Pizza is perfect, as everybody knows. It combines all the major food groups — carbs, cheese and weird/savory fruit — to form a paragon of umami, one that is unparalleled by any other comestible. Pizza is perfect eaten hot at lunchtime, throughout the evening or in the staggering late of night; it is also perfection eaten cold, in the morning or thereabouts, standing in front of the fridge like a barbarian. Most pizza is triangular, the ideal aerodynamic shape for shoving into the piehole as well as neat to eat while walking down the street. Even kind-of-bad pizza is pretty good, and great pizza is the second — or at most the third — best thing in life.
Pizza is especially perfect for these coronavirus times. Pizza by delivery just feels normal, at a time when just feeling normal is singularly marvelous — shout out to Seattle’s Pagliacci, offering adult beverages along with its no-contact pie drop-off, while also supporting other local businesses with special days of cheer-up giveaways of treats like Trophy Cupcakes. Pizza taken to go from our best sit-down spots — Delancey and Dino’s are two of my go-tos — helps us recollect that our world can still contain stellar moments. And making your own pizza is, come to find out, the perfect pandemic hobby (and it also gives you an excuse to eat lots of delivery and takeout pizza, as thorough research is essential).
Whatever with baking bread — that’s too easy. Making pizza involves bread and sauce and materials science and the fact that your home oven is really probably never going to be quite hot enough. Onward and sideways! Making pizza is a project, and it is fun to try, over and over, getting better every time (with maybe a few glaring exceptions). The pursuit of pizza perfection lends itself to obsession, but, you know, the good kind of obsession rather than waiting with bated breath for the day’s COVID-19 numbers to come in. Making pizza is a journey, which, at least in my case, shows no signs of ever ending.
I had not made pizza since an early phase of experimentation, subsequently operating under the (sound) principle that when other people are much, much better at making something than you are, pay them and enjoy. I’m not ashamed to admit that this time around, on the recommendation of more than one friend, I started training-wheels-style with a ball of Trader Joe’s premade pizza dough. My/his pie came out arguably better than decent! If Trader Joe can make all-right dough, I thought, how hard could it be to make it actually really good?
Oh, past Bethany, if only present Bethany could have warned you: Pizza crust is not something about which one ought to be cavalier. I took a recipe given to me some years back for a massive quantity of dough reportedly used in a mafia-run East Coast pizzeria, perused a few more recipes online, and then pretty much winged it, carefully noting my semirandom amounts of ingredients in order to share the results with you … haha! The crust came out terrible: almost tasteless, except also somehow tasting paste-y, while also crackery-dry. Falling into a depression, I left the two remaining dough balls in the fridge for a couple of days, almost threw them away, scolded myself about food waste, then halfheartedly made more pizza. And hey, just like the experts say, pizza dough — and evidently even abysmal pizza dough — gets better with a little fermentation! Still, though: not great.
As I began obsessing about finding the very best pizza crust recipe, I thought of the pizza crust obsession of one Brandon Pettit. Prior to opening Delancey in Ballard in 2009 and, later, Dino’s on Capitol Hill, he took multiple pilgrimages to try the country’s most revered pies, from Pizzeria Bianco in Phoenix to Di Fara Pizza in New York. He tasted their dough raw; he felt it with his hands. He tried making his own dough with different kinds of water (no difference); he made pizza in different states. I don’t believe it’s an overstatement to say that his crust-results, both the thin at Delancey and the cushy at Dino’s, are magic.
I texted him, and he sent me this overnight dough recipe, plus his version of pizza sauce (which real pizzerias don’t cook, easy peasy). My first batch of his dough is resting in the fridge right now. Lacking a pizza stone and having an enervated, ancient electric stove, I’ve been making my pizzas on the back of a cast-iron skillet inside a gas grill — this should probably fall into the don’t-try-this-at-home category unless you, too, want to melt your olive-oil brush. (If you do want to mess with this madness, after putting your cast iron face down on the grill, close it and turn it all the way up; when it’s hot as hell, open it and quickly coat the pan-back in olive oil — use a wadded-up paper towel — then slide your pizza onto it and slam the grill closed. Look for blackening bubbles on top and lift the edge of the pie to check for nice browning-to-blackening of the underside indicating doneness, but resist frequent peeking — as Pettit says below, you’ll just lose heat.) Pettit calls for a pizza peel — those big paddles the professionals use — and I’ve been making do with a wooden cutting board, which has made for some foldy, crumpled panic-pies, but also some practically perfect ones. I can’t wait to try again.
Brandon Pettit’s pizza dough
Note: This dough needs to rest overnight, so pizza-plan ahead.
Yield: Four 11-inch pizzas
¼ teaspoon active dry yeast
467 grams (about 2 cups) cold water
2 tablespoons olive oil (optional)
681 grams (5½ cups) all-purpose flour
19 grams (3½ teaspoons) kosher salt
1. Mix the yeast with the water and oil in a large bowl, then stir until it has dissolved. Set aside.
2. Mix the flour with the salt. Add the flour mixture to the water gradually, stirring with a wooden spoon. Once all of the flour is incorporated, it will be difficult to stir. It’s OK if it doesn’t look even. Mix by hand, if needed, to get all of the dry bits of flour incorporated. Do not knead — you are not trying to develop gluten.
3. Place the dough in a large bowl covered with a kitchen towel or plate and let it rise at room temperature. The goal is for the dough to smell yeasty and a bit sour, and it should grow to 2.5 times its original size. To get maximum flavor, this should take around 16-20 hours. If it is ready sooner, then note to use less yeast at that temperature. When the dough has finished rising, place it in the fridge to chill completely.
4. Once the dough has chilled, cut the dough into 4 portions.
5. Shape the portioned dough into balls.
6. Place the dough balls a few inches apart on a floured sheet pan. Seal tightly and allow to rest for at least an hour, so the gluten can relax. If you are not using them within an hour, they can be chilled in the fridge for up to 24 hours or frozen for up to a month. Be sure to remove them from the fridge 45 minutes before stretching them, because dough that is cooler than 65 degrees is difficult to stretch.
How to make pizza the Brandon Pettit way
1. Place a sheet pan on the bottom of the oven and line it with quarry tiles. Alternatively, you can use a pizza stone, but the smaller surface area will not create as much heat. Preheat the oven as high as it will go for at least an hour before you start baking.
2. One at a time, stretch or toss your pizza until roughly 11 inches in diameter — any larger and it will be too thin and prone to drying out in a home oven.
3. Place the stretched pizza dough onto a very lightly floured pizza peel and begin topping. If you are making a New York-style red pie, you’ll need ½ cup of tomato sauce, 6-7 chunks of fresh mozzarella, ½ -¾ cup of aged mozzarella and whatever toppings you like. If you are making a white pie, add 6-7 chunks of fresh mozzarella, ½ -¾ cup of aged mozzarella, 6-7 chunks of ricotta, a drizzle of olive oil and whatever toppings you like. Remember that thin crust pizza wants minimal toppings — too much cheese or sauce will sog out the bottom crust. Also, move quickly, before that pizza sticks to the peel!
4. Give the pizza peel a shake to make sure that it isn’t stuck — if it is, lift up the edges and toss some flour underneath it. Open the oven and place the peel all the way in, at an angle, with the pizza directly above where you want it to land. Gently shake the peel back, letting the pizza fall into place.
5. Close the oven and bake the pizza until it is nicely charred (but resist peeking too often — you’ll just lose heat).
6. Remove the pizza from the oven and grate some fresh Parmesan or Grana cheese on top. Slice and eat immediately.
Brandon Pettit’s pizza sauce
Yield: 4 cups
Three 14-ounce cans of tomatoes, liquid drained
1 small garlic clove, pressed
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
½ teaspoon sugar
A small pinch of oregano
1 splash red wine vinegar (optional, if the tomatoes are not bright-tasting)
1. Combine all of the ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth (or use a big bowl and an immersion blender).
Delancey: 1415 N.W. 70th St., Seattle; 206-838-1960; delanceyseattle.com; current takeout hours Monday-Friday 5-9 p.m., Saturday-Sunday 4:30-9 p.m. (subject to change)
Dino’s Tomato Pie: 1524 E. Olive Way, Seattle; 206-4031742; dinostomatopie.com; current takeout/delivery hours 3-10 p.m. daily (subject to change)