Let’s just get this out of the way: By common American definition, Marc Felicio is not a chef. He doesn’t even call himself a cook. Hence my shortest column ever: The end.
Okay fine, in French chef means manager or leader. And Marc is every bit that but the food he serves is deeply Italian: pizza.
And let’s just get this out there too; Woody Allen or whoever said this first was right: “Pizza is a lot like sex. When it’s good, it’s really good. When it’s bad, it’s still pretty good.”
So, to sum up: Marc is not a chef or cook, perhaps a French chef by definition but cooking something Italian, and that food is still delicious even when it sucks.
And if you’re asking why I am still writing, then you haven’t eaten at Marc’s Dacosta’s Pizza Bakery, which opened on Millbrook Street in September. Do so and there is no question: Woody was right, and Marc may not be a chef but he is an artisan. Actually the word he uses to describe himself is craftsman and his passion for his craft rivals anyone’s I know.
“I said when I started preparing for this that our passion will supersede anything else,” Marc says. “I’m a perfectionist. I’m constantly trying things. I will never be satisfied. It is always about how can I make it better? I’ve already had days where I thought the pizza sucked and we should shut the door. Nobody else can taste that but I can. And because of that we will be motivated to make everything as good as it can be.”
Marc honed his passion for craftsmanship for the better part of three decades at his other business: Champion Design Group, a wholesale manufacturer of wall decor and picture frames. But as that business has become self-sustaining, he remembered that food was something he wanted to do.
“I look at pizza kind of the same way I look at my other business,” Marc explains. “Pizza fulfills my need to create. It is universally loved. And a pizza place didn’t seem as daunting as a full-fledged restaurant. I felt I could figure it out. Then when I started making pizza as a hobby, I thought it wasn’t that hard. Why aren’t people making great pizza? It’s not even much more expensive to make great pizza.”
His high school friend Jay Jerrier confirmed as much when Marc reached out to him. Jay owns the Cane Rosso restaurants in Texas and told Marc the easiest thing he was going to do was make great pizza. It was everything else that was hard. “He was right,” Marc says. “I have had 20 to 25 employees in my other business and this is a completely different dynamic. There is an intensity and stress that can be hard to manage.”
Add to that the fact that few were doing pizza like Marc wanted for Dacosta: Neapolitan-style pizza. His buddy Jay was at Cane Rosso but locally only Volturno produces the smaller pies that originated in Naples, rely on fresh ingredients, and are baked for about 90 seconds in a blazingly hot wood-fired oven resulting in a distinctive soft and chewy crust.
Marc thus did what anyone devoted to his craft would: He experimented and tried not to be beholden to expectations or tradition.
Now, pizza is just three components: crust, sauce, and cheese plus whatever’s going on top. What’s most important? I’ve had debates over this question with other foods, such as cupcakes. The cake or the icing? (Those of you who say cake are wrong.) But when it comes to pizza there can be no doubt: Even if you are prone to tossing the ends to the dog, pizza is nothing without a magnificent crust. And Marc knows this:
“No question, it’s the dough. We went a little off book there from the most common Neapolitan. We use our own sourdough starter, which we experimented with over the course of two years. That starter is a living thing and temperamental. We store it and the dough in a controlled environment at 65°, which slows the process of fermentation and maintains consistency. And the longer you ferment something the better flavor you’re going to get. It gives you a crust with an extra flavor kick that you just don’t get at almost any other place. Not many people, even in Italy, do this because they know it is not easy.”
It’s expensive too. Marc says he spends more money on the dough – from that climate-controlled room to the Caputo double zero, finely milled flour from Italy – than almost anything else. He also eschews Hobart mixers for Italian ones that mimic the movement of hands so the dough doesn’t heat up prematurely.
As for the sauce, Marc and his team ended up going even more off book. Traditional Neapolitan pizza is made with San Marzano tomatoes and that’s what Marc wanted. But leaders in the industry and his team said there were better tomatoes grown in the United States, and Marc conceded they were right.
And then there’s the cheese. “I didn’t think the cheese was going to be as important as it was,” Marc recalls “We toyed around with making our own mozzarella, which isn’t really that hard. We figured it could be a marketing tool. But ours wasn’t as good as what we settled on from Lioni cheese in Brooklyn. We tested eight or nine different kinds of mozzarella that cooked differently and just decided that theirs was the best.”
Those three components – crust, sauce, cheese – are the baseline for the most basic Neapolitan pizza: the Margherita. And customers responded immediately.
“I couldn’t believe how many margarita pizzas we sold in the first month and that’s because people use it as a baseline,” Marc says. “I really expected some resistance at least to the style. ‘It’s too soft “or ‘not enough cheese.’ I thought there was going to be more explaining the pizza. But the acceptance from customers and the buzz has been incredible with little resistance to the style. I think that shows you where Worcester has come food wise. Volturno should get some credit for that too. They paved the way for this style in the area. My goal was to make a more traditional pizza place not a restaurant. Maybe more of a blue-collar vibe for the area that we’re in.”
Which is why Marc refuses to turn up his nose at things like pepperoni (the most popular topping in America) simply because strict Neapolitans would. He just makes sure to get a natural casing pepperoni for the “Uncle Tony’s Roni.” Is the “Go Fig Yourself” popular because of the name or the fig jam, gorgonzola, and prosciutto deliciousness? Doesn’t matter: “We were just going to do it fresh and our way. And hopefully people will respond. We don’t freeze anything here. We buy everything fresh except the canned tomatoes. We just said buy the best product and then figure out how much we had to charge.”
So far, few complaints on the price front either: “I’ve seen some people 15 or 20 times already. One guy came in and got the Mushroom Sally pizza eight times in the first ten days we were open. We’ve also gotten incredible support from chefs from Armsby Abbey, deadhorse hill, BirchTree, and The Fix.”
It is important to note that Marc’s “we” is not just a “royal we.” He is quick to point out (as many chefs are) that he is nothing without his team. The kitchen is run by Chris Herko. A dear family friend, Maria Joseph joined us for the interview. She and Marc cooked together every Friday as she helped develop the menu and then gave up her career of 22 years in the dental field to help execute Marc’s vision.
And when it comes to pizza, equally important as the dough, sauce, and cheese is the person making the pizza. Marc calls his main guys Juan and Melky “absolute maestros” at managing the raging Ferarra oven to find the right heat to cook the top and bottom. They control the hot spots and know where, when, and how to spin each pie. Marc is sure they will only get better too – so much so that eventually he expects people will ask for them by name.
While we watch Juan and Melky tend the oven, Marc talks about what’s next. He launched with non-pizza items like sandwiches (mmmm, porchetta), starters (arancini and broccolini are winners), and salads (try the prosciutto and fig). He has just added a pizza for the gluten free community. And at risk of starting a turf war is working on a Sicilian pie. There is also a food truck on the horizon. In fact, Dacosta was supposed to be a pizza truck originally. Marc has one that is a converted 20-foot shipping container with an all-glass open kitchen that he plans to roll into private events and festivals.
He can’t help but smile as he tells me that and at how much he enjoys being out there with people, not just his family and friends who come in: “Even my 16-year-old son, who’s a typical lazy 16-year-old, loves to work and be here even when there’s nothing for him to do. Maria’s son too. I’ve been in business for 27 years and no one even cared. Hopefully this doesn’t wear off but I haven’t felt that I’ve worked since we were opened. I’m exhausted but it’s been an emotional high.”