Updated: Jan 22, 2021
Pizza. Is there any other food-related word as responsible for the release of serotonin when spoken or read? No other food in the world is as universally beloved, replicated, improved-upon, or photographed. It’s the convivial comestible that complements the world’s quick family meal out, late night-in on a work deadline, or the last stop on a weekend evening.
Think back to your fondest memories as a child or young adult: pizza is always there in the background somewhere. Hearing the word pizza is like hearing “I love you.” If only the first Etruscans who placed a flat disk of yeasted dough into a wood-fired oven knew the legacy for which they would be responsible. There should be continents named after that anonymous hero.
Sam and I were both fortunate to have a trusted New York style pizzeria in our childhood hometowns. For me, the love affair began in a joint called Luciano’s. You know the place: tucked away in a strip mall; white-and-red-checkered vinyl tablecloths; greasy shakers of oregano, red pepper, and garlic powder on each table; that intoxicating, perfumed oven exhaust billowing from the industrial fan, saturating the otherwise uninspiring suburban landscape with an aroma of enlightenment. Each pizza’s dough was hand-tossed, stretched, and adorned with the requisite red sauce and commercial-grade mozzarella. Simple. Unfortunately, the majority of pizza chains skip this time-consuming step in favor of commercial presses and processes. It’s often said that even when pizza is “bad,” it can still be “good.” That saying is bullshit, and people shouldn’t have to abide bad pizza. We certainly don't.
Needless to say, we take pizza very seriously in this house, as in: we renovated the backyard to include a wood-fired pizza oven as the centerpiece. Our friend Steve has a hobby in designing and constructing domed pizza ovens, perfect for producing the kind of heat required for true Neopolitan style pizza (more on that distinction later). We’ve only had use of the pizza oven for a little under a year now, but in that time, we’ve been able to make some truly unforgettable pies. We also have the system down! From splitting logs, to making dough, simmering sauce, starting the fire, to forming and dressing the pizzas, and eventually cooking them, Sam and I have the process down with pizzaiolo-like precision.
[Note: calling Steve to build you a wood-fired pizza oven is not required to make great pizza, though I’m sure he’d love to help. Conventional ovens and Big Green Egg grills, hell, even regular charcoal or gas grills can work in a pinch. We highly recommend Marc Vetri’s cookbook Mastering Pizza, which includes recipes and techniques for cooking great pizza with whichever heat source you have.]
Every home celebrates pizza night. This entry is meant to highlight the pizzas we made on one particular Sunday night in mid-August, with some general ingredients and preparations. We’ll no doubt share individual pizza recipes throughout the course of the blog, as well as techniques for using our home pizza oven and Sam’s experiments with pizza dough. For now, this is an ode to the pizzas of ferragosto.
red sauce (San Marzano tomatoes, garlic, oregano, and salt)
mozzarella di bufala
Earlier I mentioned “true Neopolitan style pizza.” There exists in Italy a certification known as Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN), which sets the parameters for oven temperature, cooking time, dough type, and acceptable sauce and cheese. It’s not too dissimilar from those German beer purity laws which are meant to codify the recognized, original method and makeup of the apex food and beverage from which all that come after are inherently inferior imitations. Or, it’s a great way to issue meaningless certificates at great price and shoe-horn an entire city on the tourist/foodie trail. Both can be true!
As you’ll discover later, we largely eschew the VPN rules, but sometimes it’s nice to aspire to that mostly ceremonial guideline. Pizza Margherita is the standard-bearer of VPN, and it’s my favorite pizza; the first pizza out of the oven is a Margherita, and there’s usually more than one before the fire dies. And for as much as I’ve denigrated the VPN rules, I will add that Sam and I stopped by L’Antica Pizzeria da Michele in Naples, which is one of the original proponents of VPN, and - after enduring the maddening absurdity that is Naples and standing on line for about an hour - I can say that it was the best Margherita I’ve ever had. So, maybe there’s something to the VPN.
When the dome of the oven is about 900-1,000 degrees fahrenheit, and the floor is roughly 650-700 degrees, the oven is ready for pizzas. I push the logs and embers towards the dome walls, forming a horseshoe, and sweep the floor where the pizza will cook. You want to make sure all the soot is clear, but sweep quickly as the firebrick on which you’ll be cooking the pizza needs to retain the heat from the fire you just moved. Mozzarella di Bufala is preferred, but you can certainly use shredded mozzarella; I won’t tell the VPN authorities. Rotate the pizza after about 30 seconds with your pizza turner, remove from the oven after about 90 seconds, and garnish with fresh basil.
SALSICCIA E MIELE
post-oven hot honey
So I know I said Margherita was my favorite pizza, but I think “our” favorite pizza - consistently - is some form of spicy sausage and post-oven hot honey. It’s so freaking good. Sweet, spicy, savory, and it’s a pizza, come on. This particular version included portabella mushrooms, which ended up being a worthwhile addition. The sopressata we had on-hand was sliced thinner than paper thin, so it crisped-up quite nicely in the oven. A better food writer would discuss the “textural interplay” and “umami” of this pizza, but we’ll leave it at simply delicious.
VERSION 1 (SLICE PICTURED):
old bay potato slices
VERSION 2 (WHOLE PICTURED):
There are no rules. Humanity was banished from the Garden of Eden for its hubristic ambitions. We’ve since been a wayward species, indulging in the occasional prophet, but overall guided by our own desires. It’s not all bad in the wilderness, though. For example, have you ever been to H Mart? I’m not the right person to extol the virtues of H Mart, a grocery store built to meet the epicurean needs of America’s Korean expatriate community, but we do make a point to venture out to the Ellicott City location at least once per month, most notably for a particular brand of marinated frozen eel: the protein source that inspired this pizza. Version 1, with the potatoes, was inspired by another recipe that we will feature.
The green sauce for these pizzas is made from oven-roasted tomatillos from our garden, with oven-roasted garlic, oregano, and salt. It’s quite tasty, and the citrusy tomatillos cut through the rich, marinated eel. Sam thinly sliced the potatoes and parcooked them before tossing in Old Bay. We’re still working on the potatoes-on-pizza technique. They require a little more than 90 seconds to crisp-up, whereas the eel is already nice and crunchy after a little more than a minute. Regardless, these pizzas were surprisingly delicious, especially Version 1. Feel free to give these a try as you are defiantly escorted from the Garden of VPN.
Eventually, Beatrice leads Dante out of the wilderness and towards the spheres of heaven. Every pizza night needs a dolci, a sweet finale, and in pizzerias throughout Italy, you’ll find some version of a dessert pizza. I’ve shamelessly enjoyed several pieces of Nutella pizza al taglio before finally calling it a night. Cheese and honey is a common dessert on farmhouse tables throughout the world, which is reason enough to put it on a pizza.
For this version, Sam infused ricotta cheese with garlic, and used a pastry bag to artfully lattice the cheese across the dough. The garlic adds a savory element, though you’re welcome to just use ricotta. We added the honey before the pizza went into the oven so that it would caramelize. Occasional spots of scorched sugar checker a melted amalgam of cheese and honey. This was a perfect dessert pizza, and leftover slices make a wonderful breakfast balanced with an espresso.
Our love affair with pizza continues, and we'll undoubtedly continue trying new recipes, enjoying traditional favorites, and sharing all of them with you. Sure, there are rules and hotly debated conventions surrounding pizza, but in our house, pizza is best when shared with friends, and that should be the only true rule for pizza.