Pizza in California is hit or miss, actually mostly just miss. It’s one of the reasons I started making my own pizza.
One of the rare bright spots is A16 in San Francisco where they make super thin Neapolitan style pizza with only a few top notch ingredients. Another is Cheeseboard Pizza in Berkeley, where we found ourselves this past weekend. The place is run by Socialists who, my guess is, have collectively agreed to make truly delicious pizza. They don’t conform to the conventional ways of making pizza either: one type of pizza a day, always vegetarian and never with any pizza sauce. You’d be forgiven if you weren’t tempted to try it based on that, but you’d be missing out on some of the best pizza in the Bay Area. There’s a reason the line stretches halfway around the block each and every day they’re open.
At some point, after being disappointed one too many times with the latest “must have” pizza in SF and surrounding area, I dedicated myself to learning how to make really good pizza at home, with a crappy oven and zero experience. I can’t say I’ve come close to mastering it yet, far from it, but I’m past the point now where I need to attend a pizza-making class – I’ve managed to pick up the basics from an A16 cookbook and a whole lot of trial and error. That, and watching the pizzaolo at Pizzeria Delfina (hint: forming pizza dough does not involve throwing it in the air).
Ingredients: A16 Neapolitan Pizza Dough
Makes 4 (9- to 10-inch pizzas)
- 1⁄4 teaspoon active dry yeast
- 1 1⁄2 cups warm water (100˚ to 105˚F)
- 2 teaspoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 4 cups “00” flour or all-purpose flour
- Toppings of choice (recipes follow)
- Extra virgin olive oil
To make the dough, in a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast over the warm water and let proof for 10 minutes. If the yeast has not dissolved into a soft, frothy paste in that time, get a fresher batch and repeat the process. Stir in the olive oil and salt.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine the flour and yeast mixture and mix together on low speed for about 2 minutes, or until the dough is shaggy and most of the water has been absorbed. Knead on medium-low speed for about 10 minutes, or until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl and looks smoother. Cover the bowl with a damp kitchen towel and let rest for 5 minutes. Knead on medium-low speed for an additional 10 minutes, or until the dough is very smooth, soft, and warm to the touch.
Lightly coat a large bowl with olive oil. Transfer the dough to the bowl, turn the dough so that both sides are lightly coated in oil, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight.
The next day, punch down the dough with your fist, then fold over the sides and turn the dough over in the bowl. Re-cover and return to the refrigerator for at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and place it on a floured work surface. Divide the dough into 4 equal pieces. One at a time, cup the pieces in your hands and tuck under the sides until you have formed a smooth ball. Place the balls on the floured work surface, providing plenty of room between the balls, and cover with a damp kitchen towel. Let the balls proof for 1 1⁄2 to 2 hours, or until doubled in volume. I also like to spray a sheet pan with cooking spray and cover with a sheet of plastic wrap, also sprayed to avoid any sticking.
To make your oven pizza ready, place a pizza stone on the upper rack, 4-5 inches from the broiler and preheat the oven to its maximum temperature (typically between 500˚ and 550˚F) for at least 30 minutes, 45 min – 1 hour if you can.
To shape a ball of dough into a pizza base, place it on a well-floured work surface. Using the tips of your fingers, pat down the ball, flattening it into a disk. Place the palm of one hand in the center of the dough and gently but firmly press down. At the same time, with the other hand, pull the dough outward while rotating it clockwise to form a flat circle with a slightly raised edge, or cornicione. If the dough feels resistant as you stretch it, set it aside, covered with a damp kitchen towel, while you work on a second ball of dough. This will give the gluten a chance to rest, making the dough more pliable once you return to it. The entire time you are working on the dough, maintain a thin layer of flour underneath it to prevent it from sticking. If you don’t feel confident handling pizza dough, try starting with a rolling pin to ensure you begin with an even circle, and then return to hand stretching. Continue to stretch the dough, allowing time for it to relax as needed, until it is 10 to 12 inches in diameter.
Generously dust a pizza peel or a rimless baking sheet with flour. Slide the pizza base onto the peel, and then immediately shake the peel to ensure the dough isn’t sticking to it. Dress the base with the selected toppings. To transfer the pizza to the pizza stone, place the peel over the stone and quickly jerk it back. The pizza should slide smoothly off the peel onto the stone in one piece. It is important to bake the pizza immediately after putting the toppings on it, or the dough will soften and stick to the peel. If you are grilling the pizza, follow the instructions below, making sure not to add any of the toppings until the base has been brushed with olive oil, grilled on the first side, and flipped over.
Bake the pizza for 8-9 minutes, or until the dough is crisp and golden brown and the top is bubbling. Take care not to open the oven door often to maintain the high oven temperature. Using the peel or baking sheet, remove the pizza from the oven, drizzle with olive oil, and cut into squares (Tavern cut, as they say in the Midwest) 4 pieces with a knife or pizza cutter. Serve at once. Repeat with the remaining 3 balls.
There isn’t one single trick to making really good pizza, I’ve found. It comes down to setting yourself up with the right equipment and a few other essentials: a good pizza stone, pizza peel, using the right amount of cheese and toppings. I still have a lot of tasty trial and error ahead of me, but I have come a long way from the soggy, often undercooked and sometimes bland attempts I’ve made in the past. The good news is pizza is always very forgiving. You can get away with a lot and it’ll still taste pretty good. The one thing you can’t screw up though, is the crust.
Ingredients – Mushroom and Sottocenere Pizza:
- Neapolitan pizza dough (recipe above)
- 3/4 cup sottocenere cheese (Italian truffle cheese), shredded
- 3/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- 1 cup white or crimini mushrooms, sliced, then sauteed with 2 tbsp olive oil, a little thyme and salt
- olive oil
For this particular pizza, top it like this:
1. sottocerne cheese
3. mozzarella cheese
When it comes out of the oven, drizzle a little olive oil on top and slice into squares.