For those of you attempting to make a truly authentic NYC style pizza, here is an article written by Jeffrey Steingarten (food critic for Vogue Magazine.) Please take the time to read this article in its entireity, it's worth it! And, I also recommend buying the book where this article appears, it's titled It Must've Been Something I Ate (The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything)
Steingarten's chapter about pizza, titled "Perfection Pizza" appears online at the following URL which is where I obtained the article posted here. http://observer.guardian.co.uk/foodmonthly/story/0,9950,807445,00.html
My quest for the perfect pizza
By Jeffrey Steingarten
The dull grey, snub-nosed gun wavered in my trembling hand. The laser sight projected a blazing red dot onto my prey. I held my breath and squeezed the trigger. Ah! It was even worse than I feared!
My gun is exceedingly cool. It is a Raynger ST 8 non-contact thermometer made by Raytek of Santa Cruz, California. From several feet away, you point it at anything you wish and pull the trigger, and it instantly tells you the temperature of that thing within a tenth of a degree. My gun goes up to 1,000 deg F! Sure, it cost way too much. Yes, I should have used the money to upgrade my footwear instead, or have a makeover. But everyone turns green with envy when I demonstrate my ST 8, especially men and boys.
I have been going around New York City, taking the temperature of the best commercial pizza ovens, plus my own ovens at home, gas and electric, and my array of barbecue grills. Do you go through phases when you simply can't get pizza off your mind? I certainly do - and more often than I would care to admit to anybody but you. As you may have guessed, I am going through such a phase right now, a pretty serious one, though I have hopes that I will soon pull out of it. For I feel I am at long last ready to hoist my pizza-making to an entirely new level. I believe I am close to a pizza breakthrough for the American home.
Here's the idea. Pizza is a perfect food. From Elizabeth David to Marcella Hazan, all gastronomes agree. It is high on my list of the 100 greatest foods of the world. Though it is the most primitive of breads - a flatbread baked on stones heated by a wood fire - pizza is today made in pretty much its primordial form on 61,269 street corners in America. In New York at least, it is still typically handmade, from scratch. Flour, water, yeast and salt are kneaded into dough, given plenty of time to rise, patted and stretched into a circle, and baked to order in a special oven - a Neolithic bakery on every block.
I have made thousands of pizzas at home. I have boldly faced the challenges that fate has thrown at me and overcome most of them. The most important thing about pizza is the crust. Toppings are secondary. (Both at home and in restaurants, cooks who don't know how to bake a good pizza crust become wearily creative with their toppings; they aim to distract us from their fundamental failings, the way poor bread bakers add coriander and dried cherries to their mediocre loaves.) Over the years, I have spent hours in renowned pizzerias trying to learn their methods. I have experimented with a hundred types of dough and by now have pretty much got it right.
And yet my pizzas are not perfect, not even close. There are two perfect pizzas. One is Neapolitan. Pizza was not invented in Naples nor, probably, in Italy. But around 1760, when tomatoes replaced lard and garlic as the principal pizza condiment, Naples - both the nobility and the poor - went mad for this ancient flatbread, and devised the greatest pizza in the world. It is about 10in in diameter and a quarter of an inch thick, with a narrow, charred, puffy, sauceless rim, crisp but tender and light; it is made with about seven ounces of dough prepared with soft flour; and it is most often topped, very lightly, with tomatoes, garlic, oregano and olive oil (this is the pizza marinara) or with tomatoes, olive oil, mozzarella and a leaf or two of basil (this is the pizza Margherita, named in 1889 for the visiting queen of Italy, and notable for the red, white and green of the Italian flag). The mozzarella is usually made from cow's milk, sometimes from water buffalo's milk. In Naples, pizza toppings are not cooked in advance - only by the heat of the pizza oven.
The other perfect pizza is Neapolitan-American. Pizza came to the New World just before the turn of the twentieth century with the arrival of immigrants from Naples. Though Gennaro Lombardi, at 53½ Spring Street, was granted the first licence to bake pizza, issued by the city of New York in 1905, his justifiably proud yet fair-minded descendants reveal that Neapolitan bread-bakers in New York had been making pizza with their surplus dough for at least the previous 10 years. In my experience, the perfect Neapolitan-American pizzas are made in New York City, and in New Haven, Connecticut, at the towering Frank Pepe's Pizzeria and Sally's Apizza. (For all I know, the three other cities where Italian immigrants predominantly settled - Providence, Philadelphia and Boston - are unheralded treasure troves of pizza, but I have never heard anyone brag about them.) Lombardi's reopened several years ago, at 32 Spring Street, where the oven could be repaired by the one company in Brooklyn that still knows how. Through both anecdotal evidence and photographic proof on the walls of today's Lombardi's, we know that Gennaro Lombardi taught both Anthony 'Totonno' Pero and John Sasso the art of pizza; these men would gain metropolitan and, yes, nationwide renown with their own pizza places, John's Pizzeria on Bleecker Street and Totonno's in Coney Island.
The mystic hand of evolution somehow transmuted the true Neapolitan pizza of 1889 into the perfect Neapolitan-American pizza of today, which is 14-18 inches in diameter, rimmed with a wide, puffy, charred circumferential border; heavier, thinner, crisper, and chewier than the Neapolitan original; made with high-protein bread flour; and topped with lavish quantities of cooked tomato sauce, thick slabs of fresh cow's milk mozzarella, olive oil, and most often - 36 per cent of the time - pepperoni, an innovation of the 1950s and still America's favourite topping, for which there is little excuse. The perfect Neapolitan-American crust is about 3/16in thick. Viewed in cross section, the bottom 1/32in is very crisp and nearly charred. The next 3/32in is made up of dense, delicious, chewy bread. And the top 1/16in is slightly gooey from its contact with the oil and sauce. The outer rim is shot through with huge and crunchy bubbles. This is the crust I have been after for as long as I can remember.
Serious pizza places have brick ovens fuelled either by wood or, in New York City and New Haven, by coal. Yes, coal - large hunks of shiny, blue, bituminous coal. Authentic Neapolitan pizzas take 80-120 seconds to bake, authentic Neapolitan-American pizzas maybe five minutes. Mine take 14 minutes. It seems obvious that what stands between me and perfect pizza crust is temperature - real pizza ovens are much hotter than anything I can attain in my own kitchen. Lower temperatures dry out the dough before the outside is crisp and the topping has cooked. I have confirmed all this with my new Raynger ST 8. At the reasonably authentic Neapolitan La Pizza Fresca Ristorante on East 20th Street, for example, the floor of its wood-burning brick oven measures 675°F; the back wall (and presumably the ambient air washing over the pizza) pushes 770°, and the domed ceiling 950°. The floor of Lombardi's Neapolitan-American coal oven soars to 850° measured a foot from the inferno, less under the pizza itself. My ST 8 and I have become inseparable.
I have tried a wide variety of measures to reach such breathtaking temperatures. Lay persons may possibly feel that some of these measures are desperate. I own a creaky old restaurant stove with a gas oven that goes up to 500°F, no higher. The hot air is emitted through two vents at the back. What if I blocked the vents with crumpled aluminium foil and kept the hot air from escaping? Would the oven get hotter and hotter and hotter? No, this experiment was a failure. As I could have predicted if I had had my wits about me, the oven's thermostat quickly turned down the flame as soon as the hot air I had trapped threatened to exceed 500°.
How to defeat the thermostat? More than once, I have skilfully taken apart my stove and then needed to pay the extortionate fees of a restaurant-stove-reassembly company. This time, I had a better idea. At the back of the oven you can see the heat sensor, a slender rod spanning the opening to the exhaust vents. How, I wondered, could I keep this bar artificially cold while the stove tried harder and harder to bring up the temperature and in the process exceed its intended 500° limit? I folded together many layers of wet paper towels, put them in the freezer until they had frozen solid, draped them over the temperature sensor with the oven set to high, shovelled in an unbaked pizza, and stood back.
The results were brilliant, especially in concept. My oven, believing incorrectly that its temperature was near the freezing point, went full blast until thick waves of smoke billowed from every crack, vent and pore, filling the house with the palpable signs of scientific progress. Yes, the experiment had to be cut short, but it had lasted longer than the Wright brothers' first flight. Inside the oven was a blackened disc of dough pocked with puddles of flaming cheese. I had succeeded beyond all expectations.
Not long afterward, I slid a raw pizza into a friend's electric oven, switched on the self-cleaning cycle, locked the door, and watched with satisfaction as the temperature soared to 800°. Then, at the crucial moment, to defeat the safety latch and retrieve my perfectly baked pizza, I pulled out the plug and, protecting my arm with a wet bath towel, tugged on the door. Somehow, this stratagem failed, and by the time we had got the door open again half an hour later, the pizza had completely disappeared, and the oven was unaccountably lined with a thick layer of ash. I feel that I am on to something here, though, as with the controlled use of hydrogen fusion, the solution may remain elusive for many years.
Then came the breakthrough. The scene was the deck of my southern California house. The occasion was the maiden voyage of my hulking, rectangular, black-steel barbecue, which has an extravagant grilling area measuring 18x30in. I had built my inaugural fire, using hardwood charcoal and wood chunks; hours later, a thick steak would go on the grill, but for now I was just playing. At some point, I closed the hood and watched the built-in thermometer, as the temperature climbed to 550°F. And then it struck me. Why not double the fuel, the wood and the charcoal? Why not 650°? Why not 750°? Why not pizza?
I dashed into the kitchen and prepared my excellent recipe for pizza dough. It must be understood that this was not to be the popular grilled pizza introduced by Johanne Killeen and George Germon at their Al Forno restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island, in which the dough is placed directly over the fire. My barbecue grill was to be used only for its ability to generate great amounts of heat. As the pizza dough was completing its mandatory three-hour rise and one hour's refrigeration, just as the sun was setting, I built a massive fire using 18lb of hardwood charcoal, two bulging bags that filled the firebox to overflowing. In 45 minutes, when the grey ash had covered the charcoal, I lowered the hood and watched the thermometer climb to 600°F - and go no further! Where had I gone wrong? I opened all the air vents and the large front door that lets you add fuel and remove ashes. Huge volumes of oxygen flowed in, and bingo! The needle climbed past the 700°F red line and into uncharted territory. Using oven mitts, I fitted a thick round baking stone onto the grill, waited for advice from my ST 8, slid a raw pizza onto the stone and lowered the hood.
This is when I learnt that a pizza stone can get much hotter than the air around it if you put it directly over fire, causing the bottom of the pizza to burn to a crisp before the top is done. I also learnt that when your ST 8 non-contact thermometer tells you that the barbecue grill has reached 900°F, the electrical cord of the rotisserie motor you slothfully left attached to the bracket on one side will melt like a milk-chocolate bar in your jeans pocket, or, like the plastic all-weather barbecue cover you just as carelessly left draped over the shelf below the grill.
These were mere details, for victory was mine. And it can be yours as well. If you scrape the fiery coals to either side of the baking stone, taking care not to singe your eyebrows again, you can reduce the stone's temperature to the ideal 650° while keeping the air temperature directly over the pizza near the perfect 750° or even higher. Use all the hardwood charcoal you can carry, and between pizzas, add more to maintain the heat. Just before you slide the pizza onto the stone, throw some wood chips or chunks onto the coals to produce the aromatic smoke of a wood-burning oven near the Bay of Naples. And in the light of day, feel no regrets that you have burnt the paint off the sides of your barbecue and voided the manufacturer's limited warranty.
This remains my favourite and best way of making pizza. Although the procedure is tricky, three out of four of the pizzas that emerge from my barbecue are pretty wonderful - crisp on the bottom and around the very puffy rim, chewy in the centre, artfully charred here and there, tasting of wood smoke.
Very little time had passed, however, before I became discontented once again. How could I complacently feast while others went without? Very few American families possess my monstrous barbecue. How could I bring my pizza breakthrough to the average American home?
It was time to exhume my Weber Kettle, which, without a moment's hesitation or research, I knew to be the most popular charcoal grill in the country. As I had long ago discovered that the Weber Kettle (which lacks a mechanism for raising and lowering the fuel or the grill, admits only a trickle of oxygen when the cover is closed, et cetera, et cetera) is of extremely limited use for cooking, I had exiled it to the garage, where it held two 50lb bags of French bread flour, the gems of my collection, off the moist concrete floor.
I filled the Weber to the brim with hardwood charcoal, let the fire go for half an hour, plopped on the baking stone and put on the cover. The internal temperature barely reached 450°, and the baking stone even less. I dumped 10lb of additional charcoal into the centre, fired it, produced a conflagration measuring 625°, with the stone at an even higher temperature, and in no time at all had achieved a pizza completely incinerated on the bottom and barely done on top. Despite the vast amounts of ingenuity that I brought to bear in half a day of exhaustive tests, I simply could not get the Weber Kettle to heat the air above the baking stone to anywhere near the desired heat. The Weber is simply not wide enough for enough of the heat to flow up around the baking stone and over the top of the pizza. Once again, the Weber proved itself incapable of producing gastronomic treasures. Back into the garage it went.
By all means, experiment with your own charcoal grill. You will not regret the hours and days spent on backyard exploration. And to forestall the obloquy to which you may be subjected if the results are not good enough to eat, remember to make a double dose of dough and to preheat the oven in your kitchen as a back-up. Indoor pizzas can still be awfully good.
© Jeffrey Steingarten
Jeffrey Steingarten's Neapolitan-American pizza
2 lbs. (about 6 1/2 cups) flour, half all-purpose unbleached and half bread flour, both preferably King Arthur brand
1 1/8 tsp. SAF instant yeast or 1 1/2 tsp. active dry yeast
1 Tbs. plus 1 tsp. salt
3 1/4 cups cold water
6 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, plus a few teaspoons more to oil the measuring cup and plates used to hold the rising dough
1/2 cup cornmeal or semolina
1 1/2 cups tomato sauce (a good recipe follows) or crushed, drained canned plum tomatoes
1/2 lb. fresh cow's milk mozzarella, cut into 12 slices
1 1/2 tsp. salt (or 3 Tbs. grated Parmesan)
Electric mixer suitable for kneading dough
Thick ceramic baking stone at least 14in wide
Wooden peel (a flat paddle for transferring unbaked breads) or a rimless baking sheet
In the mixer bowl, stir together the flours, yeast and salt. Pour in the water and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon until the ingredients come together into a shaggy dough. Mount the bowl on the mixer and attach the beater (not the dough-hook). Mix on slow speed for about one minute, scraping down the beater and bowl halfway through.
Here is a good way to tell when the dough is properly developed. With well-floured fingers, pull off a piece of dough about the size of a walnut and roll it in flour. You should be able to stretch it with the fingers of both hands into an unbroken sheet at least 3 inches across.
Scrape and pour the dough onto a heavily floured work surface. It will spread into an irregular blob. Fold the far end over to the near end so that half the floured underside covers the rest of the dough. Let it rest for about 10 minutes. With a dough scraper, divide the dough into four equal pieces. Shape each piece into a smooth ball. Place three of the balls on well-oiled, 8in plates, generously dust their tops with flour, and cover loosely with plastic wrap. Put the fourth ball into an oiled, 1-quart glass measuring cup and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let everything rise at room temperature until the balls have doubled in volume - about three to four hours.
The markings on the side of the measuring cup will tell you when the ball inside has doubled in volume. Now refrigerate all four balls of dough - for a minimum of one hour, an ideal of three hours, and a maximum of 24 hours.
Preheat your oven for at least one hour to its maximum temperature, 500° or 550°F, with your baking stone inside. In a gas oven, the baking stone goes right on the metal floor of the oven; in an electric oven, on the lowest shelf. Set the peel on a level surface and dust with about 2 tbsp of cornmeal. Take the dough from the refrigerator. On a well-floured surface, pat each one into a neat, 8in circle. Now stretch its rim all around (the centre will take care of itself) by draping the dough over your fists, knuckles up, and passing it from hand to hand until the circle of dough reaches a diameter of about 12in. Quickly bring the circle of dough over to the peel, plop it down, and pull it into a neat circle.
Put a heaped cup of tomato sauce or crushed, drained canned tomatoes in the centre of the pizza and spread with the back of a wooden spoon, but only to within 2in of the rim. Sprinkle with freshly ground pepper. Arrange three slices of mozzarella over the tomatoes. Sprinkle with a generous tsp salt (or 2 tsp of grated Parmesan) and 1.5 tbsp of olive oil. Shake the peel back and forth to see that the pizza is not sticking to the peel. Bake immediately: open the oven door, place the leading edge of the peel just short of the far edge of the baking stone and at about a 45-degree angle to it, and by a combination of jerking and pulling the peel towards you, evenly slide the pizza onto the stone. This will be difficult at first, child's play with practice.
Bake for 10 to 15 minutes (rotating the pizza after 7 minutes so that it will bake evenly), until the rim of the pizza is very well browned, the topping is bubbling and the cheese is golden brown, and the underside is crisp and charred here and there. Cut into sections with a long scissors or a pizza wheel.
Note: Flours differ widely in their ability to hold water, which depends largely on their protein content. If you use the flour I use, your results should be similar to mine.
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 3-inch onion, finely chopped
4 cans (28 oz. each) whole Italian plum tomatoes
1 head garlic, cut in half crosswise and any loose outer papery skin removed
2 Tbs. coarsely chopped fresh herbs (basil, oregano, marjoram) or 2 Tbs. dried herbs
2 tsp. salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan and gently cook the chopped onion in it until just translucent. Empty the tomatoes into a strainer set over a 2- to 3- quart bowl. Squish the tomatoes with your hands until no large pieces remain. This should be quite enjoyable. Empty the tomato solids in the strainer into the saucepan. Add 1 1/2 cups of the tomato water and stir in all the other ingredients except the pepper. Bring to a snappy simmer, cook for about 20 minutes and remove from the heat. Add about 16 grindings of pepper. When it cools, the sauce should be very thick. Makes one quart.
© 2002 Jeffrey Steingarten