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When I Missed Pizza Most, I Learned To Make It Myself

When a pizza snob moves abroad, new skills must be acquired.

Growing up in New York City, I had countless slices of its signature pizza, characterized by hand-tossed crust cooked quickly into large, foldable triangles of on-the-go nourishment. Cheese was often enough, though I occasionally ventured into toppings, opting for mushrooms or even pasta on days when I was craving double carbs. (Yes, it's a thing.) In New York, you'll find pizza joints with plenty of tables, some with just a few stools at a counter, and some with only a window through which you exchange money for a slice, but you can't travel very far without tripping over one. And ever since moving to the UK earlier this year, my heart aches for pizza that tastes like home.

Recently I went to a London pizzeria recommended by a colleague, excited by the prospect of finding a suitable match. I took a bite of the warm, gooey slice of pizza, and everything was immediately off. The flavors that greeted me clashed disconcertingly, the sauce too sweet, the cheese creamy yet bland, and the crust somehow neither crispy nor chewy.

Despite sampling the offerings of multiple pizzerias in different neighborhoods around London, I haven't found a pizza I have fallen in love with. So instead of looking for a pizza that reminds me of the array of offerings back home, I decided I had to make one myself—even if it meant learning a lot of new skills in the process.

Assembling the ideal pizza

I'm an amateur cook, so I needed a gadget that would deliver on the flavor I was seeking while being easy enough for a novice to operate. Solo Stove's Pi Pizza Oven (with both wood and gas capabilities) has been the right choice for me.

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A few days before testing out the oven, I started preparing the dough, which is made from pantry essentials: flour, olive oil, salt, sugar, yeast, and water. It's widely understood that minerals present in New York City's tap water contribute to NYC pizza's characteristic texture and flavor, though unfortunately I didn't have any local tap water on hand to prove that theory true. I did, however, make sure to use a high-gluten bread flour, since the gluten content creates a structure conducive to stretching and rising. Preparation of the sauce began 48 hours later, and thanks to Nick Gaube, executive chef at Bad Roman in New York City, I had a foolproof recipe.

"I prefer to keep things simple when it comes to pizza sauce," Gaube advised. "The idea is to truly use the best ingredients available and let those shine."

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Per his recommendation, I grabbed both canned San Marzano and fresh peeled tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil, salt, a pinch of sugar (to balance out the acidity in the tomatoes), parsley, and oregano. Since I like my sauce a little on the garlicky side, I added a pinch of red pepper flakes and roasted garlic cloves for an added kick. After draining the San Marzano tomatoes, adding whole peeled tomatoes to the bowl, and blending until smooth, I added a generous drizzle of olive oil along with the herbs, garlic, and red pepper flakes, plus a splash of the drained water from the tomatoes to create a more pureed consistency.

While my sauce was heating up, the flavors intensifying, it was time to prepare the toppings and cheese. Since I was in the mood for a vegetarian pie with an assortment of vegetables, I chopped up some red onions, mushrooms, green peppers, and jalapeños. I also opted for fresh mozzarella cheese, though you can just as easily use stracciatella, burrata, or shredded full-fat aged mozzarella, the latter of which is ubiquitous in most New York pizza joints.

Finally, it was time to assemble. Stretching the pizza dough was made easier thanks to the choice of flour, and when layering everything on top of it, I tried to remember that less is more, adding only a thin layer of pizza sauce. Per Gaube's tip, after the cheese and toppings where in place, I also scattered some smaller dollops of sauce on top of the cheese for bursts of added flavor in each bite. Next came the true test: I had to bake it.

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Finishing the pizza

Unlike some other home pizza ovens, the Pi oven has no chimney and no door. Instead, the panoramic opening mimics that of a traditional wood-fired pizza oven, and you can see what's going on the entire time. The interior is designed with 360° airflow, which prevents pockets of hot air from getting trapped and causing an uneven cook on the pizza. In just 90 seconds the pizza was ready, and after adding a slight drizzle of olive oil to finish, it was time to slice and eat.

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As soon as the first bite hit my palate, I knew that the backyard oven, the hunt for the perfect ingredients, and my consultation with experts had all been worth it. This wasn't just a taste of home, it was the knowledge that I could have home with me whenever I wanted it, one slice at a time. Other cities' pizzas will never leave me disappointed again.

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