In recent years all manner of unassuming foods have endured high-end makeovers. Mac and cheese was spiked with lobster and truffles, hamburgers got serious slider treatment, and cupcakes morphed into an industry dripping with retro-cuteness.
Now pizza is enjoying its own artisanal moment.
Though high-end pies aren't entirely new, their number — as well as that of pizzaiolos, the de rigueur term for those who craft rather than simply bake pizzas — has grown. And during the past year, the quest for the best has driven some critics across the country and back.
GQ magazine's Alan Richman zigzagged the nation before naming Great Lake pizzeria in Chicago his top choice. Meanwhile, Ed Levine and Adam Kuban — the men behind the blog Slice — worked with Everyday with Rachael Ray magazine to scout pizzerias across 11,000 miles before naming New York-to-Phoenix transplant Chris Bianco of Pizzeria Bianco their winner.
But chances are you don't have the time or frequent flier miles to hit these top spots. And with all this talk of top-shelf pizza, you may be finding the offerings at your local shop and the grocer's freezer section a little underwhelming.
So we asked the nation's top pizza makers for tips on crafting artisanal pies at home — without the benefit of a pizza-perfect wood oven.
"It's not impossible. It's not even enormously difficult and it's better than 90 percent of pizza you get delivered. Once you have the crust, you can do anything," says Richman. "It's something anybody can do in their own way. It may go wrong the first time, but you won't go wrong the second time."
Temperature Crank it up, says Anthony Strong of Pizzeria Delfina in San Francisco.
"Crank the oven as high as it will get and leave it that way" for about an hour, he says. "The faster you can cook a pie, the less dense the crust is going to be and more properly cooked the ingredients on top are going to be."
Most professional pizza ovens reach 800 F or more. Most home ovens will max out at 500 F, which Strong says should be fine. To get it even hotter, heat the oven on broil until ready to put the pizza in it, then switch to the highest baking temperature your oven allows.
In restaurants, pizzas are cooked directly on the tile or stone of specially crafted ovens. The stone retains heat well, and also helps the dough begin cooking the instant they come into contact. Smaller stones that can be placed in home ovens are widely available, and the experts say they are worth the investment.
"What you are doing with the stone is simulating what it would be like to cook a pizza in a tiled oven," says Nancy Silverton of Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles. "What you are getting is a much better heat conductor."
Silverton, who is writing a pizza cookbook, has been testing stones.
"Kind of like anything else, you get what you pay for," she says. A good one will run in the $50 range.
Another option is to go to the hardware store and purchase unglazed quarry tiles, which run a few dollars and work just as well, Silverton says.
Mixing the dough Don't do too much of it, says Ken Forkish of Ken's Artisan Pizza in Portland, Ore. Mix it just enough to incorporate the flour, water, salt and yeast, then leave it alone, he says. This keeps the gluten from being overworked, giving the crust a "light, delicate texture."
Let it rise
A long, slow rise using less yeast is better than a faster one using more. "I can make a decent pizza dough in two hours, but it's going to be a lot better if I use less yeast and wait six to eight hours or overnight," Forkish says.
Letting the dough sit at room temperature gives the crust better flavor, he says.
"If there was an epiphany in my career, it was to learn that less yeast and more time creates a more flavorful dough. We think of time and temperature as an ingredient," he says.
Not the pizza, the dough. Not up to mixing and a slow rise? Go to your favorite pizzeria and ask to buy a ball of dough. Most will sell it to you for just a few dollars. If it's refrigerated, be sure to let it come to room temperature before working with it.
As impressive as it is to watch pizza makers spin large rounds of dough in the air, do not try to make big pizzas, says Mathieu Palombino of Motorino in New York. Smaller pizzas are much easier to work with, he says.
"It's fun. It's fast. Everybody can do their own. It's much more forgiving," he says.
About 6 ounces of dough is the right amount for a 10-inch pie, Palombino says.
Who says pizzas have to be round? Silverton says pizzas of any shape are delicious so long as the crust is evenly thin. So focus on that rather than on making it perfectly round.
Stretch the dough
On a floured surface with floured hands, flatten each 6-ounce ball into a disk, then use your fingertips or your knuckles to lightly press the edges of the dough outward to stretch it, says Jim Lahey of Co. restaurant in New York, who is writing a cookbook for the home pizza baker.
Lahey says he tries to stretch the dough the least number of times he can to keep from overworking the dough.
And flour on the counter is a must to keep the dough from sticking and tearing. Think of it as a "lubricant to the dough," he says. "Use as much as you need to prevent friction to the dough, which can cause it to tear. Don't overexert yourself. Relax."
Obviously, the better the ingredients, the better the pizza. And every expert has favorites.
Forkish swears by San Marzano tomatoes for the sauce. The San Marzano is the tomato that is used in real Neopolitan pizza, the style that is the starting place for many artisanal pies.
"It is a low acid tomato and has a sweetness to it," he says. "A lot of people will add sugar to their pizza sauce to counteract the acidity, but our using the San Marzano negates that."
Hardy toppings, such as most meats and thick vegetables, go on before baking. More delicate toppings, such as many greens — including fresh basil and arugula — should be added only just before serving.
Not all cheeses melt the same. Soft, oily cheeses will separate if they spend too much time at high heat, and that leaves gooey puddles of oil on the pizza. Likewise, moist cheeses, such as fresh mozzarella, blue cheese and ricotta, can burn.
The way around this is to bake the dough for 1 to 2 minutes without toppings, then add the sauce, toppings and cheese, says Lahey.
To get those perfect splotches of cheese across the top of a pizza — instead of the gooey carpet bombing effect produced by many grated cheeses — cut block cheese into cubes, Silverton says. They will melt down into perfect gooey rounds.
Less is more Like any composed dish, pizzas require balance, says Lahey. Pizza makers have the urge to dump on too much sauce and cheese, but he urges people to hold back. Vegetables and sauce contain water, which can make a pizza soggy during cooking.
And too much cheese can overwhelm the other flavors. "Never too much of one ingredient," he says. "If you are adding things like mushrooms and raw sausage, which have water, dial back on some of the sauce."