An unshakeable rule in our house is that Friday night is pizza night. We are ready for the weekend to begin, but we are so exhausted from a week’s work that we can’t possible consider going anyplace. So we gather in the kitchen, pour some wine, turn on music, and warm up the oven while spending a couple of hours together crafting a pizza. It has been our weekly ritual for years, which was a good thing during lockdown, and continues to be our weekly aspiration as we try for the perfect pie.
I’m not sure what our perfect pizza pie is, exactly. Does it taste like the Pellicci’s pizza of my childhood? Pellicci’s is an Italian-American, red sauce restaurant in Stamford, Connecticut. It was where our family celebrated significant events and family milestones on the rare occasions we dined out. The crusty, fragrant bread was baked on site, the meatballs were oversized, the mounds of spaghetti were vertiginous, and the cheese pizzas were thin, and crisp, and scorched on the edges, with molten cheese. We were impressed that our parents knew how to fold pizza, like a paper airplane, before taking a bite. We didn’t appreciate then that they grew up eating at Sally’s Apizza in New Haven, the mothership of American pizza. They had skills. https://www.sallysapizza.com
We started making pizza at home when our children were young, and malleable. Pizza to them was not a treat or a ceremonial meal. They had cafeteria pizza for lunch in school. There were class pizza parties to celebrate honor roll announcements. Neighborhood birthday parties almost always rolled out a delivery pizza, along with a frozen grocery store sheet cake. The children were growing up on expensive, cardboard, industrial-complex-pizzas that had no soul. They actually liked the “butter-y” dipping sauce that accompanied one brand of delivery pizza. These were the grandchildren of original Sally’s Apizza aficionados, and we were ruining the bloodline.
We started slowly, making dough from a recipe in The Joy of Cooking, of all places to start, but those were the dark days before the internets, and Joy was my first resource. I still have photos of us, covered in flour, because the children were young, and kneading was an all-hands-on-deck proposition when you are trying to get children interested in their food, and how to make it. There are always math, geometry, and art lessons to be had when making pizzas. Eventually they tired of the dough-making process, and I would make it myself in the morning. They seemingly enjoyed the process of rolling out the dough, and adding the sauce and cheese, and finally, the eating. Sometimes we snuck in frozen pizza dough from the grocery store, but that wasn’t important: it was the Friday night ritual that had been firmly established.
Mr. Sanders and I can be found here almost every Friday night, rolling out the dough. Sometimes we post a video of the pizza as it emerges from the oven. Each week we enjoy our own apizza, and maybe you could, too.
Our dough, which has been evolving for 20-something years, is a variation on a Mark Bittman recipe: https://www.markbittman.com/recipes-1/pizza-dough For the past year we have been using a “00” flour, as suggested by my brother, the original family pizzaiolo, who still eats in New Haven pizzerias with regularity, and who bakes a mean pie. This flour has made a huge difference in the texture of the crust – it is lighter, and more flavorful, and makes an excellent crisp crust. For a while, the only place I could find it was on Amazon, but suddenly, the fancier grocery store in town is carrying it. https://www.amazon.com/King-Arthur-Flour-Specialty-American-Grown/dp/B08HZJ798S/ref=sr_1_7? For the formative years, though, we used all-purpose flour or bread flour, and made perfectly delicious pizzas. We are just showing off now.
Our take on pizza dough:
3 cups “00” flour
1 tablespoon yeast (I have been buying yeast in jars, because I am extremely cheap)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup warm water (I warm it in a teapot that has a thermometer – to about 120°F – any warmer and you will kill the yeast)
I use a fancy KitchenAid stand mixer, which would probably offend Sally’s soul, but the romance of kneading by hand wore off decades ago. I mix all the dry ingredients, then add the oil, and finally the cup of water. Sometimes I have to add a little more water, until the shaggy mess forms a dough ball. Then I run the mixer for about 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, I take the ball of dough out and knead it on the counter, just to tidy of the ball. I put it in a mixing bowl, with a drizzle of olive oil, and cover the bowl with Saran Wrap, and pop it into the microwave for a day of rest. The microwave is a nice safe place; the dough is off of the counter, and the temperature stays constant. By around 6 o’clock, it has risen nicely, and is ready for transformation.
When we first started making pizza at home we had a standard issue electric oven. Now we have a slightly fancier gas oven. First we pop a pizza stone into the oven, and pre-heat to 525°F. Once the temperature reaches 525°, we set a timer for 30 minutes. We don’t have a coal-fired oven like Sally’s, but we can pretend. We started off using a standard cookie sheet, then graduated to a round pizza pan. Now, after all these years, we have lots of esoteric equipment: a metal pizza peel, a French rolling pin, the pizza stone, a stainless steel scraper, squeeze bottle for oil, and a gigantic pizza cutter.
Next comes the Friday Night Rite.
While the oven is heating, I grate an 8-ounce block of mozzarella cheese. Sometimes we use fresh mozzarella, but fresh tends to contain a lot of moisture, and can make a soggy pizza: use judiciously. We also employ freshly-grated Parmesan cheese with abandon.
I like pepperoni pizza best, and Mr. Sanders is a bon vivant who likes sausage, meatball, salami, proscuitto, ham, speck, kale, broccolini, peppers – you name it. Have these wild cards lined up on the counter, too. We cheat enormously with the pizza sauce. We stockpile jars of Rao’s Pizza Sauce when it is on sale. But leftover homemade spaghetti sauce is also a family fave. Use what makes you happy.
On a floured surface, divide the dough in half. We freeze one half, for emergency mid-week pan pizza, or garlic knots. Then Mr. Sanders rolls, rolls, rolls the pizza dough. (It took years to achieve a circle shape, so do not despair if you produce amoebas.) Using the rolling pin, he places it gently on the corn meal-covered pizza peel, which is essential to his art. Don’t forget the corn meal. (There is no other way to transfer an uncooked pizza to a hot pizza stone without a peel. We have been using a metal pizza peel for a couple of years which is much easier to ply than our old wooden one.)
Once the dough is on the pizza peel, Mr. Sanders squirts a couple of tablespoons of garlic-infused olive oil onto the dough, and spreads it around evenly with the back of a spoon. A gentle reader suggested the garlic-infusion because the house becomes redolent with garlic: nothing says “home-made pizza” faster than walking through a wall of garlic. (We have a plastic squirt bottle filled with olive oil and a couple of peeled garlic cloves – instant pizzeria! Thanks, Jane!)
Then Mr. Sanders spoons on some sauce, not lots, because you want the pie to stay light and crisp. You’ll develop an eye. Then he scatters the mozzarella cheese, and judiciously arranges the toppings. When it is safe for indoor dining again, stop by a pizza joint, not a fancy place, and watch how the journeymen pizza guys scatter the cheese and toppings. They are fast, spare, and economical. Less is better.
Then transfer the pizza from the peel to the blazing hot pizza stone. This takes some practice. Set the timer for 8 minutes. Pour some more wine, light the candles, and prepare for glory. Homemade pizza. Divine.
Every week we sit in judgment – it’s never the best pizza ever, but it is always getting better. And the flops are forgotten quickly, because why else is there wine? Sometimes we achieve near-Pellicci’s quality, and we are always Sally’s-level aspirational. Someday we’ll get back to New Haven to compare. Until then, we always have Friday nights at home.
“But magic is like pizza: even when it’s bad it’s pretty good.” Neil Patrick Harris