(See following post on the best local artisan pizza.)
Some South Bay pizza fanatics have added wood-burning ovens to their cooking equipment so they can duplicate the heat and distinctive smokiness that makes some artisan pizzas so divine. The owner-chef of Napoletana Pizzeria in Mountain View says no other route will produce an equivalent result. However, for those of us without a minimum of $6,000 for one of these ovens, there are various techniques shared by pizza chefs that will go a long way toward creating an outstanding pie at home.
Absolutely critical is a hot oven. Charlie Ayers of Calafia Cafe says breaking an electric oven’s cleaning lock gives home cooks access to its highest heat possible, but quickly states that this dangerous approach is not advisable. Rather, Ayers and several other South Bay chefs recommend getting a pizza stone. “First and foremost, a good pizza stone in a pre-heated oven will change typical results for the better,” reports Gordon Drysdale of Pizza Antica. Ayers suggests using the stone in a covered gas or wood-fired grill to replicate a hot commercial oven.
Why a stone? According to Drysdale, “It will hold extra heat to create a fiery-hot surface that will start cooking and crisping the crust the second it touches the stone.” The uncooked pizza is loaded onto the stone with a wide wooden paddle called a peel, which is relatively inexpensive. But cranking up the oven or grill heat to its maximum is critical. There are alternatives to pizza stones that get support from some home cooks, such as a metal pizza screen, designed to promote an evenly cooked crust, and a cast-iron pizza pan, which serves a similar heating function as a pizza stone.
Another essential is what’s under the toppings. According to Howard Bulka of Howie’s Artisan Pizza, “90 percent of a pizza’s success depends on its crust.” Some cooks swear by high-quality flour like the King Arthur brand. Donato Scotti of Donato Enoteca recommends resting the dough overnight in portion-sized balls that are allowed to come back to room temperature before being stretched by hand. The beloved “chew factor” of a fine artisan crust comes from developing the gluten in the dough, which can be done by resting it or spirited kneading.
While it’s popular to buy pre-made crusts or dough from the market, this is not the route to a fine artisan crust. It’s worth taking the trouble to mix dough at home. Recipes abound online but many home cooks like the one from the Chez Panisse pizza & pasta book, which can be easily found using a search engine. Nevertheless, there’s one exception to the make-your-own-crust rule if you simply don’t have time. Some markets carry cornmeal crusts (ready-to-bake pizzas, too) made by Vicolo that are delicious. They’re certainly not thin-crust artisan wheat pizza but they add a corny goodness to a thicker pie.
As for the other elements in a great pizza, Drysdale speaks for all the other chefs: “Quality ingredients make for quality pies,” he says. For pizzas with tomato sauce, buy canned San Marzano tomatoes and be picky about the cheeses and toppings. While mozzarella cheese is the standard for pizza — whole-milk versions will produce better results — chefs will alter their cheese selection depending on the other toppings. A mixture of cheeses can produce good results. If using mozzarella, be sure to add it in slices rather than grating the cheese and don’t cover the entire pizza.
Being judicious with cheese and toppings is imperative for a good pie. Besides producing more balanced flavors, the proper thin crust of an artisan pizza can’t hold the mound of toppings typically slapped on in low-end pizza parlors. For a 12-inch pizza, use about half a cup of sauce or less, about one cup of vegetables and/or meats and no more than a cup and a half of cheese.
It’s critical to keep the oven door closed, since high heat is needed to make great pizza. Those cooks who like to peek during baking must restrain themselves. And consider adding some ingredients right after removing the pie from the oven, since the heat will partially “cook” them. Suggestions: fresh chopped herbs and a drizzle of high-quality olive oil. Notes Drysdale, “A Parma prosciutto, super-thinly sliced by a high-end grocery or artisanal deli, draped on a pie just out of the oven will produce delicious results, covering up many a flaw.”
And finally, home cooks should relax, recommends Drysdale. “Nobody makes a great pizza the first time,” he reveals. “Concentrate on the qualities you like best in a pizza and strive to get the best recipes for that style. Practice. And don’t be all that worried if it’s not perfect!”