Grandma’s Pizza Secrets

by Brian Clarey

When Grandma closed up the townhome on the golf course and made the move to a managed-care facility, the process involved a dissemination of a lifetime’s worth of stuff: furniture, art, mementos, books, boxes bulging with photographs, closets full of clothes.

But it was her kitchen that interested me the most, loaded with cookware that had been in use since the second World War, some of it even earlier — pans that had fried escarole with olive oil and garlic, huge tureens that bubbled with tomato sauce, ancient carving boards and chopping knives. In my eyes, the prize of the kitchenware was a stack of pizza pans, a kaleidoscope of scorings attesting to decades of heavy use.

My grandmother made the best pizza, better than you could find in any pizza place even in northern New Jersey, one of the pizza capitals of the world. Part of it was the sauce, which was always crafted in her kitchen from a recipe that she had so internalized that she could not have written it down if she wanted to. And part of it was the crust, which she once made by hand but in my time had outsourced to one of the local pizza joints — they still will sell you gummy wads of raw pizza dough in the New York metropolitan area, made magic, they say, by the hard city water.

But surely part of the magnificence of Grandma’s pizzas came from those pans, thick enough to trap and hold the high heat, seasoned so that the bottoms turned the color of burnished gold. But alas, I did not end up with Grandma’s pizza pans, though I know they rest in good hands.

Crust is important, and when I can’t get my hands on the real item I am not above making it from scratch: a package of yeast, a cup of warm water, some salt, sugar and olive oil and — forgive me Grandma — a few cups of whole wheat flour, which may be more healthy than white or semolina flour but is definitely some kind of blasphemy. Mix and knead by hand, let it rise for 10 minutes or so. Unlike my Italian forebears, I am unskilled in the art of flipping pizza dough into wide, floppy circles, so I press it by hand into two casserole dishes, one round and the other a narrow rectangle, and cook it off in a 400-degree oven for about 10 minutes, another of Grandma’s secrets.

My sauce is also a poor imitation of the real thing. For it I puree a can of diced tomatoes in my La Machine, one piece of bounty from Grandma’s plundered kitchen I did manage to secure and shake in some pre-mixed Italian seasoning. I don’t even cook it down, but spoon it cold onto the browning crusts. Each pie gets a layer of shredded mozzarella; Grandma used the real Italian stuff, made from buffalo milk. Mine is Wal-Mart store brand. One pie gets sliced black olives, the other mushrooms and thinly rendered onion loops. Then comes a layer of sharp cheddar, which Grandma says adds a tang to the flavor, and then a bit more mozzarella, because when you make pizza at home, you can put as much cheese on it as you like. Some drizzled olive oil finishes it off.

Into the 400-degree oven they go, until the toppings soften and the cheese starts to bubble. Pull them out and let the pies settle for a few minutes, or as long as the kids can wait for dinner. Using a pizza cutter — surely in this day and age even non-Italians have pizza cutters, right? — carve the round pie into eight triangular slices and the rectangular one into eight evenly sized squares and then let the kids have at it. Grandma knows the satisfaction this brings.

In the end, Aunt Lisa, who outranks me in the family hierarchy, ended up with the pizza pans. But I do what I can with what I’ve got.

LEFT: Pizza at home, with lots of cheese. BELOW: A young pizza fan celebrates her birthright. (photos by Brian Clarey).