There are few foods that people take as personally as pizza. Tell someone your pizza place is better than their pizza place, and chances are you’ll start a fight. Well, my pizza place is better than your pizza place, because I make it at home. Besides, I can run faster than you.
I’m not going to say that much of the pizza that I’ve tried here in Rhode Island is mediocre, but I will say that I was born in Brooklyn and grew up working in many New York pizza places in my youth. So, yes, I do have a very strong opinion on what I think makes a good or bad pizza.
My homemade pizza is all about the basics. The better quality my original ingredients are, the better my pizza will be.
The key ingredient is 00 flour, and it can be found in specialty stores, or at Amazon. It makes a crustier and more flavorful dough. Ratios for this recipe depend on the humidity in my kitchen on any given day, but my basic pizza dough recipe is as follows:
3 cups 00 flour
1 cup tepid water
1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon dry yeast
a squirt of extra virgin olive oil
Combine the flour, salt and yeast dry in the bowl of a stand mixer. Fill a Pyrex container to the 1-cup mark with cold, clean water and then nuke it on high in the microwave for 20 seconds. Turn the mixer on, and slowly add the water to the dry ingredients as it mixes. You might need to add a little more water, but you want the dough to pull from the side of the bowl cleanly. If it’s mushy, just add a little flour to the mix. After the ingredients are well mixed, remove it to a floured board, and knead the dough by hand for another 5 minutes, until it is smooth and elastic. Shape it into a ball. Squirt a little olive oil into a stainless steel or glass bowl, and drop the dough ball into it, coating it with the oil on all sides. Cover the bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and let the dough rise in a warm place for at least 3 hours. When the dough gets light and puffy, punch it down, re-roll it into a ball, and drop it back into the bowl and cover with plastic to let it rise at least another 2 hours.
For me, San Marzano tomatoes make the best sauce, but not all cans of San Marzanos are created equal. The only way you can be guaranteed you have a real can of these beauties, grown in volcanic Italian soil in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius, is by the D.O.P. designation on the can. (D.O.P. stands for “Denominazione d’Origine Protetta,” and signifies that it’s the real deal.) Anything else that says San Marzano may not be.
San Marzanos are so full of rich natural flavor, so all I do is puree them in a food processor, pour the sauce into a pan, and let it reduce until it has thickened. No spices or additions of any kind.
I don’t need to go super-fancy with mozzarella di bufala (cheese made from the milk of the water buffalo), but I don’t use the mass-produced supermarket stuff, either. Fresh mozzarella from local sources (like Maplebrook Farms in Vermont in our area) is a good way to go.
A matter of choice. I cure my own guanciale, a delicacy that comes from pork jowls, or cheeks. Chopped and fried, it’s one of my daughter’s favorite pizza toppings. But prosciutto, pancetta, bacon, or sausages are all great choices, too.
My signature pizza that wows my dinner guests is a marinated beef tenderloin and fried chive blossom pizza. I marinate and grill a piece of beef tenderloin, slicing it thin. And in the springtime, when my chive plants are budding like crazy, I snip the blossoms before they open and place them in Ziploc freezer bags to use all year. When it’s time, I grab a handful of the blossoms and fry them in a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and sprinkle them over the top of the beef tenderloin pizza. A touch of Fleur de Sel on top seals the deal.
My signature marinated beef tenderloin and chive blossom pizza.
Many professional pizza ovens reach a temperature of 1000 degrees. My home oven only reaches 500, but it does the trick. I use a pizza stone, and place it on the center rack of the oven. It’s really important to let it heat up thoroughly before sliding a pizza onto it for cooking, so I’ll let it heat for at least 30 minutes.
Because I don’t have a really hot oven, my pizza needs to be cooked in 2 stages. First, I sprinkle a little semolina flour on the pizza peel to keep things from sticking. I stretch my pizza dough out (tossing in the air is optional!) and lay it on the peel. I spoon out my tomato sauce and spread it evenly on the dough, leaving the outside edges clean to form a crust. I slide the pizza into the oven and let it cook for a few minutes.
After a few minutes, I pull the pizza out of the oven and add my toppings: more sauce (if desired), cheese, meats, veggies, etc, topping it all off with a sprinkling of dried oregano. Back into the oven it goes for stage 2, cooking until the cheese has melted and the crust is a crispy golden brown.
I also cook pizzas on my barbecue grill, using a special stone made specifically for open flames. (A regular pizza stone would crack on the grill.) the grill. The hardwood fire adds great flavor, but it’s a lot more work to set up and clean up after.
My favorite pizza away from home
There are only a few pizzerias that I know of—all in NYC–that make pizza montanara, and for my money, the best I’ve ever had is at PizzArte on West 55th Street. (www.pizzarteny.com) Pizza montanara is a small, rustic pizza margherita using smoked mozzarella di bufala and simple tomato sauce, garnished with a basil leaf. What makes it magical is that after they stretch the dough–but before they put the toppings on it–they fry the dough in olive oil for just a minute. It puffs up like a pillow. Then they put the toppings on it and quickly bake it in a very hot wood oven. The result is a non-greasy, absolutely heavenly pizza cloud…the most delicious I’ve ever had. (I always ask them to use non-smoked mozzarella. I think it tastes better.)
I’ve actually had some success recreating this pizza at home, frying the dough in a very large skillet of olive oil. The challenge is removing this giant piece of dough out of the skillet and into a pizza pan without dripping olive oil all over my stove and setting my house on fire! So far, so good!