I love pizza. Always have. When I was quite young, the only kind of pizza I ever ate was homemade. My mother, grandmother, aunts, etc. all baked their own bread and made extra dough in order to make pizza. My grandmother made traditional pizza, with nothing more than tomatoes, herbs and grated cheese on top. My mom and aunts probably did the same thing at first, but then adapted to the American style, adding sausage and mozzarella.
My introduction to pizzeria pizza came in 1968, in the city of Clinton, Iowa. This is where we sometimes stayed overnight when visiting my eldest sister, who attended Shimer College, which was located in Mt. Carroll, Illinois at the time. We stayed at a Holiday Inn and had supper at a nearby Pizza Hut, which was nowhere near as prevalent then as it is now. I still remember the experience. We had gotten a cheese pizza—probably the only kind of pizza I’d eaten thus far—and I marveled at how thin the crust was, compared to the bread crust that I had been used to (these days they call that a pan pizza). I also marveled at the different flavor of this new and unusual pizza—bear in mind, I was only seven years old at the time—and I begged my mother to make pizza like Pizza Hut. Forgive me, Ma! I was so young, and had no idea what I was suggesting. In retrospect, I have to believe that I only liked that pizza because it was so different from what I had been accustomed to eating.
Just the same, I’ve always loved pizza, although as the years went on, I became more cognizant of pizza, of what makes some pizzas great and others, well, not so great. After I got married, my wife became aware of this and would encourage me to critique any new pizza we tried, also adding her own observations. We even established some basic criteria by which any pizza could be evaluated, albeit subjectively. That is, regardless of the criteria being used, personal preference still plays a big part. Let me share our criteria with you, along with what I, personally look for in a pizza. We’ll go from the bottom up.
- Crust – I look for flavor and consistency, but of the two, consistency is king. Why? Because you can overcome a bland crust with flavorful ingredients, but there is just no way to make up for a wimpy crust. It make no difference what type of crust we are talking about; consistency matters. A thin crust should be crisp, and not just at the edges. Don’t give me a limp thin crust. That’s how it was before you cooked it. Now a bread (or pan pizza) crust should still be crisp on the very bottom, as well as the edges, but should be bread-like within. Now here it becomes very subjective. How do you like your bread? I like mine light and airy. Some people like theirs moist and spongy. My point is, how you like your bread will largely determine how you like your pan pizza crust. As far as flavor goes, the key ingredients at play here are flour and salt. Cheap flour will remind you of grade school paste. A lack of salt will remind you of nothing at all, and that my friends, is a dirty shame.
- Sauce – When I publish my book on the subject, I’ll have a lot more to say about this. But for now, understand that nothing truly compensates for either a weak sauce or a bad sauce. I want just the right balance of sweet versus tang, I want optimal use of salt, and I expect to taste tomatoes.Where my family comes from, we don’t even use a sauce; we use fried whole, peeled tomatoes—a fresco sauce, if you will. But no matter, just understand this: if your sauce came from a five-gallon institutional can, the last thing I want to experience is sauce that tastes like it came from a five-gallon institutional can. And there is no excuse for that, because the proper seasoning can work wonders.
- Meat – I know all about artisan pizzas, I don’t often eat artisan pizzas. When I say meat, I mean Italian sausage. You like pepperoni? That’s cool, but it’s not Italian. Pepperoni is nothing more than an American variety of salami. If I get it on a pizza, I get it in addition to the Italian sausage. When it comes to pizza, what makes Italian sausage good Italian sausage? The same thing that makes it good off of a pizza, namely the fat content and the seasoning. Me, I want to taste fennel. No, more than that. When this stuff is cooking, I want to smell the fennel while I’m still halfway up the block. As for the fat, either start with lean sausage or else cook the stuff before you put it on a pizza. I don’t want to feel as though I should have to swallow half a dozen napkins to soak up all the grease I just ate.
- Cheese – Whatever you use, it had better be real. “Cheese food” has no place on any pizza I eat, nor does imitation cheese. I want it real and I want to taste it.. Now here we get subjective again. Where my family comes from, they don’t use Parmesan; they use Romano—and that’s strong mojo, a much more robust grating cheese. Similarly, my mother didn’t use mozzarella in the early days; she used scamorza, which is similar, but not quite the same. But I only offer this for informational purposes. That is, I highly doubt that you will find a local pizzeria using scamorza and Romano.
- Veggies – Again highly subjective with regard to what veggies belong on a pizza. I won’t get into that here. I will only insist that they be fresh and not canned.
- Generosity – I was born and raised in Chicagoland, where pizza comes with an abundance of ingredients on it. We don’t skimp on any of the above-mentioned items. If you skimp, I’ll notice, even if we are not in Chicagoland.
When I make my own pizza, which is not as often as I like, I observe the criteria that I mentioned here. The rectangular pan pizza that you see pictured above is a reasonable facsimile of what my mother used to make for me, but I am the first to admit that my pizza is not as good as my mother’s, nor will it likely ever be. Why? She made her own bread almost every week. I make my dough once in a blue moon. My mother made her sauce from tomatoes that she and my dad canned themselves, using tomatoes that either came from my dad’s garden or that my mom and dad hand picked from an area farm. My mother made her own sausage. I tried that once. I might try it again someday. You get the idea. As much as I would give almost anything to taste my mother’s pizza again—and not from Pizza Hut, not even a Pizza Hut from the 1960’s—I cannot recreate what she was able to produce just about any time she wanted.
My mother passed away in 2006 and I have missed her pizza ever since.
Thanks for hanging with me.