I've been lucky enough to eat a real pizza napoletana on a sidewalk in Naples, scarcely bigger than my two palms put together. Milky mozzarella bleeding into fruity, clean tomato sauce; heaven in three, four bites, gone as quickly as it came. I had the best pizza of my life at Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, that sunswept, palm-studded city that so many New Yorkers love to hate, but that - deep inside my soul, my heart - feels like home to me. I loved the weird little pizzas at City Bakery before they started baking them on puff pastry; greasy slices in lieu of a proper dinner from the one-dollar joint down the street from my office; the glorious, glorious pies at Co. on 9th Avenue. And pizza al taglio is on my (very short) list of things you should eat before you die.
Even for my birthday dinner in December, I had just one request: pizza, please. And a beer. (We went to Casolare, a grungy little restaurant by the side of a canal in Kreuzberg which serves pizza that is very good and on occasion so great that a slim young man with, yes, an oftentimes above-average appetite, can eat two entire pies by himself in one sitting. Ahem. As God is my witness. Also! It's a good place for people watching: last summer, I saw half the cast of Inglourious Basterds having dinner in the back of the restaurant.)
In other words, I like pizza a lot. Probably like most of you out there, too. And there was a time when I let myself get swept up in the insanity that surrounds making pizza at home these days. You know, like cooking a pizza under the broiler on an upside-down cast-iron pan. Dealing with the weight of a pizza stone. Letting pizza dough proof for 24 hours for maximum flavor. Collecting recipes from pizzaioli far and wide to read about their favorite toppings. Sourcing Italian flour for the most authentic texture possible.
And then I got so tired of it all. I realized that I didn't actually want to recreate my favorite restaurant pizza at home. I wanted to go to a restaurant and pay to be fed that pizza. At home, I was happy with a pizza made in less than two hours, with a chewy, flavorful crust and toppings I could calibrate myself. Turns out, when you let go and stop trying to create restaurant results in a home kitchen, you can find yourself making some pretty stellar pizza. It's just a matter of realizing that the two are totally different things.
My favorite, holy grail dough is Jamie Oliver's pizza dough. It comes together in a flash and has the most incredible, floppy texture which translates to loose bubbles and a gorgeous, burnished bottom after a pass in the oven. Jamie's original recipe makes an enormous amount of dough so I halve it and between the two of us we usually manage to polish it off (did I mention the above-average appetite?). I don't bother using "00" flour or bread flour or the mixture of regular flour and semolina that he suggests. I use plain, old all-purpose flour with delicious, chewy results. Also, what I'm using here in Berlin is actually instant yeast and not active dry yeast since it can be added directly to the ingredients without needing to be proofed first. Score! One less thing to wash up afterwards. As for you, just use whatever yeast you've got.
You start out by making a rather shaggy mixture of flour, yeast, a bit of sugar, warm water, some olive oil and salt in a bowl. I stir this as best I can and then I give up, dumping the shaggy mess on the counter to knead it properly. Within a few minutes, I get a satiny-smooth, cool ball of dough. I let this rest while I quickly wash out the bowl, dry it and coat with a thin, thin film of olive oil.
The ball of pizza dough goes into the bowl, I turn it lightly to coat it with the oil in the bowl and then I cover it with a cloth and slide it into my still-cold oven for one hour. That's it. Enough to finish up work, make a salad, shred a ball of mozzarella, and set the table.
After an hour, I gently coax the dough - now puffed and fluffy - out of the bowl onto the floured counter. This may be one of my favorite things to do in the kitchen, handle freshly risen dough. It's so pure and expectant, somehow. And the texture of the dough is always so improbably light and bubbly. Plus, it smells like yeast and olive oil, which is a direct catapult to standing in the doorway of my favorite hole-in-the-wall pizza place in Urbino. At this point, I also turn on the oven as high as it will go.
I gently pat out the dough and it dimples agreeably under the pressure of my hands and then I gently, gently start to tug it into the shape I need for my sheet pan. I don't like to roll this dough - the light and puffy quality it has now will translate to a wonderfully blistered and airy crust in a few minutes - and besides, it is so easy to handle that it will flatten out with just a few judicious tugs and pats. If you like a thicker crust, pat the dough to fit your sheet pan (lined with oil-slicked aluminum foil). If you like a thinner crust, divide the dough in two and fit two sheet pans with it. You might find you'll need a rolling pin if you're aiming for a thin, thin crust. Or divide the dough into balls for individual pizzas.
For the topping, since we are purists and never stray from the classic trinity of tomato-mozzarella-anchovy, I open a can of peeled plum tomatoes, pour out half the juice (cook's snack!) and then, using my hands, shred and spread the tomatoes and remaining pulp and juice around on the dough evenly. I salt the tomato layer liberally and sprinkle with with dried oregano (make sure it's from Italy or Greece and it'll taste even better) and then strew the mozzarella I shredded earlier around evenly (don't use buffalo mozzarella as it's too wet and also a bit of a waste if not eaten whilst fresh and cool on your plate). I lay six to eight anchovies in and around the cheese, give the pizza a quick drizzle of olive oil and then it's ready to go in the oven. My broiler is in my oven, not below it, so I put the pan in the top third of the oven and turn the broiler on. The uncooked tomatoes cook briefly while the flavor stays fresh and vibrant. (If you choose the thick pizza route and do this, you'll come uncommonly close to replicating my beloved pizza al taglio.) The cheese blisters and browns, the crust swells up, my stomach growls.
And that, quite literally, is it.
It always amazes me how quickly pizza can be made at home. Everything except the mozzarella is a pantry staple, really, and with just a few minutes of active work and ten minutes in the oven, you'll find yourself the proud producer of an ovenful of fresh, crusty pizza that's yeasty and salty and chewy and a total delight to eat.
So now, tell me, lovelies: how do you top your pizzas?
Makes enough for one half-sheet pan (if you like a thicker-crusted pizza) or two half sheet pans if you like your pizza thin as can be)
3 1/2 cups (1 lb) all-purpose flour (if you can find it, use Italian "00" flour)
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons fine sea salt (you might find you need more)
1 packet (1/4 ounce) active dry yeast or 7 grams instant yeast (for those of you in Germany, this is one of those Trockenhefe packets)
1 1/2 teaspoons raw or regular sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 1/4 cups lukewarm water
1. Put the flour into a large bowl and make a well in the middle. In a large measuring cup, mix the yeast, sugar and olive oil into the water and leave for a few minutes, then pour into the well. Using a fork, bring the flour in gradually from the sides and swirl it into the liquid. Sprinkle in the salt. Keep mixing, drawing larger amounts of flour in, and when it all starts to come together, work the rest of the flour in with your clean, flour-dusted hands. Knead until you have a smooth, springy dough.
2. Wash out your bowl, dry it and oil it lightly. Place the ball of dough in the bowl and turn to coat it with oil. Cover the bowl with a damp cloth and place in a warm room or an oven (not turned on) for about an hour. The dough will have doubled in size.
3. Now put the dough on a flour-dusted surface and gently deflate it with your hands - this is called punching down the dough. You can either use it immediately, or keep it, wrapped in plastic wrap, in the fridge (or freezer) until required. If using right away, simply pat out to the size of your half-sheet pan or divide in half and roll out to cover two pans. You can also divide the dough into little balls for individual pizzas - this amount of dough is enough to make about three to four medium pizzas.
4. Timing-wise, it's a good idea to roll the pizzas out about 15 to 20 minutes before you want to cook them. Then simply top them with your heart's desire and bake them in a very hot, preheated oven (turn your oven as high as it will go) for about 10 minutes for the thicker pizza and less for the thinner ones, until crisp and bubbling.