2011 September: NEW YORK NEW YORK

I was born in New York, and I lived there — on and off — for the first 30-something years of my life. During that time I managed to put away more than my share of pizza. And the fact that I was born and raised next door to an Italian bakery that made pizza as a sideline did a lot to further my education about the “tomato pie.”

The fact that I am writing this article in Chicago and not New York City gives me an advantage. If I were in New York, I might be tempted to call some of my friends there and get an opinion or two. The mistake in doing that is directly connected to the fact that every New Yorker has an opinion (or three) about New York-style pizza: “It has to be this, it has to be that.” “You cannot do this, you cannot do that.” “You have to use this kind of cheese (or tomato), not that kind of cheese.” “The secret is … ”

It never ends, and I hope it stays that way. The luxury those of us connected to the pizza business have is that we are passionate about this wonderful food called pizza.

So, to me, what makes New York-style pizza “New York” in style? First, the crust has to be about 1/8-inch thick through the middle. This part of the crust must have the “folder” effect –– when the baked pizza is sliced (triangles, not squares), the slice should be such that it can be folded down the middle. Yes, the crust must have just the right degree of crispiness, but not to the point that a slice cannot be folded in half without it cracking. In Naples, the birthplace of pizza, street vendors known as lazzari used to walk the city streets selling pizza by the slice. A piece was folded in half lengthwise, and eaten on the run. The folded slices were called libretti, or “little books.”

The crust must also have a raised edge, a “frame” (il cornicione). In other words, you cannot push the tomatoes or the topping to the very edge or you will lose the “frame.” How much the edge is raised relates to who is making the pizza and the style of that particular pizzeria. Simply put, the more dough you pinch or press with your fingers to form the edges, the higher the edge will be.

Putting that all together, it is easy to see the crust for a classic New York-style pizza has its roots in the Neapolitan style.

On to the sauce. The tomatoes should not be laid on too thickly. Doing so negates the “folder” effect and makes the pizza gummy. A light smear of sauce is really all that is necessary.

As for the cheese, whole-milk mozzarella is a good option; however, you must be careful with it — it melts differently than part-skim mozz, so you could end up with a goopy pizza if you aren’t diligent.

Regardless, for everyday usage I advocate a blend of 70 percent whole-milk or part-skim mozzarella along with 30 percent provolone.

But it all starts with the crust, so let’s get back to that. When I make a NY-style pizza, I like to use the dough two to three days after it is made. I use just five ingredients: flour, yeast, salt, olive oil and water.

Keep in mind, though, that some of the best-known pizzerias in New York cook in coal-fired ovens. The high heat of these ovens put out a crispy crust while taking enough moisture out of the tomatoes to keep sogginess out and flavor in. It’s a delicate balance that isn’t easy to achieve.

NY-Style Pizza Dough

Yield: 30 pounds of dough

20 pounds all-purpose flour, 13-14 percent protein content
2 ½ tablespoons dry yeast (instant)
5 ounces salt
4 ounces olive oil
10 ½ pounds water

Pour the flour in the mixing bowl, then add the yeast to the flour. Add the salt. Combine the olive oil and water.

With the mixer running at low speed, add the oil/water mixture in a steady stream. Mix for 7 to 8 minutes at medium speed until the dough cleans the sides of the mixing bowl and is soft and pliable.

Scale and ball the dough to the required sizes. Retard the balls of dough in the cooler, covered, for 2 to 3 days to age it. Take the balls of dough, as needed, out of the cooler at least one hour before rolling and stretching.