A pizza primer
Our food expert breaks down the perfect pie
Thu, Oct 22, 2009 (midnight)
Photo: Beverly Poppe
Thick or thin, soft or crispy, sharp or mild, pizza is something we all love. Most of us differentiate among the yeasty, bready Chicago-style pizzas; the thin, chewy New York-style pizzas; and the eccentrically topped California pies. A great pizza, in any case, should have bite, rich tomato flavors, meltingly soft cheese and the hot, steamy texture of something fresh from the oven.
Kids love pizza because it is one of the foods that best demonstrates the so-called fifth taste, umami, that mouth-filling sensation we get from peanut butter, hydrolyzed soy protein (those powdered flavorings on crackers), tomato sauce and mozzarella cheese. I never tire of the sensation of a good marinara sauce mingling with whole-milk mozzarella inside my mouth. Who needs salad?
Now that Las Vegas is officially a great pizza town, let’s examine what goes into making a great pizza. Brad Otton, owner of Settebello, uses high-gluten wheat flour from a company called Caputo, but that is a variable. The one variable he simply can’t do without is his wood-burning oven, imported from Italy.
The oven, says Otton, gives his pizzas “that special texture and slightly blackened bottom that can’t be replicated in a metal oven, plus rustic, woodsy flavors.” The Blodgett gas pizza ovens most places use heat up faster, so high-volume pizzerias like them, but I agree with Otton. So does Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery and the celebrity LA pizzeria Mozza. “There’s no substitute for wood,” she says.
But two local pizza parlors, Anthony's in Town Square and Gimaldi's on South Eastern Avenue, use coal, which also gives their crusts a blackened bottom, and a nice flavor and texture. “It’s all about the crust,” Silverton once told me.
- Toppings that should appear on pizza more often
- Deep-fried anything
- Bananas (or deep-fried bananas—even better!)
- Anchovies (Call us crazy, but we miss not getting to say the line “... and NO anchovies!”)
The water is also important, says Otton. “We fooled around with lots of waters when we first opened, and we use a reverse-osmosis filter today. What’s important is to avoid water with a high mineral content. It doesn’t matter if the water is from New York, Naples or Kathmandu. What matters is that the water is soft.”
Next up: tomatoes. Otton told me something interesting about tomatoes from the can, mainly that most Italian labels use tomatoes grown in five or six villages in Italy, which are then canned by different companies for export. The tomatoes also vary from year to year, in terms of sweetness, ripeness and acidity.
As to cheese, whole-milk mozzarella is the pizzeria cheese of choice, but many food snobs insist on fresh mozzarella—you know, the white stuff that you can buy in any supermarket these days. As this is a more expensive product, it isn’t easy to find in local pizzerias. But it’s an essential component of the pizza margherita, the pizza most Italians order when they go out in the evening. (Pizzerias in Italy, for the most part, do not open for lunch.)
Now you can put anything on a pizza, technically, from smoked salmon to chunks of pineapple, but Italians generally eat only two pizzas, marinara or margherita. I like prosciutto on my pizza margherita, and Italians do too, occasionally. But items like pepperoni, pineapple chunks and cream cheese are American inventions, and so is the so-called Meat Lover’s Pizza, which makes an Italian shake with fear.