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The Perfect Pizza

Is pizza your favorite food? You're not alone. Americans eat 100 acres of pizza daily! (The favorite topping is pepperoni, and the least favorite is anchovies.)

This love affair with tomatoes, cheese, toppings and seasonings atop a baked dough isn't new, of course.

Pizza came to America via Italian immigrants in the 19th century but didn’t become popular until after World War ll. The craze first hit port cities such as New York and San Francisco, then moved to the Midwest. Today there are over 61,000 pizzerias from across the country. In fact, pizza is more popular now in America than in Italy, where it’s served mostly as an appetizer. Americans have truly embraced this dish and made it their own.

Pizza even has regional variations.

Chicago-Style Pizza

Chicago-style pizza is a deep-dish style-- but also can refer to another Chicago style, "stuffed" pizza. Authentic Chicago-style pizza features a buttery crust, generous amounts of cheese and a chunky tomato sauce. A never-ending debate persists over who created the deep-dish Chicago pizza—but its place of origin is undisputed.

Chicago-style was created in 1943 at Pizzeria Uno, at the corner of Ohio Street and Wabash Avenue in Chicago, either by Ike Sewell (the former football player and founder of Uno) or Rudy Malnati (Ike’s chef). Americans had eaten pizza primarily as a snack. By enhancing some of Italy's authentic recipes with larger amounts of quality meats, a variety of fresh cheeses, vegetables and flavor-enhancing spices, a new American dish was born.

Starting with a dough made from cornmeal and olive oil, Chicago-style pizza is arranged in a thick layer in a deep round pan, turned up on the sides, and par-baked (before adding toppings). The pan is usually oiled before baking the crust, so a bit of a fried effect is created on the outside. Deep-dish pizza pans become “seasoned” with each use. The crust is covered with cheese (generally sliced fresh mozzarella—up to a pound can be used) then layered just about to the top with meats (a staple is Italian sausage) and vegetables such as onions, mushrooms and bell peppers. An uncooked sauce of crushed or puréed tomatoes is next, followed by a grated cheese blend. Basil and oregano are requisites, but a variety of herbs and spices will personalize this dish and yield unique results when you want to veer from the simple classic original recipe. You'll need a knife and fork to enjoy this dense delight.

The popularity of deep-dish pizza prompted the opening of a bevy of pizzerias in Chicago. Favorites include Uno's nearby sister-restaurant Due, which Ike Sewell opened in 1955. In 1954, Rush Street housed the Original Gino's Pizza, followed in 1966 by Gino's East. Others favored by locals and tourists alike include Edwardo's, Connie's, Giordano's, Carmen's, Bacino's, Pizano's, (owned by Rudy Malnati's son, Rudy Jr.), and Lou Malnati's (another of Rudy Malnati's sons). Chicago deep-dish pizza has become famous worldwide and is shipped to its fans around the globe.

In the mid-1970s, two Chicago chains—Nancy's Pizza, founded by Rocco Palese, and Giordano's Pizza—began experimenting with the deep-dish pizza formula and created the stuffed pizza. Rocco based his creation on his mother's recipe for scarciedda, an Italian Easter pie from his hometown of Potenza. The Giordano brothers, who cooked for Rocco, opened their own restaurant in the early 70's.

New York-Style Pizza

New York-style pizza hails from the Big Apple, of course—and is the American style pizza most like that found in Naples. New York style’s trademark is its wide, thin, and foldable slices. The traditional toppings are tomato sauce—a light amount—followed by mozzarella cheese. Additional toppings are arranged with the cheese. The slices are often eaten folded in half to make them easier to handle, since they tend to be flimsy and large.

The thin and crispy hand-tossed crust, made from high-gluten bread flour, is what sets New York-style pizza apart from other types. Believe it or not, proud New Yorkers sometimes claim the flavor of the crust originates from the minerals present in the New York City tap water used to make the dough. (Some out-of-state pizza-maker purists even transport the water cross-country for the sake of authenticity.) New York-style pizza is usually sold both by the slice and as whole pies.

Spices are a definitive feature in the serving of New York-style pizza. Typically the pie is served with condiments of oregano, dried red chili pepper, garlic powder, and grated Parmesan cheese-- available for the customer to place on the pizza once served.

Outside the Northeast region of America, New York-style authenticity varies; the term is often misapplied to a bland form of American pizza. These versions lose the true New York-style classification when the crust is too thick (or too crisp and thin) --or if they contain mixed-cheese blends, not strictly mozzarella.

New Haven-Style Pizza

New Haven-style pizza, known as apizza (pronounced ah-BEETS), is distinguished from most other forms by not being perfectly round or rectangular. New Haven-style is a style of Neapolitan pizza common in and around New Haven, Connecticut. Use of the term "apizza" is mostly confined to the Italian-American neighborhoods of southern Connecticut and is likely derived from that local dialect. It originated at the Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana and is now served in many other pizza restaurants in the area, most notably, Sally's Apizza, located just down the block on Wooster Street. Pepe's and Sally's are consistently rated among the best pizzerias in the United States, giving this regionally limited pizza style noteworthy culinary significance.

Originally baked in a coal- or wood-fired brick oven, it’s typically sold whole rather than by the slice. A common version is a "white" pizza topped with only garlic and hard cheeses. True pizza connoisseurs are familiar with New Haven style and even make pilgrimages to try it, once they’ve heard the lore.

St. Louis Pizza

St. Louis pizza lovers often serve their pizza in small, handy square servings. It has a thin crust and is topped with a provolone/Swiss/cheddar cheese blend.

Stuffed pizzas are often even thicker than deep-dish pizzas, but it’s hard to tell them apart until they’re sliced. Like deep-dish pizza, a thin layer of dough forms a base in a high-sided pan, and then toppings (meats, basil, and oregano) and cheese come next. To create the stuffed effect, an additional layer of dough goes on top, and is sealed to the sides of the bottom crust. The thin dough top has a rounded appearance, and often a small hole is torn in it to allow air and steam to escape while cooking and to let the sauce permeate. Pizza sauce is spread over the top crust before baking. Most recipes such as this require substantial cooking time.

Classic Pizza Seasonings

American pizza, no matter where it’s from, now includes flavors from around the world. Classic Italian toppings have given way to new combinations from American chefs, such as arugula, goat cheese, chutney, leeks, figs, and eggplant. The key to making the best pizza is using the freshest ingredients and the right seasonings to enhance the taste. The two classic pizza seasonings are oregano and basil, but many recipes include onion flakes, garlic powder, thyme, fennel, paprika, or black pepper as well. Creativity in pizza assembly knows no bounds, so consider other options, like bell pepper, chilies, parsley, thyme, marjoram, celery flakes, coarsely ground ginger, even lemon peel.

Tips for Great Homemade Pizza

  • Use fresh active dry yeast when making dough. Feed the dough with quality olive oil, warm (not hot) water, a bit of sugar or other sweetener, and sea salt. Allow plenty of time for your dough to rise, up to an hour.
  • Preheat your oven fully. Most recipes suggest at least 400 degrees.
  • If you prefer a soft crust, bake your pizza at a lower temp for longer time. For a crispy crust, cook it for less time at a higher temp.
  • Arrange your pizza pan in the middle of the oven rack, in the center of the oven.
  • To test for doneness, look to see that the edge of the crust is browning and the cheese is fully melted.
  • For a smoky flavor, try cooking your pizza on the barbecue. At 400 degrees, it takes about 15 to 20 minutes. Or include a barbecue seasoning, like Frontier Barbecue Seasoning, in your sauce.
  • In addition to sprinkling spices on top of the pizza, incorporate them into your sauce, or even into the dough. Try Italian seasoning, garlic powder, fennel, or even sesame seeds.
  • Always lightly oil your pizza pan before spreading the dough. Most pizza cooks prefer olive oil.
  • Experiment with baking surfaces. Some pizza cooks declare you can't make a perfect pizza without a pizza stone. Others prefer pans with holes in the bottom, or pizza screens, that allow the bottom surface of the dough to cook nicely. And others use a basic pizza pan sprinkled with cornmeal.
  • Vary your cheeses. Mozzarella is traditional, but Parmesan, Asiago, goat, feta, fontina, and provolone cheeses work well, too.
  • Take shortcuts. If you enjoy the process, go ahead and make your dough and sauce from scratch. But if you're in a rush or don't relish time in the kitchen, buy a plain tomato sauce and liven it up with your favorite spices or spice blends (such as Pizza Seasoning or Italian Seasoning), or purchase a pre-made pizza sauce. Try pre-purchased crusts, or even ask your local pizzeria if they'll sell you a batch of dough (many will).
  • Try different sauces. Marinara sauce, spaghetti sauce, pesto, Alfredo sauce, and even melted butter with spices (like basil, rosemary, thyme, garlic, and parsley) are nice variations on standard pizza sauce.
  • Expand your topping selections. Yes, a great plain cheese pizza is perfectly satisfying. But it's also fun (and nutritious) to add a variety of vegetables, meats, even fruits. Try spinach, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes (fresh and sundried), artichokes, broccoli, sweet potatoes, baby corn, olives, peppers of all sorts, and of course onions and mushrooms. (Some veggies, like broccoli and sweet potatoes, need to be cooked first.) Dried mushrooms (and other dried vegetables) work well, too; simply reconstitute by soaking in warm water and then drain well before using.
  • Pineapples, raspberries, and mangoes make for interesting pizza fare. And for meat you might pass up pepperoni once in a while for salami, prosciutto, sliced roast beef, chicken, white fish or jumbo shrimp.
  • Spread toppings evenly -- to the edge of the crusts -- to avoid undercooked areas of crust below. And don't overdo or your dough won't cook through.
  • Some connoisseurs like to put the vegetables on last, while others prefer to top with cheese, so it melts down over everything else. You decide.

Establish a standard pizza night at your house. Or throw a pizza party and invite guests to assemble their own pizzas. Have an elegant gourmet pizza dinner, complete with wine and a tossed salad. Pizza lends itself to such a wide variety of occasions. And with so many options for seasonings, toppings, dough and baking styles, you may never serve exactly the same pizza twice, no matter how often you indulge.

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