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Peter Reinhart stands in an uptown food hall in Charlotte, NC, beaming. The master baker and the spiritual power of the world of cheese pie are in its proper element. He’s munching on one of his favorite local slices – a piece of “grandma” pie from Geno D’s Pizza.
“The best pizza ever made in world history is happening right now,” Reinhart says with clear satisfaction. He spends a minute appreciating the crust and its inner creaminess before continuing.
“Part of a quest for a fulfilling life is to experience the difference between good and amazing,” says Reinhart. “All pizza is good. Look at how many frozen pizzas are eaten every day around the world. There’s something about even an average crust, average toppings that works.”
Reinhart’s new book is called Pizza Quest: My Never-Ending Search for the Perfect Pizza. It’s partly a cookbook, though Pizza Quest can more accurately be called a guide, not only for eating, but as a lifestyle.
Until recently, Reinhart says, the vast majority of American pizza places were good, not good. Really good pizza was hard to find. But that has changed, he claims.
Tag Razza, in Jersey City, NJ Pizzaria Bianco in Phoenix. Audrey Jane’s Pizza Garage in Boulder, Colorado. Metro Pizza in Las Vegas. Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio. Mia Marco’s Pizza in Schertz, Texas. That’s A Some Pizza on Bainbridge Island, near Seattle. “The whole pizza scene has been raised to a whole different level,” he says.
Here at Geno D’s in Charlotte, the owners credit Geno DiPaolo and his daughter, Gina, Reinhart for helping them raise their pies with dehydration techniques and tricks to control their transport oven. “When Peter said to me, ‘You did this,’ it brought me over the edge,” Geno says with pride. “Like, wow. Peter liked it.”
Reinhart is an honored figure in the world of pizza. He has written more than a dozen books, three of which have won James Beard awards, and he has an active pizza-obsessed blog. As a younger man, he lived in a semi-monastic Christian community that grew out of the 1960s counterculture. “For us, religion was a way of experiencing divinity,” he says. “Ultimately, for me, it was about finding a path toward a personal experience of the reality of God.”
Neda Ulaby / NPR
Now Reinhart believes that spirituality can be found in striving for greatness and bringing people joy, even through pizza. “To me, the word religion in its root comes from the Latin word religion“which he reads as being connected to something greater than oneself. In the pizza environment, he has been jokingly compared to Gandalf, the wizard who launched the quest in Lord of the Rings. As a faculty member at Johnson and Wales University, Reinhart is honored, says his colleague Quientina Stewart.
“Probably from bread to pizza – and then his ability to just get out there and connect,” she wonders.
The connection is for Reinhart part of what he sees as a lifelong quest for greatness. Pizza, he says, is a familiar metaphor for something good one can take for granted. But at its greatest, pizza is approaching the sublime. That, he says, is worth the search.