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The 'Gandalf of pizza' speaks to the spiritual side of comfort food

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Now we turn to pizza and a man who went in search of the best pie.

PETER REINHART: The best pizza that's ever been made in the history of the world is happening right now.

SIMON: Peter Reinhart teaches at a culinary school in North Carolina, and he's the author of a new book called "Pizza Quest." NPR's Neda Ulaby met him at a pizzeria near his home in Charlotte.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: This pizza philosopher wrote a book about his search for the very best pizza. But pizza, he says, is always good, no matter where you find it.

REINHART: It used to be, like, 99% of the pizzerias in America were good, and maybe 1% I would call great. And now there are hundreds around the country. The whole pizza scene is elevated to a whole other level.

ULABY: Like the pizza at Razza in Jersey City or Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix. Right here in Charlotte, this place, Geno D's, is run by an old-school pizzaiolo who grew up tossing pies on the Jersey Shore.

GENO DIPAOLO: Back in the day when I made pizza, you filled a bucket up. There were three handfuls of sugar, two hand - and that was it. I'm old school.

ULABY: But Geno DiPaolo says Reinhart taught him master baking techniques he'd learned in Italy.

GENO DIPAOLO: When Peter said to me, Geno, you nailed this, that made me - that brought me over the edge.

ULABY: He gets choked up talking about it.

GENO DIPAOLO: Like, wow. Peter, I - (laughter).

ULABY: Before Peter Reinhart became a revered figure in the world of pizza, he was a monk who lived in a semi-monastic community. As Brother Peter Reinhart, he wrote the first of more than a dozen cookbooks, three of which won James Beard Awards. His book, "Pizza Quest," he says, is fundamentally spiritual.

REINHART: For me, the word religion at its root level comes from the Latin word religio, which means to be connected to, to be connected to something greater than myself.

QUIENTINA STEWART: So there's ham in there. There's some fresh tomatoes.

ULABY: This is an appreciation of pizza that verges on mystical, says Quientina Stewart. She's a fellow baking professor at Johnson and Wales University who describes Reinhart as the Gandalf of pizza.

STEWART: Absolutely. Oh, my gosh. He is the pizza guy.

ULABY: You might remember Gandalf from the quest in "The Lord Of The Rings."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING")

IAN MCKELLEN: (As Gandalf) All you have to decide is what to do the time that is given to you.

ULABY: That means more than just eating. It means making something meaningful through pizza. Skeptical? Talk to Gina Maria DiPaolo. The 26-year-old runs this pizzeria, Geno D's, with her dad.

GINA MARIA DIPAOLO: It's just to fill people's hearts with love when you come. We want to make you feel like you're at home. Just munch and eat, relax, you know? Fill your heart, you know?

ULABY: No matter how you cut it, says Peter Reinhart, a slice of greatness is a path to awe, humility and joy. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JOJI AND DIPLO SONG, "DAYLIGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.