Pizza shops abound in my town. Seems like a gangster can’t get involved in a turf war without making a casualty of a hipster pizza chef. I understand the draw: the margin is good. Pizza dough is flour, water, salt, and yeast — which is the cheapest grocery list imaginable. I’m gonna have to call some places out here, because the scourge of bad pizza is becoming quite absurd. The number of pizza joints within three or four miles of my house should really yield more than two or three edible takeout pizzas.
A few places are really quite good. I’ll take a Ken’s Artisan any day, but they’re a fancy joint and not really for takeout. Bella Faccia has been turning out decent enough pies for years, but even they are often guilty of the top pizza crime detailed below. I’m just gonna put it out there that, when it comes to pizza, I am an avowed philistine. I like tomato sauce and regular toppings. Oh, I like artichoke hearts and fancy olives and so forth. I do not like chicken, or squash, or cashew sauce with tempeh befouling my pie. This often puts me at odds with slice-of-the-day places who pride themselves on cleverness.
We ordered a pie this past New Year’s Eve from a place we used to frequent pretty regularly, not because the pizza was ever great, but just because we like the spot, despite the shortcomings of the pizza chefs. No, there’s really no such thing as a pizza chef, but everybody seems to want to be called a chef these days. Anyway, American Dream has usually come through with just about the most American pizza being slung in Northeast Portland. It can’t be identified as Neapolitan or New York or Chicago or Sicilian or any of the other pizza archetypes (and here’s a bunch). The crust is thick and dense. The sauce is generous and mildly spiced. The cheese is low-moisture mozzarella, maybe Sargento. The toppings are piled high. We usually get the Dream Special: sausage, black olives, bacon, mushrooms and tomatoes. The first three toppings sit down with the cheese, all chopped together like a meat relish, then the pink commodity tomatoes are sliced and layered on top. It works in a way that you wouldn’t really imagine. Although, once I got it without tomatoes and put my fresh garden tomatoes on it, and it was better.
But this time I got a ham and pineapple with jalapeños. Well, I would have gotten that if they had ham. I had to settle for Canadian bacon, which sucks. In fact, the whole thing sucked because it was practically fucking raw. The cheese was barely melted. The dough was just starting to set. Their pizza has never been cooked as much as I like it, but this shit was atrocious. I don’t just want to pick on this little place though. Hot Lips, Pizzicato, you need to get management in your stores to teach these kids how to bake a slice of pie. I am sick to death of having to explain to some milk-faced, twenty-something brat what I mean by “done” only to have him fail to comprehend and either serve me a doughy, pale slice anyway, or maliciously scorch it just to show me what’s what. I’m coming after you, brats.
And that’s the first lesson I want all the would-be pizza restauranteurs to take home today: you should cook the fuck out of a pizza. Little kids like doughy, white, spongy pizza because they have been indoctrinated to believe that is normal. Pizza aficionados know that perfection is just this side of burnt. Double Mountain advertises on their menu that they run their ovens at over 700 degrees. That sounds about right. If you don’t have that good of an oven, that’s okay. Just find something else to make, like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
I imagine if you wanted to do a thick crust pizza, you could get away with 600 or so degrees. Just cook it till it’s brown. Charred. Bubbling. I should let that sit for a minute before I put it in my mouth. All that hot cheese and sauce could burn my sensitive palate. There is sauce on this, right?
What? Hogan’s Goat Pizza, where’s my sauce? Just a tinge of pink on the crust will not do. If you were Italian and loaded this thing up with fresh mozzarella and olive oil, you could get away with little sauce. Salty rendered pork fat does not have the same effect. It just sucks.
So, sauce is important. You can open a neighborhood shop and just use part skim, pre-shredded mozzarella, packaged meats, tinny ripe olives, and commodity vegetables, and still turn out a decent enough pie if your sauce is good. These guys opened a shop down the way from me called Pizza Nostra, and their pizza is a sin. The worst part about it is the sweet sauce. I can taste the sugar in that sauce, guys. Maybe it’s corn syrup, I don’t really care. A sauce should taste like cooked tomatoes. If you need to add sugar because the tomatoes lack sweetness, it should be a very conservative addition. Likewise, if tomatoes lack acidity, the addition of acid should bring it to just below the point where it’s detectable. Other than that, it’s your sauce, play with it. Garlic, oregano, chile flake, maybe some butter or olive oil, that’s what I personally like.
And now that guy, Hogan, is seething and wants to say that thin crust pizza like his doesn’t need a lot of sauce. Right you are sir, not a lot, just enough. And that’s the final lesson about good pizza: everything in proportion. Ratios should obviously begin with the crust. A thick crust can hold a lot of stuff; a thinner crust calls for more restraint. Chicago style should basically contain a casserole. Room for interpretation abounds as to the right amount of toppings and cheese on a pizza of middling crust. But here’s a rule: if the cheese sucks, I don’t want a quarter-inch thick blanket. Maybe let that great sauce shine through instead.