Porta’s head pizzaiola hasn't tasted pizza in years.
At Porta, the latest addition to Philadelphia’s growing pizza scene, the pies are Neapolitan. And not in a breezy, casual way. The oven that cooks them was made for this specific restaurant, and crossed an ocean to get here. The flour and San Marzano tomatoes are imported from Italy, and the mozzarella and ricotta are made in house. It’s certified by the American Chapter President of the Associazione Pizzaiuoli Napoletani, or Neapolitan Pizza Association, Roberto Caporuscio, who also happened to train Porta’s head pizzaiola.
Fredrica “Freddi” Vilardi has made countless pies during her time at Smith, the creative collective and restaurant group that is Porta’s parent company—all with that signature tender, slightly charred Neapolitan crust and simple yet memorable ingredients—but she hasn’t tasted pizza in years. Vilardi doesn’t eat gluten, though it hasn’t stopped her from creating some of Philly’s best new pies.
It was after Vilardi started on her pizza-making path that she learned she had Celiac disease. “A wonderful gift,” she says. “So I know all the flavors and textures and how everything is supposed to taste.” The New Jersey native began her career as a junior graphics designer at Knockout, a printing company that would eventually become Smith. The company encourages its employees to pursue their interests, so when Vilardi, expressed her desire to go to pizza school, Smith’s founder, Meg Brunette, was on board.
“I used to love to make pizza for my family,” says Vilardi. “It was a gut instinct. I felt drawn to it.” The instinct was confirmed when Vilardi and another colleague began training with Caporuscio, who also founded Kesté and Don Antonio by Starita in New York. “I remember the first day: walking in, seeing him up by the oven, smelling the wood burning, and I got that feeling,” she says. “This is it.” As she began her career as a pizzaiola, Vilardi learned that pizza is design.
“For me it was another way to express the design in the world,” she says. "Particularly with Neapolitan pizza, there are so many specific elements and processes that happen in a particular order, so each pizza is a piece of art. It’s handcrafted, it’s this beautiful thing. Every one looks different; it has the black specks, and the green spots, and the beautiful oozing mozzarella. So when I was making each pizza, I would think about that: this is going to be the most beautiful pizza.”
Vilardi continued as both Creative Director for the company, leading the design direction as they opened new restaurants in New Jersey, and as the head pizzaiola. “I realized is that I would talk to my design teams about pizza and talk to the pizza makers about design. Both things helped the other.”
After chronic heartburn led to a Celiac diagnosis about two and a half years after beginning her pizza making career, Vilardi was crushed, and turned to Brunette for guidance. “She said, ‘How can you make a difference for other people around this?’” That question led the pizzaiola to get all of Smith’s restaurants trained in the safe handling of food for people with allergies, gluten sensitivity and Celiac disease. “I think we have a long way to go as far as training, particularly now that we have Philly open,” she says. “But there are opportunities, given this day and age, so many people have these autoimmune issues, and allergies are so much more common.”
Vilardi is still creative directing (she’s working on branding for Brickwall Tavern, Porta’s sister restaurant set to open behind it on Sansom Street) and hands on with pizza making, though she’s had to make some modifications. Whereas once she might have thrown on an apron to guard her clothes from white clouds of flour and splashes of tomato sauce, post-Celiac diagnosis, the pizzaiola had to gear up in a full hazmat suit.
“I used to be terrified of flour,” she says. “I had this fear of breathing it in.” The “gluten suit,” as she called it, entailed a white, zip-up painters jumpsuit, plus a mask and goggles. Nowadays, Vilardi is a slightly less stringent, though she still dons a mask and ensures she’s flour-free post pizza making session with a ritual that includes changing her clothes, scrubbing under her nails and washing her hands, face, and hair.
To go through that painstaking process every time she encounters flour, which, in a restaurant that specializes in pizza, is everywhere, Vilardi has underscored her dedication to the craft. And though she can’t taste her pies, she still gets a lot out of it. Working in the restaurant’s pizza station, which is central in the dining room, means she’s surrounded by people enjoying her work. She also gets to share her knowledge. “I express my passion through other people,” she says. “And create future leaders, and the future head pizzaiola.