Unlike Casa Uborka, we residents of Casa Brigouras have not been making pizza for the better part of a decade. Like Bernard, though, we have certainly been eating it that long, and would also claim it as our very favorite food. (Well, the -ouras half of our clan makes that claim. The Brig- half may prefer kippers or something.)
As a New Yorker, you’re born with a very strong opinion about pizza. And if you happen to migrate here later in life, it’s part of the You’re A Local Now kit, which also includes the ability to say “heyyyy! I’M WALKIN HERE!” like you mean it.
After a decade of eating the best pizza in the whole entire world (if you’re wondering, my personal greats are Nick’s in Forest Hills and Lucali in Carroll Gardens tied for classic Neapolitan pie, La Villa in Park Slope for grandma pie on focaccia, and DiFara’s in Midwood for transcendent classic New York slice) I decided to try importing that excellence into my own kitchen. Here is that chronicle.
I started out buying my dough from the local pizzaolo, since I figured he’s already making edible pizza and I was really intimidated by dough. This year, though, I decided to sack up already and try my hand at it, mostly because I was given Smitten Kitchen’s incredibly excellent cookbook, and in reading it (what, you don’t all read your cookbooks start to finish?) I noticed that she walks you through it very simply. And when Deb offers to take your hand and dispel your fears, you can trust that the results will be marvelous. So now I make her leisurely pizza dough first thing in the morning. It only takes about 15 minutes, and I find it invigorating to knead the dough while staring out our eastward-facing kitchen window and thinking about the day. Deb’s dough recipe makes one pizza pie of about 13-15 inches in width (it’s quite a thin crust, what is this, Chicago?), and it’s very forgiving. I’ve recently been told to try 00 flour from Italy which is more specifically suited for pizza, but so far my pies have been delicious with regular all-purpose flour.
When I first started making pizzas with the pizzaolo’s dough, I also used cooked sauces (made at home). I would simply preserve some of the marinara I make regularly for pasta, and sauce the pie with that. However, in my research I learned that traditionally, Neapolitan pizza is made with raw tomato sauce, since the sauce will cook on the pie and this leaves you with the fresh, slightly sweet tomato flavor, and none of the tangy acidity of already-cooked sauce. So now I follow Smitten’s sauce recipe, as well, using 100% pure tomatoes (usually Pomi’s wonderful strained variety which has the right consistency). I add a few pinches of red pepper flakes, salt, a pinch of sugar and a drop or two of red wine vinegar. This is very much a taste-and-adjust process.
I’m not militantly committed to either my dough or my sauce recipe, but I am absolutely firm on the cheese; it has to be fresh (and freshly purchased) whole milk salted mozzarella. I’ve tried the pie with pre-shredded or packaged mozz and it never quite tastes like the pies at Lucali or Nick’s, which is what I’m always aiming for. (For more words than you might ever want to read about fresh mozzarella, here’s my favorite food nerd, J Kenji Lopez-Alt from at Serious Eats, waxing quite lyrical on the subject.) I shred it coarsely while the pie is cooking, and roughly a cup of cheese usually does the trick.
Making the pie
So now that I’ve bored most of you to tears with the components of my perfect Neapolitan pie, here’s how it actually happens.
1. I get home and take the dough out of the fridge and start pre-heating the stone, with the oven set to 500F. Cook’s Illustrated, the most pedantic magazine you’ve ever read about cooking and my absolute bible of extreme food nerdery, says a stone pre-heated for 15 minutes will have the surface temperature of 291F, while a stone pre-heated for an hour will actually reach 509F, and the hottest possible stone means the best char on the crust, approximating what happens in a 900F commercial pizza oven.
3. Once my stone is ready and my dough is room temperature, I roll it out until it’s just as wide, if not a little wider, than the stone. It’ll shrink up the minute it hits the hot stone, so I adjust for that. This crust pictured is QUITE thin, and in this photographed pie-making, I might have made it too big. Live and learn, yeah?
4. I make sure all my components are ready. We’re not quite at the extra-toppings phase that Casa Uborka has achieved, mostly because I like to perfect the base version of a recipe before variating things, and I’ve only just mastered (or not quite, FORESHADOWING) this process. Once the dough hits the stone, I have to move quickly to sauce and cheese everything, and then slide it into the oven. Unless …
5. … medical plot twist! I burned my upper arm when it touched the stone, as I lowered it into the oven, and now I have a welt the size of a happily well-fed slug. I did not photograph this for you, since I respect your delicate sensitivities.
6. For the 7-9 minutes that my pizza takes to cook, I do two things: first, shred some basil and grate a few tablespoons of parmesan Reggiano to toss onto the hot pie after it’s finished. Two, I obsessively stare at my beautiful bubbling pizza pie like a creepy stalker through the oven door. Except this time, I was applying cold water and aloe to a very nasty looking burn so that was a third thing I was doing. Oh well! I plan to relish my war wound, earned in pursuit of the perfectly charred crust.
7. Once the cheese just starts to look like it has read the prospectus and is considering turning brown, I take it out of the oven and slide the pie gently onto the counter, making sure that my stone stays on the warm stovetop (I don’t want to lose an expensive pizza stone to thermal shock). I dress the pie with the basil and the finely grated parmesan, and maybe a light twirl of good olive oil, and leave it for a minute.
Usually here I also crow with delight.
8. The best part: now we eat the pie. I will probably also Instagram it.
*don’t know what all of these things mean? You have some reading to do.