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IN THE KITCHEN / RUSS PARSONS

Pizza: the Simpler, the Better

May 05, 1999|RUSS PARSONS

A basic bread dough: flour, water and yeast. A main ingredient--maybe nothing more than a couple of tomatoes. A little bit of cheese.

There's not much that's simpler than pizza, which makes it all the more unusual that people hold so many strong opinions about it. There are more schisms among pizza aficionados than among Southern Baptists.

Although the fundamental article of faith is the same, you know who they say lives in the details. You've got your deep-dishers and your flat-panners, your thick-crusters and your thin-crusters, your saucers and your no-saucers (wet and dry?).

And then of course there's the fire. There are those who believe that no pizza worthy of serious consideration can come from a gas-fired oven, and even they are divided as to the source of the true flame--wood or coal.

A friend in New York once got so wrapped up in the whole debate that he spent days poring over old maps of the city, trying to determine where the first pizza oven was located and which among the current ones is the oldest.

Of course, he's also the guy who insisted I eat at a place called Napoli 45 in Grand Central Station, because they import everything from Naples--the flour, even the water. (The crust was indeed outstanding; the pizza itself was good but not great.)

My friend would probably sneer, but I must tell you that the best pizza I've had in years--maybe as good as any I've had--is one I ate a couple of weeks ago in Phoenix.

Now, Phoenix is not the first place you think of when someone mentions great food, or even the second or third. It's also not the most likely spot to find an authentic Italian pizzeria.

But there it is, Pizzeria Bianco, the busiest place in a rather forlorn bit of urban renewal called Heritage Square, just east of the convention center. A simple, square room that might hold 50 for dinner if everyone had skipped lunch, Pizzeria Bianco is the domain of Chris Bianco, a 36-year-old chef from the Bronx, who makes every pizza sold, every day at every meal. Even with a roomful of foodies, he never left the kitchen to schmooze. How refreshing.

As becomes a pizza cook, Bianco is a great believer in simplicity. There are only four pizzas on the menu, plus three or four salads. At dinner, there's one antipasto--vegetables roasted in the pizza oven, doused with good olive oil and served with hard salami and cheese.

Through an accident of fate and/or bad planning, I found myself eating three meals in a row at Pizzeria Bianco, and rather than getting bored by the limited selection, I found myself looking forward to it.

In fact, after having been home for a couple of days, I found myself longing for a Bianco pizza. Two I especially like: One, called Rosa, is an unlikely sounding combination of thinly sliced red onions, crushed pistachios and a little Grana Padano.

This is not some nouvelle affectation; it's based on a pizza Bianco ate in Liguria, where they used pine nuts or sesame seeds in place of the pistachios. Too often the pine nuts and sesame seeds Bianco could get in Phoenix were rancid, so he substituted pistachios.

The other, Biancoverde, also from Liguria, is even simpler--a light pasting of cheese that is baked until blistering and topped at the last minute with a scattering of fresh arugula, which gives off an intense herbal perfume. The sweet, soft cheese, the peppery arugula, the crisp crust. . . . Rarely do such basic ingredients combine so well.

Pizzas are easy to do at home, but there are a couple of things to think about.

* First, the dough for the crust should be somewhat wetter than you might normally use for baking bread. This will make a thinner, crisper crust. If it seems a little too wet after mixing, that's probably just right. The excess moisture will be absorbed during the rise.

* The absolute best way to bake a pizza is on stone. You can buy specially made pizza stones, but unglazed quarry tiles that you pick up at the hardware store work just as well. Put the stone or the tiles on the lowest rack and then preheat the oven at the highest possible temperature for at least 30 minutes. Don't put the stone or tiles on the floor of the oven, though. They'll get too hot and you'll end up with a scorched crust.

* The best way to build a pizza is to place the rolled-out dough on a well-floured wooden pizza paddle, or peel. I like to use cornmeal--it adds a nice crunch to the crust--but some purists frown on this.

* Add any flavoring ingredients and then the cheeses--a light hand is a must for both, especially if you're working with a thin crust. Just remember to think of it as bread with a flavoring, rather than vice versa.

* Transfer the pizza to the oven by placing the peel on the stone and giving a quick forward thrust to get the crust moving in the right direction, then immediately jerk the paddle out from underneath.

That's all there is to it. And short of flying to Phoenix--or Genoa--you'll be hard pressed to find a better pizza.

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