I call it “-ish” because my brick oven pizza doesn’t strictly adhere to Italian D.O.C. regulations. But then why should it really? I live in Kentucky. Going nuts procuring perfectly authentic everything — tomatoes, flour, oil, cheese and salt — plus making my dough in perfect accordance with D.O.C. strictures — to my mind goes against the whole brick-oven-on-your-patio pizza aesthetic.
Well, which is get the highest quality ingredients you can reasonably find (and afford), pour yourself a glass of wine and have yourself a nice time. Stressing out about whether what you’re making tastes exactly like the pizza you once had in Naples, well, that’s a sure fire way to ruin an evening. And who knows? Yours might be even — do I dare to utter a pizza blasphemy? — better.
So then, to begin, get a nice hot fire going in your JC Penny Model 3701 EZ-Hearth brick oven according to the instructions over there on the right side menu. You want it to burn down to near embers, but still with a few flames here or there (you’re shooting for an interior temperature of between 900 and 1000 degrees). While the fire is burning down, array your accoutrement on a work surface nearby: your pizza peel, your toppings, oil and salt.
What’s the glass of wine for? I’ll give you one guess. Standing by a hot oven turning out pizza is thirsty work!
Next, array your fire. Using a wire brush or other scooping instrument, push the embers to the back of the oven space. This will be your baking area (at least once you’ve brushed away the last bits of ember and ash and swabbed it lightly with a wet rag mop). As I said, you want some flame at the back at all times when making pizza, since the air above the baking surface should be somewhere around 1300 degrees. If the flames die down, just put in another small log and push it to the back wall, on the top of the ember pile, with one of your implements.
A ball of dough at the ready (see recipe below), generously dust a wooden peel with flour or corn meal.
Now then for the shaping. This is easier than I once thought it was, especially if the dough is somewhat over-proofed which is actually an advantage for Neapolitan pizza. Start by putting down one of your dough pieces on the peel and dimpling it around the edges with your fingers. Try not to deflate the dough out to the very edges since you want the edge (cornice) of the pizza to puff up nicely in the oven.
Stretch the dough out into a circle by patting it, stretching it outward from the middle with your fingertips and rotating, even spinning it a bit (not enough flour? Add more). Tug on it lightly with with the fingers of your other hand some as you rotate it around. In this instance my other hand is busy taking pictures.
What you’re after is a round about twelve inches across. When you’re finished, jiggle the peel a little bit to make sure it isn’t sticking. If it is, lift the round and throw a dusting of flour underneath to keep it detached.
Now apply your toppings. Here I’m making a basic Margherita. Here are the tomatoes. Notice I’m not using a sauce, just plain tomatoes straight from the can (yes, that’s how the Italians do it), well drained and chopped. This is not a sauce, a sauce is too wet for this type of application.
Some pieces of fresh mozzarella. Buffalo mozzarella is most authentic, but who has that kind of money?
Some fresh basil leaves…
And lastly a healthy drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of kosher salt.
Lay the pizza directly on the floor of the brick oven, letting it sit for about 30 seconds, or until the bottom crust bakes and is rigid. At that point insert a metal peel (yes I have two, I use the metal one as my retrieval peel since it’s better for scooping), pick up the pizza and rotate it 180 degrees. Put it back down for another 30 seconds until the cheese is bubbly and the crust appetizingly charred. The Neapolitans say your cheese should only be melted, with no spots of brown. Mine almost always has a few. So what are those Neapolitans gonna do…sue me?
Offload the pizza onto a metal restaurant-style pizza plate (the 12-inch versions will cost you $5.99 at any restaurant supply store), cut and serve immediately. Consume with beer if you want to do it the true Italian way. I like mine with wine.
A great “Neo-Neapolitan” pizza crust recipe comes from Peter Reinhart’s book American Pie, which I heartily recommend. It goes like this:
1 lb. 9 ounces (5 cups) all purpose flour
1 tablespoon sugar or honey
2 teaspoons salt (or 3 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt)
1 teaspoon instant yeast
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 3/4 to 2 cups room-temperature water
Combine all of the ingredients in a large mixing bowl and stir with a wooden spoon or mix in an electric mixer for 4 minutes. After you’ve combined all of the ingredients, set the dough aside to rest for 5 minutes. Stir again for 2 more minutes. The dough should be a bitt stickier than you’d normally expect. If you’re using an electric mixer, it should pull away from the sides of the bowl, yet stick some to the bottom.
For Neapolitan-style pizza, you want your dough pieces no heavier than 7.5 ounces…so divide the dough into five pieces. Form into a rough ball, then put the balls into individual ziploc bags that you’ve lubed with nonstick spray. Let the bags sit at room temperature for 15 minutes, then put in the refrigerator overnight.
Take the dough balls out of the fridge 2 hours before you plan on making pizza to take of the chill and let them rise.
NOTE: Try this in your home oven too! The results won’t be identical, but they’ll be darn tasty. Just put your pizza stone directly on the floor of your oven and turn your oven as high as it’ll go. Bake for about 7 minutes. If you’re not getting the browning on top you need, finish it under the broiler!
FIRE-TENDING NOTE: For all those brick oven owners who really want to try and do things the authentic Italian way, scoop a peel-full of hard wood chips onto your fire just before baking. The extra smoke, so it’s said, really gives the pizza that brick oven je-ne-sais-quoi.