A piece of pizza happiness for the lockdown era

A piece of pizza happiness for the lockdown era
Pizza Proper founder/owner Mario Gaito packages freshly-made margherita pizzas to be delivered to stockists around town. (Photo: Dominique Herman)

Mario Gaito would not have considered making pre-cooked, pre-packaged pizzas had lockdown not necessitated a makeshift manoeuvre to keep his business afloat. Now the volume and consistency with which they’re selling has eclipsed the other operations of his multi-pronged pizza production, turning them increasingly into the main event.

After a 10-year stint in London, Mario Gaito returned to South Africa to start a pizza business. He had never started a business before and had no experience or training in food preparation. Then an authentic Italian tuk tuk, a three-wheeler Piaggio he spotted on Gumtree, caught his eye. He bought it and had it sent from Pretoria to Cape Town where he outfitted it with a wood-fired oven and taught himself how to make Neapolitan-style pizzas.

Soon he was a popular fixture at weekend food markets, simultaneously catering private parties and events. A few years later, he added a restaurant to the mix, operating a few nights a week in an Albert Road-facing space in Woodstock. Then lockdown happened. Food markets shut down, restaurants closed and functions were cancelled.So it went from 100 to zero at a moment’s notice,” he recalls. 

Once lockdown restrictions permitted takeaways, he started selling a limited number of DIY kits with raw ingredients for at-home pizza-making. There was not an enthusiastic uptake. “You get a ball of dough but have no idea what to do with it,” he says, by way of explanation. Then one night in May he had the idea to package a cooked and chilled pizza. After refrigerating one overnight, he warmed it up for 10 minutes in his home oven “and it came out crispy, fresh, hot and steamy. And I thought, you know what, this is really not as bad as I imagined it would be. I would happily eat this; I would happily sell this”.

After a further test run on his inner circle, he took a picture of a packaged pizza and posted it to Instagram, advertising pick-ups and deliveries. This time, there was an enthusiastic uptake. “I spent one day driving non-stop, morning to evening, just doing deliveries.”

A customer requested that he supply her local deli in Sea Point, Arthur’s Mini Super. When Mario took a picture of the stocked fridge at Arthur’s, other grocery stores started calling him. Woodstock restaurateur Ricky Turilli picked one up at Salisburys Deli & Wineshop, a few doors away from his Italian eatery Scarpetta. He told Mario it was one of the best pizzas he had tasted in a long time. He also introduced the operators of the SPAR supermarket in Sea Point to the pizzas. Now, that SPAR branch stocks them, as does the Rosmead SUPERSPAR and approximately 20 other outlets in Cape Town, Stellenbosch, Durbanville and the southern suburbs.

Margheritas for days: traditional Neapolitan-style pizzas cool down in Pizza Proper’s Woodstock restaurant space. (Photo: Dominique Herman)

“I would never have thought my next project is going to be a frozen pizza or a pre-cooked pizza. I would do anything but that, but it certainly was a win after all,” Mario says. “I went from thinking: okay, this is lockdown, I don’t know if I’m going to work again, this is not great, to thinking it’s been the best scenario for me yet. It’s changed everything.”

Someone likely to have been even more delighted than Mario about his good fortune would be his late grandfather, who hailed from Salerno near Naples, where the Neapolitan pizza was born. Mario’s first foray into Italian food was eating his grandfather’s lasagne and pizza and pasta as a child. “The pasta sauce had to cook for 24 hours or it wasn’t worth making,” he recalls.

The Neapolitan pizza is characterised by its thin centre and its puffy, wobbly, crispy, often lopsided crust. It’s a softer pizza with few toppings. “It has to be made in a certain way with certain ingredients with a certain oven temperature in order for it to be called a Neapolitan pizza,” says Mario.

Herve Moloma tosses pizza dough while Renedy Kwedy scoops and spreads tomato sauce. (Photo: Dominique Herman)

The marinara – tomato sauce with a sprinkle of herbs and garlic – is “Italy’s most traditional pizza. It’s even more traditional than a margherita but the margherita is more famous”. Mario only makes the marinara and the margherita for the pre-packaged pizzas, using fresh milk mozzarella, Fior Di Latte, from local producer Puglia Cheese.

“What sets it apart is that it’s made fresh daily,” he says. The blobs of cheese go onto a base sauce made from Italian crushed tomatoes and a bit of salt. “I’ve gone to great lengths to find a specific brand that doesn’t have preservatives in the tomatoes. It’s a great brand and if I can’t find that, I dare say I won’t use anything else. I’ll have to stop production until I can find it again.”

The tomato sauce is spread on top of a base stretched from Caputo 00 flour. In Naples, they use Caputo or The 5 Seasons flour: considered the two gold standards for Neapolitan pizzas produced all over. In those places, it’s widely suggested that pizza is eaten with a knife and fork. “That’s how floppy and soft it is,” Mario says.

The main difference between his pizzas and those in Naples is that his are more crispy: “It’s easier to eat as a market food and it suits our palate a little bit more.” The dough is fermented for 24 hours and the pizzas are cooked between 60 and 90 seconds – described as the “golden window” – in an oven with a floor temperature of 350℃ and a dome temperature upwards of 600℃. That combination of temperature and the length of time it’s cooked sets the Neapolitan pizza apart, particularly from the majority of commercially-available pizzas in South Africa that are cooked for two to three times longer at much lower temperatures.

“The one thing I’ve realised in making pizza, from the way you eat it to your toppings to the way you like your base, is that there’s no right or wrong. There may be good or bad and that’s mostly due to the ingredients you use or the lack of love that you put into it, but there’s no right or wrong. The Italians can’t even say that they own pizza. It’s a flatbread with tomato sauce and some toppings on it: that culture exists all around the world.”

The floor temperature of the oven is 350℃ and the dome temperature is upwards of 600℃. ‘That sets the Neapolitan pizza apart,’ says Mario Gaito. (Photo: Dominique Herman)

He does think the trend from thick and doughy to thin and crispy is ever more ubiquitous in South Africa, and not unexpected seen alongside the evolution of topping combinations from ham and pineapple or bacon and feta to a “designer” combo of glazed fig, blue cheese and balsamic reduction, for example.

“Overloading” pizzas is a cultural thing, he says. “It’s a global mentality but prominent in South Africa. I grew up that way. If there wasn’t cheese edge to edge, I felt cheated.”

When Mario started the business, he did everything. “I taught myself how to make pizza: where to get the ingredients, how to manage an oven so it cooks right and where to source the best wood. I had to learn from scratch.” It took about four months. “I think I made my first pizza for friends and family in September of 2013, and by the end of January/beginning of February of 2014, I did my first day of trade at the Neighbourgoods Market, and I’ve been cooking there ever since.” He also trades now at the Oranjezicht City Farm market.

He subsequently tracked down two more Italian tuk tuks, converting one into another mobile pizza oven and using the third as a showpiece in the Woodstock restaurant, which opened in 2017. He used the large kitchen there for storage and market-related packing, and built the bar and furniture. “It took forever and I took my time; I was in no rush. The tuk tuk was very successful – is very successful. There was no necessity to open a restaurant.”

Renedy Kwedy (in the red pants) and Aris King in action. ‘They’re super quick now. They can cook 150 pizzas in an hour/hour and a half,’ says Mario Gaito. (Photo: Dominique Herman)

Pre-UK, Mario worked in digital printing. But he couldn’t find a job in digital printing when he moved to London, so he spent four years as a security guard. In the building where he worked, an opportunity arose to become the facilities manager, for which he felt the late nights, deadlines and performing-on-demand nature of digital printing had semi-set him up. “I became a security guard out of necessity, I became a facilities manager out of opportunity.”

When that contract ended, he struggled to find work. “At that point I told myself that I need to find something now that I want to do the rest of my life, or regret it later. Rather take a gamble now; do something interesting and fail at it or make a success out of it. But don’t wait until I’m 50 and decide, okay, now I need to find another career opportunity.” DM/TGIFood

Pizza Proper, [email protected], 081 351 8969


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  • Wanda Hennig says:

    So inspiring, people who take risks, reinvent themselves, most likely are daunted by challenges (after all, we’re/they’re only human) but move through them: upward and onward. Lovely story. So admire this guy and others like him who have not only survived but thrived during Covid — out of necessity. And here, creatively.

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