Let’s face it — Houston is not a city known for its pizza. At least not compared with the big boys like New York or Rome, and certainly not the holy of holies — Naples, Italy.
And neither should it be compared to these pizza capitals. But I have always felt that Houston is a bit underachieving in the average quality of its pizza joints. This can of course be attributed to the ubiquity of pizza chains like Cici’s, Dominos, Papa Johns, Pizza Hut. And when it comes to pizza chains, there is good news and bad news. The good news is they are consistent. The bad news is they are consistently bad.
So what’s a pizza lover like me to do? In situations like these I always follow the old adage “If you want it done right, you have to do it yourself.” And that is how I came to make and bake my first pizza from scratch.
What kind of pizza? Deep dish, thin crust, chewy, gooey, crispy — there are lots of choices. To help me with my decision I first considered my own past experience with pizza. Then I looked to those few shining stars of pizza craft that call Houston home.
Growing up in Southeast Texas, even before Dominos and Papa Johns, there was Pizza Inn. All-in-all a serviceable pizza experience for a young man who did not know any better (I was just a chowpup back then). But my real revelation came in my late teens backpacking through Europe. Arriving at Rome’s Stazioni Termini after an overnight trip from Paris, my first goal was to find Roman fast food. After a week of baguettes, crepes, croissants and Burghy burgers, I was ready for a change. And Rome delivered in spades.
The typical Roman pizza joint offered pizza rustica with a kaleidoscope of toppings, sold by the rectangular “slice.” But the pizza I always came back to had a thin, crispy crust, a restrained amount of tomato sauce and melted, gooey dollops of fresh mozzarella cheese. It was during this time in Rome that I was introduced to “real” pizza — Pizza Napoletana.
And I have been eating — worshipping — it ever since. Living in NY I split my time between the traditional (original) NY style pizza — floppy, foldy, gooey, drippy with grease — and the traditional Pizza Napoletana. Back in Houston I found both. Great NY style at Romano’s Pizza. Pizza Napoletana-style at Dolce Vita (wood-fired) and Russo’s (coal-fired), and Kenneally’s (not brick oven but still good).
But even these local pizza havens somehow paled in comparison to my memories of Rome. And even though I wasn’t in Rome, I decided to do as the Romans and Neapolitans do — make my own pizza.
Remembering an old Molto Mario episode for Pizza Napoletana, I pulled the DVD and grabbed the recipe from the Food Network website.
First up was the dough. Since I do not possess the Popeye-like forearms necessary for manually kneading pizza dough for 10-15 minutes nonstop, I enlisted Big Momma to do the heavy
lifting kneading. The great thing about this dough recipe was its simplicity — a traditional yeast dough flavored white wine, olive oil, honey and salt. After kneading, the dough was allowed to proof for a good 45 minutes. And, voila!
It has risen! I cannot accurately describe the fragrance emanating from this ball of goodness — earthy, bready, yeasty. So far so good.
On to the sauce. Again, simplicity — olive oil, onions, garlic, fresh thyme, shredded carrot, and hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes. Combine and simmer for 30 minutes.
Time for assembly. I cut the dough ball into 4 equal parts and individually wrapped 3 of them for freezing and later use. I flattened and kneaded the remaining dough into a thin platform for the sauce, oregano, fresh mozzerella, and fresh basil leaves:
This looked promising (if you hadn’t noticed, these are the colors of the Italian flag — red, white and green). Now onto a pre-heated pizza stone for 10-12 minutes:
At this point it looked good and smelled good. And after digging in, it tasted…great. Absolutely fresh. The flavors married perfectly. The crust, essentially a structural support for the sauce and cheese, was crispy on the outside but soft and steamy once you but into it.
I can’t say this pizza was better than the brick-oven Pizza Napoletana from the best Houston pizza joints. But it was somehow different. Fresher. More authentic maybe? Combined with a fresh green salad and a glass of Italian red wine, I thought I was back in Rome.