17 Sep Serious Pizza

I’ve been making pizza for dinner nearly every night this week and last. I mean making it from scratch, trying to perfect my recipe. For twenty years I’ve been searching for the best recipe for home-made pizza. I started my quest when I was living in Iowa. That’s one of the reasons I couldn’t settle in the Midwest – it’s a pizza wasteland. Chicago pizza? I don’t think so.

My problem is this: I lived for a time just outside New York City – I’ve tasted America’s best pizza and I want nothing less than that greatness. It’s a Neopolitan-style pie, with a light tomato sauce (canned, crushed tomatoes is best), a sprinkling of fresh oregano, fresh mozzarella (the ultra-white wet kind you get at the deli counter, called “buffalo mozzarella,” which is really made from buffalo’s milk and is really native to Italy, where Goths brought buffalo six or seven hundred years ago), and – most important — a thin crunchy crust that’s somewhat blackened on the bottom and has big air bubbles rising through the sauce. Nothing’s better.

When I tell people I make my own pizza, they nod in admiration and admit that they’d never be so enterprising. I assure them that making your own dough is no big deal. I’ve come up with a recipe that can put a very good pizza on the table within two hours. Just fifteen minutes of that is preparing the dough. The finished product is light, airy, and crunchy. Almost like pastry. Guests give it high marks. But it’s not New York style.

I fed my brother Dave some of my pizza recently. He’s a fan. Chewing a piece, he held it up, eyed it with satisfaction, and said, “Alton Brown’s got the best recipe. You should check it out.” Alton Brown is a quirky chef on the Food Channel. Funny and smart, he explains really well why you should do things his way. But I didn’t have luck with his pizza recipe until I made a few changes.

The problem was the crust. It tasted too dry and cracker-like. Jill suggested taking the sugar out of the recipe. Don’t worry, yeast rises well without sugar. Flour itself is high in sugar (carbs). Also, I’d been using steel pans and well-seasoned cast iron pans for my pizzas. Alton Brown insists on a pizza stone. He’s right. For the New York crust, a stone is the way to go because it replicates the floor of a brick hearth. Alton brown lets his dough slow-rise in the fridge overnight. I let my new recipe slow-rise on the kitchen counter (oiled in a covered bowl and NOT in a warm place) for 6-8 hours. That means you make the dough in the morning. I like that better than making it the day before.

Jill was right about the sugar. It’s a leavener. Instead of helping the rise, it was hindering it somehow. Now, you may ask, why bother? why not go to the best local pizzeria and be done with it? I wish there were one good enough to warrant that kind of loyalty. If I lived in Brooklyn, I’m sure I’d never, or rarely, make pizza. As it is, I like having the ability to create a heart-stopping pizza whenever the urge hits. And the urge hits nearly every week.

I was five when I tasted my first pizza. My family was traveling through Norfolk, Virginia, not exactly the pizza capital of the world. I remember all of us waiting for Dad to return to the car with the pie, our dinner after a long day on the road. What is it? I kept asking. We were parked right in front of the pizzeria, a low white stucco building with a big plate glass window, through which you could see the t-shirted cooks tossing dough and shuffle-boarding pies into the oven. The glare of its lights illuminated the interior of our station wagon. When Dad opened the big white cardboard box, the smell of pepperoni filled my head. I had never smelled anything like it. A hot hammy aroma and so peppery it almost tingled in my nostrils.

Mom handed back a slice to each of us hungry boys. The first bite told me that life is full of surprises — goopy stringy cheese! salty-tart tomato sauce! wondrously sweet and spicy pepperoni! savory oniony oil! The possibilities of world opened before me and I knew that, if I managed to get my hands on this kind of food regularly, my life was going to be very good.