I'm hard-pressed to concede that Boston lacks anything relative to our larger neighbor down I-95. But I'll admit I have found it quite difficult to find a decent New York-style pizza here.
No, I'm not from New York and this isn't New York snobbery. I just know what I likes in a pizza, and I likes me a New York pie.
There are a few New York-style joints in Boston, but none within walking or delivery distance of my place in Cambridge. It's all Greek pizza around me — which I don't really like.
So what is a New York-style pie? I called food-writer Andrew F. Smith, who teaches at The New School in New York.
"New York-style pizza has four components," Smith said. "It has a relatively fluffy outer edge that is raised. It has a very thin crust going into the middle. It must be charred or at least brown on the bottom. And traditionally, it would only have tomato sauce and it would have mozzarella cheese."
I would add one more crucial component: The pizza must be sufficiently thin and wide such that the slices are floppy and foldable.
Since I can't get a good New York-style pie delivered, I've been trying to bake one at home. My first draft recipe is below, but before we get there, a few notes:
ON TOMATO SAUCE: Most recipes tell you just to use any tomato sauce. The first few times I tried this, I used my basic tomato sauce, which is canned tomatoes, crushed, cooked for about a half hour with wine and spices. This tasted good on pizza, but not authentic.
I've since been told that New York pizza joints do not cook their sauce; it's just tomatoes pureed straight out of a can. (Remember, all canned goods are cooked somewhat.) I've since found that "raw" tomatoes straight from a can give me the bright color and flavor I associate with New York-style pizza, but the sauce also comes out bitter.
So, my current recipe calls for seeding the tomatoes and adding sugar and salt to cut the bitterness. It tastes right, but I suspect pizza joints do something much simpler.
ON HEAT: Commercial pizza ovens go up to 1,000 degrees or more, and the heat is crucial to the texture and flavor of New York-style pizza. But home ovens top out at 500 or 550 degrees.
I've found that you can get around this by taking your pizza stone (yes, you need a pizza stone) and putting it on the very top rack of the oven. Heat the oven to its maximum temperature, and then turn on the broiler to heat the surface of the stone with radiant energy. That gets it almost hot enough to mimic the commercial ovens.
ON CHEESE: Smith says a New York-style pizza has mozzarella and mozzarella only. When I've baked using only mozzarella, the flavor just doesn't seem rich enough. Maybe it's because my heat isn't high enough to really brown the cheese. So right now I'm using a mixture of mozzarella and aged fontina, which tastes good, but not quite authentic.
ON SIZE: Size matters. The pizza has to be big enough so that the slices are foldable. 16-20 inches would be classic, in my mind. Sadly, you can't bake a pizza that big in your oven. 14 inches is as big as I can get it. But you can enhance the foldability by cutting it into 6 slices, as opposed to the traditional 8.
What follows is what I've come up with so far. The resulting pizza is pretty good, but it could be better. My next step is to go into a real New York-style pizza joint in Boston and learn from the pros.
Where do you think I should go? Leave your recommendations in the comments. I'll go on a field trip, and report back with a new and improved recipe. For now, here's my first draft.
Adam's First-Draft Recipe For Two 14-inch New York-Style Pizzas
1/4 + 3/4 cups warm water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 packet active dry yeast
2 teaspoons salt
3 cups bread flour
Dissolve sugar in 1/4 cup water. Add yeast and let bloom for 15 minutes. Pour in remaining water, salt and a glug of olive oil. Mix in a stand-mixer with a bread hook. Incorporate flour little by little, then knead on high speed for about 15 minutes.
The finished dough should be smooth, a little sticky, and you should be able to stretch it out thin enough to see light through it without it tearing. Leave the dough ball in an oiled bowl, covered, to rise for at least 2 hours.
1 14-ounce can of whole plum tomatoes
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon garlic power
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
Pull the tomatoes out of the can, reserving the puree/juices left behind. Split the tomatoes open under running water and wash the seeds away. Return tomatoes to the reserve liquid, add the remaining ingredients, then blend until smooth.
8 ounces of low-moisture mozzarella
8 ounces of aged fontina
Grate both cheeses and combine.
About an hour before you bake, place pizza stone on the very top rack and pre-heat oven to maximum temperature. About 10 minutes before the pizza goes in the oven, turn the broiler on maximum.
Punch down the risen dough and divide it into two equal balls, as round as possible. Place on a floured surface, cover and let rise again for a half hour. Flatten out first dough ball out with your knuckles to get out any big air bubbles, until you have a round pancake about 8-inches wide. Toss in the air until it's about 14-inches wide.
Spread a thin layer of cornmeal on your pizza peel (yes, you need a pizza peel), and lay out the dough on top. Apply thin layer of sauce (the back of a ladle is the best way to get it thin and even) and half the cheese. Shake the peel to release the pizza, and then deposit it on the stone.
Turn the broiler off, return oven to maximum temperature. Bake about 5 minutes, or until the bottom is brown. The crust will soften as it cools and absorbs steam from the other ingredients, so it should feel a little hard and over-baked when you pull it out. Let cool at least 10 minutes. Cut into 6 slices.
Repeat with second dough ball.
This program aired on August 13, 2010.