A new pizza parlor in Cleveland’s Waterloo Arts District features a chef with a life-long obsession.
It's part of one man’s never-ending quest for the perfect pie.
His eatery’s called Citizen Pie, but he’s not a citizen himself, just a permanent resident. “My name is Vytaurus Sasnauskas. I’m from Lithuania. But I can be simply called V.”
Simplicity, is this pizza pundit’s credo.
“Take three ingredients, flour, salt, water, and just make something to sing with the just few ingredients on top.”
Simplicity in preparation and décor
Just as basic is V.’s pizza place on Waterloo Road across the street from the Beachland Ballroom. Not a lot of décor, just posters of Jimi Hendrix, Che Guevara, and other revolutionaries on a side wall. “It’s not a restaurant. It’s kind of come in, eat, and leave kind of place. Or if you want to hang out and talk you’re welcome to. And we had this idea to build the bar around the pizza. I just wanted people to feel the fire.”
Citizen Pie seats about 25, and it gets cozy at the pizza counter in winter, when the wood-fired oven’s as hot as V. wants it. “Between 850 and 920 degrees on the floor and over 1000 degrees on the dome.”
But every time the door opens at the little café, V. frets about temperature change. “Dough is a moving target here. Everything is a moving target. Oven, you have to always pay attention on when to throw the log.
We don’t have a knob there to turn it up and down to try to keep at a consistent temperature. Everything comes by feel.”
The feeling he has for pizza is as palpable as his pillowy dough. “I been making pizza all my life, and started as a little kid schmearing ketchup and hot dogs on top of a baguette, and then became hobby and obsession.”
This continued through his teen years. “One of my first dates I tried to impress and make at home. Pizza wasn’t that good.”
He had topped it with cauliflower. But he claims the girl was still impressed, and he’s baked thousands of pizzas since then. At Citizen Pie as many as 50 an hour.
Vytaurus Sasnaukas arrived in Cleveland 20 years ago as a classically-trained chef and went on to study and teach in Chesterland at the International Culinary Arts and Sciences Institute.
Focusing on what’s controllable
He was chef-partner for 7 years at the former Americano at Bratenahl Place before it closed last year. He says he doesn’t miss the stress. The man’s a perfectionist and controlling every aspect of the business was too frustrating. “I realized that I like to do just one or two things simpler and better and perfect.”
He loves the challenge of trying to bake a perfect pizza, but he’s never satisfied. “Once you reach perfect it’s not perfect. There is another level.”
He says even the finest ingredients have to be in perfect harmony. “It is so hard to balance the texture of the dough, the lightness of the dough, the acidity sweetness of the tomatoes, the lactose sweetness of the cheese, and the aroma of basil. If you’re not going to understand that you cannot be good cook.”
Ready in less than a minute
V. lifted his peel to put a pie deep into the fiery oven less than a minute ago. He rotates it, keeping a constant trained eye on it. “Ideally we want the crust to bake, cook it through, tomato sauce little caramelize and evaporate, and cheese just to start melt, never brown, never separate its own fat from it.”
Within a minute it’s done. Most customers would take it home in a box, but we purists enjoy it at the counter, hot out of the oven. “Maybe rest 20 seconds,” V. advises. “This pizza does not travel well. Ideally you want to eat it right now.”
V. opened Citizen Pie last year around Thanksgiving and recently got a liquor license. Along with a Sicilian Pinot Grigio or other adult beverage you can get 9 kinds of red pizzas, 9 kinds of white ones, and two kinds of calzones.
Pistachios on top
One of the white pizzas on Citizen Pie’s current menu is named for V.’s former restaurant. “Americano contains pistachio cream, sausage, the one we get from New York, our fresh mozzarella, finished with crushed pistachios on top and red onion.”
But the chef’s personal favorite is his simplest pie, the Margherita.“My recipe is simple: take flour, salt, and water, make a crust, dress it with tomatoes, basil, and cheese and bake it in a 900 degree oven. That’s about it.”
He refined it after his quest for perfection took him to Italy. “I learned the philosophy and simplicity and beauty about the ones that were being made in Naples.”
His flour comes from there, too. “It’s milled specially for the high temperature ovens, and it’s pure ground wheat with no additives, nothing added. It’s a very low ash content flour, perfect for this style of pizza we do.”
His Stefano Ferrara oven comes from Naples, too. “It weighs 6,500 pounds and it’s built from volcanic soil over the Vesuvius Mountain by hand. And it’s not made in a factory. It’s made by a man who his family generations make these over the years and years.”
But what he bakes in it is not strictly Neapolitan pizza. “I’m just making pizza. The one I like to eat and serve. You see most of the places they trying to do authentic Neapolitan pizza, Italian, Sicilian you name it, and they’re like ‘Oh, they don’t put pepperoni on pizza, and that’s why we’re not doing that.’ Well, guess what? I like pepperoni on my pizza, and so probably you do, too.”
The pepperoni he uses is smoked. One of his business partners, Claudia Young, gets it from a Waterloo Arts District neighbor. “Our bacon comes from R. and D. right next door, our pepperoni and salami comes from Rudell’s right down the street.”
The most expensive pizza at Citizen Pie, is the $16 mushroom pie with brie, porcini, bacon, red onion, and truffle oil. The Puttanesca is priced at $15. But Young says quality costs. “Our anchovies cost us almost 2 dollars for 4 anchovies. We tried less expensive anchovies, but they weren’t anything that we wanted to put on our Puttanesca pizza. So we just added a dollar onto the pizza, and we kept the anchovies that we thought were spectacular.”
Customer Sherry Noble Shyla of Brecksville thinks so, too. “We’re kind of pizza connoisseurs. We travel the world in search of good pies. It’s good to see that we’re getting some of that here in Cleveland, now. They’ve got the crust. Kind of burnt edges. It’s probably not for everybody, but for people who really like the Neapolitan style of pies this is very good.”
Citizen Pie’s usually open from noon till 9 or until they run out of dough. Weather conditions affect the natural fermentation process V. uses. “So it’s not like I’m making cookie dough here so I can whip it up when I’m out. Once we out, and we sold out, some people get mad we out."
That’s against one of the Citizen Pie house rules printed at the bottom of the menu: “No extra cheese, no extra sauce, no well done, no half this and half that, and be kind.”