When COVID-19 arrived this past spring I, like many others, went into a defensive cooking crouch. All the extra time I had on my hands meant producing massive amounts of comfort food for the freezer, and my flour purchases skyrocketed. I fattened myself and my loved ones on various baked and griddled doughs, batters, and hand-cut pastas. Also, scads of pizza. With convenience and time-saving no longer a priority, I moved from my usual reliance on Whole Foods’ pizza dough balls to from-scratch versions, proofing each iteration anywhere from four to 48 hours.
The problem with making pizza at home, though, is that most ovens max out at 550 degrees or so and cannot produce the Neapolitan-style puff-and-char crust that is the highest achievement of the art. The texture of the best pies in this style is elusive: chewy, moist, and substantial about the periphery while thin at the center, the whole slice foldable rather than cracker-crisp and, of course, never soggy.
Using a friend’s Italian pizza oven made it clear that no amount of fiddling with rack placement or 15-pound pizza steels in my humble GE convection oven would ever match the exquisite results of wood-fueled fire in an igloo of brick. The problem lies in the physics of heat transfer. At 700 degrees or even hotter, a professional pizza oven cooks toppings and crust in a couple of minutes, while the cooler home oven dries out the crust before the toppings are ready.
I made do while restaurants were shut down, but when they reopened, I headed to chef-owner Kelly Whitaker’s Basta in Boulder for a fix of real puff and char. Whitaker’s clam pie ($20) is a sublime example of Neapolitan crust combined with American-ish toppings. His light touch with the rich clam and cream combo yields a virtuoso riff on an old clam pie style famous in New Haven, Connecticut, and remains, as it was pre-coronavirus, a perfect example of pizza oven thermodynamics.
With many of the best pizza places in Denver now offering takeout, though, I wondered if that might be the way to finesse this sort of quality at home? (Delivery was out because I wanted to maximize the probability of getting the hottest pizza at my chosen dinner time, and I didn’t want to spend money on delivery services that cut into the makers’ revenues.) After organizing a three-restaurant test, I happily concluded that the answer is mostly yes, while stipulating that nothing equals pizza consumed directly from a superhot oven. And there are tricks to the pickup approach for attaining ultimate satisfaction.
Cart-Driver offers a parbaked approach, in which you briefly finish cooking the pizza at 450 degrees before serving. The other two restaurants boxed their pies ready to eat. We had every pizza back at our Highland apartment destination within 15 minutes of pickup.
“Another principle of takeout optimization: Simpler pizzas with fewer toppings tend to highlight the pleasures of a Neapolitan-style crust instead of overwhelm it. Austerity, rather than profligacy, wins.”
Six pizzas and a bottle of Costco Kirkland Champagne later—at $20, it’s the best value in real Champagne anywhere—I discovered that a wee bit of reheating is a good idea with Neapolitan-style takeout pizza, even if it’s been fully cooked at the restaurant. A minute or two at 450 or 500 degrees does the trick; you can put the pizza directly onto your oven rack. The exception to this approach is any pie garnished with fresh ingredients that would be wrecked by a heat blast, such as the Toscana ($19)from Marco’s, which had a generous draping of very tender prosciutto.
Another principle of takeout optimization: Simpler pizzas with fewer toppings tend to highlight the pleasures of a Neapolitan-style crust instead of overwhelm it. Austerity, rather than profligacy, wins.
Bar Dough’s Pepe ($15) is a good example of what holds up well, with its hot and fruity Fresno and Jimmy Nardello chiles, a few strands of red onion, and a thin layer of pungent Taleggio on a chewy, beautifully blistered crust. There were no fresh tomatoes or thick sauce to weigh down the crust. Paradoxically, Bar Dough’s Margherita ($15), though good and archetypally simple, did not travel as well. The Margherita is the classic pizza of Naples, but its toppings—acidic tomato sauce, milky fresh mozzarella, basil—have a vanishingly short box life and are prone to sogginess.
Marco’s Coal-Fired delivered a fine crust, and its odd-sounding pistachio pizza ($19) is among the simplest on its menu: Italian sausage, fresh mozzarella, olive oil, and a creamy pistachio pesto much subtler than its basil counterpart. If the gray, cubed chunks of sausage made this a less-than-pretty pie, that didn’t really matter; it was savory and rich and traveled well. The above-mentioned Toscana with the thin slices of prosciutto—plus fresh mozzarella, Parmesan, arugula, and grape tomatoes, no red sauce—was also a treat, even without reheating.
Both of Cart-Driver’s pizzas impressed my small team of judges, in part because the parbake approach yielded piping-hot pies that had already been charred in the restaurant’s ovens, and in part because the concise quantities of intensely flavorful toppings didn’t overwhelm Cart-Driver’s thin crust. My favorite was the mushroom version ($18), in which mushroom conserva delivered deep, earthy notes that balanced a thin application of creamy garlic Parmesan sauce. Its clam pie ($20) was also very good, though more about the virtues of salty, funky pancetta and sweet roasted garlic than of the too-scant clams.
I didn’t stop there. A couple of nights later, we picked up pizza kits ($12 to $15) from Blue Pan Pizza in Congress Park and Joy Hill on South Broadway. The kit idea is simple: two dough balls, tomato sauce, mozzarella, and pepperoni (if you choose pepperoni), assembled and baked at home. Joy Hill also offers a parcooked crust, rather like a half-cooked naan, that you can finish at home with its simple toppings. Both kit pizzas were acceptable and a good idea if you want to practice pie-making with supple restaurant dough, but they return you to the original home-oven dilemma: 150 degrees short of the char and blister that these restaurants achieve in their own ovens. I would have preferred Blue Pan and Joy Hill takeout.
My conclusion: To-go is a fine solution for pizza night, except that the price of two pies and a generous tip to support pandemic-affected restaurant workers easily gets you to $50, and that’s a bit rich. So, for pizza, I’m back to homemade. Have I solved the puff-and-char problem? No. I completely dodge it.
I have found home-pizza bliss in a Serious Eats recipe for pan-baked Sicilian pizza with pepperoni and spicy tomato sauce, a formula perfected by one of the country’s great recipe technicians, MIT graduate J. Kenji López-Alt. It’s an interpretation of a thick-crusted pan pie found at Prince Street Pizza in New York City, featuring an airy crust that is basically fried in olive oil until crunchy on the bottom and thick enough to remain moist while the toppings cook.
López-Alt’s recipe starts with a simple dough that takes 10 minutes to make in a food processor. You leave it to proof for three hours on the baking sheet you’ll cook it on, sitting on a quarter-cup slick of good olive oil. The dough relaxes as it proofs so you can easily stretch it to the edges of the pan; then you add deli-style mozzarella, tomato sauce (I like using a good no-sugar jarred sauce with a bit of sautéed minced garlic and dried chile flakes thrown in), hand-sliced pepperoni, and a shower of grated Pecorino Romano. (Spinnelli’s Market in Denver is a good source for the ingredients.) Ten minutes or so at 550 degrees produces a field of cupped pepperoni slices and deeply browned crust edges. It’s very, very good—so much so that although it’s supposed to serve as many as eight people, in our house it rarely does.