Pizza Note:
In the Dark
12 February 2018

¶ The other night, I made pizza for the first time in ages.

I took up home-made pizza a couple of years ago, after being amazed and delighted by what my daughter could do in her Outer Sunset kitchen. When we visit, I seem to spend all of my indoor time at the kitchen table, and when, at some point before dinner, Megan would announce that she was making pizzas, I’d wonder when they’d ever reach the table; I thought that it must take a long time to make the dough, let it rise, &c &c. But no. Within ninety minutes, out of her oven would come simple, delicious pizzas. I decided I must really give it a try, if only to have something familiar to serve when she visited us. 

But while pizza a simple dish, “pizza” is strangely complicated. It is essentially downmarket, even rustic. It is not meant to thrill the tastebuds. What’s wanted instead is a straightforward, undiscriminating satisfaction. I remained stubbornly unsatisfied by my attempts at pizza. They weren’t failures. I could tell that Kathleen wasn’t crazy to praise them. But they rarely came close to what I had in mind. I began to think that what I liked about Megan’s pizzas was Megan’s making them in her kitchen. I stopped making pizza. 

There are four elements to pizza: the crust, the sauce, the topping, and the cheese. Because that’s all there is to it, the handling of each element alters the balance of the other three. With regard to the topping, the only important point is quantity. It doesn’t matter what you use, just how much. And, I find, how cooked: I have never quite solved the sausage problem. Sausage has to be cooked to some point before it goes into the oven, because the pizza doesn’t spend enough time in the oven to cook sausage. But it’s awfully easy to overcook the sausage ahead of time. Mushrooms, in contrast, do not seem to suffer in this way. 

Nevertheless, the topping is nothing compared with the sauce. My own preference is for pizza bianca — no tomatoes at all. But I haven’t really attempted that yet, because I’m still working on the crust, and I’m also learning to use less shredded whole-milk mozzarella, which I buy fresh at Agata & Valentina. Sauce remains the big problem. The other night, I took out a tub of Marcella Hazan’s “butter sauce,” as I call it, that astonishingly complex blend of tomato purée, onion and butter. I had tried on pizza before, once or twice, but only the other night did it finally seem to work. More or less. 

As to crust, I’ve become obsessed with rolling it out very thin. This may be the next thing to work on. Too much diameter means too much of everything else, not to mention a really brittle crust that tastes too much like crackers. 

Sometimes I just want my pizza to taste exactly like something from a neighborhood pizza parlor. That would be a completely different kind of satisfaction from the one that I get in my daughter’s kitchen. I’m still in the dark as to what pizza from my own oven ought to taste like.  


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