My father-in-law is the kind of person who will wake up one morning and decide to repaint the entire exterior of his house, by himself. He painstakingly laid every single stone of his front walkway. He built his own garage. I, on the other hand, edit a restaurant blog and will put off fixing the hinge of a cabinet door for months if it requires a trip to a hardware store. We are, as the meme goes, not the same.
I was surprised, then, when he bought a pizza oven from the company Ooni, instead of building one himself; I was less surprised when he nevertheless spent last summer building an entire backyard kitchen for this oven, and framing it all, naturally, with a homemade cedar pergola, taking care to add a hidden, trap-door-like contraption to the top that allows the pizza oven’s exhaust to escape safely. I also understood the implicit message that was being sent: It was time for me to learn how to make some very good pizza.
Given the months he spent pouring concrete, carefully laying brick, installing stainless-steel cabinets, and somehow running both water and electrical to the kitchen, only a monster would not learn to make pizza. Every day someone did not use that kitchen would be a day that his work went to waste. Without saying a word, he had effectively delegated the task to me, his food-enjoying son-in-law, and, in doing so, ensured for himself and his family a lifetime of custom-made pizza.
So I dove into the literature — the Bianco and Roberta’s cookbooks, the Sytsma family’s signed copy of the now-out-of-print Franny’s book — and thought back fondly on all the slightly charred slices of crisp-and-chewy dough I’ve enjoyed over the decades. Would I work some whole-wheat flour into my dough? Would my sauce be the kind of bright tomato-only puree championed by lovers of Neapolitan pies, or would it be the heavier, slightly cooked version favored by New York’s slice joints? (One chef suggested I try using only tomato paste, which would allow for maximum topping grippage.) How long to let my dough proof? Fresh yeast? Dry? Or do I take my chances and let the wild yeasts of Long Island suburbia give lift to my crust?
It took more than a few tries to get the hang of it; to understand that despite its diminutive size the Ooni oven can still burn with the fury of a thousand hellscapes; to learn everyone’s preferred sauce-to-cheese ratio; to figure out that I was the only person who liked whole-wheat flour in the dough. Even still, we got a few solid months of what I would call fairly successful pizza-making in last year before shutting down the operation for the winter.
And this year, of course, we have been able to devote considerably more time to this hobby. What I have learned in the last couple of months is that pizza is like the anti-sourdough. There is no need to tend to a starter if you don’t want to. Some very worthy dough recipes require only a few hours to proof. If a particular pizza doesn’t work out, it takes no more than a couple minutes to cook another one. It is an excellent, time-filling quarantine project that somehow still offers instant gratification.
I will be the first to admit that making pizza at home is the most insufferable kind of weekend-project cooking. It’s a cliché. It is wildly inefficient. And I live in New York City, where, even now, what is arguably the best pizza in the world remains readily available. It’s completely unnecessary and that, as it turns out, is exactly why it’s the kind of dumb undertaking over which two people can bond for a few hours while also drinking some cold beers. There are no real stakes. The only reason to do this at all is to enjoy the act of doing it.
So I spend my Saturdays assembling toppings and blitzing new batches of sauce. I watch as my 2-year-old happily houses entire pies by herself. We let the fire die down; the oven cools off. And then I start mixing and kneading more dough so we can do it again the next day.
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