Chef Michael Ayoub grew hundreds of tomato plants this year.
“I only grew 62 varieties,” he says more precisely. “There’s thousands of varieties of tomatoes. We’re in a good area for tomatoes. We’re in zone seven, which is very good for tomato growing.”
Ayoub, who opened his first Fornino pizzeria in Williamsburg in 2004 after a few decades in the business as a chef, restaurant owner and food service lead at NYC institutions like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, says he splits his gardening between his home and a farm on Long Island. Girl Girl’s Weird Thing and Not Purple Strawberry were two of the varieties he planted this year.
“Girl Girl’s Weird Thing is a red tomato with iridescent green stripes and it's really quite special. Not Purple Strawberry is a cross between a German Red Strawberry and a Purple Tomato, that’s why they call it Not Purple Strawberry. There’s all kinds of crazy names for these tomatoes and they’re all individual.”
Ayoub incorporates some of his harvest into recipes at Fornino’s Greenpoint, Brooklyn Bridge Park and Time Out Market New York locations.
“I grow enough produce for specials,” he says. “I can’t grow enough for everything, but I’ll grow specific types of tomatoes, specific types of eggplants, peppers and herbs that I can use as specials in the restaurant.”
At Fornino, Ayoub is laser-focused on the history of pizza—the development and enjoyment of pies through the ages. That approach led him to some seeds from up north that might just blow tomatoes as we know them right off the vine by the end of summer. Or at least add to the novel offerings in Ayoub’s restaurants.
“What’s unique this year is that we have more historical findings that the San Marzano tomato is a little bit more recent in being popular for pizzas. The first tomato, which they called the Re Umberto, they’re saying that this tomato was more popular than the San Marzano. I have found some seeds in Canada and I’m actually growing them out in my garden this year.”
The Re Umbertos will be ready around August and this will be Ayoub’s first opportunity to sample the variety.
“Once I’ve grown them I’ll be able to save the seeds and I’ll be able to share them with anybody who wants them,” Ayoub, who collects seeds from all over the world, says. “It was pretty exciting to me. There’s nothing like the taste of a homegrown tomato in August, there’s just nothing comparatively.”
In spite of all this tomato talk, Ayoub says the dough, “the palette that all else goes on top of,” is the most important part of the pie. And NYC tap water can’t take all the credit for it.
“It’s how the water and the minerals in the water interact or complicate the yeast development. You just have to work with it. You make your recipe. It’s about fermentation. The tag line to Fornino is “the art and science of pizza,” So there’s a tremendous amount of science in it. Fermentation is involved, the percentage of hydration is involved, there’s so many things that go into a pizza dough that when you’re just folding it over and taking that first bite you don’t realize how much time and effort and studying has gone into getting to that product. And we’re still tweaking it constantly.”
Still, people think pizza’s simple, Ayoub says. And yet—even for someone with all of his training and years of industry experience—writing, editing and rewriting recipes for a single item initially came as a challenge.
“Everybody thinks pizzas easy, but I realized, and here I am, a chef all my life, trying to write a menu with one product was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done. It’s a deep abyss: what type of flower, what kind of hydration, what type of fermentation, who makes the cheese? I made the cheese for the first twelve years and then I just couldn’t make it all myself anymore. So I had to train somebody to do it. To do pizza, it’s just a passion project at this point, and I love it. Who doesn’t like pizza?”
If you’ve ever tried to get a table at Fornino’s Brooklyn Bridge Park location on an improbably perfect summer day, the answer would appear to be nobody. So its new location at the Time Out Market New York helps slake the desire for reliable pies like the ever-popular Margherita pizza, as well as new additions.
“We’re always bringing seasonal specialties, even if I’m not growing it,” Ayoub says. “For example, in the market now, figs are in season, so we have black mission fig, gorgonzola, prosciutto and a little bit of arugula, which is a white pizza. I’m always trying to come up with something new. If you’ve ever visited Fornino before, come back again, I’m sure we’ll have something new for you to try.”