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Pizza perfect. May 21, 2011

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. My computer opens to the Yahoo! homepage, and the other day they had a highlighted feature called “World’s Best Pizza.” It featured six pizza styles—rather than individual pizzas—that the U.S. News & World Report team, who provided the article, considered to be tops. Their #1-rated pizza was Neapolitan, a soft-crust pizza topped with bufalo mozzarella, raw San Marzano tomatoes, and fresh basil, then cooked in a super-hot wood-burning oven for a minute and a half.

If a trip to Naples isn’t in your travel budget, the article provides some other options:  New York pizza (rated #2), characterized by its puffy outer crust and thinner, crispier inner crust and by being baked on a pizza stone rather than in a pan. Pizzas from Sao Paulo, Brazil (#3), a town so crazy about pizza that it celebrates Pizza Day every July 10th. (I heartily approve.) Sao Paulo pizzas apparently include a minimal-to-vanishing amount of tomato sauce but tons of mozzarella. We are warned not to dump ketchup on our Sao Paulo pizzas, a practice apparently endorsed throughout the rest of Brazil, perhaps to make up for the lack of tomato sauce.

Chicago deep-dish pizza appears at #5 on the list. I’ve long heard of the fabled deep-dish Chicago pizzas, but never had one, and was taken aback by the description: a thick, crunchy layer of crust covered with mozzarella, then the toppings, and then chunky tomato sauce before hitting the oven in its deep-dish pan. Er, you mean the cheese is on the bottom and the tomato sauce is on the top?!! The accompanying photo seems to confirm my fears.

The #6 place to eat pizza is in Rome, according to the article, where thin-crust pizzas are baked on rectangular trays in wood-fired ovens, then sold by the slice and served folded over like a sandwich. (You can choose both your toppings and the size of your slice, which is priced by weight.)

In case you’re wondering what happened to pizza #4, in my view, the article cheated and included a frittata from Osaka and Hiroshima instead. Called the Japanese pancake or Japanese omelette, this popular egg-based dish is stirred, poured, flipped to cook both sides, then drizzled with sweet brown sauce, mayo, and bonito and seaweed flakes. It certainly sounds intriguing, but what it has to do with pizza I can’t imagine. 

Thinking about the styles of pizza favored by the article’s panel and by everyone I know, I was struck again by how individual people’s taste in pizza really is. I feel really strongly about what makes a good pizza and what makes a bad one, and so do all my friends. And no two of us agree about what makes the perfect pizza. I tried to think about some other popular food that brings out this much passion and inflexible opinion in people, and drew a blank. Chili, maybe? Barbecue? Turkey stuffing/dressing? Chocolate bars? Help me out here, please. There has to be something!

Contemplating what, in my view, makes a perfect pizza was, I confess, a blissful experience. I’d have said an ecstatic experience, except for the fact that I’ve read many times that tests have shown that imagining eating food somehow magically packs on as many calories as if you’d actually eaten it. How this could possibly be, I can’t begin to imagine, but if it turns out to be true, it’s the most cruel joke ever played on our weight-conscious society. I guess now I’ll have to imagine running 50 miles to burn those imaginary calories off. But I digress.

Before I reveal my own favorite pizza styles, let’s talk about what I really hate in a pizza, and the description of that Neapolitan pizza so beloved by the U.S. News & World Report team (and iconized in the movie “Eat, Pray, Love”) has it all. Soft, undercooked crust. Raw tomatoes rather than tomato sauce. Inadequate gobbets of cheese. Eeeewwww!!! I love San Marzano tomatoes.  I love bufalo mozzarella. I love fresh basil. But please, could I have them in a Caprese salad, rather than on a so-called pizza?!

The other pizzas beloved by the team fared little better on the Silence Dogood Yummy Pizza Scale. Pizza crust soft enough to fold over, a la Roma? Spare me. Almost no tomato sauce, a la Sao Paolo? Yuck. Puffy crust, courtesy of NYC? Ugh. Tomato sauce on top? No thanks, Windy City. As for the “Sicilian style” deep-dish pizza prevalent pretty much everywhere around here, and featuring a thick slab of doughy so-called crust, please. I’d like to get my calories on top of the crust, thanks very much.

So what, exactly, does make a pizza good, or even great? I’m so glad you asked. A delicious pizza depends on a combination of four things: crust, sauce, cheese, and toppings. Let’s look at them one by one.

First, and most critical, is the crust. The best sauce, cheese, and toppings in the world can’t redeem an awful crust. A bad crust = a bad pizza, period. And yet the crust is, in my opinion, the most neglected element of pizza-making.

Mind you, my idea of the ideal crust horrifies literally everyone I know, without exception. I hate a thick doughy crust, a thin soft crust, a thick or thin hard crust, a chewy, stretchy crust. My ideal is a crunchy crust, exemplified by a just-made Pizza Hut pan pizza. To me this luscious crunch perfectly complements the sauce, cheese, and toppings on a pizza.

Unfortunately, I’ve read more times than I care to remember that this type of crust is only achieved by saturating the crust in oil. This brings to mind French fries, fried onion rings, and fried chicken, other foods that are utterly delicious and also on the proscribed list. I don’t see a huge amount of upside in encouraging heart disease, overweight, and diabetes, so my trips to Pizza Hut have been drastically curtailed in recent years.

However. I refuse to let the health Nazis have the last word when it comes to pizza crust. When I make pizza here at Hawk’s Haven, I add the crunch factor by brushing the crust with extra-virgin olive oil and baking it on a pizza stone before proceeding with the other stages of pizza composition. Works like a charm. If I have to purchase pizza and can’t get that crunchy crust, a light, thin, crispy-crackly crust is definitely next-best. No soggy, doughy, heavy, underbaked crusts, please God. Those all rate an instant “Give this to the chickens!” from me.

Moving on to the sauce. Balance is all at this crucial step. I can’t abide a pizza without a good, flavorful tomato-based sauce. Whatever anyone may say, that is not pizza, it’s a topped flatbread. But I also hate a pizza drowning in wet, flavorless sauce without enough cheese to balance it (and inevitably with a limp, doughy crust).

When making pizza at home, I like to spread a layer of pesto over the crust for added flavor before spreading on the tomato sauce. And that sauce should be thick and flavorful, making its presence known in every delicious bite without overwhelming the other ingredients or sogging down the crust. (The layer of pesto really helps in this regard, providing a barrier that separates crust and sauce.) My favorite is my own homemade spaghetti sauce, thick and rich with flavor to spare. If I want to add a little freshness, crunch, and heat, I’ll press some fresh salsa into the sauce before adding the cheese. On a restaurant pizza, the richer, thicker, garlicky flavor of marinara sauce wins my vote over plain old tomato sauce any day.

Now let’s tackle the cheese. Nothing offends me (and our friend Ben) like a sprinkling of cheese on a pizza. So when I first started making my own, I dumped on the shredded mozzarella, and how. Huge mistake. I’ve learned to use a much lighter hand with the cheese, making sure there’s enough to coat the sauce evenly but not an iota more than that. Using whole-milk shredded mozzarella makes up in quality and richness for the lack of quantity. And using a lighter hand gives you the option of adding additional cheeses like blue, Gorgonzola, shredded or grated Parmesan, and/or feta as toppings if you choose to do so, but again, don’t get carried away. I don’t know why adding too much cheese destroys the texture of a pizza, but trust me, it does. Better to eat an extra slice done right than shovel down a gloppy, overloaded couple.

The toppings are the final, and frankly, least relevant part to making great pizza. What?! Blasphemy!

I’d have agreed with you until I started making my own. Then I realized that if you’d nailed the crust, sauce, and cheese, the toppings would take care of themselves.

Whatever I ultimately add to a pizza, I always top it with a generous sprinkling of “Italian herbs” (oregano, basil, thyme, rosemary, and marjoram) and a little Trocomare (hot herbed salt). I’ll usually add a sprinkling of lemon pepper and a dash of red pepper flakes as well, since our friend Ben is a sucker for the hot stuff. (Not too much of the red pepper flakes, though, or they catch in my throat. OFB gets the shaker when we eat to add as much as he chooses.)

I like to add diced roasted sweet onions, minced roasted garlic, sliced roasted mushrooms, sliced kalamata or canned black olives, and diced fresh or roasted red, yellow, or orange bell peppers on my pizzas. Sometimes, for a special treat, I’ll add chopped marinated artichoke hearts, roasted yellow summer squash slices, and/or roasted white corn kernels scraped from the cob. Fresh chopped arugula, scallions (green onions), garlic scapes, basil, and sliced hot radishes can also add punch to a pizza.

And yes, I admit it, I do occasionally go all-out (or far out, depending on your point of view) and make special-occasion pizzas, such as my Mexican Night pizza, with mild salsa mixed with fresh salsa and cilantro subbing for the standard tomato sauce and a mix of shredded 4-cheese “Mexican” cheese blend and sliced black olives, sliced jalapenos, and chopped green and Spanish (purple or red) onions. Dabbing on a bit of sour cream and adding a little more cilantro before eating a slice is absolutely okay. And don’t forget the margaritas!

Let’s not leave the topic of pizza without discussing the final, essential element, and that’s the perfect temperature. Obviously, your goal is to cook the pizza until it’s hot, the cheese has melted, and the sauce and toppings have heated through. But if you try to eat it at that point, you’ll be confronted with a runny, gooey mess. I like to cook the pizza to this stage, then force myself to wait until it cools to the point where it’s still hot but the cheese is no longer gooey and it’s comfortable enough to pick up with your bare hands (though, gasp, I admit I eat mine with a knife and fork, since I hate touching grease, and oil qualifies). Yes, it’s hard to control myself when I can see and smell that delicious pizza-in-waiting. But I find that marrying the perfect temperature and texture is well worth the extra five or ten minutes of self-restraint, and it gives me time to make a salad OFB and I can enjoy with our pizza. 

Fellow pizza lovers, now it’s your turn: What do you think of when you think of the perfect pizza?

             ‘Til next time,