Throw the Dough?: Make Pizza Like the Pros
A lesson behind the counter at Village Trattoria.
I'm a big fan of making pizza at home and ordering out less, especially in this economy. But I can never figure out how to get the dough to come out right. It's no fun turning what's usually an easy, impromptu meal into one that requires work. I was thrilled to discover that you can buy dough at some local pizzerias and do the rest yourself. That way, you don't have to take the time to let the fussy dough rest and all that, but you get to dress and top it any way you want. And considering dough costs an average of $2 to $2.50 for a large pizza, you're saving yourself a nice wad of cash. That's the price of a single slice!
Unfortunately, even when purchasing a ball of dough, my pizza inevitably comes out thicker than I like and resembles an amoeba in shape (on a good day, no less). That's where Angelo Vayas and his son Aris of the Village Trattoria come in. They invited me into their kitchen and taught me how to make the perfect pizza. For your viewing pleasure, we even got some video of Angelo and me in action. Trust me on this, it's going to take some practice to get to Angelo's level. He makes it appear much easier than it is!
When working with pizza dough, get it close to room temperature. Too cold and it won't stretch well; too warm and it'll become mushy and hard to transfer from your peel to the oven. Be sure to have all of your toppings prepared and waiting before you start working with the dough. If using a pizza peel, coat it in flour or cornmeal. You can also coat the dough itself with some flour on the bottom side. Too much flour will leave the crust white, prevent it from browning and give you that uncooked flour taste. Not enough and you'll have an impossible time getting it from the peel to the oven. The key, according to Angelo, is to use the least amount of flour possible while still managing to do the job—this is going to be mostly trial and error. Don't have a pizza peel? The backside of a baking sheet will do the trick if you're in a pinch. It's best to use a pizza stone and let it preheat while the oven heats up, but you can fake it if you need to.
The most important part of shaping pizza dough, emphasized by both Angelo and Aris, is to start with a round shape and keep it that way as you continue to shape it. If you don't, it'll never become round when you stretch it out. Once you can learn stretching, I'm told, you can pretty much do it all. Interestingly enough, a lot of professionals don't actually throw their dough. It's certainly fun to do and does spread the dough out well and evenly, but it's not necessary to actually toss it in the air. The major drawback is the risk of getting thin spots where you catch it. When working with the dough, stretch it from the outside, not the middle. Do some basic shaping on the counter and then finish forming it in midair, letting gravity do a lot of the work for you. You can glean more of this technique by watching Angelo in action in the video. The less you work with the dough, the better it will come out.
If you like uber-thin crust pizza, you'll need to dock the pizza to get out the air bubbles. This can be done with a dough docker or with a fork, if need be. The Village Trattoria tends not to dock their dough, except for their grandma's pie. If adding cold toppings (like salad), or if you're using toppings that need to be cooked at a different temperature or amount of time (like shrimp), you can pre-bake the dough, top and serve (like a salad pizza), or you can add some cheese and put it back in the oven for a minute to let everything meld together (like a shrimp scampi pizza). When pre-baking crust, add some cheese to keep the dough down, which will have much the same effect as docking it.
To make the rest of the pizza, grab a ladleful of sauce and gently spread it around, making sure not to press too hard on the dough. According to Angelo, the big trick to dressing a pizza is to focus the toppings on the outside. While cooking, the toppings will settle in toward the middle, so it's best not to put much there in the beginning. Pizza is best if baked at a high temperature for a short time. Angelo suggests cooking it in the oven at 550 degree heat for eight to 10 minutes.
As for toppings? Do whatever pleases you. My caramelized onion and baked garlic pizza with olive oil, feta, mozzarella, parmesan, thyme and smoked paprika is popular in my house. You're limited only by your imagination. Just ask the folks at the Village Trattoria, who make fun pies like pasta-topped pizza and ones with chicken tenders and French fries. Have any leftovers in your fridge? I'm thinking of turning last night's tacos into taco pizza.
Unlike my bartending lesson at Papillon 25, where I was offered a job after being taught how to make martinis, I'll note that Angelo mentioned nothing about my future in pizza-making after observing my performance. My dreams of greatness have been dashed! I guess I won't be joining the United States Pizza Team any time soon. Sigh. Watch the video and you'll understand why. It's a good thing I wasn't encouraged to actually throw the dough. I'm saving that for my own kitchen this weekend. Anyone wanna come over for a pie?
Pizza Dough Buying Guide
- Frank's Trattoria, $2.50
- Pirates Pizza, $2.50
- Village Pizzeria, $1.50
- Roman Gourmet, $3.50
Ben Salmon is a former literary agent and the owner of Kitchen a la Mode: Accessories for Cooking & Entertaining in the heart of downtown South Orange. Each Thursday, his local food column at Patch explores the food and drink scene in South Orange, Maplewood and Millburn.
Do you know any interesting locals in the food industry? E-mail me. I'd love to connect with them.