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Pining for a perfect pizza

My search for thin-crust magnificence, at home or at the pizzeria. By's Jon Bonné

Forget red and blue states. A far greater divide threatens to split our country, a deep ideological rift rooted in beliefs so strong and so personal they might drive a man to arms.

I speak, of course, of pizza, and the endless war between thin-crusters and thick-crusters.

Before I proceed, let me proudly wave the thin-crust flag. I was raised in New York, where traditional pizza roots run deep. Many of my spare hours are still spent dreaming of New Haven, where you're a partisan of either Frank Pepe's or Sally's — though reasonable ecumenists have learned to appreciate both.

So if you're a deep-dish person, you probably want to click away before you read another word (to this defense of the Chicago pie, for instance). Because I firmly side with Ed Levine, who holds that deep dish is at best a “mighty tasty casserole” — sharing little in common with the true Neapolitan, or Neapolitan-American, form of this most infallible food.

Should you think that Levine, author of "Pizza: A Slice of Heaven" (Universe, $24.95), has it out for the Second City, know that he heaps ample praise on Chicago's other pizza style, the thin-crusted joys that emerge from ovens at South Side joints like Vito & Nick's.  And he has equal derision for frou-frou chefs anywhere who pound dough cracker-thin and serve up pies as firm as a Frisbee.

"There's no art to that, and there's no art to making Chicago-style deep dish pizza, either. It's like a brown-and-serve roll on steroids," Levine says.

You've probably deduced that Levine also hails from New York, which he crowns “the king of pizza cities.” While New Yorkers have a solid claim to pizza fame, Levine's book is dedicated to uncovering true pizza joys all across the land.

He gives extensive credit to New Haven's famed pizzas, like those from Pepe's and Sally's, perhaps the only pies to make a true-blooded New Yorker acknowledge the existence of other ZIP codes. He heaps praise upon Chris Bianco of Phoenix's Pizzeria Bianco, who not only seeks perfection in dough but makes his own mozzarella. He and a handful of foodie pals offer recommendations from Memphis (Coletta's Restaurant) to San Francisco (A16). He even downs a few slices in Buenos Aires.

His point: Great pizza can exist anywhere pizzaioli (pizza makers) are fully, personally committed to perfection.

Or as Peter Reinhart, author of “American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza” (Ten Speed Press, 2003) puts it: “The pizza becomes the vehicle through which the pizza maker and the pizza eater connect in a soulful manner.”

Dough reigns supremeWe can all bicker endlessly about the right toppings, but here's the thing: What makes or breaks makes a pizza is the dough.  And most American pizza is hopelessly mediocre because the dough is just plain lousy.

In a half-decade on the West Coast, this is a sad truth that has tortured my Big Apple soul.

Pizza is first and foremost about being a great baker, which is why master bakers like Reinhart have been drawn to the humble pie. Terrific dough as difficult and elusive as a perfect loaf of sourdough.

But if great bread is a slow, deliberate process, pizza is baking on steroids: hours of preparation, yet just a few minutes of oven time to nail perfection.

Even among thin-crust aficionados, the perfect thickness and firmness can vary (tastes differ; Naples and Rome have spent decades dissing each other's pies) but the structure of great dough should be the structure of great bread: light, pliant, with irregular holes.

"That is 99 percent of the pizza," says Brian Spangler of Apizza Scholls in Portland, Ore., one of the West Coast's rising artisanal-pizza stars. "The toppings, in my opinion, are the easiest part of making pizza."

The crust — the whole crust — should be crisp outside, with a tender interior. The cornicione, or lip (which too many people call “crust,” and inexcusably allow kids to leave on their plates) should be puffy, slightly misshapen, with the occasional bubble inside. The bottom should have the occasional charred spot — a sign that the oven was adequately hot.

Fast and hotStuck in my pizza blues, I decided to put my pizza-tossing hands where my mouth was and make my own dough — essential if I was going to have any cred at all in the pizza bragging wars.

Jon Bonne

Without building a wood-fired pizza oven, I needed to find a way to cook pizza fast and hot. Household ovens max out around 550 degrees F, far short of the needed 600-800 degrees.  I finally settled on my trusty Weber gas grill, which puts out 36,000 BTU, enough to create an internal temperature well above 600 degrees.

I initially dropped the pizza directly on the grill — a technique, Reinhart notes, that has gained its own acclaim after being perfected by Al Forno in Providence, R.I. Grilled pizza works remarkably well, though you need to coat the dough with olive oil and the result is bit like a large, tomato-covered pita. (It's not coincidental that Levine likens great pizza crust to Armenian lavash bread.) 

Next I dropped a basic 1/2-inch pizza stone atop the grill, but my dough was still prone to tearing and distorting. Pizza can be asymmetrical, but the perfect pizza can only be so ugly.

Frustrated, I turned to Carla Leonardi, whose Cafe Lago enjoys renown among Seattle pizza cogniscenti. Leonardi and her husband Jordi Viladas turn up to 60 pizzas a night out of their applewood-fired oven.

Like most dedicated pizzaioli, she views great pizza less in terms of ratios and measures than as the product of a skilled baker's intuition. Humidity, heat, lackluster yeast and dozens of other factors can conspire to ruin dough on any given night.

All you can do is surrender to the whims of the pizza gods and hope you occasionally find the right match of texture and toppings, cooked for precisely long enough and not a moment more. “You're always trying to balance for the ideal,” she says.

Bianco, whose pizza Reinhart considers the best in the nation, concedes that perhaps six out of every 200 pies he makes on a typical night are perfect.

“I know on any given day that pizza will kick my ass,” he says. “That whole ‘pizza master’ bull---- is ridiculous. There's no figuring it out. The moment you think you've got it figured out, forget it."

The pizza copsThe quest for pizza nirvana can take on curious forms.  An controversial Italian group known as Verace Pizza Napoletana was formed in 1984 (with an American branch founded in 1998) to mandate certain pizza-making standards: no pie diameter larger than 30 cm, no rolling pins used to punch down dough. At least 10 pizzerias in the United States are members, paying an annual fee and pledging to follow the rules, though none of the renowned New York or New Haven joints are VPN members.

VPN's standards are rigid, which has dissuaded many devoted pizzaioli from adopting them. Even in Naples, some pizzerias scoff at the concept of officially sanctioned pizza.

VPN, for example, requires a wood-fired oven at a minimum temperature of 750 degrees F. A good benchmark, certainly, but some legendary pizzerias (Pepe's, for one) insist on coal ovens; others (DiFara's in Brooklyn and Nick's Pizza in Queens) dare to use gas ovens.

The real trick is getting the right heat in the right spots. Leonardi's oven, built by Wood Stone Corp. of Bellingham, Wash., can provide a hearth temperature of 520 degrees F and a searing internal temperature of 800 degrees or more. Spangler's brick oven produces a dome temperature up to 750 degrees. Bianco prefers slightly lower temperatures. All can produce a pizza in under four minutes, slightly longer than the 90-second standard in Naples.

'Pizza cognition theory'
Perfection is great, but Levine isn't an absolutist. He hesitates to dis anyone's favorite pie, since even a bad pizza is still better than many foods. (Unless it's one of those cardboardy chain pizzas, for which he has no mercy. He finds Pizza Hut's stuffed pie “unspeakably awful.”)

Why the sensitivity? Levine endorses what his pizza-loving pal Sam Sifton of the New York Times calls “pizza cognition theory” — that the first pies we eat become our lifelong template for pizza perfection. If you were raised on Chicago pizza, or New Jersey tomato pies, that becomes your idée fixe.

“If you try to disabuse somebody of the notion that the pizza they grew up with is somehow lacking,” Levine astutely notes, “They'll cut you off at the knees.”

Most pizza perfectionists embrace a sort of pizza terroir — the notion that any pizza should authentically represent its own roots. New York pizza should stand for New York, Chicago pizza should wear Chicago pride, and Naples' own virtues should be enjoyed on home turf, not copied by well-meaning pizza hounds on these shores.

“There's two kinds of perfect pizza,” says Reinhart, “the paradigmatically perfect pizza ... and then there's what I call contextually perfect pizza: a pizza or pizzeria that's perfect because of a time and place in your life. Every once in a while, the two come together.”

In other words, the great pizzas of the world can be perfect — or just amazingly good. I'll take either. lifestyle editor Jon Bonné is finally happy — sort of — with his pizza recipe.