Copenhagen Food Innovation – Artisanal Sourdough Pizza at Surt

“As the pizzaiolo, you have the power to experiment with lots of factors to make a unique product that says something about you. Be an artisan.” – Giuseppe Oliva, owner and founder, Surt Pizza, Copenhagen.

The white slab of dough wobbles as it stretches across a wooden counter glistening from a coating of olive oil. The slash comes quick and precise, a chunk separated from the whole by a thin dough scraper. Tossed onto a kitchen scale, three colleagues each grab a piece. With a delicate and deliberate touch, muscle-memory at its finest, they pull the dough from side to side, twisting it around their hands and fingers. The portions get shaped into balls and then lined up in neat rows. The process is like watching an assembly line, perfect in its timing and end result. But, here we deal with a well-oiled pizza squad, talking and laughing as they hone their craft. Artisans at work, their soul and passion as vital to the product as the natural ingredients.

3 persons prepping pizza dough, forming it into ball-shapes

Surt team prepping the pizza dough

We’re at Surt, a world-renowned pizza restaurant in Copenhagen, founded and led by master pizzaiolo, Giuseppe Oliva. I find myself almost tongue-tied, not sure which of the million questions to ask. You see, I’m a sourdough fanatic, going on 3.5 years of daily feeding of my starter, an example of the few positive outcomes from the pandemic. I started with bread, and soon added pizza to the repertoire, educating myself with online videos, articles, and books. The sourdough obsession, a great way to train patience and precision, opened new horizons. One day I landed on an article about a fantastic sourdough pizza, made at an establishment in Copenhagen called Surt (meaning sour in Danish). Yes, you read it correctly. We are talking about Denmark, not Napoli.

In the heart of fermentation mecca at Carlsberg Byen (the famous beer), you find Surt close to the two enormous grey elephants that flank the entry to the area. When you think about it, the location makes perfect sense. The Copenhagen food scene has made a lot of noise for the past decade and a half. The city draws top culinary talents and is home to 24 Michelin stars, attracting tourists and foodies with a penchant for sustainable gastronomy. Much of the success is thanks to the world’s best restaurant, Noma, and the influential team behind it. While Copenhagen rode its wave of triumph, Giuseppe’s journey started back in Sicily. And to understand his pizza, we have to learn about the person.

Two grey elephant status flanking a tunnel between houses.

Entry to Carlsberg Byen – the old brewery quarter

A Sicilian heritage

Somehow, flour and water surrounded me at all times.” – G.O.

Giuseppe speaks of his childhood in Sicily, where his father, a baker for more than 45 years, and his maternal grandfather’s mill, contribute to a sense of destiny. As is often the case, the road had plenty of twists and turns. Although he helped his father at the bakery during summer holidays and got pretty good at bread-making as a 12-year-old, he dreamt of other professions. He studied to be a captain on a merchant ship, did junior officer training, and then six years on different vessels; cruise, container, passenger, and tanker. Sometimes he did kitchen duties, baking bread for the crew. After travelling the world, he wanted a change and found himself in the port city of Copenhagen.

Profile picture of Surt founder, Giuseppe Oliva

Surt founder – Giuseppe Oliva

With the ethos of fresh local ingredients, and a love of Sicilian products, Giuseppe started importing wine from his hometown, Alcamo, and sold them to Danish restaurants, one of which, Tribeca, hired him to better explain the wines to the guests. He had a solid knowledge base from wine-maker friends back home, but took the opportunity to study more. Then, once again, a bread incident changed the course of his career. The restaurant had a delivery issue, and Giuseppe saved the day by taking on the task of baking. A grand success! It led to the owner adding pizza to the menu. Although Giuseppe sought help from pizza makers in the city, he soon discovered he had a deeper understanding than most, owing to his experiences in Sicily.

Around 2012, pizza became his passion, with an unrelenting desire to understand the art and science of dough. While studying the traditional ways, he refrained from following old maxims. He needed a path of his own.

Shaping the Copenhagen pizza scene

“I wanted to create something new. We are doing it as an experiment for lunch.” – G.O.

We stand next to the beautiful, purpose made pizza oven. The fire crackles amid the formidable heat. “That’s the Surpie,” Giuseppe says, pointing to bread in an iron cast pan sitting on a bed of charcoal. It’s not pizza, although there’s a passing resemblance to the Sicilian style, and not quite focaccia either. The Surpie, created from a thicker dough, and fermented for over 50 hours, has a more pronounced sour taste. Crispy on the outside and soft on the inside, and if you love the sourness of sourdough, this is a must-try. Even with several choices of high quality toppings, the dough remains the hero. Deliziosa!

Giuseppe surprised us with an exclusive sample of Surt’s soon to be released beer. And guess what? It too comes from sourdough. The centuries old Carlsberg brewery buildings, part of which Surt now inhabits, had the world’s largest yeast bank. No doubt a great inspiration to maintain traditions while innovating.

Giuseppe wants to keep pushing, not content with the status quo. Sometimes this means leaving something safe to test the unknown. After he discovered his passion back in 2012, he built and trained a pizza squad who then came to different pizzerias in Copenhagen. Business went well, and then one day, he learned that Christian Puglisi, known for his Michelin-star restaurant Relæ, wanted to start a new, exciting pizza project. While intending to help out with his team of pizzaiolos, Christian instead asked him to work with him, and with a green light to do pizza without compromising on quality and ingredients, Giuseppe accepted. You might recognise this place as the storied pizza restaurant, Bæst. During the four years Giuseppe spent there, he created his style of sourdough pizza and instructed the chefs and bakers. It’s fair to say he’s influenced many of the pizzaiolos across the city.

After a successful period at Bæst, and plenty of offers ranging from Paris to New York, Giuseppe decided to stay in Copenhagen, but this time on his own, instead of playing it safe with already well-established names in the business. The entrepreneurial spirit and Copenhagen’s growing reputation as a food destination, where chefs of similar mindsets and values thrived, led him to start Surt in late 2019. The Carlsberg location provided the perfect match for a sourdough-centred pizza restaurant.

Artisanal sourdough pizza

“There is no good and bad flour. It all depends on the style you want to produce.” – G.O.

A great pizza starts with the dough. As a flour nerd myself, I enjoyed hearing Giuseppe’s philosophy on the subject. He uses 5 types of flour to get his preferred mix, all from the same mill his father used, in a town called Castelvetrano, close to Alcamo in Sicily. As an amateur home pizza maker, on the hunt for high-protein flours, I am stunned to hear, Giuseppe’s blending formula doesn’t take into account the protein percentage.

“If I need to make a technical pizza, I can do it but it’s not as fun.” Giuseppe explains how the same grain, growing in different environments, creates varied flavours and tastes. He experiments until satisfied with the result. “I go by instinct”. Working with sourdough is a risky business, as the outcome is unpredictable. It’s a living organism, after all. If you want to be a pizzaiolo for a day and do pizza at home, here’s a piece of advice from Giuseppe: “Don’t buy flour that says pizza on it.”

He lifts the lid off the madia (the pizza dough box made from beech wood) to show me his pasta madre, a 13+-year-old stiff sourdough starter. You could smell it without even getting your nose close. I love it. It’s the aroma of life. Sourdough starters and wild fermentation, that’s true magic … a reminder to believe in miracles.

Surt uses a dough kneader machine, “my extended arms”, as Giuseppe calls it. He watches it like a hawk, adding water and Sicilian olive oil when needed. The dough has a whopping 86-88% hydration level (amount of water in relation to flour). I have to ask him twice to confirm I heard right. The higher the hydration, the harder the dough is to work with, but if you succeed, the lightness of the pizza is a delight. The team at Surt prepares the dough one day before, and after the manual shaping, the individual balls get transferred into wooden boxes. They then sit for up to 30 hours in the fridge in a moderate 11 degrees celsius cooling environment for further fermentation. Now we need ingredients and toppings.

Local, sustainable, and fresh

“Half of the job is done when you work with fresh, high-quality ingredients.” – G.O.

In Sicily, you buy straight from farmers and cultivate from your garden, every day. Excellence matters to Giuseppe, ardent in his support of sustainable and ethical farming practices. Respect for nature and animals is vital. A grass-fed cow with a good life, roaming free around the fields, is something entirely different from industrial slaughter.

The Siccagno tomatoes are indigenous to Sicily. Red gold, they taste sweet and acidic. On the SurPie they dazzled. The tomato grows on a hill, 450m above sea level, and sees a lot of sun during the day, hydrated by the humidity of the night. No additional water needed, which explains the concentrated and strong flavour, without excess juice. Giuseppe has partnered with a long-time friend who owns the land and has dedicated a section only for Surt. Talk about being spoiled for choice.

Tomato sauce spread out on pizza bottom

Sicilian tomato sauce

They make some of the cheese in the kitchen at Surt, and import the buffalo mozzarellas from Italy. Mushrooms, meat, salad, vegetables, and other toppings come from small-scale farmers around Copenhagen. Surt receives mail from the farms on Mondays stating what they have. They place an order and base the menus on the availability from Tuesday. Hyper-local and seasonal.

Now you know the ingredients and the story behind the pizzaiolo – the elements of pizza. Time to eat!

Surt pizza – the tasting experience

“The right pizza is whatever you like. There should be no rules in making pizza, as it limits creativity.” – G.O.

Surt offers 6 pizzas on their menu. 3 classics: Marinara, Rianata, Margherita, the latter the most ordered. The remaining 3 change depending on the season and we started our tasting journey here, with the Hindsholm, named after a peninsula in Denmark.

First, let’s talk crust. A very thin layer of crisp on the outside and the bottom, a light, airy crumb around the rim, leopard spot style. The slice felt almost weightless with tiny crispy bites, neither soft nor chewy. Perfect texture, and for sure, my kind of pizza.

Pizza crust with leopard spots

Fluffy pizza crust with leopard spots

The Hindsholm sports pork sausage (an ultra premium quality meat), buffalo mozzarella, puntarelle (a type of chicory), and a spicy house-made fermented chilli sauce. It doesn’t end there. Once out of the oven, Giuseppe grates a 33-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano all over the pizza. It’s like it snowed! The acidity and freshness of the chilli caused a sensation. My mouth still remembers as I write, the memory of crunch and rich flavours, familiar and new all at once.

To witness Giuseppe handle the pizza peel is a study of the man, his calm professionalism, passion, and pride. It’s quite evident when he brings over the second pizza, the Rianata, a tribute to Sicily.

Anchovy fillets paste, passata Siccagno tomatoes, oregano, red onions, and pecorino cheese make out the spread. If you love tomatoes, this is a must-try. I loved the pronounced and concentrated taste of the tomato passata. Sweet yet acidic, and the caramelisation of the natural sugars in the tomatoes created a rich, deep flavour. The oregano made a lasting impression as well, fitting, as the name Rianata is a play on the Sicilian word for the famous condiment.

A fusion of pizza cultures

“If you make a product that you respect, and people like it, it’s the best feeling.” – G.O.

How do you describe Surt pizzas? Is it Neapolitan, Sicilian, or perhaps Danish?

Danes like a bit of acidity and bitterness in their bread, and they do enjoy pork and ham. The Danish influence is there, and it’s in minimalist-hygge-loving Copenhagen Giuseppe crafted his particular formula, which has catapulted Danish pizza and pizzaiolos to new heights over the years.

Neapolitan style pizza comes with a lot of regulation, both regarding ingredients, its preparation, and how it should look. Surt pizzas don’t try to emulate something else, they are the accumulated knowledge and experience of Giuseppe Oliva, with roots and base ingredients from warm and historical Sicily.

Margherita pizza resting in front of stone oven.

Margherita pizza

At the end of the day, what matters for Giuseppe is the taste and flavours. No need for overly complex creations. In fact, he believes fewer ingredients make for a better outcome. As long as they conform to his values and exacting standards of quality.

Simply put, Surt produces Giuseppe style pizzas, with a dose of both Sicily and Copenhagen. Best enjoyed at the restaurant straight from the oven, he says, not too keen on delivery.

In addition to the premium pizza experience, Giuseppe has taken another step, which marries his Italian heritage with doing business in Copenhagen. The love of wine persists, and thus he opened a wine bar called Lĭquo, situated a couple of minutes from Surt. Drink and buy wine from all the 20 regions in Italy, and, of course, you can also savour the sourdough beer we tried, made in collaboration with Jacobsen. It’s the first-ever batch to come out of their renovated production site in Carlsberg Byen.

Two glasses of beer next to a plate of pizza

Surt’s own beer after sipping the foam

As a red wine lover, I asked Giuseppe for a pairing recommendation. Go for simple fruit aromas, little tannin, and young, not older than a 3-year-old bottle, he says. It goes great with the Margherita.

The road to heaven is paved with good pizza

Food is culture, identity, and values. For countries, but also for individuals. Pride in one’s culinary offerings, coupled with demand for top produce, has caused a revolution in increased quality and breadth of choice. Pizza is one such area where different regions around the world bring their own distinct style. Neapolitan, Roman, the New York slice, as famous examples. And with avant garde pizzaiolos not afraid to step out of the traditional confines, pizza has entered a new level of creativity and excellence. Giuseppe Oliva is part of the movement, often featuring in global rankings for the best pizza. He incorporates his own roots, and the DNA of his adopted country, into his creations. Surt pizzas are equal parts ingredients, heritage, innovation, and the personal journey of the pizzaiolo.

It is my strong recommendation that you come to Surt and eat your way through the menu. I know I’ll be back, excited to see what this humble innovator and artisan comes up with next. Giuseppe Oliva is like a sourdough, getting better by the year, influenced by the environment he is in, and capable of producing magic.

Do you like your pizza sourdough style? Have you been to Copenhagen? Tell us in the comment section! Don’t forget to subscribe to the newsletter and benefit from tips, interviews, and inspirational examples of sustainable tourism and luxury travel.

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