The Grown-Ass Woman Diaries: Building A Better Pizza

Pizza is just bubbling, cheesy, easy goodness. And it seems like one of those things that will never fall out of favor. Except if it has pineapple and ham on it. That combo is always wrong in my books.

Sep 9, 2013 at 6:00pm | Leave a comment

Back in May, when I read that, at 72 years old, Sir Patrick Stewart had just had his first ever slice of pizza, like the rest of America I gasped. First of all, that this was a major headline in several “legitimate news” outlets was its own news story. But more than that, Seriously? You’ve never had a slice of pizza in your seven decades on this earth? Yes, yes, you’re from a small town in Northern England, but you live in California and New York now. I mean, we’re talking Brooklyn, New York. That city is practically built on a slice of pizza. 
 
Listen, I’ve never had Taco Bell ever in life -- don’t plan on changing that proud fact either -- so I get having standards, even in the low brow world of fast food. However, never once trying pizza seemed extreme, like some next-level food snobbery. 
 
The realer truth came to calm everyone’s freaked out sensibilities about a day or so later when the actor clarified that he’s had pizza before, just never a single slice eaten without a knife and fork. So he was revealed as more of a Go Whole Pie or Go Home kind of a guy, which was totally fine, and he was back in the public’s good graces. The knife and fork thing, though?
 
The reason why so many people were baffled (and clearly disturbed) is because pizza is an indelible part of the fabric of American life. Like burgers and fries and milkshakes and PB&J sandies, for many of us, pizza has this baked in nostalgia. 
 
As a kid I was finicky about food. That’s what my Mum would say to other parents who just had to drop some comment about how little of my plate I cleaned: “Oh, Nicole? Yes, she’s finicky.” It sounded better, fancier than being a plain old picky eater. I liked what I liked. 
 
Outside of the things like ice cream, cookies, pancakes, and PB&J -- or what’s generally known in kid worlds as The Good Stuff -- there was one thing that I wasn’t fussy about eating. Pizza. It was easy, basic, and typically delicious. We would order the All-Dressed pizza, which in Montreal means paper-thin slices of pepperoni, mushrooms, green peppers, melted lightly browned cheese, and of course sauce on a puffy, golden, round crust. Everyone in the house was happy.
 
As I got older, I loosened up on the finicky thing somewhat, but not really. Then at 19, I moved into vegetarianism. That changed the game; set the clock back to Finicky. Going out to eat with friends was usually tricky. In school, everyone’s short on cash. If we didn’t go for Chinese (whatever veggies you have in garlic sauce, please) or to a diner (I’ll have the spinach omelet for dinner, thanks), I was usually stuck in Carb City. Unless, we went to the pizza spot. I could always do well with a couple of slices of veggie/cheese pizza. And who doesn’t like/marginally tolerate pizza? 
 
Don’t you remember having cold slices the morning after that legendary night in college or digging into a pie at midnight with your gang of sleepover homegirls, when everything about the moment is magical and sweet and fun?  
 
Pizza is just bubbling, cheesy, easy goodness. And it seems like one of those things that will never fall out of favor. Except if it has pineapple and ham on it. That combo is always wrong in my books.
 
With that in mind, I set out to learn how to make the perfect pizza pie from scratch. It’s one more thing to add to the list of skills every grown woman should have tucked in her bra strap. My search didn’t last long. I went straight to the fine people at Luna Pizza in West Hartford, CT. Luna’s got the thin-crust, crispy, tangy-sweet pizza thing locked up. Even my 4-year-old is a fan, and that guy doesn’t have time for mediocre anything. 
 
I met with Alex, who has been making pizza for 20 years and was happy to share the secret to a successful pie: “It’s all about simplicity and love.” Adding more components means adding more room for error, he says. Toss sugar in the mix, for example, and the crust will brown more. Adding oil to the dough means a denser crust instead of being light and crispy.  
 
But dense and brown works if that’s what you want. “There’s no such thing as a wrong way to make pizza,” Alex says. “There really are no mistakes. It all comes down to personal preference, and the range is endless.”
 
Valid point, but let’s just keep it simple anyway. And for this pizza, simple really does mean simple. (Although he eats pizza every single day for quality control, Alex doesn’t make it at home anymore and trying to get the “single pie” measurements from him was a challenge*. At Luna, he’s typically working with 50-pound bags of flour and four gallons of water.)
 
For the dough, Alex says you need just four ingredients: 
  1. Flour
  2. Table salt
  3. Live yeast
  4. Water
 
Be sure to make the dough a day ahead, though. Working with live yeast, it will need time to sit and rise. 
 
Skip the rolling pins and go for hand press and hand rolling on a floured surface. Keep an even press and roll as you stretch it out into the desired shape -- circle, square, rectangle, or whatever you choose. (The whole tossing it in the air thing is messy and really just for fun and show, according to Alex. It doesn’t quicken the process or improve results.)
 
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For the sauce, all you need are two things: 
  1. Sweet California plum tomatoes (uncooked)
  2. Black pepper
 
Alex uses an emulsifier to crush the tomatoes, but says a hand blender or simply using your hands will also do the trick. 
 
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For cheese, he recommends the freshest mozzarella you can buy. (Sidenote: Try calling it mouzarell. You won’t sound pretentious at all. Not when you’re making pizza from scratch, dammit!). And instead of grating the cheese, go with thin slices. This eases up on the mess of grating the soft-ish, clumping cheese and makes the melting of it glorious.
 
  • Preheat your oven to 550 degrees
  • Invest in a pizza stone, Alex says. Going with a baking sheet or pan means the pie will not cook evenly or give you that crisp bottom 
  • Lay your cheese slices around the flattened, shaped dough 
  • Spread the sauce on top. Use a soup ladle for ease.
  • Hand-sprinkle oregano across the top
  • Add some finely grated Romano cheese all over the pie
  • Finish by drizzling 100 percent virgin olive oil on top
  • Bake for 10 minutes and … finito! You make-uh de pizz-uh pie-uh. 
  • Alternative: Alex says putting the pizza stone on a Weber grill is great option. “It will have a slightly smoky flavor, similar to an old-fashioned brick oven pie.” 
  • Invite Sir Patrick Stewart over for several slices. Knife and fork absolutely forbidden!

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Okay, not to be cheesy, but my pizza-learnin’ afternoon was pretty golden. I snapped pictures, took notes and even felt up some dough. But the best part was, I got to take home that fresh pie. The family definitely enjoyed the pizza more than my elaborate story about being involved in the process. Even still, I’m looking forward to making my own pie for them, layered with love and waiting to be made into a memory.
 
*Here’s an easy at-home pizza dough recipe to try instead of dragging home 50 pounds of flour. It includes adding oil to the dough, but remember: that works too!