Pizza 101

Lately I’ve been contemplating getting a wood-burning pizza oven. Our friends have a beautiful built-in outside and they invite me over to cook in it sometimes, and I get oven envy and mope for days. I found a very nifty pre-made one from Italy online (, and my wife and I are currently in negotiations… Anyway…

I’ve had requests periodically for my pizza crust recipe, which is a traditional Naples-style crust. I will share it with you here, along with some of my favorite pie combinations. Being able to make a great pizza, I think, is one of life’s most important skills. Unless you’re a pizza geek like me, you don’t need a wood-burning oven — you can make great Naples-style pizza in your regular ol’ oven. A few key tools at least are critical — a pizza peel and a pizza stone, in particular. I also like to have semolina flour for dusting the peel, but you can use fine cornmeal too (i.e. polenta).

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Pizza dough

3 1/2 cups unbleached flour
1 1/2 cups warm water
1/2 tsp. fast rising dry yeast
2 tsp. salt

In a large bowl, toss together dry ingredients. Make a well in the center, pour in water, and stir with a fork until thoroughly mixed and beginning to form a rough ball. (If dough is too dry, add a little more water.) Turn onto a bread board, cover with bowl and let rest for 10 minutes.

Begin kneading the dough. You will knead for 10 minutes, until dough is smooth and silky. Add a little dust of flour if the dough gets too sticky. After 10 minutes, pat dough into a flat round, and cut into four quarters. Take each quarter dough in turn, flatten with your hand, then roll up like a carpet. Turn a quarter with the seam facing up, and roll up again. Do the same a third time (it will become increasingly difficult each turn). Pat dough into a ball, flour liberally, and place on a pre-floured baking sheet. Repeat with each dough until all are on the baking sheet, then cover with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm spot for 5 hours. Wrap doughs individually in plastic wrap. Place doughs you will not be using immediately in either the fridge (if you will be using within a week) or the freezer. They freeze well for up to a month.

To make a pizza: Before cooking, preheat oven to its highest temperature, usually 550. If you’ve frozen or refrigerated your dough, leave out in wrap until warm and pliable. Dust your pizza peel with semolina (or cornmeal). Working on a well-floured surface, gently stretch the pizza into a circle, getting a little wider as you go. Eventually, your pizza should be a large, thin circle. The dough is quite strong, so get it as thin as you can without breaking. (If holes appear, take a little knub of dough from the edge and patch.) Place dough on your dusted peel, and top with whatever you will be topping with. (Note, if you are using a traditional tomato sauce or any wet sauce, you’ll want to have everything ready to top your pizza as quickly as possible, as if the sauce sits on the uncooked dough, it will leak through the dough and stick your dough to the peel, and you’ll have a mess.) For traditional Naples-style tomato sauce and variations on kinds of pizzas you can make, see below.

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Basic Naples-Style Pizza Sauce
enough for two pizzas:

1 large or 2 medium very ripe tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil

Cut tomato in fourths and place in blender. Add olive oil and puree until smooth.

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Neopolitan Pizza (Basic Naples style)

1/2 cup fresh tomato sauce (above)
4 oz. fresh mozzarella in water
1/2 tsp. dried oregano

Preheat oven to 550. Dress pizza dough with tomato sauce, spreading quickly around. Break up mozzarella into chunks and place evenly about pizza. Sprinkle with salt and dried oregano. Bake for 5 – 7 minutes, until crust is beginning to brown. Remove and let cool for 5 minutes before cutting.

– Add 5 large basil leaves, chopped, after pizza is removed from oven.
– Add oil-cured black olives, thinly sliced onion and crushed red pepper before baking.
– Add anchovy fillets and chopped garlic before baking.

*   *   *

Pizza with caramelized fennel, sausage and egg
(*This one is my favorite!)

1 head fennel
2 Italian sausages, cooked and skin removed
4 oz. fresh mozzarella in water
1/4 cup grated parmesan
4 fresh eggs

You must work quickly with this one so the dough doesn’t stick to the peel. Sometime before making the pizza, caramelize the fennel: Slice thinly crosswise, preferably on a mandoline. Soak briefly in a large bowl of water to remove any sand. Drain, place in pan with olive oil and cook over medium heat, stirring frequently, for 20 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Prepare sausage. Cook in boiling water, remove from heat and cool. Peel off as much of the skin as you can. Then break sausage into chunks, place in a food processor (a blender will also work) with 1/4 cup olive oil, and puree until smooth.

Preheat oven to 550. To dress pizza: Place stretched dough on a semolina- or cornmeal-dusted peel. Quickly spread your tomato sauce on. Place chunks of mozzarella evenly around pizza. Evenly distribute fennel on top of that, and then crumble sausage around entire pizza. Crack four eggs and place one on each quadrant of the pizza. Quickly and carefully slide the pizza onto the preheated pizza stone, and cook for 5 – 7 minutes or until crust begins to brown. Remove, wait 5 minutes before slicing.

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Pizza with spinach and garlic

12 oz. spinach, cleaned
1/4 cup olive oil
5 large garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
4 oz. fresh mozzarella in water
1/4 cup grated parmesan

Place olive oil in large pan over medium heat, and saute garlic until golden. Add spinach, cook for about 2 minutes, stirring, and turn off heat. Let spinach continue wilting in pan.

Preheat oven to 550. Place stretched pizza dough on a well-dusted peel. Spread spinach/garlic mixture around pizza. Sprinkle with salt. Place chunks of mozzarella evenly around. Then sprinkle with parmesan. Bake for 5 – 7 minutes, or until crust is beginning to brown. Remove from oven, and let sit for 5 minutes before cutting.

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Pizza bianchi with wild mushrooms and pancetta

1 lb. wild mushrooms such as chanterelle, porcini or shitake, cleaned and sliced
1/4 lb thinly sliced pancetta (Italian bacon)
3 tbsp. olive oil
1/4 cup heavy cream
4 oz. fresh mozzarella in water
5 large basil leaves, chopped

Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. Cook pancetta slices for 3 – 5 minutes, until beginning to crisp up. Remove and drain on paper towel. Add mushrooms to olive oil and cook for 7 – 9 minutes, stirring occasionally, until wilted and beginning to lightly brown. Add cream, turn heat to high, and cook until most of the cream has cooked away. Remove from heat, add salt to taste.

Preheat oven to 550. Place stretched pizza dough on a well-dusted peel. Spread mushroom/cream mixture around pizza. Place chunks of mozzarella evenly around. Distribute pancetta evenly around pizza. Bake for 5 – 7 minutes, or until crust is beginning to brown. Remove from oven, sprinkle with chopped basil, and let sit for 5 minutes before cutting.

16 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. T. LEE
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 01:05:01

    YUM! Thanks very much. I find that if I put the cheese on first, just after the sauce or even before, then the pizza does not get soggy. I find that I need to preheat my stone for a good thirty minutes at 550. I also prebake crusts part of the way, then freeze, and top and finish baking later for a fast pie.


  2. mom
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 01:08:04

    Good one!!


  3. Lisa Gaskin
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 02:32:17

    NOTHING like a great pizza…I love a cornmeal crust…maybe you’ll have your portable when we visit next! HEAVEN!!


  4. Andrea Thompson
    Jan 27, 2011 @ 15:45:21

    I am so lucky because YOU taught my husband to make pizza and now it’s my favorite thing he cooks. I usually ask for it on my birthday!!


  5. Ben
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 21:04:19

    Pizza ovens are nice but I get the same results on my grill. I have a Big Green Egg. It gets rocket hot (800) and you can set a heavy pizza stone in them. It’s a charcoal grill. Have you heard of them? Also cooks a thick ribeye MR in about 4 minutes flat. (Not even kidding.) Google “big green egg”. Other great thing, it holds a low temp (225) for at least 24 hrs. You start pork butts on it the night before, go to bed, wake up and have fantastic pulled pork the next afternoon for a party.


    • scolgin
      Jan 28, 2011 @ 21:14:57

      Yep, I know the BGE. My sister and brother in law had one, which they sold before I knew it for $200 or something. I was bummed. That is a good alternate option, Ben. Can you use hardwood instead of charcoal?


  6. Ben
    Jan 28, 2011 @ 21:29:47

    That’s too bad dude because it costs about a grand for the large BGE with a basic stand.

    Obviously, you don’t use charcoal briquettes on the BGE, you use premium hardwood lump-it’s just wood with the first half of the burning done. Yes, you can burn hardwood on the BGE, but basically it wouldn’t be as hot as lump. You’d basically be waiting for your hardwood to burn down into lump anyway. Kind of liking making mustard from scratch-yes it can be done, but is it worth it? If you want to explore the BGE world before committing, you can read to your hearts content on


    • scolgin
      Jan 28, 2011 @ 21:37:02

      Yep, like I said… I was bummed. Cool, thanks for the great info… Even at full price, it would be less than half the cost of the low-end Italian oven. And yeah, the dry-aged rib-eye on the bone I cooked in my friend’s pizza oven was one of the best pieces of meat I’ve ever had. I’m sure it would be equally good on the BGE. Cheers.


  7. g
    Jan 29, 2011 @ 05:02:13

    My recipe is similar except it includes a tablespoon of olive oil for each 1 1.2 cup of flour. I’ve tried it without and I like it better with the oil.

    Like T, I put a layer of cheese on first – usually a sprinkling of parmesan.

    I use a stone. I think my oven doesn’t get quite hot enough, sometimes. But I’m impatient, I probably don’t let it heat up long enough.

    Sean, we made some lovely chanterelle pizzas a week or two ago!!


    • scolgin
      Jan 30, 2011 @ 04:50:36

      Yep, give the oven enough time. It’ll never get as hot as a wood-burning oven. But 30 minutes to an hour at 550 produces a good pizza!


  8. g
    Jan 29, 2011 @ 05:03:50

    Oh – hey – Sean, can you twirl and spin the dough in the air? If you can, can you teach me?

    I can make good dough and shape it fine with my hands and on a board, but, damn, everytime I try to spin it I end up with a mess.


    • scolgin
      Jan 30, 2011 @ 04:51:45

      Sure, I can teach you that. Although it’s something I only do if kids are watching, for dramatic effect. You can stretch it perfectly well by hand without tossing.


  9. rachelocal
    Mar 30, 2013 @ 00:49:10

    Catching up on the blogs and happy to find this post. I am making my own dough this weekend for sure. I’ll use your recipe!


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