Here’s a typical setup for me when I make pizza at home. Sliced garden-fresh green tiger tomatoes, purple garden potatoes, quail eggs, sauteed mushrooms or grilled eggplant finished with balsamic vinegar, onions, roasted piquillo peppers from my garden, olives, salt-packed anchovies, and assorted home-cured salumi (coppa, pancetta, sopressata, and bresaola).
“What do you want on your pizza?”
Why does this question stop me in my tracks every time? Even if I thought long and hard about it beforehand, when faced with the ultimate choice, my brain will just freeze.
It’s not like there won’t be another chance to try something else, but here and now I am looking for the right combination of flavor and my cognitive state flat lines. Why is this such a hard decision?
I know what my favorites are:
- Tomato sauce, mozzarella, spicy sausage, onion, and mushroom
- Tomato sauce, mozzarella, prosciutto, and arugula
- Tomato sauce, mozzarella, anchovy
I can always rely on these. If I choose something different, am I betraying an old friend? Or if I only adhere to favorites, what about all of the other options I am neglecting? Yes, FOMO applies to pizza.
I make a lot of pizza at home. A lot. The wood fired oven turns out a very good pizza. With an active sourdough starter, a pantry stocked with Italian 00 pizza flour and canned San Marzano tomatoes from my garden, and a used Hobart A200 20 quart mixer, the essentials for pizza are immediately at hand.
Cheese and basil need to be stocked fresh, but are easy to obtain. Even delicious fresh mozzarella di bufala is easy to find these days. The dough is the “long pole” in the planning process, taking at least two days to get right. This gives plenty of time to think about toppings.
Maybe it gives too much time to think about toppings! After way too many times of keeping a list in my head only to later discover that certain hotly anticipated items never made it out, I started making lists.
I look in the fridge and see salt and oil packed anchovies, fresh and pickled peppers, (roasted peppers too!), fresh and confit garlic, capers, artichokes, broccoli rabe, wild mushrooms, homemade sweet and hot Italian sausage, an array of olives, quail eggs, and all sorts of home-cured salumi. I always keep onions on hand, but red onions are my preference for pizza, either fresh sliced or lightly sauteed in a little olive oil.
When the garden is active, more possibilities arise. Eggplant, squash, and a forest of wild arugula appear. Thinly sliced potatoes, especially the purple ones, make a striking and tasty impression. The best toppings are homemade or homegrown.
With all of these choices, guests can request their own combinations. It frees us up to experiment, too. If a combo is spectacular, then I make another. One such combination is cold smoked gouda with preserved Meyer lemons, truffled honey, and red chile flakes.
Sometimes I make homemade ingredients just with a certain pizza in mind. My thought in curing meats, for example was to make meats mainly to use as pizza toppings. Yes, I’m obsessed.
Or here’s a spicy giardiniera I made and canned to make an “Italian beef” pizza as a tribute to the famous Chicago sandwich, but instead of the braised beef, I top it with house-cured bresaola when it comes out of the oven.
Sometimes people come up with some crazy combos that they envisioned in advance. There was a Peking duck pizza with seared duck breast, scallions, and hoisin sauce. Or a cheese steak pizza with strips of seared, thin-sliced rib eye steak, sharp provolone, and onions and peppers on top.
Or taleggio cheese with rosemary, roasted garlic, and a topping of translucent strips of pancetta. A friend dreamed of this combo all week, and showed up with everything to make it a reality. His dream came true!
The main thing is not overloading with toppings. Piling the toppings on just causes confusion. When you have great toppings, each one needs to be given its chance to shine. The placement of the toppings needs to allow each one to properly cook, whether you want it to have browned, or even charred, edges. Perhaps it just needs to heat and attach itself to the molten cheese. Other toppings, like fresh arugula, herbs, spices, or sheets of freshly sliced prosciutto are best applied when the pizza is removed from the oven.
Sharing is the beauty of making a bunch of pizzas at home. They come out of the oven sequentially, so no one is sitting there devouring their choice while everyone else waits. The pizzas are cut in pieces, and diners select from the available choices. Life is good and there are no regrets. If someone misses out on one, the next one is coming up soon!
Ordering at a pizzeria may be a different story. My pizza of choice is Neapolitan style. Everyone is served their choice in a 12″ personal format. Your pizza is your meal. You may ask others for a taste, and there is often sharing, but unless there is a prearranged agreement to order multiple pies and share all, you will be eating your selection.
The best way to tell the quality of a Neapolitan pizzeria is to try the Margherita pizza: crust, San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, and basil. A touch of olive oil and salt. When trying a new place, I often get this one as a measure of the place.
But what about all of those choices a place puts on the menu? Here are my tricks to simplifying the choices. First, I look at the set combinations offered. Usually, there are classic combinations. I figure those are on the list because they are frequently requested. Then there are more obscure combinations, typically based on a place highlighting things they make in house, locally source, or seasonally available items. These are where I focus my attention (I’d really like to try that house made sausage or house-cured hot coppa), unless I know something is particularly good at the place.
Of course, there are times when I want it all. Too many choices. As noted in my last post, we just returned from a vacation in Sicily. Look at the menu at this place, and every pizza coming out looked better than the last one.
I settled on the Araba combination (tomato, pepperoni (salame piccante), anchovies, capers, olives, onion, pecorino, and parsley) because I wanted local anchovies and I was looking for a bit of heat. Since I am obviously not Sicilian, the owners questioned my ordering a pizza without mozzarella. I assured them it was ok, but still they persisted in an attempt to make sure I would be happy with my pizza with no mozzarella. Si, si, sin mozzarella, ok! The pizza was great, the best one I had in Sicily.
Style matters. While Neapolitan pizza is plated for each person to have their own, and this tradition does carry into Sicily, Sicily is a place where family is the top priority above all else. And so, Sicilian pizza has a thicker crust across the entire pizza, making it easy to cut in pieces and share. If a pizza is cut, it will normally be cut into small squares, perfect for sharing. And they also feature a “famiglia” which is oblong, about 12″ wide and nearly a yard long, designed for sharing with your family. It can be topped in a variety of ways to suit everyone’s tastes.
If you want to taste multiple topping combinations, or, like me, just have trouble making up your mind, then sharing and family style eating is the way to go. When faced with a choice of a single personal pizza as your meal, calm reassurance is found in the knowledge that the next pizza is not in the distant future.