FIRE UP THE GRILL: Experienced pizza chefs say the high temperatures of a grill make a superior pie, and you can keep your kitchen cool, too.

When I was a kid growing up, Friday night was pizza night. Rent a VHS tape, pick up a cheese pizza, drink a gallon of soda and cackle at the idea of ever doing homework again. As an adult, for a number of years I’d rather not add together, I spent Fridays serving pizza to families who had similar traditions. The popularity of pizza was never lost on me as a server at a pizza joint in a town with several independently owned pizzerias, but when the pandemic hit in March of 2020, I was reminded again how beloved a family tradition it is to eat flattened bread dough baked in a hot oven with sauce, mozzarella and various toppings. We lost all of our dine-in customers in the spring of 2020, but Friday nights remained just as busy, if not busier. We were actually selling way more pizzas.

One of the early narratives of 2020 was how much time people were spending at home in their quarantine kitchens. Many took up baking. Certain flours became hard to find at the grocery store. Through Instagram and conversations with friends, I became aware of people getting dough balls from certain pizzerias around town and baking their own pies at home. It made sense. What’s the rush when you’re just stuck at home with your family anyway?

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I caught up with a few of my friends who are making pizza at home to find out how they make their pizzas, what they’ve learned and what makes a good slice.

“Pizza Movie Friday” is a tradition for Brandon and Tina Johnston’s family.

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ROLLIN’ DOUGH: Brandon Johnston (left) shows sons Jesse (center) and Wyatt (right) the ins and outs of pizza making.

“We do it every Friday,” Brandon Johnston said. “We may not necessarily make pizza every Friday night, but I betcha we do it more than half of the Friday nights every month.” Pizza nights are a tradition his family had when he was a kid and one he’s happy to continue. He started making pizzas at home when he was 14 after being gifted a book on the subject.

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The Johnstons have experimented with different cooking methods and dough balls from pizzerias around town, including Vino’s, Iriana’s and Pizza Cafe.

Lately, the Johnstons have been buying individual balls at Trader Joe’s in the refrigerated section for $1.50 each.

“We’ll buy 10 at a time and freeze them,” Johnston said. “Most Friday nights for my family we usually just do two [dough balls]. I can get four 13-inch pizzas out of two dough balls. Same thing with the Pizza Cafe dough balls, I always split those in half as well and get two 13-inch pizzas.”

The Johnstons’ method is rolling out the dough as flat as possible with a floured rolling pin on a floured surface. They use canned sauce but add their own spices to it, including honey. For the kids’ pies they use low-fat shredded mozzarella. The adult pies might include buffalo mozzarella and ricotta cheeses. They form the dough onto floured pizza pans purchased from Krebs Brothers restaurant supply store. Each pan is placed directly on a preheated stone on their gas grill. After a couple of minutes, the pizza starts to form and Johnston uses tongs (pliers work, too) to grip the pan and slide the pizza directly onto the stone. Johnston’s tried transferring the pies from a pizza peel directly to the stone, but it’s too much trouble. “All your toppings are going to roll off, I’ve tried and tried with a metal pizza peel and a wooden pizza peel,” he said.

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Johnston used to cook pizzas in his oven, but after a conversation with Georges Launet, head chef at Hill Station, he changed things up.

“Georges told me that real pizza needs to be cooked at 900 degrees and above. I knew my grill could get up to at least 800 degrees if I really cranked it up. We have a pretty nice gas oven, it still will only get to 600 degrees at most. Plus it’ll make your house really hot.”

He also finds that he can get pizzas crispier and produce a more restaurant-style quality by using the grill.

“Pizza needs to be cooked at a high temperature for a short period of time as opposed to low temp for a long time,” he said.

Why go through all the trouble when you could just pick a pie up from any of one of the many local pizzerias in town?

“It’s not nearly as fun,” Johnston said. “Two, the kids actually think this tastes better. I do, too. But also the freedom to make it your own way.”

Johnston’s youngest, Wyatt, took full advantage of that freedom, adding crunchy fried potato sticks to his cheese pizza.

WHY NOT: Wyatt’s crunchy potato stick cheese pizza.

Johnston made his go-to: ricotta cheese, Italian sausage, mushroom, green pepper, green olive and Tina’s garden-grown jalapenos, and on this particular night he used a $3.99 Pizza Cafe dough ball. Tina made a margherita pizza with her own garden-grown tomatoes and fresh basil with buffalo mozzarella. And they always do what they call a finisher pie, which is like a healthy dessert pie with pears and a fig drizzle.

HOME GROWN: Tina Johnston uses her own garden grown tomatoes for a classic Margherita.

The Johnstons have a large kitchen, so pre-pandemic they would have friends and neighbors over. That’s one thing they miss about Pizza Movie Friday, Tina said.

In the future, Brandon Johnston plans on building a wood-fire pizza oven in the backyard.

“It’s definitely something I’ll use,” he said.

The Johnstons’ Figgy Pizza: 

½ Trader Joe’s herb dough ball

Olive oil

Garlic, chopped

Basil, chopped

1 Bartlett pear, sliced

Shallot, sliced

Buffalo mozzarella

Ham or prosciutto, chopped

Balsamic fig glaze

GETTIN’ FIGGY WITH IT: Bartlett pears and a balsamic fig glaze.

 

Directions:

Roll out pizza dough to desired thickness. Cover dough with olive oil, garlic and basil.

Add pear slices, shallots, meat and mozzarella cheese. Grill pizza on pan until cheese begins to melt. Release the pizza onto the stone until it can stand on its own or to desired crispiness.

Drizzle the top with balsamic glaze.

Mike Motley’s been making pizzas at home for years.

“It’s fun to do it yourself, and it’s something you can do with your friends and family. You get to control it, have a little bit of control in your life. … The return on how long it takes is well worth it,” he said.

READY TO TOSS: Vino’s dough ball with marinara.

Motley typically gets his dough balls and marinara from Vino’s. “I like to buy dough from pizza places. It’s fast and makes the whole process easier. If you make dough, you have to wait a day. I leave that up to the professionals.”

A large Vino’s dough ball with a cup of sauce was $5.99. Motley stretches the dough out by hand, using his knuckles to go around the edges, letting gravity do the work. He uses a perforated pizza pan, which he places directly on a PK Grill pizza stone in his home oven set to 450 degrees. On a recent Saturday before the Hogs kicked off against Texas, Motley made a Margherita with buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil from his garden and farmers market tomatoes. He also made a pizza with spicy Italian sausage links he pre-cooked, then added caramelized onions, fresh rosemary, pepperoni and jalapeno. He cooked both on the perforated pan on the stone, then transferred to cook directly on the stone to crisp up. Motley’s essential home pizza needs: fresh herbs, a perforated pan, a pizza stone and a cooling rack.

FRESH HERBS AND A COOLING RACK: Mike Motley’s pizza essentials are on display.

Jack Lloyd and Sydney Hunsicker started making pizzas at home together after COVID-19 hit.

“This was kind of one of the things I got really into,” Lloyd said. “It just felt safe.” In Lloyd’s early online research he learned the key to cooking pizza is heat.

“Your oven’s just gotta be hot as hell — within reason,” Lloyd said.

He bought a wooden pizza peel from Eggshells Kitchen Co. in the Heights, and he builds the pizza on the peel, which he covers with flour and cornmeal. Then he slides the pizza off the peel directly onto the pizza stone he preheats in his home oven at 450 degrees. At first, he just used flour and ran into some frustration trying to get the pies to slide off.

“Flour and cornmeal is the way to go,” he said. “I know a lot of pizza places do it. There’s a reason they do: It just slides off better.”

Lloyd uses refrigerated dough because he finds it less sticky. On this particular night he used a large dough ball from Damgoode Pies ($4.99), but he typically goes to Vino’s. “And I try to move really fast because if I don’t, it sticks and I have trouble getting it off,” he said.

After putting flour and cornmeal on the peel, Lloyd tries to get his dough as flat as possible using his hands and gravity. “I make a little fist and work it all the way around, just barely stretching it,” he said. Their home pie of choice: shredded mozzarella, pepperoni and fresh mushroom. Lloyd tops it with a little cheddar and some dried oregano and basil. He also prepares his own sauce, which I could really taste on the pizza and found delicious. Lloyd said the cooking time for the pizza is 15 to 20 minutes, but he starts the timer at seven minutes. If the pizza bubbles up, he pops the bubbles with a knife. He also rotates the pie 180 degrees halfway through the cooking process for even cooking. The side of the pizza closest to the back of the oven could burn otherwise.

Lloyd and Hunsicker also have a test to grade a slice’s crispiness. If you hold a slice and it flops over, it’s a failure. If it stands firm, you’ve done it right.

THE FLOP TEST: Sydney Hunsicker demonstrates a fail (top) and a winner (bottom).

 

Lloyd said making pizzas at home is “cheaper and it’s fun. I could imagine it being a blast for anybody with kids because kids love pizza. Who doesn’t love pizza?” he said.

Jack Lloyd’s delicious marinara sauce 

½ onion or 1 shallot, diced

Several cloves of garlic, chopped fine

28 ounce can of whole tomatoes (San Marzano are his favorite)

3 tablespoons tomato paste

1 carrot, grated

2 cups chicken stock or 2 bouillon cubes in one cup hot water

Dash of cayenne pepper

Directions:

Add a large drizzle of olive oil to a large iron skillet or pot. Saute onions for 4-5 minutes. Add garlic and let cook for a couple minutes. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, carrot, stock, cayenne pepper, salt and pepper. Simmer on low uncovered until liquid is cooked down and sauce is thick. While simmering, use your cooking utensil to break up the whole tomatoes into smaller pieces.