Our annual pizza party is a mixed bag for me. On the one hand it’s the best party of the year; on the other I have to host it. There’s a recurring dream I have for weeks before the event where I’m standing naked in the kitchen in front of hundreds of guests — none of whom I know — trying in vain to get my dough to rise. What does it mean, Doctor?
This year the party almost didn’t happen. We’re in the middle of a severe heat wave and the thought of firing the oven seemed a little insane. We sort-of invited people and told them not to get too excited, that we’d let them know. But our great friends, Bruce and JoJo, were returning to Umbria for the summer after living for two years in Laos and Bruce is the supreme pizzaiolo. It seemed a waste not to take advantage of his talent, so we finally committed to the party.
We decided to make the dough on the day because when we’ve made it the day before, there was never enough refrigerator space to store it plus the thousands of containers of the various toppings. So we started making and kneading the dough at noon and we didn’t stop working until about two the next morning. That’s the pizza party.
The crowd was an eclectic mix of friends and strangers — it always turns out that way — and there were also some close friends missing because of our utter lack of organization. Purtroppo.
But the pizza? The pizza was ottimo — the best — the best I have ever tasted. The dough was made of a combination of one-third “00” flour and two-thirds “0”. This ratio of Italian flours has been developed over the years by Bruce and myself; it’s been tasted and tested by our severely critical friends and it has proven to be the perfect blend for pizza. Then each ball of dough gets a nice knuckle of biga, that Jill made a few days before. This is a starter that we use as a supplement to the yeast and it gives the dough a satiny feel and a deep yeasty flavor.
The toppings were garden fresh, the mozzarella fresh and creamy — all that was good. But the star of the show was the forno, the 16th century wood-burning oven that stands outside our kitchen door. Bruce cranked her all the way up this year. I’ve never seen a hotter fire. He’s now perfected his method of moving the fire back and to the sides as it’s growing so that the center of the oven — the cooking space — is almost completely surrounded by intense heat, which I believe is the secret to great pizza. When the fire was at its peak. Bruce decided wait an hour so as not to incinerate the first ten pizzas. We didn’t start cooking until around 9:00, but when we did, the pizzas cooked brilliantly in around a minute to a minute-and-a-half. There’s a moment of alchemy when a pizza hits the 750 degree heat. The dough gets sanctified by the fire. It becomes other than it was — and it happens in an instant. I think if it takes more than a minute and a half to make a pizza, it’s not a great pizza.
In New York, a number of “authentic Naples” pizzerias have opened. They have a pizzaiolo fresh from Naples; they have the bufola mozzarella, the San Marzano tomatoes; they have a document proclaiming them the real McCoy from the Pizzamakers Federation of Naples. They have it all — except their ovens aren’t hot enough. I don’t know what it is — maybe there are ordinances in New York that don’t allow infernos in mid-town Manhattan or Brooklyn; maybe because they want their ovens to be part of the decor, they have to tone them down so as not to burn all the hair off their patrons during dinner. But the ovens aren’t hot enough. The pizza I’ve tried in these places is, alas, often mediocre. The oven at Pepe’s in New Haven is hot enough; the oven at Pepe’s in Fairfield isn’t. And that makes all the difference.
Between all the great photographers at the party, not one of them got a shot of the pizza. They were all otherwise engaged.
Photos by jim Fornari and Barbara Tucker