April 18, 2019
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The Future of Pizza Is Crunchy and Square
buddysPizza

All hail the pizza world’s latest obsession. It’s giving Americans permission to celebrate the puffy, crispy, abundantly cheesy pies some of us have loved all along.

Peter Reinhart was helping out a restaurant in Texas when the great powers of a Detroit frico crust hit him like Newton’s apple.

“We were testing all these recipes, and on the seventh day, as soon as I pulled the pan out of the oven, I knew we nailed it,” he recalls of the moment in 2017. A four-time James Beard Award–winning author who’s literally written the books on American pizza and the country’s bread revolution, Reinhart talks about flour grinds and gluten development with the high-key buzz of a kid at Chuck E. Cheese’s, and here his voice takes an upward lilt. “I got so excited. I was thinking about pan pizzas for a while, and thought if I could apply these methods to any pan pizza, I might be onto something.”

For those not attuned to the rhythms of regional pizza arcana, frico is what happens when you shellac puffy pizza dough with cheese and bake it in a well-oiled pan. The cheese bonds to the metal edge and the dough underneath, forming a crenellated border of salty burnt dairy that rises slightly above the pie, like the walls of some provincial castle ruled by Little Caesar himself. Good frico crackles audibly when you take a bite, joining a fried bottom crust in a symphony of crunch.

Seven months after his come-to-cheesus moment—warp 8 in the book-publishing space-time continuum—Reinhart sent a finished manuscript of Perfect Pan Pizza to his editor. The cookbook, Reinhart’s 12th, includes master dough and sauce recipes for Detroit pies, Sicilian squares, rectilinear Romans, and pizza-adjacent focaccias. It features classic toppings, such as olive and artichoke, and unconventional variations, like a Kansas City burnt-ends pie and a cioppino-inspired slice layered with ‘nduja salami. Though Reinhart wouldn’t say it himself, Perfect Pan Pizza is a convincing argument for an old chestnut bandied about in pizza circles: Italians may have invented pizza, but it’s the Americans who perfected it.

Vodka pizza at Emmy Squared, a New York pizzeria inspired by the Detroit style

Pan-baked square pies are enjoying a moment. You can get a great Detroit slice these days in Chicago, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and New York. Squishy Sicilians and unrepentantly oily grandmas are unavoidable on Instagram, especially those done up for the camera with orthogonally arranged up-curled pepperoni slices. The “pan” division of the International Pizza Expo’s 12th annual baking competition—the galactic senate of the pizza-making universe—has grown from a sideshow contest to a fight nearly as fierce as the Neapolitan and American categories, Reinhart explains. (He would know; he’s attended half a dozen pizza trade shows across the country and judged this and similar competitions three times.) When he pitched the idea of a pan pizza book to his publisher, “my editor said don’t even waste time on a proposal. It was so on trend they didn’t want to wait.”

Reinhart considers it a natural product of the pizza world’s maturation and our growing hunger for new kinds of pie. “Over the last 15 years, the methodologies of the artisan bread movement have been getting applied to pizza,” he says. “The quality of crusts has gotten much better in that time, and the crust is what’ll drive you to obsession. People are developing skills in these [pan] styles that show they can be just as satisfying as Neapolitan.”

Neapolitan pizza aesthetics—airy, leopard-spotted crusts, nearly soggy centers, and pristine Italian ingredients—is a particularly demanding art form. But making good pan pizza comes with its own challenges. You can’t nail that frico with any dough and pan, and even after you’ve found a crust you’re happy with, you could spend a lifetime tweaking the acidity, sweetness, and spice of your sauce.

There’s a classic crunch that comes with a proper frico crust.

Adam Kuban, the founder of the pizza blog Slice and showrunner of a bar-pie pop-up called Margot’s in New York, describes Reinhart’s 2003 book American Pie, a narrative quest across the country in search of pizza enlightenment (with recipes), as a seminal text in those early days. “It was a huge resource,” he says, adding that the book, and pizzamaking.com, a website that also launched in 2003, quickly became the discussion board for pizza obsessives. “[Specialty pizza] wasn’t mainstream then; if you wanted to improve your pizza game, that [book] was pretty much it.”

Kuban is one of a handful of pizzamaking.com regulars who turned his pizza obsession into a professional operation. Before he opened Varasano’s in Atlanta, Jeff Varasano was “the original viral pizza geek” on the site, as Kuban puts it. Scott Riebling of Stoked in Boston, Peter Taylor of Wood Fired in Tampa, Norma Knepp of Norma’s in Lancaster, Pennsylvania—all forum members who have since opened celebrated pizza spots despite having little to no prior restaurant industry experience.

Knepp, a 72-year-old retiree who previously worked at an energy company, says she built out a pizza stand at Roots Country Market in 2009 using some equipment abandoned by another vendor. She took up the pizza peel in part to pay her husband’s medical bills, turning to the forum for advice since she didn’t have a clue how to make great pizza and local experts could only offer limited advice. “I would have never understood pizza by myself,” she says. “Even if you do everything in a recipe the same, your dough will turn out differently each time. There’s so many members on [that forum] that’ll suggest different approaches to help you out.”

Kuban describes Knepp as “kind of a legend” in the pizza community, a tinkerer with a knack for analyzing and replicating legendary pies. She achieved national fame in 2016 when she won the USA Caputo Cup in the “New York style” category, and she currently sells New Yorkish slices and Sicilian squares baked in deep Detroit-style pans.

It’s not surprising that after a decade of doggedly pursuing Neapolitan and New Yorkish pizza perfection, America’s pizza nuts have moved on to something new. But pan pizza’s ascendancy is still a far cry from a national discourse that’s always prioritized round over square and once revered lean wood-fired pies as the pinnacle of pizza achievement.

Crispy pies from Margot’s Pizza, an occasional pop-up in New York City

When I was an editor at a pizza-obsessed food website in the early 2010s, every day seemed to bring a new upscale pizza restaurant with thin-crust leanings and an over-reliance on speck and burrata. If it wasn’t a new-school pizza joint, it was a story about some obsessive who’d hacked their home oven to reach the searing 800 degrees required for those lightning-cooked Italian pies, or debates over flours and fermentation times for optimal no-knead dough.

When the press covered these openings and innovations, the unspoken subtext was often that they stood as elite contrasts to the unfashionable, mass-market hallmarks of the American pizza experience: tasteless doughs, meat lovers’ toppings, cheese-stuffed-crust gimmicks, cinnamon-sprinkled breadsticks to dunk in cream cheese frosting. Here come the urbane disruptors to save American pizza from its terminal excesses.

No doubt the average American pizza has room for improvement. But you could argue that this new wave of regional pan pies has more in common with our collective Domino’s and Pizza Hut lineage than anything that’s come before them. What is an Americanized Sicilian slice if not a celebration of pillowy dough, similar in shape and heft to Michigan-born Little Caesar’s pan pizza? Maybe a Detroit frico crust is the apotheosis of Domino’s endless pursuit to maximize the cheesy potential of every bite.

But good pan pizzas are never just heavy, and they certainly follow a philosophy of abundance where Neapolitan tradition employs minimalist doughs and spare amounts of toppings. Pan pizzas demand more dough and cheese, plus oil to fry the bottom crust. There’s something compellingly American about pan pizzas’ abundance. They’re also egalitarian; unlike Neapolitan and New York styles, they don’t require maxing out your oven to surface-of-the-sun temperatures to bake successfully—around 350 degrees for 30 minutes—so they’re easy to reproduce at home. And like American identities, pan pizza styles are legion; hyper-regional square pies abound across the country.

“There’s this focus now on regional American pizzas,” Kuban says, “and a lot of them are cooked in pans. So everybody is trying to do a celebrated square.” An airy, baroque dough, a crunchy crust, a cozy quilt of cheese—a pizza we’ve loved all along.

Motor City Hawaiian

Motor City Hawaiian

2 9x9-inch pizzas

Ingredients

  • White Flour Dough
  • 4 ⅓ cups (567 g) unbleached bread flour
  • 1 ¾ teaspoon (11 g) kosher salt
  • 1 ¼ teaspoon (4 g) instant yeast
  • 2 cups (454 g) water, cool (about 60°F)
  • 2 tablespoons (28 g) olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon (14 g) extra olive oil (for stretching and folding)
  • Motor City Hawaiian
  • 1 pound brick, Muenster, mozzarella, fontina, Cheddar, or provolone cheese (or a combination), cut into ¼-inch cubes
  • 4 ounces Canadian bacon, capicola ham, or cooked bacon, cut into ½-inch cubes
  • ½ cup diced yellow or white onion
  • 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and diced (optional)
  • 1 8-ounce can pineapple chunks or sliced pineapple, ½ fresh pineapple peeled and cut into ½-inch chunks or slices, or 6 ounces frozen pineapple pieces
  • ½ cup Crushed Tomato Pizza Sauce
  • ¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • Crushed Tomato Pizza Sauce (Makes enough for 4-8 pizzas)
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed, ground, or whole tomatoes
  • ¼ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil, or 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
  • ¼ teaspoon dried oregano, or 1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
  • 1 teaspoon granulated garlic, or 2 large garlic cloves, finely minced, plus more as needed
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice, or a combination, plus more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

There is probably no pizza more polarizing than what is called Hawaiian pizza, and, ironically, it’s not even Hawaiian. One version of its origin story claims that it was invented in 1962 by a Greek-Canadian, Sam Panopoulos, at the Satellite Restaurant in Chatham, Ontario. I guess this explains why so many versions are made with Canadian bacon. Sam said this pizza was inspired by his earlier experience preparing Chinese dishes, which commonly mix sweet and savory flavors. I find the sweet and savory flavor contrast can also be achieved with spicy ham, like capicola, as well as with bacon or pancetta. Regardless, it’s the pineapple, with its Hawaiian association (and thus the name, even if not its true birthplace), that causes all the controversy. But I say that it’s time for anyone who has a problem with pineapple (or any fruit) pizza topping to try this version and just get over it, because here’s what happens when Detroit-style deep-pan pizza meets Hawaiian pineapple: pure magic!

    White Flour Dough

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt, and yeast. Add all of the water and mix on slow speed for 30 seconds or stir with a large spoon to form a coarse, shaggy dough. Add the 2 tablespoons of oil, increase the speed to medium (or continue mixing with the spoon or with wet hands), and mix for another 30 to 60 seconds to make a wet, coarse, sticky dough. It may seem too wet to form a cohesive dough at this stage. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes to fully hydrate.
  2. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high (or continue mixing by hand) and mix for another 30 to 60 seconds to make a smooth, sticky dough. It should be soft, supple, and sticky to the touch, and offer a little resistance when pressed with a wet finger.
  3. Use 1 teaspoon of the extra oil to make a 15-inch-diameter oil slick (see page 31) on the work surface. Rub some oil on a plastic bowl scraper and on your hands and use the scraper to transfer the dough to the oil slick. Stretch and fold the dough as shown on page 22. Cover the dough with a bowl and let it rest for 2 to 5 minutes. Repeat the stretch and fold (rub more oil on the work surface as needed), cover the dough, and let it rest for 2 to 5 minutes. Then repeat the stretch and fold, cover with the bowl, and again let it rest for 2 to 5 minutes. Perform a fourth and final stretch and fold to make a smooth ball of dough. The dough will have firmed up after each stretch and fold and will now be soft, smooth, supple, and somewhat sticky but firm enough to hold together when lifted. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 12 to 72 hours.

Crushed Tomato Pizza Sauce

  1. In a large bowl, stir together the tomatoes, pepper, basil, oregano, garlic, vinegar or lemon juice, and ½ teaspoon of the salt, adding the salt gradually and tasting as you go. Add more vinegar or lemon juice and salt, if needed. But be careful; the flavors of the herbs, garlic, and salt will intensify when the pizza is baked, so resist the urge to increase the amount. You can always add more herbs and salt on top of the pizza after it comes out of the oven.
  2. Transfer to a covered container, seal tightly, and refrigerate up to 10 days or freeze up to 3 months.

Motor City Hawaiian

  1. Five hours before baking the pizza, begin panning and dimpling the dough, at 20-minute intervals.
  2. Oil the pan, using 1 ½ tablespoons olive oil, or half oil, half melted butter, for a 9 by 9-inch pan.
  3. Place the appropriate size piece of dough in the center of the oiled pan. Rub the surface of the dough with olive oil and use your fingertips to begin dimpling and expanding it in all directions.
  4. Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap and let the dough relax at room temperature for approximately 20 minutes.
  5. At 20-minute intervals, dimple from the center, with fingers angled toward the edges and corners. Each successive dimpling will expand the coverage over more of the pan.
  6. By the third or fourth dimpling, the dough will evenly cover the whole surface of the pan.
  7. Twenty minutes before assembling and baking the pizza, preheat the oven to 500°F (450°F for convection). When ready to bake, cover the dough with an even layer of Canadian bacon, capicola, or bacon pieces and sprinkle with the onion and jalapeño (if using). Top the dough with the remaining half of the cheese cubes, making sure to get plenty around the edges, where the dough meets the pan. For a 9-inch pan, spread about 3 ounces of the pineapple pieces or slices (the actual amount will depend on the size of the pan) evenly over the cheese.
  8. Bake on the middle shelf of the oven for 8 minutes. Then rotate the pan 180 degrees and continue to bake 7 to 9 minutes longer, or until the cheese caramelizes to a golden brown and the pineapple bubbles and browns or chars slightly.
  9. Transfer the baked pizza to the stovetop or to a heatproof counter. Using an offset spatula or bench blade, carefully slide it around the edge, between the crust and the side of the pan, and then lift the pizza out of the pan and slide it onto a cutting board. Use a spoon or squirt bottle to drizzle the pizzas with the pizza sauce, if using. Garnish with the parsley. Let cool for 1 minute, then cut into 3-or 4-inch squares and serve.
Umberto's-Style Grandma Pie

Umberto’s-Style Grandma Pie

1 12x17-inch pizza

Ingredients

  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 32 ounces (907 g) White Flour Dough
  • 4 garlic cloves, finely diced
  • 1 ¼ cup Crushed Tomato Pizza Sauce
  • 6 ounces full-fat mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced
  • 3 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese (optional)
  • ¼ cup freshly grated Parmesan, Asiago, or Romano cheese
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano or ¼ teaspoon dried oregano
  • White Flour Dough
  • 4 ⅓ cups (567 g) unbleached bread flour
  • 1 ¾ teaspoon (11 g) kosher salt
  • 1 ¼ teaspoon (4 g) instant yeast
  • 2 tablespoons (28 g) olive oil
  • 1 tablespoon (14 g) extra olive oil (for stretching and folding)
  • Crushed Tomato Pizza Sauce
  • 1 28-ounce can crushed, ground, or whole tomatoes
  • ¼ teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon dried basil, or 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil
  • ¼ teaspoon dried oregano, or 1 teaspoon chopped fresh oregano
  • 1 teaspoon granulated garlic, or 2 large garlic cloves, finely minced, plus more as needed
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice, or a combination, plus more as needed
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt

Umberto’s, in New Hyde Park, Queens, is famous for this style of pizza (as is another place in Queens called, confusingly, Prince Umberto’s), but these sheet-pan pizzas have been made under various names for many years in many cities. The main difference between a Grandma and a Sicilian-style pizza, at least by some definitions, is that the Grandma pie is baked just once, with all the toppings on board, and not par-baked and then topped. This does create some challenges, such as getting the crust to finish baking at the same time as the toppings, so this is accomplished by first layering sliced, not grated, mozzarella cheese over the surface, not overloading the pizza with too much sauce, and baking at a slightly lower temperature and on a lower shelf in the oven, where the undercrust can bake before the cheese gets too well done. As always, it comes down to a balancing act between time, temperature, and ingredients.
NOTE: You can always add pepperoni or other toppings to this pizza, as you would for the Sicilian-style pizza. If not using fresh mozzarella, increase the grated mozzarella to 4 cups.

    White Flour Dough

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, or in a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, salt, and yeast. Add all of the water and mix on slow speed for 30 seconds or stir with a large spoon to form a coarse, shaggy dough. Add the 2 tablespoons of oil, increase the speed to medium (or continue mixing with the spoon or with wet hands), and mix for another 30 to 60 seconds to make a wet, coarse, sticky dough. It may seem too wet to form a cohesive dough at this stage. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes to fully hydrate.
  2. Increase the mixer speed to medium-high (or continue mixing by hand) and mix for another 30 to 60 seconds to make a smooth, sticky dough. It should be soft, supple, and sticky to the touch, and offer a little resistance when pressed with a wet finger.
  3. Use 1 teaspoon of the extra oil to make a 15-inch-diameter oil slick on the work surface. Rub some oil on a plastic bowl scraper and on your hands and use the scraper to transfer the dough to the oil slick. Stretch and fold the dough. Cover the dough with a bowl and let it rest for 2 to 5 minutes. Repeat the stretch and fold (rub more oil on the work surface as needed), cover the dough, and let it rest for 2 to 5 minutes. Then repeat the stretch and fold, cover with the bowl, and again let it rest for 2 to 5 minutes. Perform a fourth and final stretch and fold to make a smooth ball of dough. The dough will have firmed up after each stretch and fold and will now be soft, smooth, supple, and somewhat sticky but firm enough to hold together when lifted. Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 12 to 72 hours.

Crushed Tomato Pizza Sauce

  1. In a large bowl, stir together the tomatoes, pepper, basil, oregano, garlic, vinegar or lemon juice, and ½ teaspoon of the salt, adding the salt gradually and tasting as you go. Add more vinegar or lemon juice and salt, if needed. But be careful; the flavors of the herbs, garlic, and salt will intensify when the pizza is baked, so resist the urge to increase the amount. You can always add more herbs and salt on top of the pizza after it comes out of the oven.
  2. Transfer to a covered container, seal tightly, and refrigerate up to 10 days or freeze up to 3 months.

Umberto's-Style Grandma Pie

  1. At least 3 hours before you plan to bake the pizza, oil a 12 by 17-inch sheet pan, including the interior sides, with 4 tablespoons of the oil (you can use a pan liner, but it is not required).
  2. Cover the pan loosely with plastic wrap and let the dough relax at room temperature for approximately 20 minutes.
  3. At 20-minute intervals, dimple from the center, with fingers angled toward the edges and corners. Each successive dimpling will expand the coverage over more of the pan.
  4. After three to four rounds of dimpling and resting, the dough will have relaxed enough to cover the whole pan. At this point, coat the top with the remaining 1 tablespoon of oil and sprinkle with the garlic. Cover the pan with plastic wrap and let it rest for 2 to 2 ½ hours at room temperature.
  5. Twenty minutes before baking the pizza, preheat the oven to 450°F (425°F for convection). Remove the plastic wrap and lay the sliced mozzarella cheese over the surface, covering it as completely as possible. Ladle and spread the sauce over the cheese. If using, tear or cut the fresh mozzarella into 8 to 10 pieces and space them evenly over the sauce.
  6. Bake on a shelf in the lower third of the oven for 8 minutes. Then rotate the pan 180 degrees and continue baking 8 to 12 minutes longer, or until the cheese is bubbly and caramelized and the undercrust is brown and crisp. Remove the pan from the oven and sprinkle the pizza with the grated Parmesan or other dried cheese. Return the pizza to the oven for 1 minute to slightly melt the cheese.
  7. Transfer the baked pizza to the stovetop or to a heatproof counter and let it rest for 2 minutes. Using an offset spatula or bench blade, carefully slide it around the edge, between the crust and the side of the pan, and then lift the pizza out of the pan and slide it onto a cutting board. Sprinkle the pizza with oregano, then cut into 3-or 4-inch squares and serve. (Note: You can also cut the pizza directly in the pan if it is too difficult to remove, but be careful not to cut into the metal of the pan.)

Max Falkowitz

Max Falkowitz is a food and travel writer for The New York Times, Saveur, GQ, New York magazine’s Grub Street, and other outlets. He’s also the coauthor of The Dumpling Galaxy Cookbook with Helen You.

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