My Pizza Napoletana Project

I’ve finally started the work of perfecting my own, Naples-style Margherita pizza. It’s still a work in progress, but it’s getting good.

We lived around the corner from Motorino when we lived in New York–which, if you live there, I think you might agree is near perfection (okay, obviously this can lead to a heated debate among New Yorkers but I’m going to go out on a limb and call it the best pizza in the city). Suffice to say: we miss it. I’ve been talking about learning to recreate it for years, but it took the move across the country to help me get serious.

The biggest challenge to getting a homemade Neapolitan pizza to taste as good as one you’ll get in a restaurant is oven temperature: a nearly 1000-degree wood-burning oven turns out a crust that’s tender and pocketed on the inside and charred on the outside in about a minute. The home oven tops at 550-degrees. You can never get that char without drying out your pizza or overcooking the cheese. (As you can see, I’ve yet to get the perfect degree of char, but I’m getting closer!)

For help, I read through multiple posts on the Serious Eats blog, Slice. Their column, The Pizza Lab, is pretty brilliant–and the comments from the pizza-obsessed are fun to read through.

To get the dough right, they recommended a simple combination of high-protein flour, water, salt, and yeast. I went with the classic, extra-fine tipo “OO” Italian flour, but bread flour should do. Here’s the entire recipe. I followed their instructions carefully–including giving the dough a “long ferment” period in the fridge to help with stretch and flavor, but I have a suspicion you could do pretty well with day-of dough, too.

I promise you, making your own dough is simple. Stretching it out without getting any holes… transferring it from a peel to a pan without it sticking and shrinking… these are the more serious challenges. But making the dough? Easy.

In the past, I’ve had a lot of success with pre-cooking my crust on a pre-heated pizza stone, and then adding toppings. I actually still would recommend this method for the less-picky. It’s a great way to get a crispy crust with fresh-tasting ingredients. But this time I added my toppings to an uncooked crust.

I scoured the Slice site for some secret tomato sauce recipe. How do you get that slightly sweet tomato flavor like the one at Motorino? Turns out the secret is doing virtually nothing: open a can of San Marzano tomatoes. Strain and puree. Add salt. That’s it!

For the cheese, I sourced real, imported Buffala Mozzerella. But if you can’t find that, you just want to get the softest, freshest, whole-milk Mozzarella you can find. I’m still working on the right cut because nothing is worse (in my opinion) than when fresh mozzarella is overcooked to the point of becoming rubbery (and there are so many pizzas with rubbery cheese, right?!) I think I need to cut mine a bit thicker next time to guard against this if I want to leave the pizza in longer.

For all of the tricks to replicating that super-hot, wood-burning oven, I have to turn you again to Slice and The Pizza Lab. Here’s a post on their skillet-broiler method, which I think sounds the best and which I was all ready to try until I read their raving review of The Baking Steel (an alternative to a pizza stone), and convinced Aron to order me one as a present.

As a result, I went with the “Baking Steel-broiler method,” preheating the steel to 500-degrees and then switching to the broiler when it was time to put the pizza in. I ran into some challenges: First, the temperature in the oven got too high and the broiler turned off as a precaution. They suggested inserting a metal spoon to prop the door, which I’ve yet to try but will. In the meantime, I was able to get most of the cooking done with the bake setting before switching on the broiler, but I did find that the longer time this took meant that my cheese was prone to overcooking. So I’m still fine-tuning this part.

BUT perfect char or not?  It was delicious. And the inside was so tender and pillowy! Oh, and don’t forget to finish it with olive oil. That is the restaurant trick that really elevates a hot pizza.

It was, (totally going to toot my own horn here), the best Naples-style pizza we’ve had since leaving New York (not counting this). It was so good that–kid you not–Hudson took a bite of Aron’s and then leaned in to give Aron a big kiss. Mwah!

P.S. If anyone tries this at home, tell me how you do at getting the bake/broiler step just right.

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