First of all, I should level with you: Proud Chicagoan though I may be, I think pizza crust is kind of a waste of space.  As far as I’m concerned, pizza is just a vehicle for an explosion of concentrated flavor in the form of toppings.  Why would you fill up on bread, I can never help but wonder, when you’re just going to crowd out the delightful, carefully assembled cast of meat/cheese/vegetables/fruit/sauce that makes a pizza, you know, a pizza?

With all that in mind, I was pretty thrilled when I got a pizza stone as a Christmas gift a few years ago and discovered Peter Reinhart’s Neo-Neapolitan Pizza Crust recipe shortly thereafter.  Neapolitan-style pizza is right up my alley: An extremely crunchy, cracker-thin crust that takes a backseat to a precise balance of toppings, all fresh, and all calculated to deliver maximum flavor from minimal real estate.  Even better?  The key to Neapolitan pizza is to get your oven rocket hot, so they finish cooking in around ten minutes.
Reinhart’s crust recipe is particularly appealing for a number of reasons: 1) It’s so ridiculously stupid-easy that even I, the worst baker on earth, have never managed to screw it up; 2) It turns out so tasty that even the crust enthusiasts among my acquaintance (and there are some) give it high marks; and 3) It freezes like a dream, which is most relevant today, as I recently unearthed a buried frozen crust and invited a friend over for dinner, which gave rise to the pie you’re looking at.

The crust will thaw in roughly 8 hours on the kitchen counter; I recommend rubbing the surface lightly with olive oil and then covering it with plastic wrap so it doesn’t dry out.

You’re not ready to use it once it’s thawed, though – you need to give it another 8-12 hours to rise.  Leave it in the warmest/sunniest spot in your kitchen.  If your kitchen doesn’t have a warm/sunny spot, put it on a rack in your oven, and put a pan of hot water on a lower rack.

Pizza del Gaucho

Pizza should by no means restrict you to Italian or Mediterranean flavor profiles (if California Pizza Kitchen doesn’t let ethnic attribution slow their roll, why should you?).  I’ve pulled off Thai, Indian, and Mexican pizzas in the past (in addition to a number of once-around-the-fridge Frankenstein’s Monsters that no culture would claim) in addition to traditional pies.  This time around, the inspiration came down to “ingredients I can obtain from the little supermercado around the corner, because I haven’t been grocery shopping in a while and it’s not happening today.”  As I wandered through the aisles (to the extent that you can “wander” when the aisles number three), I recalled a variant on chimichurri sauce that I had encountered during my travels in Argentina a few years ago.  Chimichurri is a chutneyesque blend of herbs, garlic, oil, and vinegar; the red version gets its coloring from paprika and, in some cases, tomatoes.  Sounds like a pizza base to me!

It’s important to remember that a Neapolitan pizza is only in the oven for a short time – not by any means long enough to cook most ingredients.  Anything you top the pizza with should be pre-cooked.  You also want to be selective about the quantity of toppings you include; a very thin crust can’t support a whole XXX-Treme Spicy Meatzza Supreme Bacon Bomb.  I recommend a sauce and no more than 3 toppings (including cheese), and I also strongly recommend cooking the toppings in a way that concentrates the flavors so you can use smaller quantities.  How do we concentrate flavors, kids?  That’s right: Roasting.

Start with the sauce.  I’ve learned through painful, soggy-crusted experience that your Neapolitan pizza will be a lot tastier if you dry the sauce out.  To do that, you’re going to want to seed and roughly chop the tomatoes (which is why there are so many; they’re going to give up half their volume or more once we’ve removed the juice).  If you’re using canned tomatoes, which you by all means should feel free to do, drain them.   Either way, add them to a roasting pan with garlic, onion, olive oil, brown sugar, kosher salt, and a sprig or two of whatever herbs you have lying around.

For a basic pizza sauce, this is where I’d stop, but it’s chimichurri rojo today (in general, this is a cheat I highly recommend – if you want more flavors on the pizza but it’s already crowded, consider infusing them into the sauce).  So in addition to the basics, we add sherry vinegar, smoked paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper, and a bay leaf torn in half.

Pop it in the oven at 425 degrees, and start roasting.  Oh, hey, since we’ve got that oven hot, may as well knock out another pizza topping, huh?

If you roast a pepper until it blisters, the skin splits, and it collapses like a broken volleyball, then it’s really easy to seed and peel right out of the oven under cold running water:

And then julienne for later use.

Hey, I bet our sauce is about done!

See how the tomatoes are dried out and the ingredients are starting to get some nice char on them?  That’s what we’re looking for.  Yank the bay leaves out and pop the rest into a food processor:

You’ll notice that the consistency is almost closer to a thick paste or pesto than traditional pizza sauce (or just straight-up tomatoes) – again, keeping things nice and dry is how we compensate for not having a thousand-degree wood-burning brick oven at our disposal.
Hey, why not fry up a little chorizo too?  (Meat toppings should definitely be pre-cooked.)

OK, now let’s get after this dough!  Remember how we let it rise?  Here’s why:

It’s roughly doubled in size, and see the air bubbles?  Air bubbles = goodness – more flavor, better texture.  It will also make the dough considerably easier to work with, which you’ll probably appreciate if you’re not a large hairy guy named Vito wearing a marinara-stained undershirt.  (If you are Vito, you don’t need my help making a pizza.)  Before you start, crank your oven as high as it will go, and leave your pizza stone in the oven while it preheats.  (You can actually leave your pizza stone in the oven all the time; it’s great as a baking surface and will help mitigate any hot or cold spots your oven might have.)

Flour your surface and start kneading.

If the dough is dry, work in a little olive oil.  If it’s tacky, work in flour.  Once you have a consistency you’re happy with, start using your thumbs to spread it out into a disc.

Now here’s where, if you’re Vito, you start tossing the crust into the air to spread it out, humming a Puccini score under your breath.  I’m not Vito, so this is where I have to cheat and use a rolling pin.

Except, um… did I mention, world’s worst baker?

My friend/photographer/dinner guest said something charming about my “hospitable tradition” of decanting the wine meant to accompany the pizza, and then using the empty bottle to roll out the crust.  “Hospitable tradition”!  Yeah, we’ll go with that.

Roll it out quite thin (if it breaks, just fold it over on itself or patch it and keep going) and into a shape that’s compatible with your stone (mine is rectangular).

Now.  You’re about to get a crazy-hot lump of rock out of your oven, and once you kick off the pizza assembly, you need to move fast.  What does that mean?  That means we get our mise en place ahead of time.

And now… assembly!  Pull out your stone and dust it with cornmeal.

Throw down your crust, then begin adding your toppings:



Chihuahua cheese.  (Incidentally, see the difference in color up there between the pizza stone’s original shade and what the high-traffic parts of it look like now?  The darker and more used/loved your pizza stone gets, the better your crust will taste.)

You will have noticed that the heat of the stone is already starting to bake the crust – see how it’s starting to puff up in the picture?  Pop it back in the hot oven, and start checking it at ten minutes – it probably won’t need more than twelve or so.

No, not yet!  Here, make yourself useful while you wait instead of sitting there with your nose pressed up against the glass, whimpering like a puppy:

Fresh herbs are lovely on a pizza, but I do not recommend adding them before it goes into the oven – the heat in there will turn them into tasteless brownish confetti.  Sprinkle them over the top after you pull the pizza out of the oven instead.  (That up there is cilantro, and I will not hear a word from the haters.)

When the cheese is melted and the crust is brown, your pizza is done.  All that remains…