Peek into the kitchen at almost any pizzeria to spot folks spinning dough overhead, tossing the mixture of yeast, flour, and water as if it were a circus rather than a dining establishment. The mesmerizing display is even more impressive when it transforms into a cheesy slice of pizza.
But George Kessler of il Giorgione Pizzeria and Wine Bar shares that the tossing is mostly for show as other elements are more important in making a great pizza. If anyone should know, it’s George, a New Jersey transplant to Columbia with strong Southern Italian family roots. He says that “patience … and using the freshest ingredients possible” are the keys to an excellent pizza.
Despite its stronghold in American cuisine, pizza came from humble beginnings. It was originally a meal eaten by members of the working class in Naples, Italy, because of its low cost and short preparation. In the 1920s, the first slice hit the United States’ shores via New York. Since then, pizza in America has taken on a life of its own, from the wide New York style slice, to the deep pizza pies of Chicago, all the way to West Coast fresh California style pizza as well as the Hawaiian influence of pineapple. George shares that just as America has its own regional styles, not all Italian pizza is the same. “There are three kinds of distinctive styles of pizza in Italy. What we have here in the United States is mostly based on the Neapolitan style because that was the first style to come here, but there’s also focaccia, which is more of a Sicilian style.”
At il Giorgione, diners find neither of these fluffy crust styles. Instead, George makes the third style of Italian pizza, Roman. “I wanted to do the Roman style here because no one else does it. Rome was actually the birthplace of the pizza slice,” he says. “If you go to Naples, you get a pizza and it’s not even cut — you’ve got to cut it yourself with a knife and fork. But if you go to Rome, you tell them which ingredients you want, and they cut a slice with scissors.” The manner of slicing is not what differentiates these styles though; it is the crust.
The crust is typically the hardest piece for home chefs; most of the time homemade crust just does not taste as good as the professionally tossed pizzas. Just down the street from il Giorgione at Za’s on Devine, kitchen manager George Lamprinakos says, “Dough is your biggest thing. If you don’t have a properly proofed dough, making your pizza is going to be a pain.” Knowing when the dough is right is mostly a matter of practice though. “Our pizza guys have got the feel down. They can literally hold it in their hands and know if it will work or not.”
As for a perfect dough recipe, George Kessler’s advice is not to overthink it. “The thing about pizza dough is that it’s very simple. It’s 00 flour (meaning Italian milled), yeast, water, a little bit of olive oil, and maybe a little bit of salt. And that’s your recipe for any kind of pizza. I mean, if you’re doing Neapolitan style pizza, you let it proof up and let it get a little more fluffy. For focaccia, you let it proof even more and put your little indentations in there and oil the pan and you bake it differently. For us with a Roman style, we have a dough sheeter that we got from Italy that we pass the dough through so it comes out super, super thin.”
He rolls out these dough tips as if they are second nature, but for the pizza novice, this may not seem “very simple.” If the idea of mixing dough at home induces a quick panic, many premade store-bought options offer a good place to start.
If you are determined to make a pizza from scratch, though, you should know the ingredients well. Starting from the top, 00 flour has the same makeup as all-purpose flour; it is just milled slightly finer. The 00 flour can be difficult to find in some stores, but a quick online search reveals it can be shipped to your kitchen door. All purpose flour can certainly be used in the absence of 00 flour, but substituting with a finer flour, such as bread flour, is best. Next, though it may sound intimidating, using yeast and proofing dough is easier than anything taught in a high school chemistry class. When combined with warm water, the yeast releases carbon dioxide. This reaction creates pockets of air that cause the dough to grow, or proof. A properly proofed dough will make a light, chewy crust rather than a tight, tough crust.
When it comes to topping pizza, George Lamprinakos, born and raised in Columbia, is a huge advocate for using fresh, local ingredients. “All of our produce is locally sourced through Senn Brothers, and anything we can get local we try to get local. We even use Adluh’s semolina flour. Don’t be afraid to get creative with ingredients. South Carolina farms are a fantastic source for pizza toppings, even if it means trying something new like radishes and peaches, or even summer squash on your pizza.”
The chefs in Za’s kitchen make their own bruschetta mixture from South Carolina Roma tomatoes to top their Devine-style pizza.
4 cups Roma tomatoes, chopped
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 tablespoon salt
1/2 tablespoon pepper
Fresh basil to taste
Combine all ingredients. Let rest in the refrigerator for 6 hours.
When ready, top pizza crust with the mixture. George Lamprinakos also recommends a low moisture mozzarella and a very thin layer of pizza sauce to keep the crust from getting soggy.
At il Giorgione, George Kessler’s Quattro Stagioni pizza celebrates the changing seasons with its four quadrants. He explains, “Quattro Stagioni in Italy means the four seasons, so the four quadrants are meant to represent the four different seasons. And then we put an egg in the middle, which is kind of like the sun.”
This is a different style than most pizzas because instead of mixing all of the toppings together and spreading them over the pizza, each ingredient gets its own space and is tied together with the egg. To make a Quattro Stagioni, pick four toppings. George uses prosciutto, mushrooms, olives, and artichoke. Spread each topping in its own quarter of the pizza. Cook pizza according to grill or oven instructions provided below. Just before the pizza is finished cooking, crack an egg into the middle of the pizza. Leave the pizza in the oven just long enough for the egg white to set but before the yolk gets hard.
The ingredients that go into making an excellent pizza are readily available to both the pizzeria and the home chef. The biggest hurdle at home arises in actually cooking the pizza. Most home ovens will only heat up to 500 or 550 F, while Za’s original wood burning oven runs anywhere from 700 to 900 F. The best way to get close to the environment of a restaurant oven is to take the pizza outside. Grilled pizzas are becoming more popular, and they are a great way to achieve the aspirational pizza crust perfection.
To grill a pizza, a charcoal grill offers better flavor, but a gas grill provides more control. Use either type of grill and heat to medium-high. Prepare the dough as you would for an oven. Brush the dough with a light layer of olive oil and sprinkle with corn meal. Flip the dough over and add toppings. Transfer the topped pizza to the grill. A pizza paddle can be useful here, but in its absence a cookie sheet, metal spatula, and quick hand will work just fine. Close the lid of the grill to hold in heat and moisture. After 5 minutes, check to see that dough has set and cheese has melted. If not, close and cook for 2 minutes more, repeating until it is just right.
Whether cooking inside or outside, useful tools are available for home chefs. Using a perforated pizza pan or pizza stone can help the dough cook in a similar way as it would in a professional oven. The perforated pan has holes that allow for more direct heat to hit the pizza crust, giving it a nice crunch and quick cook time. The purpose of the pizza stone is to distribute heat and absorb moisture. A pizza stone can be useful in mastering the crispy yet chewy crust that is so loved in America. However, it is both heavy and expensive for a tool that lacks dynamic purpose in the kitchen. The good news is that instead buying this one-trick stone, another option is more commonly available, especially in Southern kitchens: the cast iron skillet. The skillet holds heat and distributes it well, just like a pizza stone.
To cook the pizza using a skillet, preheat the skillet on the stove over medium high heat and preheat the oven to 500 F. Shape the dough to just smaller than the skillet and sprinkle cornmeal into the skillet. Place the dough in the skillet. Quickly and carefully add toppings. Put the skillet into the oven for 7 minutes or until the crust is golden brown and cheese is melted. After removing the skillet from the oven, carefully move pizza to a cutting board to slice and serve.
Pizza Dough (makes enough for 4 pizzas)
1 1/4 cups of 00 flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 1/4 teaspoon yeast
1/2 cup lukewarm water
Olive oil, drizzled
Stir together dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add water and olive oil. Stir until just combined. Let the dough rest in the bowl for 15 minutes. On a well-floured surface, knead the dough, adding more flour as needed. George Lamprinakos says, “The dough should feel solid. A little moist, but definitely smooth and solid.” Cut into four balls and set on a well-floured baking sheet. Now that the dough has been mixed, this is the point at which George Kessler says Italy’s regional pizzas part ways.
For a Roman style pizza shape, the dough should be rolled until even and very thin. A pasta roller can be helpful to get a uniformly thin crust, but a rolling pin will work as well. Add toppings and cook according to grill or oven instructions.
For a Neapolitan style pizza, cover with a damp cloth and let the dough rise for 1 hour. Shape the dough and form a thick ring of crust. Brush the pizza with a light layer of olive oil. Add toppings and cook according to grill or oven instructions. While crafting this delicious food at home, keep in mind its humble beginnings.
As George Kessler rolls out pizza after pizza, he reminds himself: “C’e bellezza nella semplicita,” — there is beauty in the simplicity. Savor the simplicity of crispy dough, flavorful sauce, and rich cheese and the joy that comes from homemade food.