Making pizza for friends in our Vermont kitchen, 1986.
Is it possible that in all these years of blogging I've never gone into much detail about our obsession with pizza? I married someone who had lived for several years in New Haven, and hated everything about it except one thing. Need I say more? I think J.'s love of pizza started long before that, but my guess is that it was the extraordinary pizza he ate in New Haven and New York City during his teenage years that got him started on making pizza at home. By the time we met, when he was 28 and I was 26, he was already a masterful and obsessive pizza-maker, while I was merely an appreciative occasional pizza-eater whose only experience of making it at home had been boxes of Chef Boyardee. That changed pretty quickly! Together, we sought out and ate great traditional pizzas all over the northeast - not at fancy shops, but at the great small pizzerias run by single chefs and families in small towns and cities. Then J. tried to recreate their best qualities: the perfect crust, most flavorful tomato sauce, finest cheeses, best toppings - which, for us, tended toward simplicity. Our benchmark was a classic Margarita: just crust, tomato sauce, basil, and mozzarella cheese.
One of our favorites was Springfield Pizza, in Springfield, Massachusetts, where we stopped - often late at night - on nearly every trip we took from Vermont to Connecticut, where his parents lived, or New York. I remember how, each time we'd leave the highway, we'd drive down the deserted main street and turn left, hoping to spot the lights in the little storefront with its small neon sign bearing two blue stars and the word "pizza" in red -- it was open! Inside, often on a cold winter night, we'd sit at one of the two or three tables and patiently wait while an elderly man named Georgio made rectangular pizzas with the best crust I've ever eaten.
In New Haven, of course, there was the unending debate whether Sal's or Frank Pepe's made the best Napoletana pizza. We preferred the latter, probably because Pepe's had the most amazing coal-fired oven. Their white clam pizza was to die for, and probably still is; but now I see that Pepe's has a fancy website and several locations, which makes me glad we enjoyed the original - it had long lines even then.
At home, the pizza experimentation and refinement has continued throughout the years, in spite of the fact that a home oven cannot reproduce the extreme heat, rapid explosion of the crust, and charring effect of a wood or coal-fired pizza oven. We've always modified our stoves for pizza-baking with a layer of quarry tiles on the bottom rack (excellent for bread, too); the pizza is slid off the peel onto the tiles for the first minutes of baking, then moved to the regular top rack to finish. J. makes his own tomato sauce, either from fresh plum tomatoes or from cans of San Marzanos. Since moving to Montreal, we've been able to get even better ingredients than before, which is especially noticeable in the quality of the cheeses: buffalo mozzarella, creamy goat cheeses, excellent Parmesan. Lately he's been trying different flours; King Arthur used to be his standard, then he used Montreal's own Five Roses for a while, and recently we bought some Italian hard-wheat flours specially for pizza.
Last night, already in bed, we happened upon a YouTube video about Brooklyn pizzerias. We've eaten a lot of Brooklyn pizza, even doing a pizza marathon in that borough a while back where we ate, I think, a record of three in one day. Anyway, the pizzas in the video looked so fantastic that there was no choice but to get up and make one.
There was already risen dough in the fridge, and some homemade tomato sauce, so all that had to be done was to pre-heat the oven, roll out the dough, sauté some mushrooms, slice some hard salami, slice and grate some cheese, and go out on the terrace and pick a handful of fresh basil. While the pizza was cooking we poured a glass of wine, and reminisced about our favorite pizzas of the past.
And then, close to midnight, we ate. I'm sorry you weren't there to taste this, but all I can say is: please do try this at home.