Food & Drink

A Little Pizza Homework

There is pizza dough in my refrigerator right now. I made it last night in about 20 minutes, 15 of which were spent reading a magazine while it rested. I’ll bake it tomorrow night under mozzarella, then put a small arugula salad on top, an homage to the Green and White pizza available at Roberta’s in Brooklyn.

The actual cooking of the pizza will take about 10 minutes, from first stretching the dough to pulling it from the oven, a bubbling cheese pie of enormous distinction and flavor. Add the time needed for the oven to heat and I’d still be waiting to get a delivery of an ordinary cheese pie from the pizza joint six blocks away.

Probably I’ll make two. I have enough dough for that. Everyone loves pizza night. “Particularly homemade pizza night,” says the youngest food critic in the family, our own Antoinette Ego.

Americans consume an enormous amount of pizza. Running the numbers with market analysts and industry spokesmen can set the mind to reeling. Those who track the business say pizza is a $40 billion industry in the United States, in no small part because 97 percent of us eat the stuff, most of us regularly, to the tune of 2.1 slices a sitting.

 

How to Make Great Pizza Dough

 Anthony Falco of Roberta’s in Bushwick, Brooklyn, shows Sam Sifton how to make restaurant-style pizza dough at home.

 

Most of that pizza comes from chain restaurants. A lot of it comes from independent operators with a few ovens and a high school kid delivering the pies in his mom’s old Mazda. A fair amount of it comes from the frozen foods aisle at the supermarket.

Very little pizza is made at home, from scratch.

I am here to change that. I am here to say: You can make pizza at home. You can make pizza at home that will be the equal of some of the best pizzas available on the planet. With a minimal amount of planning and practice, you can get good at it, even if you are a relatively novice cook.

Yes, it may take a few tries before your confidence soars. Your first attempts may be wan. There may be issues with the dough, or the toppings, or the oven, or with the surface on which you cook the pie. But as anyone who has ever eaten a chain pizza out of a box in a terrible hotel room far from home can tell you, even when pizza is bad, it is actually pretty good. And pretty good is an excellent place to begin.

Getting Started

The basics of pizza are simple. There is dough. There is topping. There is a hot oven. There is a surface in the oven on which you will cook the dough and the topping. There is a tool to transfer the uncooked pizza from your countertop to the oven, and to pull the finished pie from the oven.

The total costs associated with all this can be minimal or gigantic, depending on your frame of reference. Mario Batali, the restaurateur and television personality, has a wood-fired pizza oven on his vacation property in Michigan. He imported it from Italy. R. J. Cutler, the garrulous Oscar-nominated documentary filmmaker and pizza fanatic, had one put into his outdoor kitchen in the Hollywood Hills, where he cooks for friends. You can buy a gas-fired pizza oven from Williams-Sonoma for $6,795 and a flat-rate delivery fee of $299.

That’s the high end of the cost spectrum. The recipes we are going to work with for this exercise require only the oven most of us already have in our homes. Additional cost: $0.

Photo

A Roberta’s cheese pie with fresh mozzarella and taleggio is a riff on the classic Roman pasta dish cacio e pepe. CreditMelina Hammer for The New York Times

Unless you intend to adorn your pizzas with truffles and gold leaf, the dough and toppings won’t run you more than a few dollars, at most, per pizza made.

A pizza stone, which is the surface upon which the pie is cooked, costs around $40 at most kitchenware stores and online, and a steel version, which heats more quickly, costs perhaps twice that, but is still less expensive than a decent frying pan or knife. You can easily cut costs, though, by buying 6-inch-by-6-inch unglazed quarry tiles at your local building supply store for roughly $2 a tile. Six of these make a fine cooking surface. You could get by with four. Whichever stone or steel you use, preheat the oven at its highest temperature for at least an hour.

Finally, you will need a pizza peel, the device that helps transfer the pie to the hot oven. A peel runs $20 or so if you spring for a metal one, less for wood. You can easily just use a cutting board or the back of a baking pan and spend nothing.

In any event, the table stakes for this game will fall considerably below that of, say, making ice cream or even setting yourself up to grill hamburgers in the yard. And they will pay dividends of flavor and enjoyment for years.

The Dough

Many home pizza makers begin their journeys toward the delicious with frozen dough from the supermarket, or with fresh dough purchased from a local pizzeria. Good pizzas result from both, but neither is really a homemade pizza. Homemade pizza starts with homemade dough: flour, water, yeast and salt.

I have experimented with recipes for pizza dough for years, varying the ratio of flour to water, changing the flours, using different sorts of yeast. For the last few months, I have been using the recipe developed by the team behind Roberta’s, the Brooklyn restaurant and lifestyle incubator that built its reputation on the merits of its pizzas.

Roberta’s has a wood-fired oven. It also runs a number of mobile wood-fired pizza ovens. Anthony Falco, the bearded, laconic chef who was the restaurant’s first pizza maker and now reigns as its official pizza czar (code name Tony Calzone), says that on a good day Roberta’s can serve something on the order of 2,500 pies, all of them cooked in wood heat, 60 seconds a pie. But he has made Roberta’s pizzas all over the country in residential ovens as well, on stones and steels and occasionally on or in cast-iron pans. “This dough works anywhere,” he said.

A margherita pizza: tomato sauce, cheese and basil. CreditMelina Hammer for The New York Times

It is superlative dough: thin and pliant, tender and chewy, with excellent flavor. It calls for a mixture of all-purpose flour and the finely milled Italian flour graded as “00” — available at many more markets than you would think, and always online. Combined with salt and a mixture of water, olive oil and yeast, it rises into soft pillows of dough that take well to gentle handling.

Making it at home is a breeze, particularly if you follow the European model of measurement and use a kitchen scale instead of cups and spoons to gauge the ingredients. (For baking, weight is a far more accurate measure than volume.) An hour’s work can yield enough dough to make four, six, eight pizzas the next day, or up to a week later. The refrigerator holds the stuff well, wrapped in plastic. Its flavor improves by the day.

How to Make a Pizza

Watching Mr. Falco encourage a mound of dough to become a pizza is entrancing. He starts with his fingertips, spreading the dough out from its center, gently, on a well-floured surface.

“It’s a living thing,” he said of the dough. “It’s your baby. You don’t want to beat it up.” He pushed down gently around the pie’s perimeter, creating the edge. He picked up the dough and lightly passed it back and forth between his palms, rotating it each time, using gravity to help it stretch. The top remained the top. The bottom remained the bottom. At approximately 12 inches in diameter, Mr. Falco called it ready to go. He slid the round back and forth on the floured surface to make sure it didn’t stick. “That is certified for topping,” he said.

 

Topping a pizza is tender work as well. You do not want to overload the pie. Doing so leaves it soggy, no matter the heat of the oven. Mr. Falco demonstrated a two-cheese pizza that riffs on the classic Roman pasta dish cacio e pepe: mozzarella, taleggio and an enormous amount of ground black pepper. He showed off his Green and White, which is a plain mozzarella pie topped with a salad.

For a plain pizza of tomato sauce, cheese and a few torn basil leaves, he applied only a couple of tablespoons of sauce. (For authentic Roberta’s pizza sauce, simply whiz together some drained canned tomatoes with a splash of olive oil and a pinch of salt.) He applied this to the center of the pie and painted it out to the edges with the back of a spoon. Then he added a few chunks of mozzarella, the basil and a drizzle of olive oil, and slid a peel under the pie to ready it for the oven.

 

At home you should certify the pizza once more, making sure it moves back and forth smoothly on the surface of the peel. Then open the oven door and carefully slide the pie onto your stone, steel or tiles.

Now close the door and watch what happens. The pizza is done when the edges are a beautiful golden brown, and the sauce and cheese are bubbling nicely. Even at 500 degrees in a dodgy oven your landlord should have fixed two years ago, it won’t take much more than four to five minutes. Grate some Parmesan over the top and serve. Chances are, you’ll want to do this again and again.

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