Ready for Carnegie Hall?

Yes. I ate the prop. Someone had to...

Yes. I ate the prop. Someone had to...

There’s a quote that gets repeated a lot lately: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting a different result each time.”

This has been attributed variously, but inconclusively, to Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin, or (my favorite) a fictionalized version of Albert Einstein in a mystery novel.

But what is it if you expect the same result each time? Persistence? Practice? The triumph of hope over experience? (Oscar Wilde said that about second marriages…or was it Samuel Johnson? Or was it Oscar Wilde quoting Samuel Johnson?)

Issues of repetition are on my mind because every Sunday night I bake pizza. I’ve been doing this for so many years that I’ve lost track. No big surprise here:  growing up, Sunday was pizza night in our house. But ours came from Tony’s Italian Villa. In those days the normal answer to the question, “Do you bake your own pizza?” would have been, “What’s the matter? Is Tony’s closed today?”

Tony’s Italian Villa is indeed closed today and forevermore. This will not be one of those stories harkening back to childhood to reminisce about the best pizza I ever had. I suspect that the truth is that Tony’s pie was probably nothing better than run-of-the-mill Boston-style thin crust pizza.

If there is any insanity in my tale, it is that I live in New York. It is an understatement that there are a lot of places to find pizza in New York. But many of them are the “slice-o-pie” places that reheat already baked pizza.  That’s not for me.

I’ll take the pies that are being hand-crafted to order in coal or wood fired ovens that are so hot the pizza bakes in one or two minutes. The good news is that those places do exist here in New York.

I suppose you could call me a pizza snob, and I’ll cop to that label–but with reservations. The reservations are: 1) I don’t insist on brick oven pizza, and 2) I have a very open mind about what goes on top of a pizza.

By baking my own pizza am I harboring illusions of recreating the best that New York or Naples has to offer in my itty-bitty apartment kitchen? No. I’m home Sunday night baking pizza because it is fun, and the pizza tastes good.

That’s the “Reader’s Digest” answer.

The long answer is much more complicated. There’s something about working with the pizza dough that I find intensely gratifying. If you’ve never worked with yeast dough you’ve missed out on one of the great basic, accessible, pleasures of cooking. You communicate with the dough, and the dough lets you know in very specific terms what’s on its mind. I’ll never be a dog or horse whisperer, but I am a dough whisperer.

In spite of the fact that we’ve all seen pizza bakers punch, slap, and spin dough into shape, yeast dough actually requires a bit more respect. Dough can be somewhat stubborn, yes, but when that happens, just walk away, not unlike how you’d treat an obstreperous child. Return in five to ten minutes, the dough will have gotten a good cry out of its system and will be bright, springy, and willing to yield to your wishes. Treat it with respect, and above all, listen to it patiently.

(Yes, I’m talking about pizza dough like it’s a living thing. Who says it’s not? Yeast is, after all, a living, breathing organism.)

Let’s talk ingredients. I like to use Italian type “00” flour. “00” refers to its powdery grind, not its protein content or gluten level, and I find that it produces a crust with enough crunch and chew to make me do the happy food dance. But any good quality bread flour will also give the gift of great crust; use that happily if you can’t find type “00.”

There’s no need to learn how to spin the dough; you’ll have better control over its shape and thickness if you work the dough on your countertop, pouncing on it with your fingertips. Not to mention the fact that spinning the dough in a tiny apartment kitchen like mine will leave a snowy dusting of flour over your entire apartment. (Trust me on that one.)

Skip the pizza stones and bricks, unless you enjoy setting off your smoke alarm. Ditto the big wooden pizza peels. Messy.

I use a pizza pan. You may have seen these: they are a 16-inch round metal pan with several hundred holes punched in the bottom. I think the holes deliver the dry heat of your oven to the crust better than a pizza stone, and will give your crust a crunch that will have you running to the mirror to make sure all the teeth are still in your mouth.

Sauce? No need to grow your own tomatoes. A simple sauce with a little texture, the merest touch of sweetness, and just a breath of tomato tartness is all you need. I use a canned sauce by a small company named Don Pepino which I like as much for what’s in the can as I do for what’s on the can: a retro cartoon of a chef who looks like he could be Chef Boyardee’s slightly demented brother (In its defense, the sauce only has five ingredients, and sugar is not one of them.)

Feel free to use a simple smear of San Marzano crushed tomatoes instead. Just add a bit of salt and pepper.

Cheese? What kind of mood are you in? My standby is Asiago that I grate with an old fashioned box grater. It is zingier but less stringy than the usual mozzarella.  I know that you’re not supposed to use cheddar on pizza, but skip the tomato sauce, caress the crust with some very thin slices of Pear peppered with a complex cheddar and you’re in another world.

In the summer Pissaladière is an easy treat that will earn you some new friends. Just top the crust with some lovingly caramelized onions, cross hatch with really good anchovies (soaked to leach out their overpowering saltiness,) stud with briny black olives, and you’ll be welcome at any Provencal table.

How about clam pie? This New Haven native is simply the crust dusted with parmesan, some freshly shucked clams, and enough garlic to give the clams some mellow companionship.

Is it persistence? Is it practice? Every Sunday night I pull the pizza out of the oven and look at it for a moment, thinking, “Wow! I made that!”

Try it. Click here for my recipe.

3 Responses to “Ready for Carnegie Hall?”

  • Dori Rosenthal:

    I am so sad that we don’t live close to you on Pizza night! I too like trying new pizzas, but do not make them myself… My pizza stone is in our LA house and I really think that you made me want to bring it back with me the next time I am home! I do regularly buy Amy’s organic Cheeseless veggie pizza and the tomatoe pesto pizza! Oh and also CPK BBQ Chicken Pizza is good at home too!

  • M.M.:

    This makes me miss my Granma Italia Bartolazzi and her spontaneously-made pizza, using the various ingredients that happen to be in her kitchen! Ah, the talent of pizzability. That pizza in the photo certainly looks tasty!

  • MK:

    Michael’s Reply from Butter Flour Eggs:

    Nothing beats Grandma, right?

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