Pizza may well be the most universal of all foods, especially when you consider all of the topped flatbreads the world’s different cultures have produced. I grew up eating pepperoni pizza and occasionally pizza with other toppings. The one I never liked–though some misguided members of my family did–was the “everything” or “garbage can” pizza that sported everything that anyone had ever topped a pizza with, a virtual gurantee that the toppings and half-melted cheese would rest atop uncooked pizza dough. Happily, I have been able to move beyond childhood.
The best pizzas, but not the only good ones, that I have ever eaten have been in Naples, Italy–the place usually cited as the birthplace of pizza. Steve and I once had a special, intended for local college students, that included an appetizer, two pizzas, and a bottle of wine; the check came to $15 for a meal that would have cost $50 anywhere on the east coast. On a later trip, at a local pizza favorite in a little-known residential neighborhood of Naples, I ordered a pizza with anchovies. I ended up lifting the pizza as a whole and eating it like that. I realized partway through that I would normally be humiliated by my actions; I was, however, unwilling to stop eating.
In any case, there are, in my opinion, two forms of pizza that are fundamental and that, in and of themselves, encapsulate the perfection of pizza. These are the simple pizza with tomatoes, mozzarella, and anchovies (called by different names in the different places where I’ve had it) and the pizza margherita—named after Queen Margherita of Italy, in whose honor a Neapolitan pizzamaker is said to have created it. A classic pizza margherita consists of a good pizza crust topped with mozzarella, Italian plum tomatoes, and fresh basil (in fact, the ingredients in the topping are difficult to beat no matter what you do with them).
The recipe below assumes you will make your own dough and bake it on a pizza stone at the highest temperature you can get your oven to. Because of the high heat involved, we add the fresh basil once it comes out of the oven–the heat brings out the scent, but the herb is not burned or made bitter. I also swirl a small amount (less than a tablespoon) of olive oil on top.
Two not necessarily traditional ingredients here are garlic (to flavor the tomatoes) and parmesan. Traditional or not, they feature here because, frankly, they feature in a lot of what I cook. If I end up as a zombie, expect to see me with garlic and parmesan.
For the dough (enough for two pizzas)
- 1-1/8 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 cup warm NOT boiling water
- 2-1/2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 small pinch sugar
- 3 cups unbleached flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
- additional flour for dusting the board
- olive oil for oiling a bowl
- cornmeal for dusting the pizza peel
For the toppings (enough for one pizza)
- 1 28- ounce can peeled San Marzano tomatoes
- 2 cloves garlic smashed
- 8 ounces fresh mozzarella
- 1/4 cup freshly and finely shredded parmesan cheese
- 8-10 large basil leaves
- extra virgin olive oil
- pizza stone
- wooden pizza peel
Mixing the dough
- Combine yeast, water, oil, and sugar in a large bowl.
- Let this mixture sit for about two minutes. While it is sitting, lightly oil another bowl with olive oil.
- Stir one cup of flour at a time into the yeast mixture. You may use a wooden spoon at first, but by the end, you will probably want to use your (clean) hands. (If you try saving time by adding all of the flour at once, you deserve the disaster you will get.)
Kneading the dough
- Once all the flour is thoroughly combined, knead the dough for 5-10 minutes. I prefer to knead as follows: pick the dough up, stretch with both hands (but don't let it break!), twist, and push back together. Repeat for 5-10 minutes.
- At this point, you should have a smooth mass of dough in your hands. It will not be terribly sticky. If it is, you need to incorporate more flour--this is likely to happen if you are making this in a very humid kitchen.. (If your are working in a very dry environment, your dough may refuse to stick together--add, a few teaspoons at a time, a bit more water).
- Once you've finished kneading, round your dough into a ball, put it in the oiled bowl, and cover with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel. Leave in a warm (not hot) place where drafts can't get to it for at least one hour.
Preparing the oven
- Remove one rack from the oven and put the other as low as possible.
- Put a pizza stone on the rack.
- Preheat the oven at the highest possible setting--probably around 500 or 550 degrees.
- Once the oven has preheated, leave it at that temperature so that the stone will be as hot as possible when you're ready to bake.
Prepare the toppings
- Put a tablespoon or two of olive oil in a large pan and heat to medium.
- Drain the tomatoes and cut into rounds with kitchen shears. (Be careful--some of them will squirt!) Drain again--you want them as dry as possible.
- Add the tomatoes and garlic to the pan and cook for about 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently, Remove from heat and let cool.
- Slice the mozzarella about 1/4 inch thick. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.
- Stack the basil leaves and roll tightly. Slice crosswise into thin ribbons. Set aside.
Assemble the pizza
- After the dough has rested for at least an hour and risen, punch it down.
- Divide the dough into two balls. (If you're not going to use both right away--which occasionally happens--wrap one in plastic wrap and refrigerate.)
- Lightly flour a board or countertop.
- Gently roll or stretch the dough until you have the desired size, shape, and thickness--but the thinner the better. (If you use a rolling pin, be sure to dust it with flour first, and keep turning the dough as you roll it out.)
- Dust the pizza peel lightly with cornmeal and carefully put the rolled-out dough on the peel.
- Top with tomatoes and mozzarella, leaving a 1 inch margin around the edges, and sprinkle with parmesan.
- Tranfer the pizza from the peel to the stone: rest the front edge of the peel about an inch from the far side of the stone and then pull the peel out with short, quick jerks--the pizza should slide off smoothly (provided you used enough cornmeal).
- Start checking the pizza after about 7 minutes--once the cheese is melted and the crust is golden brown, it's done.
- Remove the pizza. The easiest thing to do is to slip the front edge of the peel just under the near side of the pizza and then use tongs to pull the pizza onto the peel.
- Transfer the pizza to a large board or pizza pan. Sprinkle with basil and add a light swirl of extra virgin olive oil.
- Cut into slices and serve.
Far more economical than the 28-ounce cans of San Marzano tomatoes are the restaurant-size cans you can sometimes find. (We can get a 104-ounce can [in other words, the rough equivalent of four 28-ounce cans] at Costco for about $2 less than we would pay for a single 28-ounce can at our local grocery store. On our first trip, we figured our savings on tomatoes alone outweighed the membership fee.) We normally use about half a can to make two pizzas and then use the rest (and the liquid) for pasta a few days later.
Fresh mozzarella is also a good buy at Costco--two 16-ounce packages for less than $10. One package is enough for two pizzas, and you can freeze the other.