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"Never trust a round pizza"
— Todd English
Todd English, the renowned chef who brought you The Olives Table, shares his savory, innovative, Mediterranean-inspired food in this collection of more than 100 home-tested recipes from his award-winning restaurant Figs. At Figs, which was voted Best Italian Restaurant by USA Today and cited by Boston magazine and Zagat's as having the best pizza in Boston, there's something for everyone in the family, from Macaroni Simoni for the kids, to Portobello Mushrooms, Mushroom ...
"Never trust a round pizza"
— Todd English
Todd English, the renowned chef who brought you The Olives Table, shares his savory, innovative, Mediterranean-inspired food in this collection of more than 100 home-tested recipes from his award-winning restaurant Figs. At Figs, which was voted Best Italian Restaurant by USA Today and cited by Boston magazine and Zagat's as having the best pizza in Boston, there's something for everyone in the family, from Macaroni Simoni for the kids, to Portobello Mushrooms, Mushroom Purée, and Fontina Cheese Pizza for more sophisticated palates. And no one will turn down a taste of the White-Chocolate Challah Pudding with Caramel Sauce.
Everyone loves pizza, and at Figs, pizza is the main attraction. But that's not all you'll find in these pages. The Figs Table showcases Todd English's trademark style: layering flavors to create bold and soulful food, now available to the home cook. Fennel Watermelon, and Black Olive Salad with Feta Cheese makes a refreshing starter on a hot summer day, while the flavors of Roasted, Fried Pear Quarters with Frisée, Prosciutto, and Balsamic Glaze warm a cool autumn evening. Mushroom Minestrone or Black Bean Chill is filling enough to make a meal. Couscous Carbonara with Country Ham is a new twist on an old favorite; Spaghetti with Hazelnuts and Green Beans makes a simple but elegant supper. And why not try Creamy Cheddar and Spinach Polenta or the Asparagus Butter Risotto with Shrimp as a change from pasta? And of course, there's the pizza: White Bean Hummus and Asiago; Fig and Prosciutto; Clam; Spicy Shrimp Pizza with Caramelized Leeks and Tomato Sauce; Classico; even Kielbasa, Sauerkraut, and Potato Pizza with Dijon Mustard Aloli. And for just a taste of something sweet, try a Cranberry Pecan Biscotti, a slice of Torta Caprese, or the Tiramisu that The Boston Phoenix called "the best in town."
Simple or complex, sweet or savory, any dish from The Figs Table makes any meal special.
Todd's Philosophy of Pizza
SALLY: Why pizza?
TODD: I love food that you can eat with your hands. And I'm fascinated with pizza.
SALLY: Even so, there must have been some thing or some moment that got you going?
TODD: Many moons ago, when I was in my teens, I used to go to Pepe's Pizzeria in New Haven as often as possible. Their white clam pizza is the pinnacle for me of a certain style of pizza.
SALLY: What style is that?
TODD: A slightly thicker crust than Figs', but also light. Pepe's inspired me to do pizza.
What confirmed my decision was a pizzeria (though I can't remember the name) on a hilltop in Emilia Romagna. I was with a group of Italian friends, and we sat outside under a canopy surrounded by beautiful gardens. Outside the tent was a massive stone oven. We started with antipasto and went on to a selection of pastas, served family style, and then pizzas that never seemed to stop flowing. Pizza with zucchini flowers. Pizza with wild boar. Pizza with prosciutto and pizza with mussels. It made me feel that having a pizzeria was something I had to do someday.
SALLY: Was it a fine restaurant, a café, a dive?
TODD: It was a pizzeria where the locals went for pizza. In Italy, you never see pizza served at a restaurant. It just isn't done.
SALLY: Why did you open Figs instead of another Olives?
TODD: We opened Olives in 1989, and by 1992 it was apparent that we needed more room. When we relocated to a larger spot down the street, we decided to keep our lease and possibly turn it into a bakery. But after scouring Boston for a good restaurant to eat at with Olivia and Oliver (then age two), we decided that what was needed was a really hot pizza joint.
SALLY: Why the name Figs?
TODD: I love figs. There isn't a more luscious fruit than a ripe, juicy fig.
TODD: The truth is that we couldn't come up with a name. We were sitting around joking about sticking with our Mediterranean roots, and since olives are a biblical fruit, we thought that figs would be a natural fit. It's easy to say, you don't forget the name, and it's consistent with what we're about.
SALLY: How does Figs differ from Olives?
TODD: The essence is the same, but Figs is funkier, everyday food. It's simpler, more casual, and more affordable than Olives. It is one of the few places that adults who care about the quality of their food can go to and still bring their kids in for a pizza that everyone will love.
SALLY: Why don't you let people choose their own toppings at Figs?
TODD: I feel that one of the most important qualities in a restaurant is that the chef build trust with his customers and the customers trust the chef to make it just right. Our ingredients are different from average ingredients, and what makes sense on your palate doesn't always make obvious sense on paper.
SALLY: At Figs (and at Olives), you combine and layer ingredients that I would never have considered eating, so that when I eat at Figs I'm eating things I would never ordinarily eat. In fact, I'm eating things I don't even ordinarily like.
TODD: I hope so. That's part of the trust.
SALLY: What inspires your combinations?
TODD: Number one, I never forget that food is supposed to taste good. Number two, the classics inspire me. I simply rearrange them: I do not attempt to reinvent the wheel. And three, I add a pinch of craziness.
SALLY: One of the things that make a Figs pizza so unusual is that your crust is very thin, and the toppings are very sparse.
TODD: We have three sayings at Figs: "Never too thin and never too rich," "Less is more," and "Never trust a round pizza."
SALLY: Regarding "Never too thin and never too rich," isn't it a contradiction to say of sparse toppings "never too rich"?
TODD: No. I don't mean rich as in abundant. I mean rich as in depth of flavor. Remember: "Less is more."
SALLY: "Never trust around pizza"?
TODD: If the dough is made right, the pizza will never be perfectly round. Our dough should be very wet and free-form: I might go so far as to say that the dough has a mind of its own. The dough determines what you do, not the other way around.
SALLY: Why don't you throw your pizza up in the air? Or why does anyone do it?
TODD: Our dough is different from dough that gets thrown up in the air. People who throw it use a tougher dough that gets stretched by centrifugal force, whereas we stretch our dough with a rolling pin. Figs dough is more delicate. I like to be able to eat more than one slice of pizza without feeling like a doughball myself.
SALLY: Is there a place for a thick crust?
TODD: Absolutely. But it should still be light. Just double the amount of Figs dough and roll it out to the same size that we suggest.
SALLY: Let's face it, not everyone is going to make pizza dough. How do you feel about people using premade dough?
TODD: It's okay. I've got to be realistic.
SALLY: What's more important, the crust or the topping?
TODD: You really need wheels to enjoy your car.
SALLY: When I was growing up, pizza meant tomatoes and cheese. What happened? Are your pizzas more authentic, or are they "designer" pizzas?
TODD: Figs pizzas are the result of what I experienced in Italy. I have eaten every pizza that anyone I know has considered a renowned or amazing pizza, and this is what has filtered out. I certainly don't have a problem with a pizza with tomatoes and cheese. In fact, I love it.
SALLY: What's your favorite Figs pizza?
TODD: The Classico. Tomato and shaved Parmesan. A small amount of Parmesan rather than a lot of mozzarella.
SALLY: Your least favorite?
TODD: I don't have one. It's like asking which is your least favorite child. I love them all. My children and my pizzas.
SALLY: What's your favorite nonpizza Figs meal?
SALLY: What are your favorite non-Figs pizzerias?
TODD: Pepe's in New Haven, da Buffeti in Rome, da Michele's in Naples, and al Forno's grilled pizza in Providence.
SALLY: Have you ever come up with a pizza that you thought was great, but no one ordered it?
TODD: Foie gras pizza. Foie gras and pizza are two completely different cultures, so it is a little bit of a stretch. Although I did think it was really good.
SALLY: What do you hate to see in a pizza?
TODD: Pizza should never be limp. It should be crispy on the bottom.
SALLY: What's the worse thing you've ever seen served on top of a pizza?
TODD: Ravioli pizza. Fried wonton pizza.
SALLY: What do you consider must-have pizza equipment?
TODD: A strong mind and a strong will. You have to be hardheaded and brave. Your tendency win always be to put more on top than you should. You must be able to hold back with toppings but not with the olive oil.
TODD: An unglazed stone and a wooden peel, and that's it.
SALLY: What do you like to eat with pizza?
SALLY: What's the best dessert to eat following pizza?
TODD: The Fig and Prosciutto pizza.
SALLY: Is that a serious answer?
SALLY: Best drink?
SALLY: If not beer, what kind of wine? What about kids?
TODD: If not beer, red wine. Chianti. San Giovese. For kids, definitely Coke. This isn't an endorsement but — either that or a tall glass of birch beer.
Posted December 16, 1999
If you have read or owned 'Olives Table' or even better, eaten at Figs or Olives, you will appreciate to inventiveness of Todd English. My favorite part of Figs Table is the basic Pizza Dough recipe, after you have mastered that, you can use Todd's excellent suggestions to top it or create your own ideas. Lots of other non-pizza recipes ideas are included too.
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