Monday, August 1, 2011

Casey Crynes on Trucks, Business and the Perfect Pizza

It was a typical Wednesday evening when I found Casey Crynes at his usual spot. His stand was the last stall at the back of the Upper Haight Farmers Market, situated on the left after a row of vegetable and fruit sellers. Like always, there was a lot of activity at Casey's Pizza, and Casey was the man right in the middle of it all. In a grey hoodie and baseball cap, he scuttled around the booth, making pizzas, chatting with customers and bantering with his younger twin brothers who made an appearance later on in the evening. Casey Crynes and crew were spending their last few weeks at the market before gearing up for the launch of what will be San Francisco's first mobile pizza truck.

I had the opportunity to chat with Casey while he churned out pizza after pizza on his Weber grill. The iconic black Weber kettle sat far in the back of the booth, inconspicuous though it was part of the star attraction here. To the left was the pizza making station, whose plastic containers were filled with the toppings du jour and a large vat of tomato sauce. Each pizza is made to order, though during the downtime Casey does make whole pies to be cut into slices. The atmosphere here in the booth was pretty relaxed, and even the customers, who have to wait a bit if they are third in line to put in their order, seemed content to watch what is going on.

The new truck, with raised roof (Courtesy of Casey's Pizza)
When Casey isn't at the Market or spending Thursday nights slinging pizza at his pop-up for the crowd at Vinyl (which is currently on hold), he has been working on the build-out of his very own custom-built pizza truck. Made from an empty FedEx-type step van, it recently had to have the roof raised almost ten inches to accommodate everything. According to Casey, the truck will have a classic Marshal deck oven similar to the one at Pizzeria Delfina. Capable of baking six pies at a time, it will run slightly hotter than your typical pizza oven, and they will be abandoning the Weber, except for special occasions.

"The truck was never really part of the plan; we just sort of started," Casey said. "It's been a slow, organic buildup. We got a lot of great reception with the Weber set-up."

It's the Weber, with its 750 degree temperature on the deck and 900 degrees on the stone that makes it unique. But it's Casey's recipe which he has developed over the years that makes it fantastic.

"I have been developing a pizza recipe for a couple years based on stuff I ate in New York and then some other places around here and sort of really honed it in," Casey described. "I found a lot of great local producers - local flour (Giusto's) , local pepperoni (Zoe's Meats) and some cheese from Berkeley (Belfiore Cheese) and California tomatoes, and then got lucky with this Weber, which is called the 'Little Black Egg.'"

The Marshal oven (Courtesy of Casey's Pizza)
Casey also described the secret behind his pizza's chewy, somewhat crispy crust. It's the dough process, which in its entirety takes between 15-20 hours. The dough is made in the first two to three hours, and then it's left to slowly rise overnight, which develops the flavor. This slow-rising breaks down the gluten; it develops, but it comes out more tender. Cold-fermenting, Casey explained, is what any New York pizzeria does. If you keep the dough cold, it slows down yeast production, and it's all about controlling the yeast. The chewiness comes then from the flour. The taste speaks for itself.

But it's not all science and technical speak from this pizza guru. Halfway through our interview Casey's younger twin brothers came into the tent, laughing and bantering and snacking from the toppings, which are now almost depleted since the Market is coming to a close. Immediately they began to joke with me, asking if my time with Casey was "the best interview ever?"

"Of course," I responded with a smile.

From there our conversation took off on a tangent as the four of us discussed the city's street food scene, all while Casey continued to make pizzas from whatever remaining ingredients could be thrown together. We discussed everything from the Ferry Building vendors, such as Roli Roti and Hapa Ramen, to the upcoming launch of pal Hugh Schick's beer "limousine," brewtruc. It was a good way for me to bring everyone back to the topic at hand, which is the impending launch of Casey's own vehicle.

"I wanted to open a restaurant, so this is the equivalent of something with a lot of detail... a lot of rustic design element," Casey explained. "The great thing about a truck is that it's all self-contained. It's a mobile restaurant."

Because of the nature of what he serves and the lengthy preparatory time, Casey will make the dough the day before at a commissary. San Francisco law states that in order to work solely out of a truck, chefs have to prepare and serve the food on the same day. And Casey won't compromise on the cold fermentation, which means he won't have any dough mixers on the truck. The crew is currently looking into different locations, but as of press time, nothing has been finalized. They want to do a Monday-Friday lunch service in an area like the Financial District, and maybe Hayes Valley and the Mission on the weekends. They are also open to doing special events, and Casey said that they are open to serving wherever they can bring the truck.

When asked, "Why pizza?," Casey explained that growing up on the East Coast he ate a lot of pizza. Then, while taking a documentary film class at UC Berkeley extension, his project concentrated on New York-style pizza in the East Bay. After filming others making pizzas and doing interviews, he got into the scene himself.

"For me, [pizza] was something to focus on. It's pretty simple, there are not that many ingredients, so I like that aspect about it, but its really challenging to get it right every time," Casey explained. "It's always kind of evolving with different conditions and dough."

Like with a slow-rising pizza dough, Casey's business is constantly evolving, too. Whether Casey is making pies at a stand, a pop-up or a truck, he won't rush it, and he won't take shortcuts. Because you know he's going to take the time to do it right.

Casey and crew plan to launch the truck in August. Updates can be found on both his Facebook page and Twitter.

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