I used to be a thick crust pizza gal. I liked a Chicago-style, deep-dish pizza. Most of the thin crust pizza that I had eaten tasted like cardboard. When I moved to New York, I had heard about the famous New York style pizza. Sure, there is a pizzeria on every other corner and you can pick up a slice for a few bucks most hours of the day. But that pizza was just okay, some better than others, but certainly nothing to write home about.
Then I went to Grimaldi’s pizza in Brooklyn. My pizza world was forever changed. Grimaldi’s is one of many pizzerias in New York with coal-fired ovens, any of which could have been the first to rock my pizza world.
Pizza from a coal-fired oven is different. The intense heat works magic on the crust. The thin crust is crispy on the outside yet somehow remains tender and chewy. It is often dotted with delightful, giant dough bubbles. The coal imparts a slightly smoky flavor. In my opinion the way to order it is with few toppings, too many and the thin crust can get soggy. I like just tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil.
There are many factors that go into making a great pizza. One, which the home cook may find challenging, is heat. To get that perfect combination of chewy and crisp crust, you need heat. 700 degrees should do it, which is a couple hundred degrees above the highest setting on most home-kitchen ovens.
People will go to great lengths to work around this limitation.
One way is to build an outdoor brick pizza oven. A grill can also reach staggering temperatures. Seeing how there is a chill in the air, I’m more interested in people who’ve tricked out their indoor oven to achieve intense heat.
In It Must’ve Been Something I Ate,Jeffrey Steingarten, food critic at Vogue magazine, details his pursuit of heat hot enough to make a proper pizza at home. (Let me first say that I want his job. Steingarten decides to write about pizza and gets sent to Naples, Italy, the birthplace of Neapolitan-style pizza. I, on the other hand, pay for my own flour.) Steingarten tried such things like covering the heat sensor on his oven and cooking (or rather burning) a pizza using the self-cleaning setting (which locks the door and imprisons your pizza).
The LA Times has another DIY indoor pizza oven idea. You take some firebricks and make a little box in your oven. Then you heat it on its highest setting for about an hour. The bricks hold the heat and increase the heat inside the brick box. Pretty cool.
The only pizza equipment I have is a pizza wheel. I would love a pizza stone and a pizza peel (yes, this is a hint to any gift buyers). The pizza stone retains heat and helps give the pizza a nice crisp crust. The pizza peel is that fancy paddle thing you see pizza makers skillfully use to slide pizzas in and out of a hot oven. For now, I make due with a plain old baking sheet.
Steingarten had a good tip. He suggested that if you have a gas stove, place the pizza stone directly on the bottom of the oven. I placed my pizza on a baking sheet then placed it on my oven’s floor. With a leery eye, I peered in every couple of minutes. I was hungry and didn’t want to risk burning the bottom. While I love a crisp crust with maybe a couple of chard spots, I don’t like burnt pizza one bit. Luckily, it worked beautifully. Though not as good as Grimaldi’s, I did end up with a darn fine pizza with a near perfect crust.
No-knead pizza dough
This is adapted from Sullivan Street Bakery’s Jim Lahey’s recipe. It takes a day to make, but don’t fret, the hands on time is only about 10 to 15 minutes.
Lahey’s version uses all white flour. I added whole wheat and buckwheat flour. I’m a little obsessed with buckwheat flour these days. I love its slightly nutty, complex flavor. If you are trying to replicate a Grimaldi’s pizza, use all white flour.
Makes four 12-inch pizza crusts
1 cup all-purpose white or bread flour, more for dusting
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup buckwheat flour (substitute white or wheat flour)
1/4 teaspoon instant yeast
11/2 teaspoons salt
1 3/4 cups water
cornmeal for dusting
- In a large bowl, mix the flour with the yeast and salt. Add the water and stir until well mixed. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and leave in a warm spot for 12 to 24 hours. If your house is cold in the winter like ours is, plan to leave it out for 24 hours.
- Place the dough on a floured work surface and sprinkle the top with flour. It will be sticky, so flour your hands. Fold the dough over on itself a few times. Divide the dough into four pieces. Shape each piece into a ball. Set each ball in an oiled bowl (or plate). Cover with plastic wrap (oil the wrap if it might touch the dough when rising) and let rise for two hours.
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees. If using a pizza stone, place it on the floor of your oven if it is gas, or on the bottle rack if it is electric.
- Stretch or toss the dough into the desired shape. I roll the dough out on a piece of floured wax paper. If you are using a pizza stone, assemble the pizza on a pizza peel or flat baking sheet lightly dusted with cornmeal, then carefully transfer the uncooked pizza to the hot pizza stone. If using a baking sheet, lightly dust with cornmeal, then transfer the rolled out dough to the sheet and cover with toppings (see below).
- Place baking sheet on the floor of your oven if it is gas, or on the bottle rack if it is electric.
- Bake at 425 degrees for about 10 minutes or until the bottom is crisp, but not burnt and the toppings are bubbly.
Roasted root vegetable pizza topping
This pizza was inspired by the Isabella Pizzarella at Baba Louies in Hudson.
2 medium-sized beets
1 medium sweet potato
2 small onions
3-4 garlic cloves
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
8-10 oz fresh mozzarella, sliced into thin rounds
- Heat oven to 400 degrees.
- Slice the beets, onions and sweet potatoes about 1/4 inch thick. Crush the garlic cloves with the back of a chef’s knife and remove peel, leaving the clove whole.
- Toss vegetables with olive oil to coat well. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Arrange in a single layer on a baking sheet.
- Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, turning at least once.
- Remove and let cool enough to handle before adding to pizza.
- Lightly brush prepared pizza dough with olive oil. Arrange vegetables in a single layer, covering the whole pizza.