Master Of The Pan

Photo by Josh KeownPizza pans matter when it comes to creating the perfect crust, flavor

At an old used restaurant warehouse in West Virginia, I stared into a dark corner at several three-foot stacks of blue-steel pizza pans piled like greasy towers. Their thick, bumpy sides indicated that they were at least 15 years old, probably older. With much effort, I pulled one from the middle of each stack and saw that even in this dingy restaurant purgatory, the pans reflected their respective pizza makers in a way no one could fake.

Some pans were beaten, bent, scratched and rusted while other stacks were still shiny, well seasoned and free of debris. The pans’ former owners may have moved on or even died, their secrets lost forever. But, their pans still distinguished the great pizza makers from the mediocre. The well-kept pans had a much thicker patina on the outside, indicating that they were used longer — no doubt that a legacy of commitment, passion and craftsmanship kept their businesses alive longer.

It was then that I knew that I didn’t know jack about pan pizza. So I looked up a few friends, the best of the best pan pizza makers in the world. Here are their secrets. It’s amazing to see that regionality plays absolutely no role in these great pizza recipes because this is the evolution of pizza.

Pizza Teglia
Luigi Vianello
Jungle Pizza, Favaro Veneto, Italy

The pan Luigi uses is a 22-by-14 inch, lightly olive-oiled aluminum square. He uses a direct method with a poolish, (wet pre-ferment) for a 26- to 28-ounce dough featuring red-bag, 5 Stagione flour, salt and water. The dough is always given at least 48 hours of maturation with 36 hours in a refrigerator at 39 degrees and 12 hours at 55 degrees. Luigi rests the dough in the pan for three hours at 68 to 72 degrees along with olive oil on top of the dough. He par-cooks the dough in an electric oven at 536 degrees for five minutes and then lets it rest. He tops the dough with fresh buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil and with either Greci canned tomatoes or fresh ciliegino cherry or datterino, small plum fresh tomatoes. Then he finishes it for another four minutes at that same temperature.

“I have no secrets for a good pizza — just water, flour, yeast, salt, oil and a natural passion for this job,” Vianello says. He sure had passion enough to win the best pizza at the International Pizza Challenge in 2011, so I believe him!

Detroit-Style Pan Pizza
Jeff Smokevitch
Brown Dog Pizza, Telluride, Colorado

Telluride, Colorado, is a long way from Detroit. But thanks to Jeff “Smoke” Smokevitch, owner of Brown Dog Pizza, folks in this tourist town have been enjoying an amazing amount of Detroit-style pizza for almost three years. Identified by the soft, airy interior and crisp exterior, the aged white cheddar, Wisconsin brick cheese and whole milk mozzarella create the famous thin carbonized bark that crunches its way around these square beauties. At Brown Dog, Smokevitch uses a high-gluten milled from northern hard red spring wheat. His dough is made with a starter and mixed to a sticky, 70-percent hydration, even though he says a lot of Detroit guys use lower hydration. “We use 8-by-10-inch and 10-by-17-inch pans … All are blue steel pans that were cast-offs from the auto industry and some of them are 20 years old and seasoned so well they produce a great crispy crust with just a thin coat of vegetable oil.” Smokevitch says. He is quick to point out that the altitude is always a factor in proofing dough.

After proofing, Brown Dog par-bakes the pizza with the aged white cheddar around the edge of the pizza. “This sounds strange but the cheese acts like a glue against the wall of the pan so the dough doesn’t shrink when par-baked which, in-turn, enables me to get a fabulous blackened crust,” Smokevitch says.

The Detroit-style pizza is also different from other pan pizzas in that the toppings are put on the pizza under the layer of more cheese, usually a mozzarella and brick cheese blend. This is to keep flavors in the pizza and avoid charring when the pizza hits the 550 to 650 F oven for the final bake. Brown Dog puts the sauce on last that has been kept hot on a steam table so the pizza arrives at the table hot, for a finishing finale.

Pizza Romana
Bruno di Fabio
Re Napoli, Old Greenwich, Connecticut

Bruno di Fabio is the best pan pizza maker I know and he has the awards to back it up. His Pizza Romana is a specialty at Re Napoli and starts with a 20-year-old seasoned Sicilian pan made with a double-gauge steel measuring 17 inches by 11 inches.

His dough method is a very intricate “four-phase” rise. Bruno first uses flour with 14 percent protein and mixes a poolish with 100 percent hydration into a soupy consistency and then lets it sit at room temperature for 12 to 15 hours before adding 25 percent more flour to the poolish with yeast for a secondary rise at 80 F. Bruno then mixes in the rest of the flour (he wouldn’t tell me how much) with sugar, salt and Frantoio olive oil to a soft 55 percent hydration. It goes into his walk-in for a 48-degree cold-rise (he wouldn’t tell me how long). Now is time for the final phase that Bruno calls the “pan proof.” Using lots of Frantoio again in the pan, he pushes the dough into it gently and lets it sit atop his gas deck oven at 110 degrees for three hours, using another pan as a buffer to keep the dough from cooking. This pizza treatment, which he won with at the French World Pizza Championships, starts with a quick cook in his deck oven at 500 to 550 degrees until the dough just starts coloring. It is then taken out and topped.

John Gutekanst owns Avalanche Pizza in Athens, Ohio. He is speaker at International Pizza Expo and a member of the World Pizza Champions.