There is nothing more universally loved than fresh-from-the-oven, homemade pizza. It appeals to adults and children alike; it can accommodate meat-eaters and vegetarians; it never fails to impress.
And, once you get the oven hot, you can keep the pizzas coming every 10 minutes! Special requests of more cheese or no onions, for once, are not the least bit annoying.
But it does require the advance prep of making dough the night before, so it is never a last-minute endeavor. If you remember to buy fresh yeast (yeast is not something that can hang around in the pantry for months), you probably already have the rest of the ingredients for dough: water, flour, olive oil, salt, sugar.
That being said, it takes years to perfect the perfect pizza crust. I have made lovely crusts over the years, chewy, nicely browned along the edges, with impressive yeasty air pockets — but not one can compete with the likes of the ethereal pies at Osteria, even though this time I tried Marc Vetri’s recipe from his cookbook Rustic Italian Food.
My pizza is, however, a world above what I can order for take-out in my neighborhood, at a fraction of the cost. My favorite pie is the simple Margherita: marinara, fresh mozzarella cheese, and a few basil leaves. I also love the pistachio pizza made famous by Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix: a simple mix of pistachios, olive oil, red onion, Parmesan cheese, and fresh rosemary.
A few notes: If you want to make pizzas regularly, buy a pizza stone and a pizza peel (available at kitchen stores — Sur La Table, Crate and Barrel, and the like). The stone is placed in the oven and heated for about an hour before the pizza is cooked and helps to produce a crispy crust. The peel is a wooden paddle that makes sliding the pizza onto the stone much easier.
Once you get over the initial intimidation, pizza-making becomes a pleasure: There is satisfaction in kneading the dough until its texture turns silky under the heels of your hands, magic in the rising of the dough, and joy in pulling a hot, beautiful pizza from the oven. It may not be perfect, but in the end, that is also part of its appeal.
Makes 4 small pizzas
For the dough:
1 cup warm water
1 teaspoon instant active yeast
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
For the sauce:
1 16-ounce can peeled tomatoes, preferably San Marzano
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
One bunch fresh basil leaves, for sauce and topping
1 teaspoon salt
Pepper to taste
1/2 cup fresh mozzarella cheese, for topping
1. To make the dough: Place the water, yeast, and sugar in large bowl. Add olive oil and salt and let sit for 5 to 10 minutes until it becomes foamy.
2. Add the flour a little at a time, stirring as you go, until all of the flour is absorbed and dough pulls away from the side of the bowl. Form the dough into a ball, place on a flour-dusted work surface, and knead it about five minutes until it becomes silky, adding more flour as needed so it does not become sticky.
3. Place the dough back in the bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap. Allow it to rise in the refrigerator overnight.
4. Meanwhile, make the sauce. Crush the tomatoes, then mix in olive oil, salt, pepper, and about 5 basil leaves. Puree with an immersion blender.
5. Once the dough has risen and about an hour before you want to make the pizza, remove the dough from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature. Place a pizza stone in the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees. (If you have convection, turn it on for better results.)
6. Divide the dough into four balls. Spread flour on the counter and press one of the dough balls into a flat circle. Continue pressing with the heel of your hand. (You can also use a rolling pin to get it uniformly flat.) Once the dough is about 6 inches in diameter, you can pick it up and turn it around the edges, allowing the weight of the dough to stretch it even further.
7. When the dough is nice and thin, about 8 inches in diameter, place it on a pizza peel. (Dust the peel with cornmeal so it slides off easily.)
8. Ladle a thin layer of sauce onto the dough. Top with 5 to 6 thin slices of mozzarella cheese.
9. Carefully slide the pizza from the peel onto the stone in the hot oven.
10. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes, until crispy around the edges. Remove from the oven. Immediately top with 4 or 5 basil leaves. Slice and serve.
— Adapted from Rustic Italian Food, by Marc Vetri
Note: For pistachio pizza, top dough with 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese, 1 tablespoon chopped pistachio nuts, 8 thin slices of red onion, a pinch of fresh chopped rosemary, and 1 tablespoon olive oil.
Per serving (based on 8 servings): 298 calories, 7 grams protein, 39 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 2 grams fat, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 707 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber’.