pizza with basil

5 Steps to Making the Perfect Pizza Pie

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Hungry to expand your pizza horizons? See how you can make your own version of this flexible, beloved Italian classic.

Last May, my husband and I experienced a dream come true: After years of saving and planning, we were on our way to Rome. Yes, ROME. And then, on to Amalfi, and then, on to Paris. Yes, PARIS.

While I felt prepared for some of the sights and sounds I experienced while in Europe, thanks to a childhood spent watching Sabrina Goes to Rome and an adulthood reading way too many Dan Brown books, there was so much that I could never have expected or understood about what this American Girl (okay, 30-year-old woman) would find while on her European Escapade.

But, most of that is for another blog post (or five—it was a long trip and I learned a lot). What I want to focus on today is—arguably—the most important part of any trip to Italy: the food.

While in Rome, we stayed with a close friend from college, named Lauren, who had been living there for years. She’s engaged to a lovely Roman guy and these two wonderful people were our hosts, tour guides, and translators throughout our trip.

Every evening, when we’d try to figure out where to go for dinner, Lauren would ask, “Well, do you want pizza or pasta?”

She wasn’t asking because she’s obsessed with carbs or anything; she was asking because pizza and pasta are pretty much the only options for dinner in Rome. We ate a lot of both.

Of course, I had the best pizza (and pasta) ever while in Italy; it’s as delicious as it is ubiquitous. Whether we grabbed a square covered in thinly-sliced zucchini (freshly cut from a big, rectangular pie bought at a small, unassuming shop while traversing the city) or feasted on a whole pie after an evening of clubbing (we had a really good trip), we always reveled in the chewy-crispy crust, the perfectly-spiced sauce, and the traditional toppings.

The peak of my pizza experience was this wonderful take-out we ordered while in Napoli. After a long day of traveling the Amalfi Coast and snacking on fried seafood, we desperately needed pizza. Luckily, we were in Napoli (or Naples), where pizza was invented.

Soon, we were devouring the best pizza I’d ever had in my life. Rosettes of mortadella (a thinly-sliced, bologna-esque Italian cured meat) were graced with toasted pine nuts and fresh basil, all atop a beautiful pile of mozzarella cheese and a thin, perfect crust.

The heavenly mortadella and pine nut pizza that has inspired many home-cooked pizza moments in my household.

I never knew pizza could taste like this; the texture and flavors were layered perfectly. As soon as I returned home, I immediately found a local Italian market (here in Greensboro, they’re called Giacamo’s and they will mail you salami) and stocked up on as much mortadella as I could.

But, of course, nothing I ate in the states could really measure up to the pizza I had while in Italy. That’s the best thing about pizza: it doesn’t have to be authentic or fancy to be good. One of the (many?) benefits of building a food entirely around carbs and cheese is it’s hard to go wrong.You can throw pretty much anything on a pizza and it will taste amazing.

In fact, I once made a pizza with tater tots on it. It was DELICIOUS. But, again, that’s another blog post.

Crispy, Chewy Crust Heaven

When it comes to making my own pizza at home, I’m not going to lie…I usually buy some pre-made dough from Trader Joe’s (when I do feel moved to make my own crust it does taste a lot better), I use this recipe, originally sourced from All Recipes.

It creates a thin crust with that perfect bit of chew. If you’re more into deep dish pizza, stay tuned—I’ll be cooking up a cast iron skillet deep dish pizza soon enough.

Ingredients

1 (.25 ounce) Package active dry yeast

1 tsp. White sugar 

1 c. Warm water (110 degrees F)

2 ½ C All Purpose flour

2 Tbs. olive oil

1 tsp. salt

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F. If you’re using a pizza stone, don’t forget to preheat that as well.
  2. In a medium bowl, dissolve the yeast and sugar in warm water. Let stand until creamy, frothy, and foamy (about 10 minutes).
  3. Add the flour, salt, and oil to the yeast/sugar mixture. Using a dough hook attachment or a wooden spoon, work the ingredients together until smooth. Let rest for 5 minutes.
  4. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and pat or roll it until it is the shape and size of the pizza you desire.
  5. Transfer crust to a lightly greased pizza pan or baker’s peel dusted with cornmeal, if you are using a pizza stone. Spread with desired toppings (see below!) and bake for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown. Don’t forget to let the baked pizza cool for 5 minutes before serving so that the cheese is at peak melt-level and won’t just slide right off your slice.

Pizza BFFs: Sauce, Cheese, and Toppings

When it comes to sauce, there is no shame in going with a simple jarred or canned sauce. I am 100% devoted to Don Pepino’s pizza sauce. I’m not sure I can even say why. I’ve been slathering it on my pizza since I was a kid and I just think it’s the perfect balance of tomatoey goodness, sweetness, and spice.

If you choose to make your own sauce, 1) I’m impressed, and 2) I recommend still keeping it simple. Saute a few cloves of garlic and some diced onion in a couple tablespoons of olive oil. Add a can or two of crushed tomatoes when your garlic and onions are soft. Add some parsley, oregano, basil, salt and pepper, simmer for about a half hour, letting the flavors meld.

Of course, there’s always white pizza sauce, which is the perfect compliment to both lighter and richer toppings—like mortadella, for instance. For an easy recipe, check out this simple and delicious offering from Baked by Rachel.

Okay, it’s cheese time. I’d argue that the cheese is the most important part of the pizza. But that might be my inner dairy-lover. For a more traditional pie, throw on some fresh globs of mozzarella. Shredded mozzarella works great, too. I also love adding goat cheese to pizza, because of its signature tang. And, it never hurts to throw on some Parmesan or Asiago, if you have them handy.

Finally, finally, it’s time for the toppings. You may be tempted to load up your pizza with as much as it can handle. Sometimes, I am exactly in this kind of mood, so I really understand. But, usually, I try to limit myself to around three toppings or else the crust gets soggy and cook times get way too long for me.  

There’s nothing wrong with a classic pepperoni and green pepper pie, but there’s a whole world of pizza toppings out there just begging for you to try them. What about fresh zucchini? Or smoked eggplant? What about ham or bacon or fried chicken?

Fresh herbs, fresh or toasted nuts, any kind of veggie you can think of—all can taste amazing on pizza! If you’ve never tried arugula on your pizza, thrown on right after it emerges from the oven, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Let your inner foodie run wild and see what you come up with.

Oh, and see if you can find some mortadella near you. It is life-changing.

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