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pete smyth

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Pete Smyth’s cracker-like pizza base is a proven process.

Executive chef Pete Smyth rolls the dough. – Photo by Michael Cummo

It’s all about the crust. Most folks can be flexible about toppings — splitting a pizza is more common than not — but what we place our anchovies or pepperoni or caramelized onions on is sacred ground. Pizza crust is made in many ways and comes in many forms, from the lightest, thinnest, crispiest crust to the over-the-top stuffed crust to the bread-like deep-dish crust. We all have our favorites, and most of us won’t compromise.

Chef Pete Smyth of Slice of Life in Oak Bluffs is a self-proclaimed “pizza guy.” His Circuit Avenue establishment currently boasts six different pizzas for eat-in or takeout, and it’s a favorite with his wife and two daughters when he’s off the clock. He even has plans to expand his pizza menu in the fall. “You can get pizza in Oak Bluffs,” he says, “at Offshore Ale or the Ocean View, but there’s not a year-round pizza place. Gio’s does a good job, but they close for part of the year.”

Pete graciously allowed The Times to observe while he created the crunchy, cracker-like crust that keeps his customers hooked. He begins with a large industrial mixer, outfitted with a dough hook, and prepares to make 12 pizza crusts.

He dumps four pounds of all-purpose flour and two pounds of semolina flour into the giant bowl. He adds rapid-rise yeast, 1/7th of an ounce (approx. 1.5 Tbsp). Then sugar, an ounce and a half. He lets that all mix to combine. A quart and a half of water and 7 ounces of a blended oil (olive and some others) are poured into the dry ingredients. “For commercial use, it’s more accurate to go by weight rather than tablespoons or whatever,” Pete explains. He adds 2½ ounces of kosher salt. “It has more flavor and is easier to use,” he says. The mixer whirrs, and we wait.

Jan and Pete Smyth, owners of Slice of Life in Oak Bluffs, show off their beloved pizza. – Photo by Michael Cummo
Jan and Pete Smyth, owners of Slice of Life in Oak Bluffs, show off their beloved pizza. – Photo by Michael Cummo

Pete arrived on the Island about 11 years ago. He had met his wife, Jen, who’d grown up on the Island, when they worked at a restaurant together near Boston. Friends of theirs were planning to open a restaurant here, and asked the couple to work it. The plans fell through, but the Smyths decided to move here anyway. He became sous-chef at Café Moxie, but wanted more hours. A breakfast cook was needed at Slice of Life, and Pete jumped at the chance. Eventually his hours increased to full-time. At first he ran the line, then became chef, and, six years ago, purchased the restaurant.

After about 10 minutes, the dough has formed a clean, smooth mass. Pete flips a switch on the mixer, and it growls to a halt. He removes the bowl and dumps the dough onto a floured work surface. Ponderous and heavy, it looks a little like Jabba the Hutt. Using a bench knife, Pete begins to lob off rounds of dough, tossing each one onto a scale and adding or cutting away to correct for the ideal 7 ounces. He lines them up on sheet pans lined with parchment paper that’s been sprayed with Pam. “They have to proof [rise] until they’re double in size,” Pete explains. He removes a batch from the refrigerator. “These were made last night.” He picks up a proofed ball and holds it next to one he just made. “You can see the difference between the two doughs.” Definitely. “You can freeze it at this stage.” He holds out the unproofed ball. “I just use Ziploc baggies. Spray the inside with a little bit of Pam to keep it from sticking, and throw it into the freezer. I just let it defrost on the counter or in the refrigerator overnight.”

Pete’s eat-in menu lists six 12-inch pizzas. These are large enough for one very hungry person, or two dainty folks, to supplement with one of Pete’s yummy desserts (there’s always a crème brûlée). The most exotic, and probably the healthiest, is the signature Slice of Life pizza. It’s a gourmet pie: sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, goat cheese, and black olive spread topped with mixed greens. Leftovers — if there are any — make a great next-day lunch. In the off-season, Slice of Life features a weekly “Build Your Own Pizza.”

Each pizza crust is formed into a 7-ounce ball. – Photo by Michael Cummo
Each pizza crust is formed into a 7-ounce ball. – Photo by Michael Cummo

Pete keeps a freezer full of pizza dough at home. With two little girls, Shealyn, 8, and Jocelyn, 3, it’s as much of a staple as sugar and butter. “The kids love making pizza with us,” says Pete. “On our family days that’s what we’ll do sometimes. One will make the sauce, one will shred the cheese, one might help me make the dough. We make everything.”

“You can go to any grocery store and get the frozen balls [of dough],” he adds, “but why do that when you can make your own?”

He sprinkles flour on the work surface and rolls out a ball of dough to a little larger than 12 inches. “It shrinks a little bit as it rests,” he says, and lets us in on a little secret. “We par-bake them for the day’s service,” he tells us. “That’s how they get that crispy, crunchy shell. About three to four minutes in a 550° oven.” They’re put aside until needed.

Before it’s topped and baked, Pete “docks” the dough. Using a knife, he pats the center of the dough with the edge to keep it from puffing up. He paints on tomato sauce and sprinkles on shredded mozzarella. While it bakes for the required three to five minutes, he waxes rhapsodic about the genre. “I love pizza,” he says. “It’s one of those foods that’s for everybody. Everyone has their own version. I think it’s so versatile.”

The pizza emerges from the oven. The edges of the crust are puffy, crispy, and tinged with brown. The cheese bubbles and sizzles. Pete puts it into a box and drops it into my waiting hands. “You can save it for lunch,” he suggests.

By the time I get to my car, the aroma has totally robbed me of my senses. The pizza is half gone before I leave the parking space.

 

For a treat, nutritionists Prudence Athearn-Levy and Josh Levy cook up a great breakfast for each other. — courtesy Josh Levy and Prudence

Prudence Athearn-Levy and Josh Levy

What do we cook for each other to celebrate?
When we want to cook up a treat, it is usually breakfast. We both love big, healthy and hearty breakfasts. This always involves eggs, most likely 2 over-easy farm eggs with lots of sauteed fresh-picked greens (either from our garden or winter greenhouse, or from Morning Glory Farm fields or winter greenhouse), beans and/or sweet potatoes, spicy peppers like poblanos (that we roast and freeze in the summer to use all winter), cilantro from our greenhouse and sometimes avocado on top. Josh gets his with salsa and/or hot sauce (our own salsa in the summer, or Mr. G’s hot sauce all year). On the side of the plate we’ll arrange fresh fruit- berries and/or melon in the summer, and Florida oranges or pears in the winter.

Any advice on running a business together?
The most important thing to us, in business and at home, is communication. We would also say always stay humble and learn from each other every day.  Be true partners, both at work and home. Support each other and determine business goals clearly and together. Have a business plan — approach your business as a business and always set work and home boundaries (i.e. bringing work home is fine, but limit the amount of time you do work together at home — unless you work from home — so that you can focus on each other and family when you are home, and work when you are at work). Finally, divide the work! Each person doesn’t need to know every little detail of your work, as long as you keep each other informed and stay equal partners in decision making. Use your strengths and specialize or focus in a few areas that complement those of your spouse. Emphasize, encourage, and highlight each of your strengths and use them to your advantage to build a better business, and in our case, to serve our clients and community better.

Prudence Athearn and Josh Levy own Vineyard Nutrition.

Pete and Jenifer Smyth

Chef Smyth with his wife, Jenifer, and daughters Jocelyn, left, and Shealyn.
Chef Smyth with his wife, Jenifer, and daughters Jocelyn, left, and Shealyn.

What do you cook for a romantic evening with your wife?
(Laughs) We have two kids – there’s no romantic evenings. But I have to say that the thing I like to make if Jen and I are at home and don’t have the kids, is paella. That was the first dish I made for her when we had our first real dinner date at my apartment.

Pete’s Paella

2 lbs. chicken thighs, skin on and cut into small pieces
1/2 lb. chicken sausage sliced thin
1/2 lb. chorizo or spicy sausage
1 lb. shrimp, cleaned and deveined
1 lb. mussels cleaned
2 cups of short grain white rice
1 onion diced
1 tomato diced
1 red pepper
2 teaspoons of oregano
1 pinch of saffron
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon of thyme chopped
3 cloves of garlic chopped
1/2 bunch parsley chopped (reserve some for later)
2 lemon zest (reserving one lemon for later)
1 qt. chicken stock
4 Tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
Lg skillet or paella pan
Reserved for later:  1 cup of peas

1. Heat two Tablespoons of olive oil in pan.
2. Salt and pepper chicken and let rest.
3. Add sausage to pan and lightly brown and drain saving oil.
4. Add chicken and brown well making skin crispy. Remove chicken and wipe pan.
5. Add two more Tablespoons of oil and cook vegetables and garlic lightly.
6. Add dry herbs, lemon zest, saffron and rice cooking lightly.
7. Add chicken stock and season with salt and pepper.
8. Bring to a boil and skim any stuff floating on top.
9. Cook for 5 minutes and stir rice well.
10. Add chicken and sausage and cook lightly for five minutes, skimming any thing from top of pan.
11. Cook on low to medium heat for about ten minutes.
12. Add mussels and shrimp making sure to push in rice mixture.
13. Cook for another 5-10 minutes, taste and season mixture with salt and pepper and a little heat
14. Shut off if rice is done and mussels are open. Fold in peas, cover and let stand for 5 minutes.
15. Squeeze fresh lemon on top and add the rest of the parsley

This is close to what I made my wife for the first time. I unfortunately have an allergy to peppers so I had to alter it for me. This recipe is the one I use at Slice the couple of times I have made it.
– Pete Smyth, owner, with his wife Jenifer, of Slice of Life Cafe in Oak Bluffs.

Jim and Debbie Athearn

What’s your idea of the Perfect Date on MV?
Jim: Dinner at Outermost Inn or Beach Plum inn and a night in a friend’s
Chilmark camp.
Debbie: Dinner on the beach and sleep out overnight in the dunes.

What do you cook for your sweetie as a treat?
Debbie: for Jim, carrot cake.

Debbie and Jim Athearn say their idea of the perfect MV date includes The Beach Plum or Outermost Inn, and sleeping in the dunes.
Debbie and Jim Athearn say their idea of the perfect MV date includes The Beach Plum or Outermost Inn, and sleeping in the dunes.

How do you stay in business when you live with your partner?
We had identical responses. Divide the business responsibilities so each
knows who is in charge of each area, then defer completely to the authority
of the person in charge. Also, enjoy your mutual interest. When we are on
vacation we love to talk about business, say, on the highway. It’s interesting and we don’t need to deny ourselves that because we are on vacation.

Jim and Debbie Athearn run Morning Glory Farm.