Friday, July 3, 2009


It's no secret I love pizza. I tend to take Jeff Varasano's view of things: "Pizza is the most sensuous of foods."

From Pizza

North Carolina is not really a pizza state, but in the last decade a number of refugees from New York have brought good pizza with them. In fact, I had the pleasure of introducing at least three New Yorkers in Charlotte to good pizza. That is, I had the priviledge of pointing out that there was pizza in Charlotte made by a fellow ex-New Yorker. It was always a pleasure to see someone's face light up when they tasted "the first real pizza since I came here."

My three favourite pizza places in Charlotte were Luigi's Pizza in Steele Creek, Tony's Pizza in the Galleria, and Brooklyn Brothers in Concord. All three made amazing pies. At one time Mama Lena's would have topped the list, but since their move to Waxhaw, the quality seems to be lacking. Perhaps I got them on an off night: I hope so, because Mama Lena's used to be a thing of rare and exquisite beauty.

But since moving to the Northwest, we've been in a pizza wilderness, in einem trocken und duerren Land, da kein Wasser ist. I hear there is excellent pizza here, but I haven't found it. In fact, I took the trouble of visiting the one place in Seattle I had heard really made perfect pies, only to find out they're closed on Sundays. That was disappointing. Like journeying to Mecca only to find they've moved it.

To exacerbate the situation, there are a few foods I cannot prepare for the life of me. I can't make pancakes or pizza, among others.

So I finally realized no one else could save me, I had to save myself (how very Council of Trent of me!). I bit the bullet, googled some pizza dough recipes, and Ames and I have been trying to learn to make a good pie.

We started with a recipe ostensibly by Peter Reinhart. This recipe is a good one, but not perfect. We've been tweaking it a bit, largely inspired by Jeff Varasano's excellent pizza-making tutorial.

We followed Varasano's lead on the pizza sauce, and we've started to produce some decent pies. We're limited by an electric oven that only gets so hot and can only hold so big a pie, but we've made some that aren't too shabby.

It took a few to start getting them the right shape, so the first few were sort of ugly:
From Pizza

But Ames started making them nice, and was kind enough to give me some tips, so they got more and more round:
From Pizza

But she definitely still holds the record:
From Pizza

From Pizza

Our pizzas still aren't perfect, but we're working on it. Here are some of the tricks we've learned so far, which seem to have made some real difference in the quality of the finished product:

  • The dough needs to ferment at least 24 hours before use. We're following the Reinhart method of fermenting it cold in the refrigerator, but I'm toying with the idea of an on-the-counter ferment.

  • Varasano's auto-lysing advice is good: I've taken to throwing all the dough ingredients into the bowl and walking away for 20--30 minutes while they get to know one another.

  • I've taken oil out of the dough: the dough is now flour, water, yeast, and salt. The oil makes the dough too brittle.

  • We're making the dough a little wetter every time. We don't use the cake-batter-like dough that an 800F brick oven uses, but it's a lot more like custard everytime we make a batch. We have yet to get it too wet.

  • We've thrown out all the fancy pizza sauce recipes and gone with Varasano's advice: we just blend some whole canned tomatoes, add some sugar, salt, and enough oregano to see, and spread it on. We never cook the sauce, and we make it as simple as we can.

We'll never be able to fake the years of experience that Luigi and Tony have, but we're making better pies than we can get through Domino's or Papa John's. That's enough to make us want to make it again, every time.

Here's to good pie!

From Pizza