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My Heart is Pizza Shaped

March 20, 2015 | Frank Bonanno

(Actually, Luca’s heart is doughnut shaped)

I look at a slice of pizza the way my son looks at doughnuts. I could eat a slice any time anywhere, and mostly I don’t even care if the crust is too thick or the cheese off-brand or toppings too intense. From the synthetic saltiness of a self-rising frozen Freshetta that gets doctored up before hitting the toaster oven, to the slice that comes from the back of a truck in a Larimer alley:

Pizza is great.

Oh, I have a favorite style—just like my son with his doughnuts. Luca goes crazy for Long’s doughnuts, fresh from the oven of an Indianapolis bakery that smells like Sundays and always has a line. Sure, he’ll eat chocolate Donettes or powdered Entemann’s; he’ll wait in the winding queue of the Dunkin’ up the street—but what he really loves, what he looks forward to months in advance and talks about for weeks after, is the simple, plain, lightly glazed, slightly crunchy on the outside and soft and rich in the middle flavor of a Long’s doughnut. A doughnut so perfect you can smell how it’s going to melt on your tongue as you draw one to your face. Little bits of the sugar glaze will stick to the corners of Luca’s mouth and fleck across his cheeks like glitter long after he’s taken the first bite–and before he’s even finished the first glass of milk, two, three, six have landed in his belly without a moment’s guilt or second thought. That’s me and pizza. My style is a nice thin crust—one that’s been tossed rather than rolled so there are crispy bubbles here and there that brown up under the topping. I like real mozzarella strewn with a heavy hand over a sauce rendered from genuine tomatoes that ripened in the sun. I want to fight a little with the cheese and toppings that try to keep a single piece attached to its brethren in the pie, and I want to fold the piece in half, just so, and ignore the few good drops of grease that come to the tip of the pizza triangle and land on my shirt– because a little bit of grease is part of the experience.

Who doesn’t love pizza? Even the gluten allergic go to great lengths to figure out how to get a pizza fix. As I sit here typing, my office mates are demolishing a Cosmos pie. They’re pretending to work, but I can see the NCAA games streaming on the computers, and sports and pizza are just too good a match to let work interfere. Let them have their pizza moment.

The smell of pizza brings me back to grade school, when I folded pizza boxes in trade for slices from Rudi’s. By sixth grade, the guys at Frank’s had actually taught me how to make dough. Vitto even let me spin my own. Those pies weren’t exactly round, and Frank would tell me I put too much cheese on top—but is there ever too much cheese on a pizza? Even today, Burton at the Osteria has to remind me to calm down with the cheese.  Still.  In college, I tossed pizza for Anthony’s by DU and on one of my first dates with Jacqueline, I slipped into their downtown kitchen to make our pie. I could measure the milestones in my life by the pizzas I’ve made.

I can’t eat chain pizza, though, because it seems sacrilegious, a violation–like going to the mall to worship your God. I think it was the chain pizza parlour that ruined ranch dressing for me, because I know in my cook’s heart that ranch dressing was put next to a pizza crust to disguise mediocre ingredients on a cardboard circle slathered with plastic cheese. Sadly people bought it, literally and figuratively, and came to believe in other false gods: diet cola, Lite beer, chickens that fly on boneless wings. Even my sons know the difference between what’s so wrong-mindedly offered up as pizza in school, and what is made with the calloused hands and cooked over a fire. When the boys have friends over and we go to Marco’s Coal-Fired, or Osteria Marco, or Cart Driver, or any number of other local pizza spots, I make the kids order from the menu (no Plain Cheese). What starts as a fussy, grumbly, eye-rolling obedience to the parent at the table always ends in the joy of fantastic smells that can’t be reproduced from a refrigerated truck, real flavors from ingredients that grow in the earth and from symbiotic combinations on crusts that have rested and risen and browned in the oven. They always leave satisfied. Happy. These are the pizzas they will recall in adulthood as the Gold Standard, because everyone loves the pizza of childhood and comfort. Whenever I take someone to Frank’s or Vitto’s or Rudi’s in Jersey—even when I personally spin pizza for friends—I know they’re enjoying it (how can you not? Pizza’s such a happy thing) –but I can see in their faces the comparison to Home, to First Love Pizza—the pizza they ate after a game with their buddies or had by raffia-bottled candlelight on Fridays with Aunt Marge.

That’s the beauty of pizza. Pizza greatness can be achieved over coal or wood or the flames of a Blodget. It can be smoked over a grill or toasted under a salamander or baked in a cake pan in an oven at home; it can be covered with basil or shrimp or sausage or pepperoni or bacon or mother loving okra and: it’s all great because pizza greatness is achieved in the simplest way. Pizza greatness comes from flour dusted finger prints and love; it comes through laughter and passion and flavors that cannot be bottled or shrink-wrapped or frozen and thawed and frozen again.

So here I offer to you three recipes and a couple of tips. The recipes are for the pizza I make at home, and really, they’re approximations recipes because at this point—like Marco Dym and Kelly Whitacker and Frank and Vitto and Rudi and every other pizza cook out there—I make my pizzas by heart and not by recipe, by feeling rather than branding, by intuiting over cooking. But these recipes, I tell you are a great start, because they come from my heart–a heart that’s pizza shaped.

Pizza Basics: The Crust; The Red Sauce; Bechamel

A note: If you get into making pizzas at home, unless it’s deep-dish, buy a pizza stone. Pizza stones hold and radiate heat, so you won’t have a soggy crust. They’ll also crisp up a crust for reheating.

A note on making dough: The texture you seek is slightly stickier than modeling clay. As with making pasta, if you’re indecisive about the texture, better to be too moist and sticky than too dry–its’ much easier to work with a wet dough than a dry one.

Another note on the dough: Rest the dough in the refrigerator overnight. Plan ahead and don’t skimp on time here. A pizza cook’s worst nightmare is dough that won’t be stretched and shaped.

A note on the Red Sauce: The Pizza Sauce calls for standard, over-the-counter “Italian Herbs.” Skip fresh herbs in the sauce, because they’ll turn black when you cook the pizza. Instead, save the fresh herbs to use as a topping.

A note on the Béchamel: All pizza needs a sauce, and for white pizza that sauce is Béchamel. For consistency, you’re aiming for roughly the thickness of a good New England clam chowder.

PIZZA DOUGH
Yields Three 8″ Pizza

Ingredients

  • 2 ¼ tsp dry active yeast (not instant)
    1 tsp sugar
    ¼ cup tepid water
  • 3 cups flour
    1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup water
    ½ cup water, over ice
  • 1 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Tools
Cereal bowl; sifter. Stand mixer with dough hook. Extra flour for dusting; greased cookie sheet; plastic wrap.

Process

  1. Mix ingredients together in a large bowl. Refrigerate until needed, good for up to one week.
  2. Stir yeast and sugar into warm water. Set aside for five minutes.
  3. As the yeast blooms, sift the flour and salt into the stand mixing bowl. Set speed to medium low.
  4. As the dough hook spins, gently pour the yeasty water and olive oil into the flour.
  5. Add the ice cold water; reduce the speed to low. Mix 15 minutes.
  6. Check dough for texture-which is slightly tacky and moist, but not enough to stick to your fingers.Add water or flour by teaspoon as necessary. Mix 5 minutes more.
  7. Move dough to a floured surface and portion into three balls. Fold dough balls into themselves, seal and dust with flour. Transfer to greased baking sheet, sealed side down. Wrap in plastic and store in refrigerator OVERNIGHT.

PIZZA SAUCE
Yields 1.5 cups     Tools: Spoon, large bowl

Ingredients

  • 1 12oz can San Marzano tomatoes, crushed
    2 tsp Italian seasoning
    ½ tsp salt
    ½ tsp sugar

Process

  1. Mix ingredients together in a large bowl. Refrigerate until needed, good for up to one week.

WHITE SAUCE (Béchamel)
Yields 2 cups     Tools: Knife; medium sauté pan; wooden spoon. Fine mesh strainer; medium bowl set into a larger bowl of ice water.

Ingredients

  • ½ yellow onion
    2 Tbsp butter
    1/4 cup all purpose flour
    2 cups milk, in a small pitcher
    fresh nutmeg
    ¼ tsp white pepper
    ½ tsp salt

Process

  1.  Heat the pan over a medium high flame while you slice the onion into thin strips. Reduce the heat to low; place onion and butter in the pan. Sweat onions until translucent.
  2. Gently stir in the flour. Continue stirring over low flame 4-5 minutes.
  3. Slowly stream in the milk, stirring all the while.
  4. Raise heat to medium and grate nutmeg over the sauce (roughly four passes). Stir in salt and pepper. Simmer for 8 minutes more, adding extra milk if the Béchamel is too thick.
  5. Pour sauce through the strainer and into the medium bowl that has been cooling in the ice bath.
  6. Refrigerator until needed– up to five days.

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