October is National Pizza Month, so it is fitting to pen a love letter to my favorite baked goodness on the planet. Pizza has always been one of my top three favorite foods of all-time, but the meaning of pizza, for every person, is subjective.
For some, pizza means a quick stop at Pizza Hut, Domino’s, Papa John’s or Little Caesars, meant for a quick meal after a long day with no intentions of cooking dinner.
For others, pizza must be enjoyed at a higher level, from fresh dough at a local shop crafted by the hands of a pizzaiolo, a pizza chef, who has been creating pizza from scratch for (a) decade(s). This is not a knock on the aforementioned popular national chains in the United States, but objectively you cannot top a pizza concocted with love — featuring the freshest ingredients — coming out of an oven (depending on the style) that is anywhere from 600 to 925 degrees.
I am 31-years-old at the time of writing this love letter to pizza. I remember growing up in the late ’90s in southwestern Virginia. Often on Saturdays, we would go to the mall in Claypool Hill, shop around at the K-Mart connected to it, and visit a local place called Italian Village. I would be remiss to describe the pizza as great, but to a child it was a shining beacon of flavor: fresh dough with a ton of mozzarella cheese, greasy pepperoni slices abound, a simple tomato and basil sauce with a hint of oregano (I couldn’t detect these flavors at the time, but my memory is not lying to me), made with a New York style-inspired sauce.
I would sit and watch the cooks at the Italian Village stretch and toss the pizza dough in the air, spellbound by what was happening. It was fascinating.
I did not learn how to cook until I was a month away from turning 21-years-old. One day, out of the blue, I decided that I wanted to cook a boiled egg. A day later, I experienced my first attempt at cooking any semblance of a pizza: it was a frozen pizza from the grocery store, from Tombstone. I popped it into the oven and, wanting to brown the top of the pie to finish it off, I activated the broiler setting. Three minutes later, not understanding how quickly the broiler function worked, I burnt that pizza to an unrecognizable existence.
Time ensued, and I eventually found a comfortable ground with the Mama Mary’s ready-to-bake pizza crusts that are available at just about any grocery store, sitting on the shelves in a pack of three. Jarred sauce, Hormel pepperoni and a ton of pre-shredded cheese was all I needed to fulfill my meaning of pizza in my quest to satiate a desire for it at the time.
As the years passed by, I did well to cook multiple items, especially delving into things like fried chicken. It was in late 2016 when my culinary obsession fell into grilling and barbecue, which as you know is the basis of this website. I still love both grilling and barbecue, but the learning process never ends.
In 2020, I wanted to try my hand at making a homemade pizza. Not the Mama Mary’s crusts, but a pizza made from scratch. I had no idea where to start. All the tutorials on YouTube made it look so easy. Browsing Reddit for recipes confused me to death, however, because I had no idea what baker’s percentages were nor the meaning of hydration or how it could possibly be calculated. It was daunting, to say the least. I was soon in possession of a wooden peel and ready to go.
My first pizza attempt was created by the measurements of flour and water with cups and an entire package of instant dry yeast. I had no idea how much I was using, asides from “3-and-a-half cups of this and 1-and-3-quarters of a cup of that.” What happened was that the dough was incredibly sticky and next to impossible to work with. The dough tore when I tried to stretch it, and transferring it from the peel onto a hot pizza stone felt impossible to me. I couldn’t hand-stretch it. I ended up rolling out the dough with a rolling pin and transferring it onto the stone with parchment paper.
I was disappointed with it and felt like an utter failure. It was a cracker crust type of pizza. Dense and boring, to me. I wanted to make a homemade New York style pizza! This was not it. How could this be? People online made it look so easy. I gave up for a long, long time.
In fact, that was my last attempt at any kind of pizza until December 2020, when I received a couple of LloydPans Detroit style pizza pans for Christmas. This time, that was my goal: to create a Detroit style pizza. Another change was that I was now in possession of a food scale that could weigh both flour and water, which of course is a gamechanger for any type of baking. I followed the Serious Eats recipe for a Detroit style pizza (a recipe I still use for a DSP to this day) and it was phenomenal.
Throughout the year 2021, Detroit style was my jam. It was easy. It’s virtually a no-knead dough where you mix it, toss it into a pan and let it proof for 4-6 hours, stretching it (with oiled hands) to the sides and edges of the pan, top it and bake it. It’s not my favorite, but I tried out a Chicago style deep dish pizza in the summer of 2021, and it turned out quite good, too.
Still, the elusiveness of what I really wanted to do evaded me: I wanted to be able to hand-stretch a pizza.
The Shift in my Pizza Mindset
While visiting Gulf Shores, AL a couple of years ago, it was 10 p.m. I hadn’t eaten since a light lunch and was starving. Pizza sounded like it would hit the spot, with limited places open, and so I found this place called Mama Lottie’s, who were on the verge of closing for the night. I felt bad about it, but I was quite hungry, and when they answered they told me they were about to close, but I’d be their last order for the night, so I kept it classic: a margherita pizza.
Mama Lottie’s was a little down the road, but when I walked in, virtually every employee there greeted me with a smile. I apologized for ordering so late, but explained that my hunger was taking precedence over my manners. I was wearing an LA Rams shirt, and the pizzaiolo opening the skin of what was to be my pizza mentioned that he had not ran into anybody wearing Rams gear in years (I bet that changed after February of this year).
We talked about football for a couple of minutes, but I couldn’t help but notice how he wasn’t even looking at the dough while he was hand-stretching it, merely carrying on a conversation and slinging a pizza dough around like it was as normal of an autonomous physical action as breathing. This guy must have had the experience of thousands of pizzas in his time at Mama Lottie’s.
Soon enough, my pizza was done and ensuingly it was in my possession back at the hotel. Without droning on too long about this pizza itself, it was one of the best pizzas I have ever eaten. I am not sure if my hunger provided a great deal of bias or not, but the sauce was a simple sauce without extreme (looking at you, heavy garlic and oregano) flavors overpowering it, plenty of basil over the top of a heavy layer of mozzarella and parmigiano-reggiano cheeses.
I thought back to how the guy that made my pizza has probably made thousands of them. In that moment, I recalled my previous frustrations of trying to hand-stretch a pizza and how I was so annoyed with myself after my first ever attempt with an inaccurately measured dough. It was then that I recognized that pizza-making is an act of patience, practice, love and perseverance, much like barbecue in a way.
According to Google, Mama Lottie’s closed earlier this year and was sold and is now a different pizza restaurant, but they taught me an invaluable lesson on that late Friday night.
My desire to create homemade, delicious pizza is fueled from the need to create and be able craft something delicious from my own hands. I don’t want to be limited in a culinary capacity to the point where I say, “I can’t do that” when it comes to creating any dish, even if I’m initially mediocre at doing so.
Furthermore, with pizza, I did not want to simply make decent, edible pizza; I wanted to learn how to make something great. For a time, it mentally felt impossible.
When I received my Bertello pizza oven in December 2021, my journey was reinvigorated.
This oven hits temperatures anywhere from 872 to 925 degrees, perfect for a Neapolitan style pizza. I had never eaten a Neapolitan style pizza in my life, but I was familiar with the term and how it was cooked: a 60 to 90 second bake at those aforementioned scorching hot temperatures.
After plenty of research, I found a website called My Pizza Corner by Tom Rothwell from across the pond. His recipe, and his teaching methods along the way through text and his YouTube videos, changed my pizza-making game forever. I ordered a gram scale that could measure minuscule amounts of salt and yeast, and my pizza slinging game was improved overnight.
It was at this point when I went down the rabbit hole of reading about why certain hydration percentages are preferred in different types of flours and dough recipes along with how salt reacts with yeast in a room temperature or cold fermented-proofed recipe. For Tom’s recipe, you use seemingly the smallest amount of yeast, bulk-proof for 18 to 20 hours, ball up the dough and — four to six hours later — pizza is ready to be created.
The first time I tried his recipe for Neapolitan pizza, my heart was pounding as I readied myself to open the dough ball skins. That might sound like hyperbole, but I assure you it is not. My previous failures flooded my brain as I thought about how much of an epic failure the pizza was going to be. I’m not going to be able to open the dough, it won’t stretch, what if I overkneaded it, what if I underkneaded it, what if it sticks to the peel, what if I overcook it… all those words raced through my mind.
And then, recalling all the information I absorbed from Tom’s teachings, I just did it. I opened the dough with ease, edge-stretched it, knuckle-stretched it, onto the peel, topped it, cooked it, and bam. I made my first ever hand-stretched pizza. It didn’t rip. It didn’t burn. It wasn’t a failure. Whoa! I just made legitimate hand-tossed pizza for the first time!
The recipe from My Pizza Corner was an absolute revelation and pulled back the curtain to the world of pizza-making in my life. I am forever grateful to Tom and his site.
Throughout this year, every time I used my Bertello pizza oven, the pizza was better and better. Even with the latest Blackstone pizza oven accessory kit for the 22″ griddle, the pizza was fantastic despite its limitations for making a Neapolitan pie.
However, at a certain point, I became dissatisfied again.
The Bertello pizza oven is great for Neapolitan pies, but it is limited. It is a small oven and it is only for Neapolitan style pizza.
I wanted to make New York style pizza, but being limited to one type of oven would not cut it. My home oven was inadequate; no matter how long I pre-heated it with a piping hot stone inside, the heating was inconsistent and uneven.
I recently purchased a Halo Versa 16 made by a new company called Halo Products Group, and once again my pizzaiolo journey was changed forever.
The Halo Versa 16 is not for Neapolitan style pizza. The stone temperatures top out at about 800 degrees. Honestly, though, I want to admit now that Neapolitan style pizza is not my favorite. My favorite has always been New York style, the kind of pizza that has eluded me during this pizza voyage.
Guess what the Versa 16 is the absolute best at making: neo-Neapolitan or ‘Neopolitan’ or New York style pizza!
I just attempted my first New York style pizza recipe last week and the pies were spot on in this oven.
If you know me, you know the journey never ends. I am always looking to improve and experiment.
The point of my ranting and raving over my long (long to me, anyhow) journey to get from not being able to open a dough skin to now is to encourage anybody and everybody reading this post to understand that, if I can make pizza, you can, too.
Pizza, possibly more than any other food, is the perfect canvas for creativity. Any great pizza begins from the moment you pour the flour into the mixing vessel at its inception. Much like great barbecue, it involves the act of patience and represents love and care. Just like barbecue, if your ingredients are poor and your handling of the process is haphazardly done, the final result is going to be subpar, but when you put love, care and effort into the craft, the outcome is unbelievable.
Once again, maybe just like barbecue, pizza is a lifestyle: creating the best possible food while giving honor to the ingredients and those behind me is what fuels me. Maybe that is why I love it so much.