October 3, 2019

Making Pizza At Home, The Tony Gemignani Way: Part 3

by Joe Bonadio

Early this week I made pizza dough from scratch, my ninth batch since beginning to learn the process nearly three months ago. As I documented in Parts One and Two, I’m a fortunate student: I’ve had the benefit of Tony’s advice from square one. His guidance (along with my trusty copy of The Pizza Bible, of course) has been crucial to my progress.

I’ve had my share of successes along the way—and absolutely some losers as well. I’ve turned out a couple of pies that were so good, I almost couldn’t believe they came out of my own oven. I’ve also made a couple that were such a mess, I almost couldn’t get them out of the oven at all. All were edible though, and with one sorry exception, all were what I would at least describe as “good.”

Aside from the countless details I’ve absorbed on dough and baking technique, here are a few things that I’ve learned about the process.

Pizza is hard. From the slavish attention to ingredients and proportions to the sheer muscularity of the kneading process, pizza making is a lot of work. I’ve been using Tony’s Master Dough with starter, and doing a 2-day bulk ferment. That has yielded excellent results, but it’s a 5-day process from starter to bake. There’s only a couple of hours of work to it at most, but let’s face it, that’s a big commitment for a typical home chef.

Pizza Line

My “line” crowds the counter as I prepare to make one of my very first from-scratch pizzas. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

And it’s not necessary to go to all that trouble, either. There are other methods in The Pizza Bible that will take you only a couple of days. But one of Tony’s mantras is Slow is the Secret—and there’s a good reason for that. The longer your dough rises, the more flavor the finished product will have. And if I’m going to go to the trouble of doing something, I’d rather not cut corners.

And I’ll say it again: the mixing and kneading is a bear. I can bang out a hundred pushups without breaking a sweat, but kneading is a very specific motion, and for me it’s a real workout. I’m still wondering, do pizza makers get pizza shoulder or pizza elbow or some such thing? It wouldn’t surprise me a bit. I’ll have to ask Tony about that.

Success is relative. The first time I finished a pizza with my own scratch dough, I was admittedly thrilled with the results. Don’t get me wrong, it was far from great. But it was definitely pizza, it was crispy, and it tasted damn good. Most importantly, I had made it in my little kitchen with my own two hands.

But beginning at around my third batch of dough, I began to get more picky. One of the pies I made from that dough was as close to perfect as I’ve baked so far. The crust was so good, so crispy and light, I decided that I had figured it out–I had mastered Tony’s Master Dough.

It only took a fourth batch to disabuse me of this notion. Something went wrong in the measurements (I surmise), and I ended up serving a couple of seriously underwhelming pies to my guests. (Sorry, guys.) The funny thing is, I knew the entire time that something was amiss—I could tell by the feel of the dough that it wasn’t right. But what was there to do? The pizza you make is the pizza you eat.

Cherries, Pepper, Bacon

My first specialty pie, with fresh cherries, bacon and hot peppers, ready to go in the oven. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

It’s more complicated than you think. I follow Tony’s recipe to the letter, and hew to every step of the process in his exhaustive Pizza Bible. But there are variations in every pie, differences that likely come down to tiny increments of hydration, temperature and other factors that I haven’t even figured out yet. Clearly I need to get better at “reading” the dough, and that means clocking some serious hours in the kitchen.

It’s expensive. As I detailed in Part One, anyone who plans on making scratch pizza is going to need to do a little shopping. Two pizza steels are highly recommended (indeed, they are the key to making good pizza in a home oven), and the pair will run you around $200. You’re also going to need a pizza peel (that’s the wooden paddle that you slide your pie into the oven with), as well as a pizza wheel for slicing. And you’ll definitely want an instant-read thermometer.

There are also a couple of items that, while recommended, are not strictly necessary. A good stand mixer (Kitchen Aid is generally considered the best) is ideal for mixing dough, but I’ve been doing it by hand thus far, with good results. And although ingredients can be hand-measured, a good digital scale is far superior.

Then there are the ingredients: from Part One, you’ll recall the double-zero flour, the yeast, the diastatic malt, the semola and corn meal for the dough. And don’t forget the toppings: whole-milk mozzarella, carefully sourced tomatoes, long stalks of Sicilian oregano, extra-virgin olive oil, fresh basil and Romano cheese. And that’s for a simple cheese pizza. Add it all up, and you’re going to be in for around $350 (and that’s excluding a stand mixer—those usually run a couple hundred).

Hot Peppers and Bacon

The finished product: pizza with cherries, hot peppers and bacon. Delicious! | Photo: Joe Bonadio

But it’s worth it. Last night, I made my fifteenth and sixteenth homemade pizzas, and served them to my latest batch of guinea pigs guests. And while these weren’t my best pies yet, I must say they were awfully close. I definitely felt a little more in control of the process this time, and more confident—I just knew the pizza was going to be good.

And it was. The first pie was basic cheese, the second augmented with hot peppers and crispy bits of fresh back bacon. Both pizzas were delicious—though the crust on the first was just a bit crisper.

Like many people in San Francisco I don’t have A/C, and my kitchen was getting pretty balmy after that first pizza came out—so it was probably a temperature thing. Note to self: use your instant-read thermometer next time, that’s why you have it.

Always remember that: temperature is critical, and not just for your oven. The dough has to be at the right temperature, too. If dough gets too hot, it will “blow,” or rise prematurely, and you definitely don’t want that. It’s also important to get temperature right when the recipe calls for ice water. That means 40º, no warmer. Rather than use ice cubes, I just place my water in the freezer until it’s at the right temp.

It’s been a fun ride, and I feel like I’m just getting started. Living here in San Francisco’s North Beach, fate has placed me in the company of some of the best pizza makers on the planet. It would be a shame not to learn something from them while I’m here.

Yours truly getting ready to tear into a very respectable slice of homemade pizza. | Photo: Joe Bonadio
This is why the serious home chef uses two pizza steels: such a lovely bottom! | Photo: Joe Bonadio
What it's all about: a delightfully simple cheese pizza with fresh basil, hot out of the oven. | Photo: Joe Bonadio

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Postscript: Last week, Laura Meyer, Tony’s Corporate Chef and perpetual right hand, won First Place in the Pizza Americana category at the Caputo Cup in Naples, Italy. This is her third world title. Congratulations to Laura and Tony on this amazing victory; we’ll be back to talk more about it soon.