When it comes to the never-ending quest to slim down, we’ve all heard about the success of the Atkins diet and eating Paleo. But one New York City chef used a far more revolutionary method to lose an astounding 94 pounds: the Pizza Diet.
Naples, Italy, native Pasquale Cozzolino, 38, moved to New York in 2011 to work at Midtown’s PizzArte, and he quickly packed on the pounds. The 6-foot-6-inch chef weighed a healthy 254 pounds when he first got off the plane, but his waistline expanded as he made efforts to familiarize himself with the city’s restaurants and turned to snacking to deal with stress.
“I’d eat 10 or 12 [Oreos],” recalls Cozzolino, who later moved to the East Village’s Ribalta pizzeria, where he’s now the executive chef. “One time I even ate the whole box. It was like a drug for me.” He was also drinking two or three cans of soda each day.
By early 2012, his weight had ballooned to 370 pounds, and he was wearing pants with a 48-inch waist.
When he visited his family in Italy, people didn’t recognize him. He felt awful both mentally and physically.
“I had knee problems, back problems, three ulcers in the stomach,” he recalls. He even had trouble taking his toddler son to the park because just walking there was so taxing.
The final wake-up call came in June 2015, when Cozzolino went to see his family doctor on the Upper East Side.
“She said, ‘You need to lose weight or you will have a heart attack,’” he remembers.
He’d never dieted before, but he was intent on getting his old body back. He calculated his BMI and figured that if he dipped below 2,700 calories a day, he could start losing weight. (A man in his 30s of more moderate height would need to consume 1,800 to 2,200 calories a day to lose weight, advises nutritionist/dietitian Amy Shapiro, and for women it’d be 1,400 to 1,800 calories.)
Cozzolino cut out sweets and soda entirely, started eating half of his usual portions, focused on a Mediterranean diet with plenty of fruit and vegetables — and looked to his restaurant’s menu.
For lunch nearly every day, he eats an entire pizza margherita. While that might not seem like diet-friendly fare, Cozzolino explains that his Neapolitan-style pies are not your typical New York slices. The dough is made from just water, flour, yeast and salt — no butter or lard — and the toppings are light — fresh tomato sauce, a thin layer of mozzarella cheese and basil. Plus his dough ferments for 36 hours, a process that eats away much of the natural sugars and leaves healthier complex carbs, which are easier to digest and help keep you feeling full.
“It lets you feel satisfied, and because it’s only 540 to 570 calories, it’s a perfect and fast solution for a lunch or dinner,” says Cozzolino, who’s supplemented the diet with kickboxing classes two or three times a week near his home in Long Island City, Queens.
The regular pizzas also helped him to stick to his diet.
“It helps you to stay away from junk food,” he says. “When you eat a pizza, you don’t need anything else.”
Still, he admits the diet hasn’t been easy as pie.
In the beginning, he had a lot of headaches and moodiness. But after the first month, his body settled down, and the weight started dropping off. After three months, he had lost 40 pounds. He traveled home to Naples for vacation and was further inspired to keep shedding pounds after seeing fit men on the beach.
“It [made] me depressed, [but] it was strongly motivating,” he says.
He went on to lose another 54 pounds.
“I’m ecstatic,” says the now-276-pound Cozzolino, who plans to lose another 22 pounds to reach his ideal weight of 254. “I changed my face. I have much more energy. My digestion is beautiful. I don’t have any more ulcers. My back and knees don’t hurt anymore.”
Recently, some of his returning customers haven’t recognized him since his massive transformation. “They tell me, ‘You look great, you look fantastic’ — that motivates you even more,” says Cozzolino, whose waist size is now 36. “I’m very happy if my experience can help someone to have a better life.”
How ‘diet’ pizza works
Cozzolino’s “diet” pizza isn’t what you’d get at your average slice joint. It’s a traditional, 12-inch Neapolitan margherita pie, taken straight from the menu at his East Village pizzeria Ribalta (48 E. 12th St.; 212-777-7781). It just happens to be pretty healthy — fewer than 600 calories for the whole thing, according to the chef.
The pizza is topped with smashed canned San Marzano tomatoes (no sugary commercial tomato sauce), just a few ounces of fresh mozzarella, basil and a drizzle of olive oil. The dough is made from nothing more than “00 flour” (a very finely milled wheat flour from Italy that’s essential to traditional Neapolitan pizza), water, sea salt and a natural leavening agent, but it’s left to ferment for 36 hours, which is key.
“Most restaurants raise the dough for [just] six or eight hours,” says Cozzolino.
Because of the long fermentation process, the yeast eats away much of the sugar, leaving only complex carbs, which are easier to digest and help keep you feeling full.
“Your body breaks [long-fermented bread] down more efficiently,” says Amy Shapiro, an NYC-based registered dietitian and nutritionist. Like probiotic pills and yogurt, long-fermented breads help promote healthy gut bacteria. “People who don’t have adequate bacteria have a harder time losing weight,” she adds.
For those who can’t make it to Ribalta for a pie, Shapiro recommends her clients consume sprouted breads, which have similar benefits, or buy sourdough loaves at a green market. (Look for the She Wolf Bakery stand, whose breads are fermented 18 to 48 hours; shewolfbakery.com.) Cozzolino will also sell his dough to customers who want to make pizza at home.
By NY Post