Jan. 26 2011 12:00 AM

Organic ingredients are the secret of Pizza Pi’s delicious dishes



Little known facts: Organic, wood-fired pizza tastes better and makes you smarter. OK, so only the first part is verifiable, but if you stop into Pizza Pi along the Grand River corridor in East Lansing, you’ll probably learn a thing or two about what makes a fine tasting pie.

In a town flooded with America’s favorite food, Pizza Pi is an island of high-quality pizza with choice ingredients and a sui generis oven.

Ask owner Ken Targal, 29, or kitchen manager Dan Baker, 30, about their venture, and you’ll hear they shop for ingredients twice a day — almost exclusively organic and local — or that the brick oven they fuel with wedges of cherry wood or oak is as homemade as the disks of dough they load onto a long-handled pizza peel.

Targal, a glass artist for 10 years, decided (along with his wife, Theresa Targal) to create something unique. The oven is part of that — he built it from the ground up — but Targal says the food is what drives Pizza Pi. His wife has always been attentive to whole foods and holistic living, Targal says, but it took a health scare for him to become as nutritionally conscious as her.

Ken has taken the lessons he’s learned to heart; even the dough he makes at Pizza Pi requires punctilious attention.

"Our dough has a special rise pattern," he says. "Sometimes we have to throw a lot of it away if it doesn’t rise right."

Targal called on his childhood friend Baker, who subsequently returned home from Georgia, to help run a pizza joint that truly focuses on quality and freshness.

"Fresh is important to us," Targal says. "I think fresh is a misunderstood concept sometimes. It kind of made me mad when I saw the corners that other people cut."

Targal contrasts Pizza Pi’s philosophy of daily trips to the local co-op and organic order list to others who seem to use the word fresh to indicate they’ve recently opened a can of tomatoes.

"Fresh means somebody has looked at it and picked it out," Targal says of Pizza Pi’s ingredients. "The longer something is cut, sliced, broken or not attached to the plant, the more nutrition you are losing."

Targal is conscientious about every aspect the food Pizza Pi serves.

"The meats are from farm-raised animals with no fillers or added hormones," he says.

"Even pregnant women can eat it."

The Green and White ($11) is the most popular pie, Baker says. A five-cheese blend, baby spinach, feta and shoelace strands of red onion are nestled atop a delicious pesto sauce. The crust is made from white flour (with 18 percent protein content, Targal notes) or a heartier whole wheat.

The B.B.Q.C. ($11) piles chicken, bacon and red onion onto a base of mild barbecue sauce. Leaves of cilantro bring a touch of green to top it off, balancing the sweetness of the sauce. All pizzas are 10 inches, sliced into four large pieces.

Individual slices ($1.99) come with one topping and are, interestingly enough, individually cooked fresh from a small chunk of dough.

The six-cheese blend supper cheese bread ($2.99) is especially popular with Pizza Pi’s garlic-cream cheese dipping sauce.

Watching the cooking process is the coolest part of a trip to Pizza Pi.

On a recent Friday, Baker slides a Green & White off a peel next to a B.B.Q.C. They rest on a brick base in front of a flaming log, where the temperature ranges from 750 to 825 degrees; in less than three minutes, they’re cooked.

Baker uses his long-handled peel to spin the pizzas a couple time, cooking them evenly. Then, when they’re ready, he lifts them up into a convection current that forms as heat is piped up and away. In this final step, the cheese caramelizes into a golden brown and a toasty wisp of melted mozzarella wafts its way through the air.

Targal is a pizza connoisseur and has his personal favorites, which range from pizzerias in Big Rapids to coal-fired pies in New York. He’s gleaned much about toppings, crusts and styles. What he’s learned is that it really is all about the food.

"I just love pizza," he says. We can all get fired up about that.