By Alfred Rinaldi, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Sei Shiroma may not look like your typical Neapolitan pizzaiolo, yet the New York expatriate has made it his mission to raise the standard of the Carioca pizza up a few notches with Ferro e Farinha (Iron and Flour), his mobile pizza oven which has become hot news around the Cidade Maravilhosa.
“When I visited here for the first time in 2011”, explains Shiroma, “my pizza impressions in Rio were just awful. In Rio, the problem is that the people who make the food don’t really care about the food. And yet people put up with it.”
What’s a lamentable state of affairs for the Carioca palate was a business opportunity for Shiroma – and a chance to follow his calling, which is to cook. As a twenty-something copywriter in NY’s adland, he started exploring his passion by apprenticing at a variety of noted Italian eateries.
“I worked for free as an apprentice cook – the person who gets yelled at by the chef. It was a great entry into culinary circles, and it allowed me to absorb other people’s cooking.”
Shiroma’s interest in Rio all started when a Brazilian Airbnb guest introduced him to the country, its culture and music. “That motivated me to start learning Portuguese in New York, so when I advertised for a roommate next, I mentioned that if anyone spoke the language, that would be a plus. A PhD student from Brazil came to look at the apartment, and when I opened the door, there stood Daniela, my future wife.”
When Shiroma finally made the move a year ago to Rio, his mind was set. “I just wanted to cook pizza, and do something that I’d look forward every day.” Coming over with some financial reserves allowed him to set up his business and design a pizza oven with Brazilian industrial furnace engineers, creating a specially-made mobile iron oven is hot enough (“screamingly hot”, to be precise) to bake his Neapolitan gourmet pizza to perfection.
Recipe development is another large part of Shiroma’s work. The “Domenico” is Ferro e Farinha’s interpretation of the classic pizza margherita, with fior di latte mozzarella, tomato sauce, grana padano, and basil.
The “Picnic Apimentado” is a composition of fior di latte, ricotta, grana padano, gorgonzola and spicy honey, all baked with original pizza flour flown in from Naples. Now, Ferro e Farinha pops up all over Rio once or twice a week, with venues announced on its Facebook page.
“The appeal of a mobile oven is not just the ease of starting up as a business, compared to a bricks and mortar restaurant. It’s also the relationship with the customers. When you’re out on the street, you’re on a stage, with all the ingredients laid out. There’s nowhere to hide, and you get instant feedback.”
Now Rio’s cognoscenti are lapping it up. In its three-month existence, Ferro e Farinha has built up a devoted following. That the supply is scarce only adds to the appeal. In one night, Sei cooks around thirty pies selling at R$16-20.
Shiroma is already planning for a future of sustainable growth. “I’m employing a third person to work alongside me and my wife,” he told The Rio Times. “Then we’ll exchange the trailer for a truck – and we’ll be able to cook 200 pies in one night.” If his record is anything to go by, he’ll have no problem selling them all.