by Rob Ulrich
Nobody knows where it started. Ask any Neapolitan and they’ll swear that the first official pizza originated in the 1870’s when a Naples foodsmith created an oven baked flatbread covered with tomato sauce, cheese and basil to present to the visiting Queen Margherita. The Queen was so enamored with the toppings (the colors of which resembled the Italian flag) that the concoction was and has forever been called Pizza Margherita. This is the stuff of legend and over the years, there’s been skepticism over whether she even ate the thing. Apparently, the earliest pizzas were simply created using whatever leftover dough and ingredients were found at the end of the business day, baked together and offered as street food to poorer people. The dear Queen couldn’t possibly risk being known to have devoured this so-called “bread of the peasants.”
Nowadays, this fabled product launch is under even more scrutiny. Scholars have found mentions of the word pizza within Latin derivative-scripted church records in Gaeta, in the nearby region of Lazio, to the north. According to the AD 997 tome, twelve pizzas were to be delivered to the bishop every year; on Christmas and on Easter. The order was written; “Do Doudecim Pizze” or “Do Twelve Pizzas.” This is not legend but documented fact. Bart Simpson wasn’t behind some prank phone order. Thus, we know that the word pizza has been Italian-adopted ever since. It is, most certainly, Italian born and bred.
As possible cradles of pizza’s infancy, either Naples or Gaeta makes perfect sense, given their ties to the ancient Greek empire and placement on the Mediterranean shoreline. The countries bordering the Mediterranean all have deeps roots with regard to cooking flatbread in crude ovens, with regional spices and olive oil; what are now ancestors of contemporary Greek pita, Israeli laffa, Turkish pide or the thicker, Italian focaccia. It wasn’t until the 1500’s, when tomatoes were introduced to Europe, that sauce flowed into the picture, and the toppings soon followed.
Here endeth the history lesson but begineth the story…
There’s no disputing the origin of my experience with pizza done on our backyard grill and the recipe that’s soon to follow (though my wife, Jan, may disagree). For me, it started with, and revolved around- like so many creative and inspired ideas- an alcoholic beverage. In this case, wine. Jan and I happened to be driving south along the northern end of Napa Valley’s Silverado Trail when I spotted a sign for the August Briggs winery and tasting room. For us, August Briggs is one of those pleasures that you discover off the beaten path, completely by chance or accident. Several years before, while having dinner at the fabulous Tra Vigne in St. Helena, we described to our waiter the kind of wine we enjoyed, he paired that to our menu choices and brought up an amazing August Briggs pinot noir.
We had never seen or heard of the winery but fell in love with the wine. “Where do we buy this? Where’s the winery? We have to go! I’ll give you all my money if you tell us!” These were our pleas but our man shrugged and said they were a small establishment that only sold to restaurants and through their wine club. I went hunting anyway and the next day, found a few bottles of August Briggs at the excellent Cal Mart grocery store in Calistoga, on the eastern end of Lincoln Avenue, near where it connects with the northern end of the Silverado Trail. Fast forward now to where I began this story and it was just south of this junction, years later, that we found the August Briggs newly-erected tasting room (they’ve since moved to a storefront location in Calistoga, closer to the western end of Lincoln Avenue).
The wine we had there was not so much from a tasting glass but a syringe, the likes of which might be used to inseminate livestock (not that I’m an expert on these kinds of things). Thankfully, this one was exclusively used for barrel tasting any number of young wines drawn directly from their casks. After we explained our story of how we'd discovered August Briggs, the winemaker invited us back to the cellars to sample. We were like kids at Willy Wonka’s factory. To make a long story a little shorter, we joined the wine club.
Transition… Fast forward in time a bit and we’re in the Berkshires at our little hideaway, one weekend. Jan overheard a contest on NPR, appealing for the most creative pizza recipe. Recalling that her best friend’s mother had fiddled around with grilling pizza dough (and possibly originally dismissing the idea, believing mom may had begun to lose her marbles), Jan eventually thought it’d be very creative to enter a grilled pizza recipe. And what would go great with a slightly charred, crispy flatbread better than a Mediterranean potpourri of ground lamb, Greek yogurt, grilled eggplant, roasted red peppers, feta, mozzarella, garlicky Tzatziki and lots and lots of spices? The result was Jan’s Grilled “Turkish” Pizza. We made it, loved it and entered it. Here’s the recipe…
GRILLED “TURKISH” PIZZA
· 1 lb store-bought pizza dough (home made can be used)
· 6 medium to large cloves of garlic, finely chopped (used in lamb and Tzatziki sauce)
· 1/3 cup of Extra Virgin Olive Oil
· 1/3 lb of mozzarella cheese, thinly sliced (buy pre-packed and "fresh"... it's firmer than the deli-bought fresh and not as hard or rubbery as commercial mozzarella)
· 1/2 cup of crumbled feta cheese
· 1 small eggplant, thinly sliced with the peel on (best if sliced less than 1/4 inch)
· 1 large red bell pepper
· 1/2 lb ground lamb
· 1 small onion, grated
· 1/2 tsp cinnamon
· 1/2 tsp allspice
· 1/2 tsp ground coriander
· 1/4 tsp ground ginger
· 1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
· 1 tsp kosher salt
· 1/2 tsp freshly ground pepper
· Sea or Kosher salt to taste
· Red pepper flakes to taste
For Tzatziki Sauce
· 6 oz container of Greek yogurt (fat free can be used)
· 1 small cucumber, peeled, seeded and grated
· 4 leaves of fresh mint, chopped (1/2 tsp of dried mint can be used)
· 1 clove of finely minced garlic (you can take this from the 6 cloves above)
· 1 tsp fresh lemon juice
· Floured cookie tray or cutting board (to roll out the dough)
· Small slotted vegetable grill tray (optional)
· 2 sets of tongs
· Large cutting board (to transfer pizza from the grill to the table)
· Pastry brush
· Pizza cutter
· A couple hours prior to making the pizza, take the dough out of the fridge and put it in a bowl that has been coated in olive oil. Cover and put it in a warm place to let the dough soften and rise a bit.
· Prior to making the pizza, it’s best to prep the toppings.
· Chop the garlic and put it in a bowl with 1/3 cup of EVOO. This will infuse the garlic into the oil when you spread it on the dough. You’ll also add this to the lamb and Tzatziki sauce.
· Light the grill.
· Sprinkle the thinly-sliced eggplant with kosher salt. Let it sit in the colander for about 15 minutes. Then rinse, pat dry and brush with EVOO. Grill the slices until they’re slightly charred and soft. Remove from the grill. Set aside.
· Place the whole red pepper on the hot grill. Char it on all sides. Once charred, put it in a bowl and cover with plastic (or put in a paper bag) to “sweat.” Let it cool. Remove the skin and seeds. Slice it into thick strips.
· Make the Tzatziki sauce: Squeeze liquid out of the grated cucumber and add to the yogurt. Mix in the mint, 1 hefty tsp of minced garlic from the reserved oil, lemon juice and a pinch of salt. Put it in the fridge and let the flavors meld.
· Just before making the pizza, make sure the grill is lit. If you have a zoned gas grill, fire up one side to “medium high” and put the other side on “low.” If you don’t have zoned flames, stay on a “medium high” setting and just be careful as you add the toppings.
· Once the dough is pliable, put it on a flour-dusted sheet or board. Start pushing the dough out from the center. Push and stretch to make a circle about 12 to 15 inches in diameter. If you like your dough thicker, then make it 1/3 smaller. This takes a little patience. Brush one side with EVOO.
· Once the grill is hot, carefully lift the pizza dough using your fingers and place it directly on the grates, with the EVOO-brushed side down. Cover the grill. Let it cook for about 2-3 minutes or so. Once the bottom is golden brown, flip it over with 2 sets of tongs and move it to the cooler side of the grill.
· Brush it again, using the garlic EVOO this time. Be sure to add the garlic bits too. Add your toppings by starting with the mozzarella cheese, then add the sliced eggplant, roasted peppers and spoon on the cooked ground lamb. Finally, sprinkle on the feta cheese.
· With the tongs, move it back to hotter side of the grill.
· Cover the grill and let it cook for about 3-5 minutes. It’s fine if the bottom chars a bit. You want a little char to add texture and taste. You might need to rotate the pizza to help it cook evenly.
· Carefully slide it onto a large cutting board (you’ll need a helping hand to do this). Serve.
Each person can add their own dollop of Tzatziki on top of their slice. The pizza should be slightly crispy, with a bottom that has a hint of char, which compliments the array of spicy flavors on top. Toast and eat!
A few words about the dough… We admittedly punted on this and decided to use store-bought, ready-made pizza dough. You can usually find it in any good grocery store in the prepared deli section or from the bakery department. It’s suitable and saves a lot of hassle. Dough making is all about chemistry and so much of it hinges on the mineral content of water. There’s a reason New York City pizza tastes better than anywhere else. Believe it or not, it’s the tap water. New York’s water source comes from upper Westchester County, the Catskills and reservoirs along the Hudson Valley. The crucial impact of water on dough and the whole pizza gobbling experience was proven on an episode of Food Detectives, a Food Network show where five judges selected what they believed to be the best tasting pizza among three samples. They were identical pies, except that one dough was made with New York tap water, the second with water from Chicago and the third with Los Angeles water. The judges had no idea which was which, and to a man, they all chose New York’s finest as the best.
Now, the caveat is that these five judges consisted of four native New Yorkers: a pizza tour guide (yes, there appears to be such a vocation), a stand-up comedian, a restaurant owner and a chef. The fifth judge was the program’s host, Ted Allen; the network’s proverbial straight man, who’s also featured on the acerbic cooking challenge show, Chopped. You’re familiar with the Chopped program, aren’t you? It’s that one show on Food Network where chefs compete against each other and the clock to create innovative, delicious recipes for a panel of self-important, expert judges- only to get berated, abused and singularly, shamefully dismissed until there’s a last man standing. This premise is opposed to that one other show the network has where a guy with lots of personality travels around and tastes food from different restaurants and regions.
Oh wait, those two premises account for practically EVERY show on Food Network!
The exception to the rule is Food Detectives, which serves to dispel the mysteries of recipes and which, along with Chopped, provides Ted Allen with a career separate from that of his dual life; recording albums and going out on tour as Elvis Costello (think about it… you never see those two guys in the same room, do you?).
So, banking on the idea that our Albany-based supermarket chain makes its dough with H2O culled from the same relative watershed supply as New York, we rolled the dice and rolled out theirs to form the base of our pizza. Unless you’re confident in your ability to make dough from scratch, go with the store-bought variety and you’ll be fine.
Now, back to the NPR contest… We learned that this recipe made it to the final round when Jan received a call from one of the show's producers, asking if she’d be available to appear on the radio, live at such-n-such a time, if she's announced the winner. This would be after an upcoming episode in which they have the final, dramatic bake-off, judging the three finalists’ recipes.
NPR can be very creative. In this episode, they took the three recipes and thought it would be a good idea to bake them in a New York City pizzeria and serve slices to cab drivers who were otherwise just passing by and let them be the ultimate judges. In terms of a radio show, that certainly is an interesting angle and lends itself to theater-of-the-mind, with lots of sound effects (commotion in a busy pizza joint, honking car horns and judges speaking with a variety of accents) that NPR typically likes to use as interstitials between scripted lines, as a matter of course in much of their programming. All three recipes were created, commented on by the chef as he made them (“Mmmm, I never thought of doing this!”), baked in a traditional, modern, convection pizza oven, walked out to the street and served to cabbies.
Now, the good folks at NPR are a nice enough lot but they don’t know how to follow directions. Jan’s recipe is meant to be cooked on a barbeque grill, not in an oven. Thus, we’re sure the pizza they made came out doughy and slathered with a flooded topside full of Tzatziki, without the benefit of any nuances, like char. The cabbies liked it but, to no surprise, it placed third. These guys are used to traditional, New York pizza by the slice, a far cry from what our recipe desires to be. The tail wagged the dog. The final product was made to fit the show at the expense of the integrity of the recipe.
So what does all of this have to do with August Briggs wine, which I consider to be the start of my side of the story? Not long afterwards, I saw that the winery was issuing a challenge in the wine club newsletter; to pair an original recipe with one of their wines. The winery employees would read all the submissions, choose a handful of finalists, cook and drink away. We teamed Jan’s Grilled “Turkish” Pizza recipe up with August Briggs’ Old Vine Zinfandel. In our submission, we wrote that; “…the smooth, balanced, rounded but peppery old vine grape pairs well with a spicy dish like this pizza.”
We also stressed that the wine should be served with appetizers ahead of time, so every guest will be entertained watching the chef fire up the grill and working a pizza- flipping the dough and adding toppings- over the hot flames. We won the contest and with it, the satisfaction that we succeeded amongst some real food and wine enthusiasts in the heart of Napa Valley. Truth be told; they confided that our recipe wasn’t necessarily the best tasting of the finalists but it was the best tasting pairing of food with a wine selection. Good things compliment each other.
Major props to August Briggs… They’re streamlined and make wonderful wines across the board in small batches, keeping them consistently good. We’re partial to the Old Vine Zins, Pinot Noirs and Petite Sirahs. Cheers to you guys!
Bring up the subject of pizza and you’ll soon get an argument from someone. Everyone has their favorite and will defend it to the death. In the New York tri-state area, Tony Sopranoesque gang fighting ensues when the issue of whether the best coal fired oven pizza means lower Manhattan’s Lombardi’s versus Pepe’s of New Haven. And what about the famous “Ray’s” of New York? Nobody can agree about which one of the 47,982 pizza slice joints with Ray in their signage is the true original. Lawyers have made a lot of money arguing over the distinction between the words; Original, Famous, Classic, Authentic and any other hook. Even those who swear by Pizza Hut will go to fisticuffs to defend their favorite personal pan pie. Speaking of personal, I flatly refuse to take pizza seriously from any establishment that has a sneeze bar installed on the premises.
Naturally, otherwise civil dining parties will argue and compromise over which toppings to order. I believe that grilled pizza is an art form, the toppings on which can be as unique as the people creating and eating it. Traditional Margherita toppings work well. Pepperoni, sausage (pre-cooked), mushrooms, olives- all the standard choices- are great. But, you’re only limited by your imagination. Grilling encourages experimentation. Jan and I once made a Reuben Pizza by taking store-made wheat pizza dough, folding in caraway seeds and cooking it the same way on the grill but adding pre-cooked corned beef, sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and Russian (Thousand Island) dressing as toppings. Believe me, it was awesome.
As you might imagine, there’s a debate over where grilled pizza originated too. The modern foodie media set believes it began as an inspired kitchen mistake by master chefs at Al Forno in Providence in the 80’s. This story makes sense, given the town’s Mediterranean DNA and the restaurant’s proximity to New York. But you may get an argument. Folks in Memphis contend that the son of an Italian immigrant began experimenting with barbequed pizza as early as the 50’s. Apparently Elvis (Presley, not Costello…or Ted Allen) was a big fan. But investigation reveals that his recipe may not have involved grilled dough but simply grilled and smoked meats, slathered with barbeque sauce on conventional pizza oven-baked dough. So, there’s some discrepancy over the meanings of barbequed and grilled. Barbeque purists will argue that if it ain’t cooked with fire, it ain’t no barbeque. And since Elvis has left the building, we may never know the answer. One thing we do know for sure, Memphis is the unquestioned home of grilled spaghetti. Thank goodness for that.
While my wife and I may take sides over the origins of our backyard grilled pizza, in the end it comes down to just another inspired conversation over drinks. We’ll keep experimenting. As for grilling spaghetti, I’ll pass.
Enjoy the fruits of your labor and have a safe and wonderful Labor Day weekend.