Unfortunately, I only had my iPhone that night for photos, and I knew I’d have to come back to get more on my big camera. A couple nights ago, I made my return.
The stone and brick building, the chalkboard menu, the wooden tables, the warehouses on the wide street — all of it has that feel that I love. My favorite part of all is that outdoor bench, especially on warm evenings. I might have to start riding my bike down here for snacks.
Eight years ago, I spent a 12-month stint living in Madrid, Spain. Much of that year involved exploring the region and finding delicious meals and local cuisines. But of course, I’m a pizza junkie, which was something of a challenge in that area. The pizzerias I found in Spain were few and far between — and for the most part, reflected the Spanish tendency for drier foods, like their beloved cured manchego cheese. Dry cheese and bread — that’s one of their actual sandwiches. Nothing else, no spreads or tomatoes or cold cuts to lubricate the taste buds. Just dry bread and dry cheese. And the Spanish pizza was pretty much the same thing.
There were only two Madrileño pizza places that still appear in my memory banks: an Argentinian pizzeria in a part of town called Malasaña (sort of the East Village of Madrid) that I visited a few times, including a not-so-proud night at the end of the year that started there with pizza and a couple bottles of wine, and ended with a smashed camera courtesy of some large and not-so-appreciative bouncers. And a mediocre spot a few blocks away in the Plaza 2 De Mayo where I’d sip sangria in the summer and eat my pizzas, always “with extra sauce.”
I also spent one weekend of that year in Lisbon, a few hours west of Madrid. I was able to sample some local pizza at an Italian/Indian combo restaurant — something I’ve never seen before — and found that their naan-like dough actually worked pretty well. A novelty, but not anything I spent much time thinking about after my return to America.
Fast forward through most of a decade, where, at least States-wise, many things changed in the pizza world. A wood-fired Neapolitan pizza renaissance hit the tipping point in recent years, where you now can find envy-inspiring imported Stefano Ferrara ovens in shopping mall food courts. Still, I didn’t expect any major differences in Iberian pizza as I recently packed for a two-week trip to Spain and Portugal, my first return since that year abroad in 02/03.
In between stops at my old favorite paella places and late-night chocolaterias, I began to notice something interesting: pizzerias. Lots of them, maybe one every couple blocks in some areas. On the side streets and winding alleyways around Puerta del Sol, up Fuencarral (now a busy pedestrian-only boulevard, instead of the roadway I used to walk up). There was even a tasty-looking pizza joint on the ground floor of my old apartment building, literally one window below my former bedroom (that would have been dangerous). Finally, I stopped at a place I was walking past and ordered a simple marinara with mushroom pie. The Brazilian-flag-bandana-wearing pizzaolo got to work. 5 minutes later, I got my 13″, crispy, sauce-laden pie out of his electric oven. The outcome was a revelation: Madrid was suddenly in the pizza game.
In my search for pizza perfection, I recently got a Mario Batali cast iron pizza pan. Last night, for a trial run (but not following the regular directions), I placed it in my broiler, pre-heated it on high for 20 minutes, then prepped a pizza using Trader Joe’s pizza dough (left out for a couple hours to warm up). Normally their dough is too sweet for my liking, so I gave it a fair salt and peppering before adding sauce and toppings (still no cheese in my diet, and still loving it). Milled some Cento tomatoes (They’re the most consistently good canned tomatoes I’ve found — I even have a “subscription” for them from Amazon, get a case every two months), and added a few kalamata olives, basil, and a small section of tofurky sausage.
Cooked it for 4 minutes 45 seconds on “high” broil setting.
The results were phenomenal. Crispy outside, doughy interior. Nice amount of puff. The bottom toasted nicely.
Interesting to compare the results of this iron pan to a pizza stone. I’m not really using it the way it’s intended, but by putting in the broiler, it just works. I’ve tried the same thing with a pizza stone, but it heats too high and burns the dough. I may have to test that again, but for now, I think I’ve found my new “quickie-pizza-fix” solution.
Infrared thermometers are great. Like laser rangefinders, they have a very useful function, but also are addictively fun in that childishly awesome way. Point it at something, pull the trigger and — “beep” — you immediately know how hot or cold it is.
I already have two of these and might pick up a third based on this undeniably low price. $16, no shipping charges. Goes up to 750 degrees Fahrenheit, and has a handy laser pointer to help direct the beam. I don’t know what the spot ratio is for it, but at this price, even the lower end would be OK.
These are great for pizza ovens. Fire it up, get the walls and floor up to temperature, and cook away. Similarly, put your pizza stone in your broiler and you should be able to get some great results too. Unless you have a high-end wood fired oven that rages hot, you should be covered by this thing. Otherwise, look for one that goes over 1000 (this one goes to 3000ºF, but you can find some deals on stuff the high-900F range. I got one like that at Harbor Freight).
As a pizza-geek living in Los Angeles for the past few years, I’ve been pretty disappointed with the pies that are available to me and the other 4 million hungry people in this city. Even the buzziest pizza places with the best reviews tend to be bland and generic (I do like Mozza, though). So a few nights ago, when I got an email about a new joint called Pizzanista! in downtown LA, I didn’t pay much attention–until I noticed that they serve vegan slices, and offer them for $2 on Tuesdays along with regular cheese and pepperoni. I haven’t been able to have pizza slices since starting my vegan experiment almost four years ago, and suddenly my mouth was watering for something triangular and delicious.
Pizzanista! is in the downtown LA arts district, near the warehouses and Greyhound station, and across from American Apparel’s factory. Driving in on the sideroads from north of downtown brings you through the train yards, junk yards, and rock quarries, gritty stuff that always seems to inspire me to build stuff, or just take photos (note to myself: bring camera next time). Just west of the LA river, the pizzeria occupies the front of a brick building with a fantastic bar arrangement that straddles inside and out via a large flip-open window. Conveniently located in the back of the building is Tony’s, a divey bar popular with the hip crowd.
The inside of Pizzanista! felt clean and warm, with dark wood tabletops accenting the brickwork. About halfway to the back, the kitchen, register, and a display of pizzas framed the main action of the restaurant. Proudly running the joint (and manning the register during my visit) is Salman Agah, former Thrasher magazine Skater of the Year, and a very nice fellow.
For their $2 Tuesday vegan slices, the joint serves a piece of nicely-sized Daiya and sauce pizza. On the other days of the week, Salman told me they typically have at least one vegan pie you can buy slices from, usually tomato and spinach (I think those ones are $3 each, but best to check). It took a few minutes to warm the pizza up and when it came to our table, I was immediately in heaven. The crust was amazing–perfect amount of toasty crunch underneath, chewy rim, and plenty flavorful. The sauce was so tangy and rich that I immediately forgot that I usually ask for extra on the side (I love sauce). And although I’m normally not a fan of Daiya — I think cheeseless pizza is better, this time it worked, and well.
Yes, for the first time in almost four years, I was eating pizza slices. And I was in heaven.
We ordered another round of slices, and some broccoli rabe. We listened to the perfectly set 80’s music. We sat in a pizza coma and read our books. And we’ll be back.
(Note: we have been back, a few times, and I just took new photos. Check them out.)
For the past five years, I’ve had an annual pizza party for my birthday each January. It’s my excuse to get to cook as many pizzas as possible at one time, to test my pizza-making skills, to try to bring the best I’m able to bring for that year. Last night was the latest, and by my measurements, were the best pizzas I’ve made by far.
Here are my notes and recap.
I prepped two batches of dough: 6lbs using Trader Joe’s all-purpose flour, and 24oz using Caputo “Tipo 00” imported Italian flour (the standard that the top Neapolitan pizzerias use). The Trader Joe’s dough was made two days earlier, while the Caputo was made very early the morning of the party. I’ll get to details later, but here’s a spoiler: the Caputo did NOT work well.
For each batch, I used 65.5% hydration, following the A16 pizza dough recipe (the 6lb. quantities in parenthesis):
Flour: 100% (53.93oz)
Water: 65% (35.31oz)
Salt: 3.5% (1.9oz)
Yeast: 9% (4.86oz) (my sourdough starter yeast is about 100% hydration)
And as a kick-start, I added a pinch of dry active yeast to the mix (3/4 teaspoon to the Trader Joe’s, 1/4 to the Caputo). I’ve found that the starter yeast takes a bit longer to rise, so this helps make sure things are ready. Otherwise, I might as well just send everyone home.
One of the challenges I’m discovering as I push deeper and deeper for pizzamaking excellence is that the tools, techniques and time involved become more intensive and demanding with each step forward.
Childhood pizzas were spaghetti sauce and cheese on french bread, melted in the toaster oven.
Boboli-style pre-cooked doughs followed, topped with Contadina pizza sauce and grated mozzarella.
A pizza stone got added to the process, helping crisp the crust in place of the dampness-inducing cookie sheet – at the expense of an increasing pre-warming time.
Fresh dough became a thing of intrigue, supplied by bakeries on the east coast and Trader Joe’s elsewhere.
“Pizza peel” becomes part of my vocabulary. Then a second one, this time aluminum.
Refrigerated dough led to freshly prepared, courtesy a donated bread machine on the “dough” setting mixing up the flour, water, salt and Fleischmans.
More control (and burnt out gears) mandate a large new Kitchen Aid.
Wanting more flavor led to regularly feeding wild yeast and learning baker’s percentages.
A Neapolitan pizza discovery still looming in my mind, wood-fired ovens became part of the experiment, requiring specific types of fuel and lengthy heating times, not to mention an expanding tool kit.
It’s a fun journey, one that continues to challenge and evade, but supplying continuously satisfying results as I keep pushing down the trail. With almost all parts of my pizza process now requiring a considerable amount of hand-crafted attention, I’m actually making pizza less frequently than in earlier days. So the introduction of a time-saving technique that gives results that are almost on par with what I get from a full pizza-making event is a wonderful find that can let me enjoy and share pizza on a smaller, faster scale, when those moments arise.
Halloween is a big deal on my street. This year I invited a few friends and neighbors over to pass out candy while I made pizzas. It was a blast. Many, many thanks to PizzaHacker for creating the PizzaForge oven and for working with me to build a prototype of a one-piece unit. Anyone that follows him and has experienced the pizza his creation produces knows that he’s designed something truly awesome.
Also, thanks to Chris McMains for delivering a fresh batch of starter to use for the dough. I used the Varasanos recipe (with a pinch of dry yeast) and everyone, including myself, was raving about the flavor.
Here are the technical details on the video:
Camera: Nikon D80
Lens: Nikon 10.5mm f/2.8
Image capturing software: Sortofbild
Runtime: 4 hours 15 minutes (stopped when the battery died)
Assembled with Quicktime Pro, edited on iMovie
Color correction in Photoshop (removed some of the overpowering orange coloring and lightened shadows)
Music: “Ghosts N’ Stuff” (Hard Intro Remix) by Deadmau5
This might be the best thing I’ve ever made. It also might be the weirdest thing I’ve made. Watch in HD on Youtube.
Only got one photo of a pizza cooked that night, but it was a good one. Everything was really clicking.
A few weeks ago I traveled to my old home of San Francisco to experience the opening days of an eagerly awaited new pizzeria: Una Pizza Napoletana. The opening was actually the rebirth of what had become a legendary pizzeria in NYC (which had previously existed in NJ), opened in Manhattan in 2004 by Anthony Mangieri (read the writeup from Slice’s first visit to his location, six years ago to the day). Quickly becoming a city-wide phenomenon and then a national point of pizza conversation, Mangieri cemented his place amongst the greats with a strict commitment to excellence and no-nonsense pizzeria approach.
And then, one day in mid-2009, he shut it all down; as Mangieri explained, he always wanted to live in San Francisco, and decided to do just that. The store was sold and reopened as Motorino (still scoring high marks on my NY pizza visits), and the pizza world began to loudly chatter about exactly when and where Anthony would resurface.
The ease of the design was demonstrated recently by Thomas Niccum, who used my writeup to reconstruct his own oven. Total time from construction to eating pizza? 10 hours – and that includes transporting a pallet of cinderblock into the back yard one by one.