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Archive for the ‘Pizza’ Category

Recently, I helped Mom (a.k.a. “Marmo”) lead one of her customized tours around Italy.  Mom’s philosophy is a good one:  try to keep the trips to two general areas within an 8-10 day time frame.  If you try to squeeze in too many spots, you’re only going to skim the surface of each area, and you’ll be shifting around too much to relax every once in a while.    The plan for this particular trip was to target (1) the Amalfi Coast and (2) Rome.

Marmo and I fly into Rome then take the train to Naples.  From Naples, we meet our driver, who takes us into Sorrento – a beautiful town at the beginning of the Amalfi Coast.  Our digs for our stay in Sorrento:  The one and only Excelsior Vittoria Hotel – a gated compound of baller type bodaciousness, complete with palm and lemon trees, beautiful gardens, and the most ridiculous view overlooking the Gulf of Naples towards Mt. Vesuvius.

Spanning six generations (it’s still under the same family ownership), The Excelsior has grown from a beautiful cliff side estate, into a 5-star hotel of dreams.  And for the group’s first day in the Amalfi coast, Marmo arranges a hands on Neapolitan Pizza making demonstration.  For this, I am beyond excited.  Readers of the blog are well aware of our undying infatuation with Pizza.

We are led to a bar around the pool, where there is, indeed, an outdoor brick oven in which wood logs have been burning for about 2 hours in preparation for our class.  Our class is being prepped by the head chef of the hotel, Vincenzo Galano, and a second chef whose name I didn’t get.  They first instruct us as to their method, which is very simple: a 3 hour rise, a little sugar with the yeast, some double zero flour and water.  No overnight rises or complicated gimmicks; it’s very straightforward.  I need to get a closer look to observe the finished product.

And, indeed the dough is softer and fluffier than my freshly shampooed hair.  I had always thought that an overnight rise was essential for that ultra soft feel for pre-cooked pizza dough, but this proved otherwise.  The two man Pizza dream team then instructs us on hand pressing the dough, and lets each of us take a crack at it ourselves.

After the dough is flattened, the sauce is applied, followed by the mozzarella, some grated parmesian, and some olive oil.  It is then transported into the oven, and spun around with some of those extra long pizza peels that I want to decorate my apartment with.

Basil leaves are chopped up and spread onto the pie after it is pulled from the oven, nice and piping hot.  And the final result is wonderful.  The melted mozzarella has a milky, slightly sour, yet fresh tang to it.  The basil supplies a faint, but noticeably minty backdrop.  The cooked dough is beautiful.  Charred on the outside, but chewy and floppy when chomped down upon.  The center of the pie is the way a Neapolitan pie should be: saucy, sloppy, and a tad oily.  Skewering sections of this pie accordion style with my fork is a thing of ease.  Delicious.

The sauce is wonderfully fresh, while the grated parmesan cheese adds a nice, subtle kick not typically included in our New York furnished Neapolitan pies.  Halfway into my pizza, I’m thinking about sneaking Vincenzo and his pizza making sidekick through customs back in Newark so we can dominate the NYC/Neapolitan Pizza scene.  This pie would be easily on par (if not better) with some of well thought of joints in Manhattan.

And with what would be a theme for our stay at the Excelsior, Vicenzo and the rest of the staff could not be nicer.  Everyone got their own apron and chef’s hat, as well as the perfect amount of instruction (neither too much nor too little).  And after an hour or so of being around that oven, what better way to celebrate than to kick back, enjoy a freshly made pizza, some sparkling Pellegrino, a glass of wine, and a view of the Excelsior’s garden of lemon trees?

There is no better way.  Stay tuned in the upcoming weeks for more tales of my trip to the motherland, or feel free to contact Marmo to create some tales of your own.

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We have not talked about pizza all week! What were we thinking?? Clearly, we weren’t.

To bring you all back, I present you with this mini review (it is Friday, after all) of Slice in the West Village.

Let me set The Scene:
The Megs and I washed up on the West Village location of Slice on Official Umbrella Inside-Out Day. It was torrential downpour in New York. No umbrella was safe. Certainly not mine. Or my hair. We will leave it at that. We dove out of the water, and flopped onto one of the train station-style booth tables, happy to be dry (kind of) and have the promise of food in pizza form. The interior is friendly and cozy, with half booths and tables lining the dining area and an eclectic arrangement of books and nick-nacks lining the exposed brick and wood-panelled walls. There is a wine and beer selection to complement their healthy pizzas.

The Food:
First! A note on the Slice style pizza. This is an artsy pie. It’s square, so I would technically throw it into a Sicilian category based on geometry. It’s also thin crust. But the ingredients of both the crust and the toppings are modern. California style? I lived in California for 7 years, and I’m not sure what that means except that maybe it’s a bit indie, a touch free-form-no-rules (in a good way) I’ll do what I want pizza. So there! And with the organic, free range, hormone free ingredients it’s Venice Beach meets Brooklyn! Served on a pan!

Anyway, there were two stand-out pizzas from our selection. They were:
The Miki: a wonderful combination of basil pesto (sans pine nuts for the allergic!), chicken sausage (that had flavor!), goat cheese, sundried and fresh tomatoes, and a little extra fresh basil. All this was piled onto a crispy-on-the-outside-but-chewy-on-the-inside honey whole wheat crust. Verdict: Completed devoured. The pesto was so good, I didn’t even miss the pine nuts. True story.

The Yuri: Organic truffled (squeals of joy!) ricotta and mozzarella, with sauteed mushrooms all living harmoniously on an herbed crust. Verdict: Also devoured. Wonderful truffle flavor without being too dramatic and overpowering (save the drama for…well, for your mama, I guess). The mushrooms were nice and meaty. I really hate wilty mushrooms.

The Bathrooms:
I was overwhelmed by Slice’s bathroom – so much so that when I walked in there, I forgot what I came in there to do – take photos of course! A red glass chandelier! Art featuring muppets! Painting on the walls! Check it out:

The Experience: Napoleon Dynamite – The Offbeat Success

Slice – The Perfect Food

535 Hudson Street
(Perry/Charles)
New York, NY 10014
P. 212 929 2920
F. 212 929 2987

AND

1413 2nd Avenue (73rd/74th Sts)
New York, NY 10021
P. 212 249 4353
F. 212 249 3706

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A week or so ago, I learned via Twitter that Eataly now sells fresh, uncooked pizza dough. Readers of this blog know that John and I like to make our own pizza dough. But SOMETIMES….just sometimes….you can’t. You might not have time, or yeast, or flour because you gave it all to the sourdough starter that is living on the top of your fridge and that you expect has been drinking all your wine because you don’t seem to have any left in the apartment…

Clearly, I digress. Sometimes you need to use someone else’s dough. I’m not here to judge you. I AM here to judge other people’s dough.

And I’m starting with Eataly’s, which I picked up in one of their numerous refrigerated sections for $3.20. Not a bad price. While I was there, I also picked up some purple potatoes and fresh rosemary which I was going to use in combination with the fresh ricotta cheese I made to top the pizza.

And one more wild card, because, let’s face it people, I’m not here to be normal. I have been wanting to try different methods of baking pizza. I have a pizza stone, which delivers great results. I have also used a cookie sheet with some success. This time, I wanted to use my cast iron pot. I thought that by trapping the heat in a smaller area (the pot) I would achieve a crispier outer crust with a more moist center. This was my hypothesis, anyway.

General Instructions:
I heated up my pot in the oven at 500 degrees for one half hour before placing the dough inside.

Placing the dough in the pot is a little tricky. The pot gets VERY HOT (please remember your oven mitts). And you have to get the dough in there, and then place on all your toppings while the dough is starting to sizzle and cook already. Kind of stressful.

But I did it. And I didn’t even burn myself (I did cut myself slicing potatoes though)! I got my dough into the pot, smeared on some ricotta cheese (the truffle salt and olive oil variety), and topped it with sliced potatoes (instructions below), olive oil, a pinch more truffle salt and some rosemary.

Then, I put the lid back on the pot and put the whole device in the oven. And then I checked it 10 minutes later. The crust wasn’t really charring, and it was cooking more slowly overall. I baked it for about 20-25 minutes (as compared to the usual 10 minutes on the pizza stone).

The crust did not char, but turned a nice golden brown. The bottom was almost like a thick, crusty bread rather than a pizza crust. This is the result of the cast iron pot. I believe I will be returning to the pizza stone (hypothesis proven WRONG).

BUT! What about the Eataly crust? How did it taste? I have to say, I give Eataly’s dough my stamp of approval. It was moist (even in the face of my cast iron pot experiment, and had a nice airy texture combined with a delicate olive oil/salty/yeasty flavor that was just right. My friend Meg ran over to my apartment when I started tweeting that there was pizza in the oven, so she can also attest to the fine flavor of the crust.

And finally, here is the recipe for the Ricotta, Rosemary and Potato Topping:

What You Need:
8 small purple potatoes, sliced thinly
Ricotta cheese (from this recipe)
Fresh rosemary (as many sprigs as you like)
Truffle salt (a few pinches)
1 tablespoon olive oil + extra drizzle for the pizza
1/4 cup water

What To Do:
Slice your potatoes (don’t cut yourself like I did).

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a frying pan over medium heat. Place your sliced potatoes in the pan and and a pinch of salt. Toss to coat with oil and salt, and let the taters heat up. Add 1/4 cup of water to steam them a bit and some fresh chopped rosemary. Simmer until tender (you will be able to easily pierce them with a knife.

Spread the ricotta cheese on your stretched out pizza dough. Top with the potato mixture. Drizzle with a little olive oil, and add some more rosemary if you like.

Bake in the oven at 500 degrees (on a pizza stone, preferably) for about 10 minutes.

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As Hoboken residents, Elana and I were actually tracking the opening of Dozzino quite intently.  It was a big moment for us – to have an artisinal pizzeria in our backyard – and Dozzino did not disappoint.  Sure, for an upscale pie, Grimaldi’s serves its purpose every now and then (and quite well), but there is something to be said about a boutique wood fired brick oven pizzeria, where the soul of the pizzaiolos is felt throughout your entire dining experience.  Such is the case with Dozzino.

Over the last couple of months, Elana and I have gotten a chance to know the owners of Dozzino, Marc and Rob.  These guys are truly obsessed with pizza.  And as we came to find out, their obsession spills over into a zany, friendly, and self imposed obligation to spread the joys of pizza, bread, and their own interpretation of simple, quality Italian fare.

The above is proof of this.

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Elana, remember when we tried to cram Pizza, in all of its forms, into one “Pizza Month”…? Heck, not since  Apollo Creed’s choreographed entrance in Rocky 4 can I recall such an overestimation of one’s own capabilities.  And we all know how that ended.

But in fairness to us, we never really thought the idea was possible.  We just figured that it would be a cool idea to devote one month towards Pizza.  But since shifting our efforts into maintaining an Italian focused blog, there are now no limits as to the frequency for how often Pizza will be discussed.

And, in light of this, what better Pizza to feature than the legendary square-cut, cheese-beneath-sauce, Sicilian pie found at L & B Spumoni Gardens in Brooklyn; the first pan made pizza to be featured on the blog.  Never mind the fact that a dispute between myself and a fellow Italian over a parking spot distracted us a bit, we were dialed in.

From the look of it, the slice merely looks like focaccia bread with some “gravy” splattered on top, yet there is more than meets the eye to this little guy.  Underneath L & B’s thick tomato sauce is mozzarella cheese. Yes, cheese under sauce.  Combined with the pan cooked bread, each bite has a pillowy soft, inviting nature to it.  The pizza, ingredients wise, is not particularly mind blowing if one were to dissect the main players: the sauce packs a mediocre, pasty tang and the cheese does not taste much different than Polly-O.

Nonetheless, there is indeed a magic to it all.  Elana and I comment on its superior “mouthfeel” – you know, that hard-to-explain quality of certain foods and drink that seem to set it apart from the rest, like a Reeses peanut butter cup?  Well, this pie has it.  Anchored by it’s thick, yet slightly moist, pound cake-like crust, the L & B slice becomes more addictive with each bite.  And feel free to order seconds or thirds; despite the pie’s threatening look, it’s actually quite light and easy to take down.  Elana’s ordering a second slice without hesitation.  We are both significantly hooked.

Those expecting a charming ambiance: don’t.  The inside is nothing flashy.  Tables may endure a cycle of about 3-4 lunches before getting a wash down.  But it’s nothing offensive; and if you came here for the scene, you’re not in the right frame of mind.  L and B’s pizza is famous for a reason, and you’re missing out if you have yet to make it out there.

Movie equivalent – Top Gun

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Those of you following us on Twitter may have noticed frequent updates on my bread starter. You may have read this post where I detailed my grandiose plan to cultivate my own bread baking yeast for making a superior pizza dough…and for world domination. Pizza dough first, though.

So I began. I found some instructions on the web, including Slice’s Starter-Along blog series, and I commandeered a Tupperware container festooned with candy canes from my friend Stacey. I mixed my flour and water together and I waited.

….and waited…

And then stuff started to happen. Bubbles mostly. And then some foam. And then both! Take a look at the progress in the images below:

By photo #5, thinks looked like they were really cooking. Not only were there bubbles and foam throughout, but the consistency had changed. It was almost like it had been whipped – less cake-batter-like and more foamy throughout. Fascinating, no? Exactly.

Soliciting no professional opinions but my own (non)sense, I decided it was time to make bread. I harvested some of the yeast for pizza dough, and then another batch for some bread. The pizza dough needed to chill in the fridge for a few days and I was keen to see if this whole thing was going to work, so I jumped right into the bread making process.

Also, if you recall, it snowed about a million and two feet on Sunday the 26th of December into Monday the 27th, and I needed something to do between carrying my dog Toby out to the street to pee (he is too short to climb the snow drifts).

So I made the bread. I used this recipe. Let me just say I’ve made bread before. Quite successfully, thank you very much. But this was a miserable failure. I’m not blaming the recipe. I blame John. No, I’m kidding, he wasn’t even there! In hindsight, one of a few things went wrong:

1. My starter really wasn’t ready, even though I thought it was: the bread refused to rise.

2. I didn’t weigh my ingredients because I don’t have a kitchen scale, so the proportions were incorrect.

3. The planet alignment was all off that day, and I should really try this again when Neptune is in a more favorable house.

Even knowing that something was terribly wrong, I decided to put the non-risen bread in the oven anyway. What resulted was the densest, least attractive brick of a loaf of bread that I have ever seen. It was difficult to cut with a serrated knife. I could have hammered nails with it. The loaf was about 2″ high.

I began to laugh. A lot. And then I tasted it, and I stopped laughing because it wasn’t very good. How could it be?

HOWEVER! As I was failing miserably in the regular bread department, there was something happenin’ in the fridge with the pizza dough. Magic, that’s what.

Days later, as instructed by Slice’s recipe here, I removed my pizza dough from the fridge and it’s olive oil coated Ziploc bag. It was surprisingly easy to stretch out. And the cold from the refrigeration made it easier to handle. It even gave me the ability to stretch it a little thinner without breaking the dough.

Needless to say, I was intrigued. With unnecessary amounts of glee, I ran around the kitchen assembling sauce and collecting toppings (mozzarella cheese and basil). I fired up the ol’ oven and pizza stone and made this:

This is, hands down, the crispiest, tastiest crust I have ever managed. In addition to being crispy, the outer crust retained the characteristic chewiness of Neopolitan style pies. And there was flavor! Hot damn and hallelujah!

Why was the pizza dough a success and the sourdough loaf a failure? I have a few educated guesses:

1. Proper planet alignment.

2. The extended rise time of 48 hours (even slowed down due to refrigeration) was actually needed. My starter wasn’t broken, it was just slow! It needed some extra time.

3. The additional fermentation time also added flavor, because the yeast was hanging around for a longer period of time (2 days).

A few things to note:

While cold, oiled pizza dough is MUCH easier to handle and shape, it tends to stick to the pizza peel a bit more. I would recommend dusting the bottom of the dough with a little semolina flour and making sure you can easily slide it on and off the peel before assembling everything and then getting it stuck on there. Not that that happened to me or anything…

The cold dough took a bit longer to cook. This just makes sense, but I’m telling you anyway. You could always take your dough ball out of the fridge a few hours beforehand so you can bring it to room temperature. Either way, keep a sharp eye on things while they’re cooking.

Here are some detail photos:

A few other tips:

I used La Valle cherry tomatoes for the sauce with a splash of red wine vinegar (as instructed by the most recent edition of Cooks Illustrated Magazine). I blended the tomatoes and vinegar in the food processor with garlic, salt, pepper and a dash of cayenne (for fun). The red wine vinegar gave the sauce that kick that I have been trying to achieve for a while.

For cheese, I used mini mozzarella balls. I cut them in half so they melted into little blobs.

And don’t forget the FRESH BASIL!!!

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Bread. I love it. To me, it’s carbohydrate in its most fantastic form. White, wheat, rye, sourdough, walnut-cranberry oat, baguettes, rolls, brioche and, yes, pizza dough.

I love the way it smells when it’s cooking. And even when it’s just rising, sitting there on my kitchen table with some random dish towel thrown over it (bread likes to be tucked in like a little kid in bed).

Recently I’ve been doing some reading up on bread making. You all might have suggestions of other things I could be doing with my time. Anyway, it was from this reading that I first heard the term “levain”. According to Wikipedia, levain is a type of pre-ferment which is made in two fermentation steps from an active sourdough-starter culture, flour and water. It yields a rather dry and porous dough which may be kept refrigerated for up to a week.

Basically, you start growing a yeast naturally, instead of using one of those pre-packaged yeasts, with just flour and water. Then it grows (like a Chia-Pet I imagine) and you use this chia-goop to make bread. The best part is that you can keep it indefinitely as long as you keep it alive by feeding it! It’s like a pet! And even though I already have Toby, I imagine he won’t mind a yeasty addition to our apartment that we can keep in the fridge.

Supposedly, it makes a better tasting bread than using a regular yeast package. A better tasting bread that I could potentially make a superior PIZZA DOUGH with. And annihilate the competition at the next PIZZ-OFF! Did I just say that out loud?

Sometimes I forget to use my inside voice.

So here we go. I am opening up the Laboratorio Semi Moderno for levain! For Science! For pizza dough! And I am going to document the whole thing, and give you updates. For example: Day 15: The yeasty blob has oozed all over the fridge and taken the carrots hostage. It’s now threatening the butter. Please send reinforcements. And pizza toppings.

I also plan on naming the levain. I was thinking of “Ferdinand” but I am open to suggestions.

To begin, the instructions are simple. You will need 1 cup of flour:

Plus, 1 cup of warm water:

Then, you combine them in a container (I used a candy-cane festooned tupperware that I apprehended leftovers in from my friend Stacey):

Mix all that madness up and you will get a goo (like the topmost photo). Cover this magical goo with the lid and let it sit on your counter.

Every 24 hours you need to feed your Chia-Goo. This is very important. To do this, you dump out HALF the goo, and mix in another 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. Why? I just don’t know, but this is what everyone tells me to do, and I’m just going to do it without question.

After a week of feeding it every 24 hours and keeping it on the counter top (temperatures between 70-80 degrees are best. 100 degrees is too hot for your Chia-Goo), you can move it into the fridge and only feed it once every week.

So that’s what’s going on right now in the Laboratorio. Exciting place, no? I thought so. Updates will follow!

If anyone wants to play along in this levain making madness, please feel free. And send me updates. Or cries of distress. I respond to either.

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