” Howie shared.
This dogged perseverance has paid off; two kitchen teams run like clockwork (“it’s a dough-making machine”) to prepare, chill, proof, rest, shape and bake the dough, from 6 am to 9 pm everyday.
It’s not just the dough that gets the VIP treatment at Howie’s (as it should), but the supporting cast of ingredients and dishes as well.
“90 percent of a pizza’s success depends on it crust,” says this pizzaiolo. “The rest depends on having top-quality ingredients.”
Like Zest Bakery in San Carlos, the pizzeria gets its produce from the premium purveyors at Greenleaf. Daily deliveries of romaine and iceberg lettuce, napa cabbage, cucumber and radishes feature in salads like Sue’s (romaine lettuce, mixed greens, giardiniera and parmesan) or Wedge O’ (iceberg lettuce, bacon, toasted pecans, green onion, blue cheese dressing). Bunches of basil are blended into fresh pesto for Pesto Pie (basil pesto, mozzarella, fresh basil and parmesan), crates of citrus end up as Lemonade, and pounds and pounds of ground beef and pork are mixed with a host of spices, destined to be featured in pizzas and the Meatball Sub sandwich.
“Our tomato sauce is made from scratch (using canned tomatoes) and our pizza is made with a biga that ferments for twenty-four hours,” said Howie. “We prepare about 100 pounds of dough a day, 100 pounds of sausage every four days and about 50 pounds of meatballs every other day.”
From salad dressings to hummus, whatever can be made in-house, is, reflecting the priority placed on serving food that’s “wholesome”, made from fresh, natural ingredients. It’s his response to the current state of America’s diet.
“The higher you go up the restaurant hierarchy (from fast food to fine dining restaurants), the less processed food you’re going to find. With the pizzeria, I’m aiming for the sweet spot between price and quality for the average family looking to dine out,” he said.
Growing up in Southern California at a time where home-cooked meals were the rule rather than the exception, he’s seen how packaged and processed alternatives gradually replaced meals cooked from fresh, local produce in the home kitchen, and its impact on the country’s health.
“The family table is becoming irrelevant to our daily lives. And yet, all the media wants to focus on is either the latest dining trends, like molecular gastronomy, or stories about gluttony, which glorify indulgence,” he began.
“No one’s talking about how to remedy America’s obesity problem. When you eat food that’s been prepared for you, you’re losing control of your food choices; where your produce comes from, how its cooked and the size of your portion – it’s all being decided for you.”
It’s a topic close to his heart. Without denying the immense challenge of modifying eating habits forged over more than 30 years, this artisan believes that real change lies in developing and supporting ecosystems of local food producers, all around the country.
“If we want to feed our families natural, wholesome foods, then we need to support local farmers, ranchers and artisans. If we want restaurants that are run by people who care about the health and well-being of their guests, then we need to support restaurants that are based locally. If we want the people from whom we buy our food to be part of our community, then we need to support local businesses and farmers markets.”
“Howie’s Artisan Pizza may be just a small step in this direction, but every long march begins with small steps,” he concluded.
Howie’s Artisan Pizza
Town & Country Village
855 El Camino Real
Palo Alto, CA 94301