I might not have heard the story at all if I hadn't been waylaid by this greasy Irish wop named Gino just before we turned off Main Street. Back then Gino was always waylaying me -- he could reach right through a closed car window and do it.
Gino's Fine Italian Pizza is on the corner of Main and Basin Drive, and every time I saw that sign with the pizza going up in the air and all the i's dotted with shamrocks (it flashed off and on at night, how funky can you get, am I right?), I'd feel the waylaying start again. And tonight my mother would be in class, which meant a pick-up supper at home. The prospect didn't fill me with joy. Neither my dad nor I was much of a cook, and Ellie would burn water.
"Let's get a pizza," I said, pulling into Gino's parking lot. "What do you say? A big greasy one that smells like armpits."
"Jesus, Dennis, that's gross!"
"Clean armpits," I amended. "Come on."
Gino's is run by a wonderful Italian fellow named Pat Donahue. He has a sticker on his cash register which reads IRISH MAFIA, he serves green beer on St Patrick's Day (on March 17 you can't even get near Gino's, and one of the cuts on the jukebox is Rosemary Clooney singing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling"), and affects a black derby hat, which he usually wears tipped far back on his head.
The juke is an old Wurlitzer bubbler, a holdover from the late forties, and all the records -- not just Rosemary Clooney -- are on the Prehistoric label. It may be the last jukebox in America where you get three plays for a quarter. On the infrequent occasions when I smoke a little dope, it's Gino's I fantasize about -- just walking in there and ordering three loaded pizzas, a quart of Pepsi, and six or seven of Pat Donahue's home-made fudge brownies. Then I imagine just sitting down and scarfing everything up while a steady stream of Beach Boys and Rolling Stones hits pours out of that juke.
-- Stephen King, Christine
Good pizza is one of the most satisfying meals there is, up there with cassoulet, grits, and a nice vegetable soup. I love pizza.
... but I didn't always.
It's true. I loved pizza when I was a little kid, and was very excited to discover that on the first day of school (EVER), we were going to have pizza for lunch. For LUNCH! Can you imagine? I was so thrilled. So in I went to the cafeteria, and was served ... some terrible square thing, with that cheese that doesn't quite melt, that too-sweet sauce, that cardboard crust, and ... look, you know school cafeteria pizza.
Well, I didn't eat pizza again for six or seven years.
Now, this is thirty years ago, so forgive me if I can't wiggle out my exact reasoning at the time, but I think it was something like this:
Holy shit, they broke pizza.
It's like I just assumed that either pizza had stopped being good, or that I had abruptly stopped liking it. After a couple years, I obviously realized this couldn't be the case, but I'd gotten in the habit of having a meatball grinder and a Ramblin' root beer (or a Dr Pepper: like Jesus and Kurt Cobain, we were graced with Ramblin's presence for too brief a time) any time pizza was on the menu, and let me tell you, meatball grinders up here -- especially at C&S Pizza in Pepperell, Massachusetts, which is where my family usually got pizza -- are fantastic.
But I eventually came back to pizza, just in time for my teens, for having enough pocket money to split a cheese pizza three or four or eight ways just to have something to do other than going home, for driving to Little Caesars to get two pepperoni pizzas and hit Rally's for a sack of cheeseburgers on the way back, and eventually the pizza/cafeteria relationship came full circle in high school, when a bunch of people would pile into a couple cars and hit the all you can eat lunch buffet at Pizza Hut in lieu of eating at the cafeteria.
After high school, I lived in other places, and came back to southern New Hampshire thirteen years later, at age 31 -- with a new appreciation of pizza, because Jesus fuck, in most of the country nobody can make it worth a damn. There are five foods New Hampshire is very good at: corned beef hash, steak subs, black raspberry ice cream, fried seafood (really fried clams and fried haddock, I just didn't want to list them separately), and pizza.
There's this Pizza Cognition Theory that says the pizza you grow up with is what you measure pizza by, and I suppose that explains why so many good folks in good parts of the country are content by galactically shitty pizza or actually bother to waste their money on Pizza Hut and Dominos.
I have had very little good pizza, and even less excellent pizza, outside the northeast (to be clear, I've never been to Chicago). It's probably not a coincidence that the best pizzas I've had outside the northeast have been the more unusual ones -- the ones that were really "food on flatbread" rather than a failed attempt to emulate traditional pizza.
So let me introduce you around to the pizzas near me.
First off, here's C&S, in Pepperell, Massachusetts. This is, was, and remains my #1 pizza parlor. I don't go very often cause, well, it's in Pepperell, and I'm never there for anything else. C&S is a good example of the Greek-style pizza parlors of New England, which nearly always have subs, gyros, Greek salads, and baked pasta dishes (which might include American chop suey), but do not as commonly have steak bombs, that other staple of the central New England pizza parlor.
That's the bacon pizza from C&S. The crust of the Greek-style pizza is thicker than the local Italian-style, but not as thick as national chains' pan pizza, nor Chicago's deep dish. The sauce is zestier than Italian-style; if you order sausage, it will often include noticeable amounts of fennel.
This is the Pizza Americano, from my #2 pizza parlor: Stromboli's, in Billerica, Massachusetts. The Americano is double pepperoni, double cheese. Stromboli's serves Italian-style brick oven pizza, and skews towards what you might call the neo-classical -- too many fancy ingredients for it to be a "traditional pizza joint," but they're all Italian, not mashed potato and chicken curry and what all.
Stromboli's serves an amazing white pizza, something that's easy to take for granted in the northeast. I didn't fully grow up with it -- you tend to find white pizza at the Italian-style pizzerias far more than the Greek-style ones -- but it was a specialty at Elvio's, in Center Harbor, NH, where my family has a place on the lake. And Elvio's was near about walking distance -- hell, it's summer, we didn't have much else to do -- so I went there a lot more often as a teenager than I would have had I had to wait for my parents to want pizza again. Elvio's isn't there anymore, but there's a new pizza joint in the same location, and they're still real good:
As you can see, the Center Harbor white pizza sprinkles some herbs on top.
White pizza comes a few different ways: pizza with Alfredo sauce (really "white-sauce pizza," but some places that serve it will just call it "white pizza"), pizza that's just like red sauce pizza but without the sauce (cheese directly on top of the crust), and pizza in which instead of the red sauce, you've got some olive oil, some chopped garlic, maybe some ricotta -- some sort of flavor between the cheese and the crust. That third is what I think of as what white pizza should be -- a little garlicky, a little oily, with some good ricotta. Lot of people don't like ricotta cheese, or think they don't -- I'm guessing they've just never had it good.
That's Stromboli's salsicchia -- sausage and ricotta. Damn good. See how the crust is thinner and flatter than the C&S pizza? Italian-style. Notice the amount of cornmeal dusting too.
I don't know why I don't have more, or better, photos from this pizzeria, but this is my #3 pizza parlor, Papa Romano's, in Nashua. That's the meatball pizza, and meatball pizza is a special feature of pizza around here, and Papa's has its own spin on it, so let me back up and explain that first.
First, typical "meatball pizza" around here has nothing to do with meatballs. It's an offering of the Greek-style pizza parlors, and what you get is strips of highly seasoned gyro-like meat on your pizza. Sometimes the meatball subs are the same, so that you get "meat strips" instead of "meat balls." I had no idea growing up that every pizza parlor in the country didn't serve meatball pizza, though I should've twigged to it since Pizza Hut doesn't serve it.
Now, Papa's isn't a Greek-style place. I think Matt calls them Italian-style -- and the crust fits that description -- but I think they're in their own category, slightly skewed from the traditional Greek/Italian/new-school/bullshit-national-chain categories of the New England pizzeria landscape. The meatball topping is more like the meatballs you make at home, only crumbled up onto the pizza instead of balled up and simmered in sauce.
Though I'm listing Papa's as my #3, they're the first local option on my list here, and they deliver. So as you can imagine, I've had an awful lot of their pizza ... just not lately. They haven't answered the phone any time I've tried ordering in the last couple months, and I'm not quite sure what's going on. Keep your fingers crossed. Not only are they terrific, but they're cheaper than most, and the steak subs were until recently the best in the area (they've declined in quality in that category).
My #4 for a long time was Monument Square Market, in Hollis. I've talked to the owner quite a bit about pizza, and he knows a lot about what he's doing, and why he uses the brand of pepperoni he does, etc. I always get some variation of "pepperoni, ricotta, and--" -- in this case, the "and" is sausage. MSM was a convenience store when I was a kid, and more or less still is, except half of it's taken up by the pizza oven and deli counter, and the beer selection's a lot better.
Why's it not my #4 anymore? Because two times in a row, when I ordered "pepperoni, ricotta, and--," they put the ricotta on INSTEAD of the mozzarella, not ON TOP of mozzarella. The first time I thought it was a mistake, didn't think to say anything about it. The second time, the owner was there and I didn't think to doublecheck my pizza until I got it home. I've ordered that pizza 20 times, I've talked to him about that pizza and why I like those particular toppings together -- it makes me wonder if they're deliberately leaving the mozzarella off to save money. I don't know. Either way, they fucked up twice, and at the prices they charge (they're the most expensive pizzeria on this list and don't deliver), that doesn't encourage me to go back.
This is a terrible photo of pizza from my new #4, the Nashua House of Pizza, a Greek-style joint. Sausage and gyro on the left; spinach pie on the right.
The spinach pie is without a doubt one of the best pizzas in the region. It's like a white pizza with spinach, garlicky and very rich. That's one reason I'm including it despite the quality of the photo -- I feel like discussion of the local pizza scene would be incomplete without Nashua House's spinach pie.
So that's my family tree, you dig. And that brings us into the complicated matter of authenticity.
Now as you know, I think the whole idea of authenticity is basically bullshit. Why should anyone, why should a single person outside of Italy, give a shit how they make their pizza? I'm not saying there's anything wrong with Italian pizza. I'm saying there's no reason to consider it the best, to consider it the standard against which other pizzas should be measured, or to consider it at all. There's no reason food should be like that. That would be like doing Goodfellas in British accents, or letting your grandfather decide which college classes you should take and who you should date. It doesn't really matter where pizza comes from. The regional pizza styles of New York, New England, Chicago -- Japan, for that matter, with its corn and shrimp and goddamn Hello Kitty designs squirted out in mayonnaise -- are no less real just because some other pizza preceded them. The notion that they are is bullshit nonsense left over from colonial thinking.
I think the Pizza Cognition Theory makes a lot more sense. You basically inherit your idea, your ideal, of pizza -- it's not "real" exactly, the way authenticity-fetishists claim their Neapolitan whatever represents a more "real" pizza than later adulterations. But it's real to you. It certainly affects your taste, what you want, what satisfies a pizza craving, and ultimately that's what pizza is and all it can be -- that thing which satisfies your pizza craving.
Politically, I'm a moderate, a centrist, a Clinton Democrat, which means frequently taking the intelligent but unthrilling position of saying "what you just said is wrong, but so is its opposite." So too with pizza. I think the authenticity-fetishism that wants to turn back the clock and only acknowledge pizza as it's made in Naples is ridiculous, even anti-food, anti-cooking -- but I think the "anything goes, do whatever the fuck you want and call it pizza" attitude is appalling.
Pizza on a bagel is not "pizza anytime," jingle be damned, because it isn't pizza at all.
Pizza on French bread isn't pizza.
Pizza with barbecue sauce isn't pizza. Sorry Indiana.
Chicken curry on flatbread isn't pizza. It's curry on flatbread.
Now that doesn't mean any of those are bad food. But words need to have some limits or there's no point to them at all, and just as "slider" can't mean "small sandwich" or we lose the word completely, "pizza" can't mean "some food on flatbread." It has to be more specific than that.
That's why white pizza is called white pizza -- just like a turkey burger is called a turkey burger. Because people know that if you say "burger" without a modifier, you mean beef, and if you say "pizza," you mean tomato sauce.
"Food on flatbread" can be really really good without being pizza. Look, I love a Reuben. But if there were no word for "Reuben," and you tried to convince me that "corned beef, sauerkraut, and Russian dressing on rye" was a "hamburger" just because there was no other word for it, as though some sort of grammatical rounding-up were possible, I would punch you right in the face. "But it has beef and bread and it's really good --" IT IS NOT A HAMBURGER. DAMN. That's what people keep trying to do with "pizza" -- and with "burger," for that matter! Sons of bitches. This is like calling all vegetables "potato," and having to constantly explain what kind of potato you mean. "Can I interest you in some Buffalo wings with a side of celery-potato and carrot-potato to dip in your ranch dressing?" NO. NEVER SAY CARROT-POTATO AGAIN.
So when I'm ordering pizza, when I say "let's get some pizza," these are my "rules" for "what I mean by pizza." Now, keep in mind these are more narrow than I would expect the world at large to follow, because it's a combination of "what I think the word pizza must mean and how it must be used" with "what I think makes for a good pizza."
Crust: not cracker-thin but not bready. Noticeable flavor.
Sauce: tomato-based, zesty, not too creatively spiced.
Cheese: not too much. "Extra cheese pizza" is a distinctly different pizza. Pizza is about the balance of ingredients, and heaping the cheese on shifts that balance enough to make it a whole different thing, in as real a way as leaving the Russian or Thousand Island off of a Reuben makes it a totally different sandwich.
Toppings: if there's more than one topping, vegetables should not outnumber meats. There should be no more than four toppings (probably no more than three, I'm just open to the possibility of four). Ricotta, feta, anchovy, and garlic do not count as toppings for the purposes of these rules.
Obvious variants: The above describes what is meant by "pizza" without a modifier, just as "burger" without a modifier means "made with beef," which doesn't invalidate the turkey burger but requires it to be separately named. Variants on this modifier-free pizza therefore include: spinach pie; white pizza; extra-cheese pizza; tomato pie (cheeseless, or with cheese under the sauce); chili pizza; clam pie (white or red); macaroni and cheese pizza; fried egg pizza; chicken pizza (which I think can be very good, but which is as different from this narrowcast "traditional pizza" as a turkey burger is). Variants are not lesser pizzas. They just have their own names.
Like I said under cheese, these rules are about balance. Pizza Hut and its imitators make their name on "super supreme" pizzas, which pile toppings on until they're rolling off the slice, which totally misses the point. Not only should you not have that many toppings, the total volume of toppings -- regardless of how many different toppings are involved -- should never overwhelm the pizza like that. You should taste the cheese. You should taste the sauce. You should taste the crust. Distrust any pizza involving toppings you wouldn't want with tomato sauce and cheese. Too many toppings will also keep the cheese from melting properly.
Pizza involves a near-emulsion of cheese and sauce with crust. The toppings become trapped in the cheese, and don't fall off when you pick up a slice. That's pizza.
So that's eating pizza. Let's talk about making pizza.
Now, I gotta say this: when it comes to pizza, cocktails, baking, confectionery, the use of smokers, charcuterie, hamburgers, or beer, there are blogs out there that will give you much more extensive coverage than I will, because they are devoted just to that thing. I'm not a specialist. I'm a generalist. There are people who buy professional pizza ovens or build wood-burning pizza ovens in their backyards, just as there are people who build barbecue pits or have temperature- or climate-controlled spaces for their charcuterie. I am not one of them. While lack of resources plays a role, it's also that I enjoy being a generalist, I'm a generalist by nature. Even if someone built a brick pizza oven for me, using it would require a greater degree of devotion than I really want to give, because it would take time away from other areas of cooking.
I probably wouldn't make pizza if it had to be a big production every time. Some people want cooking to be like that. They want it to be all elaborate and flowery, for it to be a big performance, like they're putting on a show for you, like this basic everyday act of survival is something you're supposed to applaud. Hell, a lot of cooking blogs leave you with the impression that the blogger treats cooking that way, as something done for an audience. Fuck that. Hey, Martha Stewart, you already have a holiday for that -- Thanksgiving. You want another one, I'll give you Arbor Day. I cook pizza because I want to eat pizza. Because it's a good way to use good tomatoes. Because it's not too hard once you figure it out, and it's not very expensive, and it's easy to keep the ingredients around.
So what I want from homemade pizza is:
1: Something that is recognizably pizza, which is where all of the homemade pizza I see on the Food Network etc fails. Red sauce glopped on top of a thick piece of bread isn't pizza.
2: Something that tastes great.
3: Something that does not take forever to make, though advance planning (making dough in advance, etc) is fine.
4: Something that doesn't break the bank.
Here's the thing. I treat homemade pizza like homemade barbecue. I can't make "the real thing" at home, because home kitchens aren't suited for it -- if you can't put a smoker in your backyard, you can't make real barbecue at home. That doesn't mean you can't make pretty good pulled pork, though! Likewise, though I can't make pizza at home that's the really-real real thing, it doesn't mean I can't make something worth eating.
I make pizza very simply:
Preheat oven, for an hour or so, to 500 degrees or more. Put a heavy cast-iron pan in the oven at some point in there, to get hot -- it doesn't need to stay for an hour, though. No, I don't have a pizza stone.
Meanwhile, bring your pizza dough to room temperature. Assemble your other ingredients.
When you're ready to go, work fast. Pull the cast-iron out of the oven. Dust it liberally with cornmeal. Stretch the dough out as thin as you can and put it on the cast-iron. Spread sauce thinly on the crust, toss cheese on, toss toppings on, put it back in the oven and bake until ready.
It should take less than ten minutes to cook. Even this is really too long, but you don't have a pizza oven and neither do I.
Some specific discussion:
Crust. I don't have a pizza crust recipe for you. I haven't worked one out that I'm really happy with yet. Either it's reasonably easy to work with, or it tastes great, or it cooks up with just the right texture -- sometimes two of these three, never yet all three at once. I've found storebought dough -- not crust! not Boboli flatbreads or anything, but the premade dough -- is pretty pretty good. It's also far more than you need for a pizza. Use half. Maybe even a third.
Sauce. In tomato season, thinly sliced fresh tomatoes can be great. Outside of tomato season, don't use anything too watery -- it'll increase your cooking time -- and don't use too much sauce. People get this wrong allll the time. You should not cover up the dough with sauce. It should remain visible, not enshrouded in red.
Cheese. Forget fresh mozzarella. You don't have a pizza oven. Do you understand how much moisture is in fresh mozzarella? Even at 500 degrees, it will sog up your pizza and either increase your cooking time or keep your dough from fully cooking, or both. If you want to use fresh mozzarella sparingly, use it as a topping -- small pieces of it (never big thick rounds!) interspersed around the pizza, with plenty of space between them. Do not crowd them.
You are much, much better off using dry mozzarella. Fresh mozzarella is better in salads anyway. Fresh mozzarella is fine -- terrific! -- in pizzeria pizza, but you can't make that at home. I have to keep coming back to this. It's important to understand that you are never going to discover some trick that will fool your kitchen into thinking you have a professional pizza oven. A home oven just isn't the same equipment, period. There are no secrets to uncover, only the acknowledgment of your local limitations.
Pecorino, parmesan, feta, and ricotta are all swell in addition to mozzarella, not instead of it. Mozzarella is made to be stringy.
One trick: save a handful of mozzarella aside while the pizza cooks; toss it on as soon as you remove the pizza from the oven. The heat of the pizza will melt it. This is the best way to make "extra cheese pizza" at home.
Toppings. Because you don't have a pizza oven, any meat that isn't ready to be eaten as-is should be precooked -- bacon, hamburger, fresh sausage. Whether or not vegetables should be precooked is a matter of personal preference. Be spare with your toppings.
Some pizzas I've made at home:
Pizza with ramps and meatballs. I'll explain ramps when they come into season in a couple months. This pizza was slightly overcooked, though not as badly as it may seem -- there were only a couple bites where you could tell.
Pizza with a little bit of fresh mozzarella; sliced fresh tomatoes instead of sauce; pepperoni. That's chopped Cuban oregano from my garden on top. The crust is a little too bready.
Again slightly too bready, but a phenomenal-tasting crust, thanks in part to the Pecorino Romano mixed into the dough. Sliced tomatoes, sliced peppers, Pecorino Romano, and bacon. A combination of dry mozzarella, crushed red peppers, and dry herbs was sprinkled onto the pizza after baking. A very flavorful late summer pizza that complemented the flavor of the tomatoes.
Pan-fried pizza: heat olive oil in a cast-iron pan on the stove, and get ready to quickly assemble the pizza in the pan: spread crust out to just the right size and place it in the oil; as it fries, ladle a small amount of sauce, followed by a small amount of thinly-sliced pepperoni or other toppings, and top with dry mozzarella; when the crust has mostly cooked through, lift pizza onto plate, pour excess oil out, flip pan onto plate, and invert pan and plate together so that the pizza is now cheese-side-down. Let cook for a few minutes until cheese hardens, as pictured. Serve with additional sauce, preferably mixed with anchovies.
And that's about all I have to say about pizza right now.