A new River Market restaurant showcases its owner’s passion for pizza.
Story by Lara Hale | Photos by Zach Bauman
When a teenage Erik Borger moved with his family to St. Joseph, Missouri, and discovered his pizza options were basically limited to fast-food chains, he did what any native New Yorker would do: He freaked out.
“I was in a pretty sad state,” Borger says, laughing.
But then he did something few would have the gumption to do. Instead of complaining about the lack of proper pizza, he decided to do something about it. He learned to make his own.
Borger spent part of his teenage years working in the kitchen of one of St. Joe’s best restaurants, starting out as dishwasher then working his way up to sous chef under the tutelage of the restaurant’s Culinary Institute of America-trained cuisinier. He left the restaurant world behind at 19 to focus on his education, but his passion for pizza never waned. In the following years, he took it to the next level, setting up a personal pizzeria in his garage with a professional oven he bought at auction after the restaurant it formerly belonged to closed. To learn more about the craft, Borger became a habitué of online pizza forums. It was then, while trawling through the message boards, that Borger was distracted from his first love, the thin-crusted pies New Yorkers devour in large, folded slices, and fell head over heels for the simple Old World style from the birthplace of pizza: Naples, Italy.
Plenty of restaurants serve pizzas that bear the hallmark characteristics—individual-sized pies with a soft, thin base and bubbled crust—but few make bona fide Neapolitan pizza. To claim that distinction, pizzerias have to follow very specific recipes and methods.
“You definitely can’t put your own twist on it,” says Borger. “It’s all about preserving history.”
While many chefs would balk at the restriction of their creativity, Borger says he was fascinated by the exacting rules of creating true Neapolitan pizza stipulated by the Italian regulatory body Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (AVPN).
The rules certainly are exact. And plentiful. For starters, the dough must be made with just four ingredients: water, sea salt, yeast and very finely processed “00” wheat flour from one of only a handful of Italian mills. These are mixed in specific ratios for precisely 20 minutes to a form a dough that is then left to rise for 2 hours before being divided into balls that must weigh between 180g and 250g that have to rise again for 4-6 hours before they can be shaped (by hand, of course) into bases for baking for no more than 60-90 seconds.
Pizzerias can offer a variety of toppings, but there are only two officially sanctioned types of Neapolitan pizza; marinara, which features just tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, oregano and salt, and Margherita, which bears fresh basil leaves, mozzarella and grated hard cheese in place of the oregano and garlic. As you might expect, those ingredients are also very strictly sourced—for instance, the tomatoes used must be grown in the rich volcanic soil that surrounds Mount Vesuvius.
Following all of these guidelines still isn’t enough for a restaurant to claim it offers vera pizza Napoletana (VPN). Italians are as passionate about paperwork as they are about pizza, so in order to earn and maintain the honor, pizzerias must submit to inspection by the AVPN to prove they adhere to the strict standards.
The process of qualifying is so stringent that few restaurants even attempt it. Only 506 in the world currently hold the distinction, with the vast majority of them in Italy and only 84 places to find true Neapolitan pizza in the United States. Borger has so far visited 23 of those. Last summer, he opened his own in St. Joseph, Missouri. And if all goes to plan, the second location of his Il Lazzarone, which celebrates its grand opening this month in Kansas City’s River Market, will soon join that esteemed list.
Borger already has the recipe for success, thanks to the experience gained from operating his original location in adherence to the AVPN’s strict standards. And Il Lazzarone KC looks set to surpass that. At the center of Borger’s new 215-seat Delaware Street pizzeria is a magnificent wood-burning oven, handmade in Italy by Acunto Napoli, a family-owned company that has been in the business since 1892. The 6,600-pound behemoth can accommodate up to 10 pizzas at a time and achieves temperatures of up to 1200 degrees, allowing pies to cook within the required 60-90 seconds.
“That allows the crust to develop flavor you’d never experience otherwise,” says Borger, beaming as he shows off the fine “leoparding,” the pattern of evenly charred spots on a crust, on a pizza that he has just pulled from the oven.
After all of these years of practicing, Borger is still steadfast in his pursuit of the perfect pizza. And he still eats it every single day—after all, that’s why he started making pizza in the first place.
“My motivations were obsession and selfishness,” Borger says.
Luckily, he’s not too selfish to share.