Thanks to some advice from chi-chi culinary guru Wolfgang Puck, Ed Camhi believes he has completed his years-long search for the "perfect pizza"--in taste, anyway, if not in beauty.
It's not that the dish is ugly; not at all. The best description probably would be plain.
"That's what real pizza is supposed to look like," says Camhi with some indignation. "It's not supposed to have flowers and pineapples on top, as most Californians seem to think. Real pizza is dough, coated with sauce and topped with cheese. That's it! That's all!"
So, if it's color and variety in toppings that you're seeking, gaze into the distance when you taste Camhi's pizza--but by all means taste it.
As a native New Yorker, Camhi says he was almost weaned on the Italian staple, although he is Jewish ("that makes me an expert on Chinese food, too," he says). And, until he spent some time in Italy in 1984, "I thought I had eaten the best, right at home in New York."
Then he discovered a small bakery in Florence, just around the corner from the house once occupied by the 14th-Century poet Alighieri Dante. "I could tell that this place was something special because of all the Italian grandmothers waiting in line to buy big squares of pizza," he says. "And, there wasn't a tourist in sight."
The bakery's pizza was "light, wholesome and delicious. I could tell that only the freshest of ingredients were used . . . and also that if I wanted pizza like this back home, I'd have to make it myself.
"Through a lot of trial and error, I've finally done it--captured the remarkable flavor that all those elderly women and I were so wild about in Florence."
The dough gave him a lot of trouble, he says, and that's where Puck, of Prago and now frozen entree fame, comes in. Puck was appearing in Orange County on behalf of a charity.
"I attended just on the outside chance I'd get an opportunity to ask his advice," Camhi says. "It was a great learning experience, even if I hadn't got that chance. He's a delightful and very helpful character . . . obviously very skilled.
"When I told him my problem, he said the solution was simple--my oven wasn't hot enough. He said that at his restaurant the pizza ovens are fired up to nearly 700 degrees and that the 425 or 450 specified in most recipes wasn't anywhere near enough heat."
No standard home oven will get to the magic 700-degree mark either, Camhi says, "so what you have to do is crank it up as high as it will go--even at broil as long as the flames aren't going to be directly over the pizza."
In addition to the heat, Camhi says there are two other secrets: the best mozzarella available and some cornmeal.
Camhi, 34 and a bachelor, lives in Cypress and is a senior analyst for Security Pacific's Residential Real Estate Business Center in Cypress.
He says that his first experience with California pizza came shortly after he arrived here eight years ago and had dinner with some friends.
"We were chatting and I wasn't paying any attention to what was ordered. After all, where I come from there are only two ways you order pizza--'pizza' or 'pizza with extra cheese.' It's like the Florence kind--no topping.
"A little while later, these things arrive and I bite into pineapple and Canadian bacon! I was convinced it was either a practical joke or that the cook was drunk."
It was at that moment that his search for the perfect pizza began. Now that that's been accomplished, he says the next goal is to find the perfect woman with whom to share it . . . someone who's more interested in taste than aesthetics and who will hotly eschew pineapple and Canadian bacon as toppings.
ED CAMHI'S PIZZA
What follows is Camhi's recipe as he wrote it for Guys and Galleys:
Im a mixing bowl, dissolve a package of yeast and a pinch of sugar in a cup of water that's barely hot to the touch. Give the yeast a couple of minutes to come alive and then add 2 to 3 tablespoons of olive oil, a teaspoon of salt and 1/4 cup of rye flour. Mix together.
Add 4 cups of unbleached flour and knead until you get a stiff, smooth dough. Let the dough rise for about an hour in a barely warm oven (on a warm day, the oven pilot alone provides enough heat).
Press an average-sized, peeled bulb of garlic into a large, heated skillet containing 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Brown the garlic and add the contents of a 28-ounce can of whole, peeled tomatoes. Add a 15-ounce can of standard tomato sauce, 1 teaspoon of dried basil and 1/2 teaspoon of oregano. Mix thoroughly (the longer you simmer the sauce, the better it tastes).
Roll your dough out on a surface covered lightly with cornmeal. Use enough cornmeal to make sure nothing sticks. The cornmeal gives the dough a much nicer, rough texture and adds flavor.
You now have enough dough to make one thick, 15-inch pizza. Cover the dough with a generous helping of the tomato sauce and grate about 10 ounces of fresh mozzarella over it (the cheese is easier to handle if you put it in the freezer for 15-20 minutes before you grate it).
Place in the very hot oven and bake for about 15 minutes. But watch it carefully so that it doesn't burn.