Lee Hunzinger has been making pizzas for 38 years. He started in his parents’ restaurant on Long Island and most recently spent years overseeing Dallas classics Zoli’s, Cane Rosso, and Thunderbird Pies.
“I got in the pizza business because my parents bought a pizzeria, and I was the chubby kid who loved to eat,” Hunzinger says. “But I stayed in it because it’s a lot of fun.”
For the past year, he has taken his expertise on the road as a traveling consultant. What’s it like spreading pizza knowledge across America? We chatted with Hunzinger to find out.
So you’re a traveling pizza consultant. What does that entail?
Passing on teaching. This past week, I worked with Hormel, training their entire sales team. They want their salespeople to be a little more knowledgeable about pizza in general. It was a class where I talked about the history of pizza, how it came to the United States, regional styles, and then I made pizza. I brought all my dough to Tampa with me. I didn’t have a long time to ferment dough there.
Does that mean that you went on a plane with a suitcase full of pizza dough?
Yes, a double-insulated bag. I checked it in like luggage. It was right at 50 pounds, all dough. I was very lucky that from the baggage carousel to the taxi was only about 10 steps.
You also visit pizzerias to fix their recipes, right?
I can help some pizzerias without even changing recipes! A big part of my day is a thermometer and a scale. Those didn’t exist in New York pizzerias growing up. If you were adding salt, there would be a cup with a line drawn on it: “Oh, fill it up to that line.” No wonder everything always tasted a little off. I worked in a pizzeria that was run by three brothers, and you could always tell who did the dough because they all did it differently. One’s was too soft, one’s was too tight, and the middle brother’s dough was just right. It was like Goldilocks and the three bears.
Most of our jobs have been dough-related. I always made pretty good dough, but I didn’t know the science about it. I’m learning more and more. I like to hang out with friends who are smarter than me.
After 38 years of pizza making, what are you still learning now?
I’ve been working on different recipes that I’d never done before. I don’t like asking a lot of questions, I like figuring things out by myself. Usually that involves failing a lot. Always some R&D. I’m making pizza every day. I have a lot of dough and ingredients around the house. I made pizza for dinner last night, as a matter of fact. It’s what I do. I don’t know anything else.
I went to Chicago last year for the first time. We hit four pizzerias a day and it was incredible. Last night’s dinner, I did a Chicago tavern style pie. I like doing pinched sausage from a raw state. In Chicago, they’ll put the pinched sausage underneath the cheese so it’s not exposed. Game changer. I really like the way it tasted underneath the cheese. I do that at home with my pies ever since.
What’s a part of pizza making that customers probably never think about?
How the temperature outside has to do with your dough inside. One place, we had a dough mixer right at the back door. You slap your forehead because your most important ingredient is next to a door that’s opening every time a delivery comes in.
Another part of your career now is pizza competitions. What is the competition pizza world like?
I’m on a team called the World Pizza Champions. It’s a non-profit multinational group. Competition, educational outreach, and community-based service—promoting pizza as a craft and viable career choice. It’s hard nowadays to get people to understand that not only can you make a really good living in the pizza business, it’s a lot of fun as well.
The Pizza Expo in Atlantic City is held every year. You can register to attend, or you can register to compete. The first year I competed, they had another [prior event] they were flipping the convention center from. Even though you had an area where you could do prep, they didn’t have electricity for dough mixers, and they didn’t have running water. I was like, I’m not going to use bathroom water! The year I won [first place, pan pizza, 2019], I did my prep at a friend’s restaurant in New Jersey.
For these competitions, you pay to register and you’re in. You don’t have to qualify for it, and I think that’s kind of the beauty of it. Take a shot. A lot of people want to see if they can compete. You know who scored really well? Jay Hansji from Pizza Buzz in Fort Worth.
Do you agree with the old saying that even a bad pizza is still pretty good?
I do. I am not a pizza snob. My wife grew up on Domino’s Pizza. When I worked in the restaurant group, I could bring her a pizza home every single day. But she said, “Can I have Domino’s?” Talk about a kick in the you-know-what. I don’t fight it. I see the box of Domino’s, I inspect it, I grab a little sliver.
Any plans to return to the Dallas restaurant market?
I would love to. My plan is to continue doing consulting. I enjoy what I’m doing right now and it’s gaining some traction.
There’s nothing better than a pizza place. A lot of it is the relationships. It’s about the employees, now more than ever. I love hanging out in kitchens, that whole camaraderie that comes with it. Live a happy life, make really good pizza.
This story originally appeared in the February issue of D Magazine with the title “Lessons From The Pizza Master.” Write to [email protected].