History in the baking

Local pizza pro shares his secrets for making iconic pies.

Story By Eric Overstake

Pizza, created by the working class in Naples, Italy, took America by storm in the 1940s. With a large influx of Italian immigrants bringing their favorite hunger-killer to these shores, we have embraced the simplicity of dough, sauce and cheese and took it to heights never thought possible. Pizza’s versatility is the main reason for its iconic status. Virtually everyone can find a pizza they love. I say that it is simplistic in nature, but it is actually an art form in production. 

Dough has been made for as long as humans have understood grinding grains. Unleavened in the beginning, ways were found to make different styles through processes that allow gases to form in the dough to give it different textures. For me, the dough needs to produce a crisp bottom to hold everything together. The flavor of the dough should be complemented by the sauce and cheese. With my pizza I strive for savory with hints of sweetness. This comes from properly ripened tomatoes in the sauce and is wrapped in decadent, slightly salty, amazingly stretchy mozzarella cheese. I have tried other cheeses, but none compare to a good mozzarella because it has flavor without overpowering the other flavors offered by the dough and sauce. There are many factors to achieve this “simple” cheese pizza.

Let it dough

For the dough to become pizza crust, its ingredients must react properly to the cooking time and oven temperature. For a softer crust you use more oil and less sweetener at a higher temperature for less time. That would be your typical wood or coal-fired pizza. It will get blister bubbles on the top. However, the bottom typically is never really a sturdy crust, and you can pretty much roll it up like a taco. So that is not typically what I like. Another way to make dough would be a lower temperature for a thick crust. Deep dish is the epitome of this style and usually needs a fork and knife to eat.

I prefer some crispness to the dough, and that is achieved through a medium or high temperature and a specific sweetener in the dough to allow the sugars to properly caramelize for flavor and texture. This creates the golden brown bottom and the firm outer crust. When you grab it by the “handle,” it can withstand its own weight and doesn’t droop. 

Going “back to basics” for pizza dough, it is:

  • Flour: High gluten for stretchability and other types for your perfect crust. 
  • Water: Purified water is never the best because minerals in natural aquifers offer the best water. 
  • Oil: This is the fat that makes the texture give the mouthfeel you desire, and it also adds flavor. 
  • Salt: For flavor

So flour, water, oil and salt can make dough, but to make it better, there are three things you can play with:

1. Sweeteners: Mess around and find something that you absolutely love. I won’t be divulging my ingredient, but if you are trying, try everything. It’s fun!

2. Leavener: This is what makes dough rise. The most commonly used is yeast. Yeast is a bacteria that will create air pockets in the rising dough to give different textures. The different size bubbles in the dough when you rip it open is called “the crumb.” The mixture of big and small bubbles helps give the dough different densities. 

3. Proof time and temperature play a big role also. Most breads are proofed at warmer temperatures and have a lot of humidity added to make sure the outer crust doesn’t harden too soon. When you mix the flour, water, oil, salt, yeast to make dough, it gets mixed, then kneaded. Kneading the dough crosses the strands of gluten over and over to create a web of gluten strands in the dough, giving it the elasticity it needs to be able to be stretched. Proofing allows gases released by the yeast time to form and expand within that web of gluten strands. 

The five steps for dough are usually the same: 

1. Mix ingredients

2. Knead properly

3. Proof

4. Form to shape

5. Bake

A little bit saucy

The sauce is simple, really. Ripe tomatoes offer the fullest flavor. Then add the flavor profile you are looking for. As I said earlier, I like savory, not sweet. So to get consistent tomatoes, we buy canned ones. It is OK to buy canned because it is the only way to get consistently ripe tomatoes. The manufacturers follow the same process year after year. We choose a well-pureed tomato but also mix it with a slightly thicker puree. I personally do not like chunky sauce on my pizza, so ours is smooth. We season it to overcome the sweetness of the tomatoes but do not eliminate it, so it remains a subtle flavor. I enjoy basil, garlic, oregano and red pepper. Play with amounts and styles of fresh herbs or dried to find what makes you smile.

Top it off

The cheese is on top because it for sure makes it a pizza. Do not think “cheese is cheese” because it is not. Different moisture levels, milk and cream grades, food for the cows, age of the cheese, additives, and possible non-caking agents all play a role in how the cheese performs on your pizza.

For me the pizza needs to have full coverage without being all cheese. It’s a delicate balance. The cheese should be fully melted with the tops of the melted bubbles getting some light browning to release the full flavors of the cheese. As I mentioned earlier, I am a mozzarella guy. I do know many pizza places blend mozzarella with provolone, Parmesan, cheddar, gouda and others, which is a personal preference. Cheeses act differently when heated. Make sure they react similarly if you want to mix, so your final product has a great finished look.

As far as toppings, the sky’s the limit, and it is solely based on personal preference. I only use the freshest veggies and cut them fresh. Make sure to cut to a size that will cook properly in the oven. Always precook your proteins. Never put raw meats on a pizza and expect them to cook fully.

The artistry doesn’t end when the pizza comes out of the oven. There are many items that complement a pizza after it’s cooked. Fresh herbs, hard-grated cheeses, spicy greens and savory sauces can all be added to a cooked pizza and make quite the impression.

Pizza has been embraced by all cultures for generations. It may be the best-selling food item worldwide (that is just my guess), and if it is, it’s because this iconic food item is so versatile and delicious. The old adage is true, “even bad pizza is good.” 

Perfect pizza tips & recipes 

Michael Anthony’s Cucina Italiana recently hosted its popular hands-on “Perfect Pizza!” cooking class (recipes on page 151). The class allowed guests to make homemade dough and pizza sauce, working alongside chef Trey Place. 

Here are a few pizza-making tips shared with the class: 

  • Be certain that the oven is heated to the desired temperature.
  • Do not use cold dough. Allow it to reach room temperature before assembling.
  • Do not roll the dough. Stretch it by hand.
  • Do not use too much tomato sauce. Use a thin layer or the pizza will be soggy.
  • When the pizza comes out of the oven, place it on an elevated baking rack instead of a flat surface. This will help keep the crust crunchy. 
  • Add fresh herbs like basil or arugula last, so they retain flavor and don’t become soggy.
  • Use the best and freshest ingredients you can find.

Michael Anthony’s Cucina Italiana 

Pizza dough


1 pound or 3 1/2 cups of bread flour

2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons olive oil

2 teaspoons dry instant yeast

2 teaspoons sugar

1 egg

1 1/4 cups water


[1] In a small bowl, mix water, yeast and sugar thoroughly and reserve. [2] In the mixing bowl of a stand mixer (e.g. Kitchen Aid) combine flour, salt, olive oil and egg and mix for about 1 minute with the dough hook attachment. [3] Add the water and yeast mixture and mix on low speed for about 10 minutes. [4] Take dough out of mixing bowl and shape into a round ball. Cover with plastic wrap and let it rest for 15 minutes. Makes one 1-pound dough ball.

Red pizza sauce


28-ounce can of tomato puree or tomato sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1/2 teaspoon dried basil


Add all ingredients into a mixing bowl and combine thoroughly. This is a no-cook sauce.

Margherita pizza


1 eight-ounce pizza dough ball

28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes

1/4 cup grated Parmigiano

2 to 4 ounces of fresh mozzarella

To taste: olive oil, dried oregano, fresh basil, salt and pepper


[1] Place dough on a lightly oiled sheet pan and form into an oval shape. Cover with plastic wrap and let rest for 5-10 minutes. [2] Reshape into an oval shape and begin topping the pizza. [3] Squeeze out almost all of the juice from the plum tomatoes, tear them by hand and spread over the dough to cover entirely. [4] Drizzle with olive oil and season with oregano, salt and pepper. Sprinkle the Parmigiano over pizza and top with the fresh mozzarella. Let pizza rise for another 10 minutes before baking. [5] Bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes. Remove from oven and add the fresh basil (tear leaves by hand). Enjoy! 

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