Manhattan is home to hundreds of independent pizzerias, each claiming singularity and superiority of style and ingredient quality or some combination thereof. Starting a pizza restaurant in this crowded, stubbornly opinionated landscape isn’t easy—something Italian chef Giacomo Baldi knew well when he opened PN Wood Fired Pizza in the NoMad neighborhood in 2016.
But PN—short for Pecore Nere, which means black sheep—isn’t just another Neapolitan pizzeria, though that’s technically the umbrella term for Baldi’s 90-second, 900-degree pies topped with fresh mozzarella and San Marzano tomatoes. Here diners choose their crust, which can be made from one of 14 single-grain and blended organic flours. The list includes 2,000-year-old Italian heritage soft wheat, kamut, hard durum wheat, or einkorn, an ancient type of spelt.
“Everybody is opening pizzerias; everybody is doing the same thing,” Baldi says. “We believe that consumers have changed and their needs have changed, so we had to do a pizzeria using different flours than everybody else and a different way of making it.”
It’s no coincidence that Baldi is also the CEO of organic Italian flour supplier Molino Grassi USA, a role he took on after years as a restaurant and hotel chef turned consultant for Italian food companies. Molino Grassi supplies plenty of Italian and stateside bread bakers with whole-grain flours and blends, but, as Baldi says, applying such flours to the pizza business is quite new.
His collective experience as a chef and salesman showed him both the importance of understanding the problem before offering a solution and the ability to directly reach the end consumer.
“Opening a pizzeria that showcases all the flours that we can create pizza with and fresh pastas made in-house with different kinds of semolina is a lot more work than being a CEO,” he says, “but when we have a distributor that needs to understand more about our flour or a consumer who wants to feel better about eating pizza, it’s easier to bring them here and show them what we’re doing by making actual food for them.”
For most Italian-style pizzerias, the standard-issue flour since the end of World War II has been “00,” a finely ground, refined Italian flour with a talcum powder–like texture and a comparatively low percentage of gluten (9 percent protein is the market standard). The problem, per Baldi, is that removing the fiber-containing portion of the grain increases the percentage of carbs and—as a result—the glycemic load, making it harder to digest and causing sharp spikes in blood sugar levels. This explains why some consumers feel bloated or uncomfortable after eating pizza.
PN’s flours—made with 100 percent Italian wheat and blended with grains from hemp to quinoa—are unrefined, meaning they retain their fiber and mineral content and are absorbed slower, causing less dramatic spikes in blood glucose. The flours are higher in gluten (12.5 percent protein minimum), benefiting from longer fermentation times than the overnight proof employed by most pizzerias.
Once the doughs are shaped, Baldi ferments them for a minimum of five days up to 14 in the cooler, which creates a mellow sourdough flavor and partially breaks down the gluten, making the pizza easier to digest.
“The yeast feeds itself with the sugar naturally present in flour, which develops each dough’s flavor as it matures,” he says. “Then when it bakes at 900 degrees, there’s an explosion of flavors. But most importantly, you don’t have the sensation that you have to drink a gallon of water when you go home because the gluten is almost predigested during fermentation.”
So what’s the likelihood of spelt or heritage soft Italian wheat overtaking 00 as the flour of choice for traditionalist pizzaiolos training the next generation? Not high, Baldi says. But that’s not really his goal.
“I’m not hoping to change the pizza market,” he says flatly. “Steve Jobs changed perception about cell phones because it was something new, developed in the last 30 years or so. Pizza has been around in Italian culture for 150 years. It’s not up to me or anybody else to change something that comes from tradition.
“I do think it’s possible to make it better, more unique and better for you than what you can get today.”