August 6, 2019

Making Pizza At Home, The Tony Gemignani Way: Part 2

by Joe Bonadio

More than perhaps any one food item, just about everybody loves pizza. For me, It’s like chocolate: if you don’t like pizza, I’m just not sure I can trust you. In all seriousness, what’s not to like about a good pizza? And if we didn’t know it before, the profusion of styles and talent in the pizza making field in recent years has made it abundantly clear: the humble pizza pie is our favorite comfort food, bar none.

Here in San Francisco, we’ve got lots of choices when it comes to good pizza. Tony’s Pizza Napoletana tops my list, I’m sure you won’t be surprised to hear. But if one thing is true of San Franciscans, it’s their love of not just food—but cooking. And making from-scratch pizza at home, and making it right, is an arrow every home chef ought to have in their quiver.

Tony Gemignani gives me the basics on dough handling technique in my North Beach kitchen. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

I recently set out to do learn how to do just that—naturally, enlisting the help of my friend, 13-time world pizza champion Tony Gemignani. In Part One of this article, Tony gave me a tour of his North Beach retail store, and showed me what I was going to need to get started. Giovanni Italian Specialties is a 1940’s ‘General Store’ reimagined as a modern Italian deli—photogenic to a fault, and probably the best local place to fill your Italian shopping list.

I emerged thirty minutes later greatly edified, with two Baking Steels under one arm, and two fat bags of groceries under the other. Once I had hauled all of that stuff back to my nearby apartment, I took stock—and one more gander at Tony’s Pizza Bible. I would have sworn I had everything, but alas, I was not ready.

First off, I was going to need a digital scale. If there’s one thing that Tony emphasizes in the The Pizza Bible, it’s weighing your ingredients, and I didn’t want to start things off on the wrong foot. I headed first to Walgreens, but they had nothing but bathroom scales. Around the corner at Cole Hardware, things looked more promising, but I still couldn’t find anything that could weigh in increments of smaller than a gram. That would not work.

I checked out The Wok Shop in Chinatown, and even hiked all the way to Sur La Table in the Ferry Building. Astonishingly, I saw nothing that I could use. At this point, I determined that I would have to rough it, and make my first dough with hand measurements. They had to be listed in the book for some reason, right? I would just have to be very careful.

On the plus side, while searching the Wok Shop I was able to score a very nice wooden pizza peel—that’s the handled platter that you build your pizza on, then slide it into the oven with (called “landing” the pizza). I also found a pretty good pizza wheel there for slicing.

The last item I decided to wait for: the stand mixer. One of these is definitely recommended, because mixing dough is not easy work. But it’s not critical, and a good Kitchen Aid stand mixer will set you back around $200. There were instructions in The Pizza Bible for hand mixing, so for my first outing, that would be the plan.

On Day One, I made my first starter (what is called a poolish), measuring as carefully as possible.

Starters take about 18 hours to rise, so early the next day it was time to make the dough. Once again, I measured my ingredients ahead of time into separate containers, as The Pizza Bible instructs. As I did this, my mind jumped ahead a couple of steps, to the kneading of the dough. And in that moment, I realized that I had nowhere to do it.

Kneading requires a smooth, unfloured surface, ideally marble or stainless steel. And to my abiding chagrin, my countertops are entirely covered with small rectangular tiles. Possibly the dumbest counter design ever, because the gaps between the tiles are impossible to keep clean. More to the point, all of those gaps would make kneading dough on this surface well-nigh impossible.

Then it dawned on me: when I had moved into my place nearly thirteen years ago, the friend who was vacating the apartment left a slab of marble in the back corner of the kitchen. When I had asked him about it at the time, he told me he’d held on to it because it might be handy to make pizza sometime.

I looked in the corner—and lo, there it still stood. And no, I’m not making this up.

I grabbed the slab, and proceeded to give it a serious scrubbing. Toweling it off, I lifted it onto the counter, where it fit perfectly between the wall and the ridge of the countertop; it must have been cut to size. And thanks to an offhand gift from an old friend over a dozen years ago, I was now back in business. Thank you, Matt!

Mixing and kneading the dough were pretty uneventful, but it definitely requires a little elbow grease. I do more than my share of pushups, but the kneading motion is a very particular one, and no small amount of work. I got it done though, and soon my debut dough ball was resting beneath a damp paper towel, waiting to go into the fridge.

The next day was Day Three, when I was supposed to ball the dough—and this was where I learned of my first mistake. It’s also where things get really interesting. Because I haven’t mentioned that Tony himself was coming over to my place for my first bake. That’s right: 13-time World Pizza Champion Tony Gemignani was coming to my apartment to show me how to make pizza.

The night before though, we were texting back and forth when Tony realized that I was already f*cking up. “No, you were supposed to end up with two dough balls, not one,” he told me. Somehow I had missed that detail. “You didn’t read the book,” he said, and two minutes later I was looking at a text with a photo of the page I missed. Whoops.

The sad result of trying to grate fresh mozzarella instead of the hard, low moisture product. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

“Just reball it now, and get it back in the fridge,” Tony instructed. “It should be alright.” I felt like a student who had disappointed his teacher, which I suppose is exactly what I was.

The next day it was Go Time, and I was psyched. As the hour approached, I minced some garlic and made a little fresh garlic oil, grated a little mound of Reggiano Parmigiano and laid out the rest of the things I’d need for my line. Tony arrived fresh from his kitchen at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana just three blocks away, still in his chef’s whites and ready for business.

The chef took a look around, quickly taking stock of the place. The first thing he noticed was that I had forgotten to take the sauce out of the refrigerator. Right off the bat, I had violated Commandment #4 in The Pizza Bible: Though shalt not put cold sauce on pizza dough.

Turns out, I also bought the wrong cheese. Not for a lack of trying, though: Tony had told me to get whole milk mozzarella, not the part skim stuff that you typically see on supermarket shelves. That sounded easy enough. Looking for my mozzarella, I visited two Safeways, a Whole Foods, Molinari’s Deli and my local cheese shop in one day. None of them had what I needed. I finally found a chunk at Trader Joe’s—whole milk mozzarella, just what the doctor ordered.

But when I pulled it out of the fridge, Tony balked. “That’s fresh mozzarella—you were supposed to get low moisture, the hard one,” he explained, handing it to me. “Go ahead and grate that,” he directed. I unwrapped it and went to town on my grater, only to have the cheese fall apart in clumps. It was a mess.

Joe Makes Pizza

I make my first attempt at pushing out pizza dough under Tony’s watchful eye. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

“It’s too wet, and you can’t grate it,” Tony said. “If you were doing Neapolitan in a 900º oven, that would be okay.” Thankfully, he had brought his own cheese. Tony pushed the plate of mangled mozzarella aside. “Get this cottage cheese out of here.”

On the brighter side, Tony really liked my marble slab, and seemed to approve of the general appearance of my dough balls. And soon, I was tossing small handfuls of dough, semola and semolina on to the smooth surface of the marble. I plopped my dough ball down, and Tony told me to go ahead and open the pizza (“opening” the pizza refers to the first motions of stretching out your dough).

I started in, and Tony stopped me in no more than five seconds. “Take it easy. That’s a little aggressive,” he said, taking over. “First you want to form a ridge, and stay away from the middle,” he demonstrated, hands moving deftly across the dough. “If you do the rest right, the center will take care of itself.”

He finished forming the pizza, my eyes on his every move. Stepping back from the properly shaped dough, he spread his hands: “Now that’s the way it’s supposed to look.”

Into The Oven

And into the oven it goes! I prepare to “land” my first pizza. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

Happily, topping the pizza was well within my skill set. First, I moved the dough onto the wooden peel that would convey it to the oven. I sauced the pie, Tony reminding me to grip the spoon close to the bottom for better control. Then I laid on the cheese, and it was time for the next challenge: landing the pizza.

Landing a pizza is literally putting it in the oven—and it’s much trickier than it sounds. As Tony explained to me, the two most delicate operations when making a pizza are actually stretching the dough and landing it properly. Sure enough, on my first try, I flubbed it. “No, too much,” Tony said, laughing. “You nearly threw it into the back of the oven!” My pizza was going to be crooked at best, and that’s if I could get it out of the oven in one piece.

Tony had me set my timer for five minutes. When it went off, Tony was surprised to find that my pizza was almost done. It came off the steel without a problem, and I gave it a quick turn, 180º. After another minute or so I transferred it to the bottom steel. A couple more minutes, and I was removing my very first (well-assisted) homemade pizza from the oven.

My First Pie

My first pizza, which I “landed” improperly on the baking steel, in all its crooked glory. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

A masterpiece it was not. It was oval in shape, and the back side was a little smashed —but otherwise it looked remarkably like a pizza. I cut it with my new pizza wheel, albeit clumsily, and topped the steaming pie with Reggiano and some of the fresh garlic oil. Tony grabbed a long bunch of the Greek oregano, and showed me how to smash it in your hand so that just the finer bits drop on to the surface of the pizza. A fresh bunch of basil also sat in the corner, but I didn’t think of it until after.

The moment of truth had arrived, and we dug in. It tasted good…not bad at all. The slices had good structure, and supported the ingredients when held up. The bottom was pretty evenly browned. “Good job,” Tony said, and my heart swelled with pride. Then he moved on. “Did you put salt in the dough?”

I told him I had, and he nodded, his eyes narrowed in thought. “What kind did you use? Sea salt?” I had actually been out of sea salt when making the dough, and used Himalayan pink salt instead, and told him. “That’s what it is,” Tony deduced. “That stuff doesn’t have as much actual salt in it.”

This was remarkable. Think about it: the entire dough ball used to make my pizza contained less than a single teaspoon of salt. And in one bite of one slice, Tony’s palate was able to discern that I had used the wrong salt. Not that I had forgotten the salt, mind you—I had just used the wrong salt. Impressive.

Now it was time for Tony to make his pizza. He had brought his own dough ball, so perfect it might have come out of a mold. Again, Tony went at the dough, while I scoped out his technique. No more than ninety seconds later, he was sliding his pie into the oven. When I asked him if he wanted me to set my timer, he waved me off.

Tony turned his pizza 180º a few minutes in, remarking that my oven was cooking fast. “That’s a good oven,” he informed me. Once Tony had moved his pie to the bottom steel, we sat down to relax for a moment. When Tony stood up to check his pie a minute later, we both smelled the air at the same time, and looked at one another. He opened the oven, and smoke came billowing out. Tony had burned his pizza!

House A fire

Tony waves my pizza peel at the screeching smoke alarm in my apartment, just after we incinerated his first pizza. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

My small apartment was quickly filling with smoke. I jumped up to open the windows, and right on cue, my smoke alarm began to shriek. I opened the front door so my neighbors wouldn’t summon the fire department, waving a towel at the alarm on the ceiling to clear it of smoke. Tony came out of the kitchen and joined in, waving my pizza peel at the howling alarm. (Of course at this point, I had to stop and take a photo.)

Smoke alarm subdued, Tony and I eventually moved back into the kitchen to survey the damage. The pie was a total loss. It was the first time I had thrown an entire pizza into the garbage, and I couldn’t help but imagine how many that Tony had sacrificed over the years. But what had gone wrong?

Tony figured it out quickly: I had my oven cranked to its highest setting when Tony showed up, and we had turned it down a little bit when we started baking. But now that we looked more closely, I realized the highest setting on my oven was actually 550º, not the 500º I’d assumed. To make matters worse, it’s a gas oven, with the heating element on the bottom—and I had placed the second pizza steel on the bottom rack.

It was a recipe for disaster. The only thing that saved my first pizza was that it spent almost no time on the bottom steel. At least we had established one thing: my oven was definitely hot enough to cook pizza in. “You’ve got a great oven,” Tony assured me, his hands again working the dough, already halfway done with pizza #3.

More Like It Tonys Pie

Tony made up for it with his second effort: this was my first really outstanding homemade pizza. | Photo: Tony Gemignani

A few minutes later, Tony and I were sitting down to our first proper pizza of the afternoon. It was a revelation. Right out of my own home oven, all of the elements of Tony’s best pies were there: the crispiness, the lighter than air dough, the perfectly browned crust and cheese. It wasn’t spectacular, but it was very good—and Tony had created it out of my humble dough ball.

This was all the encouragement that I would need. Over the next weeks, I would embark on a mission to master Tony’s Master Dough, and make my own perfect from-scratch pizza. The journey would upend my kitchen, and transform my friends into guinea pigs, forced to eat my wayward experiments. In my own small way, I was going to become a pizzamaker.

Needless to say, none of this would be possible without the recipes, inspiration and guidance of Tony Gemignani. And I couldn’t ask for a better tutor.

Thank you, Tony! And remember: next time, you just bring wine.

Our adventures will continue on the Seven Ovens blog in Part 3, so don’t forget to check back soon!