When everyone’s home, it makes sense to get the whole family involved in dinner. Taco nights, build-your-own grain bowls and sundae stations are personal, interactive and comforting. But they have nothing on everyone’s favorite DIY food: pizza.
Home cooks caught up in the current bread-baking craze have been perfecting their pizza doughs, and topping them with a variety of fresh or pantry ingredients already on hand. Sauce? There is no judgment. Crack open that marinara, make a quick pesto or just drizzle on olive oil. And when it comes to cheese, you are limited only by what you can forage from the fridge.
Alessandro Uccelli of Berkeley’s Lucia’s Pizzeria calls pizza a work of love. That’s why he suggests chucking those rolling pins — they actually kill the air that yields those beautiful, blistered pockets — and getting your hands into the mixture of flour, water, salt and yeast. Lucia’s, which is open for takeout and delivery, is selling ingredients, such as San Marzano tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella and pizza dough, including its famed gluten-free dough.
Uccelli is also offering tips for success. He’s been making pizza at home forever and, like most of us, he doesn’t have a fancy backyard brick oven. Instead, to get his oven hot enough to yield the type of Neapolitan crust he desires, Uccelli recommends a pizza stone and an oven set to broil. Grilling works too. Adding an extension ring to a classic charcoal Weber can yield surprisingly sizzling temps — up to 1,100 degrees.
“I’ve actually burned a lot of pizzas that way,” Uccelli says.
In non-pandemic times, Uccelli, like most Italians, is very particular about his topping combos. If you have the ingredients, a classic Margherita is hard to beat. But right now? “Any vegetables that you have will work. Look in the pantry, too,” he says.
Bust out those jars of olives, artichoke hearts and roasted red peppers, and slice up anything in your spring CSA, from zucchinis to Brussels sprouts. Stuck with sad, non-peak-season tomatoes? There’s hope.
“Slice and marinate them with a little basil, olive oil and salt for half an hour, then pour it on the pizza,” Ucelli says.
You can also make tomato-less pizza, like Lucia’s Spudsy Pancetta, which uses pancetta (bacon is a fine substitute) and paper-thin slices of onion and potato. Throw an egg on top and you’ll have leftovers to look forward to in the morning.
The egg has been central to Nick Beitcher’s home pizzas. On furlough in San Francisco, Tartine’s lead bread baker has launched a hotline to help isolated bread bakers up their “quarantine sourdough game” — from pizza to pancakes. (Email firstname.lastname@example.org and in return, he’ll ask you for a donation to help the Alameda County Food Bank during COVID-19).
Overall, Beitcher’s recipe for hand-mixed pizza dough is not that different from his sourdough bread. It’s a slightly drier mix of flour, water and levain that he ferments and folds twice every half hour before adding salt. Then he makes two balls of dough and puts them in a Tupperware container in the fridge for two days. Any longer and it would be too tangy, he says.
“In normal times the recipe would include which kind of flour to use and our favorite toppings but right now, whatever you have at home, just go with it,” Beitcher says. He’s had everything from broccoli to canned sardines on his pies lately. “It’s not pretty,” he says. “But they’ve been tasty.”
We’ll take a guess that you’re no pizza-tossing champion. But if you’re bored — of course, you are — watch YouTube videos of masters like Tony Gemignani before shaping your dough. Study their pizza hacks and other DIY tips, like keeping your hands close to the table rather than high in the air so you don’t overstretch your pizza. Or just embrace whatever shape your hands give you.
“Make peace with the imperfection,” Breitcher says. “You’re going to eat it quickly.”
Ready? If you don’t have a pizza stone, Beitcher suggests using a cast iron griddle and the easy method described in San Francisco bread genius Josey Baker’s 2014 cookbook, “Josey Baker Bread.” It calls for cooking your pizza on your stovetop’s highest heat, before transferring the griddle to a pre-heated 500-degree oven with the broiler on. That’s where the blistery magic seals the deal.
And you know what? You don’t even have to make your own dough. Pizza at this moment in time is defined by what you have, and if that’s a premade dough from the store, or a pita, naan or other flatbread, then that’s what you use. Top, melt, enjoy. There is even a place for the pizza bagel at this pandemic dinner table. Just lightly toast it first, OK?