Photograph by Drew Podo
The words “veggie pizza” tend to conjure images of watery spinach and green peppers floating in mushy crust. Even Jeff Varasano, the owner of Varasano’s Pizzeria, didn’t believe that a veggie pizza could stand up to next the Neapolitan classics on his menu. But when he wanted to open a franchise in Hartsfield-Jackson, he was contractually obligated to offer one. “I was really against it, but I started experimenting,” he says, “It was exactly what I thought it would be. The problem with veggies on pizza, in general, is that they’re too watery.”
Flash-cooking vegetables usually lead to a mushy, unappetizing pie, but after months of trial and error, he developed a recipe that worked. Topping the pizza with broccolini added a satisfying crunch, and the sweet fontina cheese, sundried tomato oil, and oil-packed red peppers rounded out the earthiness of the mushrooms and lightly fried eggplant.
While Varasano spent months perfecting his veggie toppings, it’s nothing compared to how long he spent on his dough. After moving to Atlanta from New York in 1998, he set out to find an old-school Neapolitan recipe. He spent six years perfecting the dough, a natural sourdough that ages for at least four days (you can find the recipe, plus other extensive tips on making pizza, on his website). “That was our whole thing with our brand at the beginning. It started with my website,” he says.
He became famous for his “cleaning cycle hack,” which involved cutting off his oven’s lock and using the clean cycle to flash cook pizza. “Almost every day, someone will come up to me and say they’ve read my website,” he says. “I still get mail asking me about my website. I’ve gotten maybe 10,000 letters.”