We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Our Freshly Made Thin Crust Pizza (With an Updated Cooking Method) and Pizzeria Bianco Tucson

Text by Michelle
Photos by Michelle and Linda

   "There's no mystery to my pizza. Sicilian oregano, organic flour, San Marzano tomatoes, purified water, mozzarella I learned to make a Mike's Deli in the Bronx, sea salt, fresh yeast cake, and a little bit of yesterday's dough. In the end great pizza, like anything else, is all about balance. It's that simple."                   
                     ~Chris Bianco, as reported by Ed Levine of The New York Times

My daughter declares our homemade thin crust pizza Instagram-worthy. 
   If you want to make a fantastic thin crust pizza at home that will rival the pizza made at your favorite local joint, look no further than this post. Over the years my sisters and I have endeavored to make pizzas at home that are close to the excellent pies that Chris Bianco and his team fire up night after night at his pizzerias located in Phoenix and Tucson. After years of refusing to franchise, or open additional locations, Chris finally expanded by opening two more Pizzeria Bianco restaurants in Arizona. In addition to his flagship restaurant in Heritage Square in downtown Phoenix, the second location is in the swanky Biltmore neighborhood of Phoenix, and the third is housed in a renovated brick building in downtown Tucson in the vicinity of the Hotel Congress.

Insider's Tip: HUB, next door to Pizzeria Bianco, offers mighty fine ice cream that is made on premises.
   You may very well be familiar with Chris Bianco. The fruits of his labor have resulted in widespread favorable press with food critics, as well as the multitudes of media stars showering him with praise, including Oprah, Martha Stewart and Jimmy Kimmel, to name just a few. The year 2003 was a banner year for the restaurateur. At least two significant events unfolded that year to bring Chris Bianco to the forefront of a burgeoning national conversation about artisinal pizza and the slow food movement. First, Chris won the James Beard Foundation Award for best Southwest Chef. Second, he was prominently featured in a book written by bread guru Peter Reinhart, American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza. In the best selling book, Peter declares Chris Bianco's wood-fired pizzas the best in the United States. After that bold statement reverberated through the land on the news and in magazines, it became even more difficult to get a bite of Bianco's pizza. To add to the mayhem, reservations were not accepted at Pizzeria Bianco. It was first come, first served. Pizza fans would begin lining up mid afternoon—90 minutes before the restaurant opened—just to put their name on the list for that evening's dining service. Then, crazy people like me, would hang around for hours waiting patiently—and some not so patiently—for a coveted seat at the bar or at a table in the dining room.

Pizzeria Bianco in downton Tucson on Congress Street, near the University of Arizona.  
Our gang arrived early to avoid seating delays.
Sisters are doin' it for themselves. Go girl! Fire that pizza.
   I've only dined twice at Pizzeria Bianco at Heritiage Square. Both occasions were a long time ago. Perhaps a decade has slipped by since I last visited the original Phoenix location, a quaint brick building that formerly housed a machine shop. The space is small and only seats 42 people. On both visits my friend and I waited around three and a half hours to be seated. And, consider this—we ladies had our children with us for that lengthy expanse of time—all 210 minutes until dinnertime. Fortunately, at Heritage Square there are large grassy areas, mature shade trees, and park benches. The kids—two girls and a boy—ran around playing tag and torturing each other in small ways while my friend and I sipped wine and partook in a long and meandering conversation.
   Once seated in the small dining room, it's a quick turn around from ordering to eating. This is the reverse of hurry up and wait. At Bianco it's wait, then hurry up. Why, you might ask? Because there are more semi-crazy people, just like me, that are outside waiting, tapping there fingers on a wood slat, or idly lying on the grass, clicking down the minutes until it is their turn at a table. My husband flat out refused to go. No way was he signing-up to wait three plus hours for a table, no matter how good the pizza might be.

   Once you are fortunate enough to be seated there is no lingering indulgently over multiple courses. There are no cocktails—craft or otherwise—and the wine and beer list is short but good, featuring local purveyors such as Dos Cabezas Wineworks and Four Peaks Brewing Company. Once seated, it's time to get down to the business of eating. Thankfully, the menu is limited, making it easier to choose between two appetizers, three salads and six pizzas. This ain't no TGIF or Applebee's, and that's a good thing. Under the get in, and get out mantra, the restaurant does not offer dessert. Guests are not given the opportunity to monopolize a table by lounging over something sweet. That's fine by me. I rarely order dessert anyway.

   Over time, Chris was able to lease the historic bungalow next door to the original restaurant, and he opened Bar Bianco, which offers wine and appetizers—making the wait for dinner a little more tolerable—especially if you snag a table on the covered porch and you are lucky enough to coincide your visit with the advent of a beautiful spring afternoon. Inside the restaurant, it is all about the steady hum of proficient service taking place, and the turning of tables. The waiters expedite the ordering process in a friendly and professional way. That's not to say we did not enjoy ourselves—we absolutely did—but we just enjoyed ourselves in a timely fashion. Because Chris made it a priority to make every pizza himself for years upon years, we were pretty much assured that we'd see Chris hard at work, master of his craft, throwing the pizzas, and firing each one to perfection in the blazing hot wood-fired brick oven, while his eyes scouted the room, and he made small conversation with the appreciative diners. Our kids drew him pictures with crayons, and he graciously took the time to say thank you and give them something in return. My daughter, Maddie, still has the bling, a Bianco pin, that Chris gave to her.

Bianco's Wiseguy and Sonny Boy wood-fired pizzas and a nice simple salad.
The Salvation Sisters' Mom and her grandson Jordan.
I added smokey and delicious wood roasted mushrooms to my Wiseguy at Pizzeria Bianco.
   A few years ago, when our sister, Juliette, was hired to developed the recipe for the original dough at a pizza restaurant in Bisbee, I encouraged her to make the pilgrimage to Pizzeria Bianco to see Chris in action. She was inspired by his dedication and expertise. And, like any great inspiring entrepreneur, Juliette covertly took a side trip behind the restaurant to take a peek at the Pizzeria Bianco trash dumpster and confirmed that he was indeed using the best of high-quality ingredients.
   Although Linda and I have been mostly eating gluten-free for a couple of years now, with a wheat splurge here and there (I cannot tell a lie), I cautiously broached the subject of dining at the recently opened Pizzeria Bianco in Tucson. It was doubtful that Chris would be behind the counter, throwing the pizzas, but it would still be his signature offerings. Linda said that eating at Pizzeria Bianco was most definitely on her bucket list, and had been for awhile, so it would be great to finally cross it off during her visit in December for Sistercation.

   I recommended we arrive at the restaurant soon after it opens for dinner because one cannot tell how busy it will be, even in small town Tucson. The city's population swells significantly in the winter due to tourists, part-time residents who live here half the year (referred to as snowbirds by the locals), and university students (but the college kids will probably be eating somewhere less expensive). When my husband, Jay and Maddie and I dined at the Tucson location previously, it was mercifully only a twenty minute wait. I like that time frame much better than the typical three plus hour wait time in Phoenix.

   According to plan, Linda and I, along with our mother, Dianne, Linda's son, Jordan, and Jay walked in the door shortly after the restaurant opened on a Thursday night. We were seated immediately. Since there was no line out the door and plenty of tables open, we felt we could really relax and enjoy ourselves at the start of the holiday season. We ordered wine and appetizers. Then salads and pizza. Linda had a field day capturing photos of the servers and the cooks baking those famous thin-crust pies. In particular, Linda and I enjoyed ourselves immensely, but our mom could not understand what the hot fuss was about. Our dear mother, in true mom fashion, insists that the pizzas that we sisters make are every bit, if not better, than Pizzeria Bianco. Well, that's the goal, but we still bow to the master. Chris and his team make damn fine pizzas.

Linda ordered Bianco's version of the classic Margherita: tomato sauce, mozzarella and basil. 
Linda appreciates the char on Bianco's crust which adds a smoky flavor to the pizza.
   The greatest obstacle for making pizza at home is the oven. You can make great dough. You can make great sauce. But if you have a sub par oven, all the best ingredients in the world aren't going to make a terrific pizza. Once the gating factor for making the pizza of your dreams is identified, the next part of the conversation turns to how to turn up the heat.
   Most home ovens top out at 450 degrees and have limited air circulation unless you are fortunate to have a true convection oven, which are popular in Europe, but not so popular here in the States. Commercial pizza ovens hover in the 600 to 700 degree range, whereas brick ovens in Italy are super hot—anywhere from 750 to 900 degrees, and possibly up to 1,000 degrees. The Neapolitan-style pizzas cook in the ultra-hot oven in about 90 seconds flat. Of course, that's with very sparse toppings. The more toppings on a pizza, the longer it will take to cook. In our prior posts about pizza, we recommended buying a baking stone encased in a steel frame that fits on a gas grill. We've had great success with the grill cooking method, and still use it upon occasion, especially in the summer when the air conditioner is doing its best to cool the house here in Tucson, and we want to keep anything that generates heat outside in the greater outdoors.

   Even though we've been pretty happy with the pizzas we prepare at home, I'm always on the lookout for new techniques that may improve our homemade pizzas even further. A couple years ago Saveur magazine dedicated an entire issue to making the ultimate pizza. I was pleased to see they covered the outdoor grill method, but what I read about with interest is a method of increasing a home oven's temperature by using the broiler setting to create really intense heat. According to the author, after 30 minutes of running the broiler over a pizza stone, a temperature gun registered the heat on the stone's surface at 770 degrees. What the good folks at Saveur discovered is that they could cook a pizza in two minutes and the intense heat improved the crust—it was airy and bubbly inside—the fresh cheese melted beautifully and the tomato sauce didn't have an overcooked flavor.
   Not long after I read the article in Saveur, I was once again reading Tartine Bread from cover to cover. This famous bakery in San Francisco has a daily output of naturally fermented breads that cannot keep up with demand. In the cookbook, the author and owner of the bakery, Chad Robertson, writes that he uses his famous dough to make homemade pizza. Chad's opening statement for his pizza recipe resonated with me, "On occasion, we pinch some dough and bring it to the apartment upstairs to make pizza for dinner. We're fortunate to have an old gas oven with a shelf broiler and broken thermostat. With the heating element cranked to broil and a terracotta tile positioned right above it, the oven turns out a blistery pie in about 3 minutes. Our current pizza revival, with all the attitude, manifestos, and "secrets" (the flour! the water! the oven!), is amusing. Just start with good bread dough and a very hot baking stone, and you will end up with a great pizza." Yeah, what Chad said—it's all about the heat. I needed no further convincing. I committed to giving the broiler method a go.

Yes, the dough is so thin you can see through it. The dough stretches without tearing. 
   What I discovered through trial and error is that I like to preheat the oven at 425 degrees for about 30 minutes and then switch to the broil setting for an additional 30 minutes. My oven is absolutely raging hot when I slide the first pizza on to the stone. We tend to put more toppings on than we should so our pizzas cook in about 3-1/2 to 4 minutes. You can see the results of this cooking method throughout this post. For a softer crust along the rim, lightly oil the crust. If you like it crispier, omit the oil, however we still like to apply a thin layer of brushed oil over the thin stretched dough. The little bit of brushed oil helps guard the crust from becoming soggy. If you use garlic oil, it adds a nice flavor, too. An additional precaution that you can take to avoid soggy crusts, is to take the time to precook vegetables so that the high moisture content is released from them. I always sauté the mushrooms and roast peppers before using them as a topping.

There is nothing like pizza fresh from the oven. Michelle and Maddie made this beauty.
   For the last couple of years I have been making sourdough pizza dough without the use of commercial yeast. However, I decided to make the yeast-based dough for a New Year's Day lunch. (There was some irony in this decision because I had already committed to beginning the Whole30 Paleo Challenge beginning on January 5th.) I was quite pleased to be reminded how easy the dough is to make and how beautiful it is to handle. I made the dough one day ahead of time. The next day, I prepared two of three dough balls for a special lunch. Happily, my daughter offered to make the pizzas while I finished the salad. Because the pizzas cook so quickly with the broiler method, I could prepare two pizzas within 10 minutes. Nice!
   The day after the luncheon, I used the last dough ball to make a pizza for dinner. I wasn't sure how the dough would do after 48 hours in the refrigerator, but it was just my husband and I for a quiet night in, so I thought what the heck... I'll give it a try. I'm happy to report that the crust was lovely. There was no degradation in quality of the dough from resting another 24 hours in the refrigerator. While the oven was preheating my husband and I enjoyed a cocktail, and we discussed our goals for the new year with my music mixes playing in the background to enliven the festive "date night" mood. It's fun to eat at home after mostly being on vacation for two weeks. My unencumbered free time is quickly coming to an end, and it's back to the real world soon. In the meantime, though, I thoroughly enjoyed my mighty fine pizza!

Michelle's pizza featured here is tomato sauce, salami and olives.
The salad is a modified version of Rockin' French Salad
Freshly Made Thin Crust Pizza

   I prefer to make the dough one day ahead and let it rest in the refrigerator overnight, which is referred to as cold fermentation. We also employ a bread technique called autolyse, a period of rest for the flour and water that helps build the gluten without having to knead the dough for a long time. This essential step for thoroughly hydrating the flour was developed by Julia Child's bread baking mentor, Raymond Calvel. This is an unfussy dough that is easy to prepare and it stretches beautifully without tearing.
   Although the dough is made with all-purpose wheat flour, I like to use Mochiko rice flour when I'm "throwing out the dough", or in other words, when I'm stretching the dough into a traditional thin crust pizza. Rice flour has a finer texture than all purpose flour, and I think it is less obtrusive-tasting on the finished pizza.
   My sister Juliette prefers pizzas made without tomato sauce, but I'm a fan of red sauce. Try our no cook Tomato Pizza Sauce, or for a delicious alternative prepare Michelle's Basil Pesto and spread it on the crust or dot on with dollops of soft goat cheese, such as chèvre—which is particularly creamy and delicious when paired with shrimp.
   What I noticed at Pizzeria Bianco, and at finer pizza establishments, is that the crust is thin and the toppings are sparse. All the pizzas have no more than two toppings in addition to cheese and sauce. At Bianco's my two favorites are Sonny Boy (tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, salami and olives) and Wiseguy (wood-roasted onion, smoked mozzarella, and fennel sausage).

The dough needs to rest for twenty minutes before dividing and storing in the refrigerator. 
Salvation Sisters' Freshly Made Thin Crust Pizza Dough
Mochiko Sweet Rice Flour
yellow finely ground cornmeal
olive oil or garlic oil
olive oil spray, optional
shredded mozzarella, or chunks of drained, fresh mozzarella
shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano
Tomato Pizza Sauce, Michelle's Basil Pesto or whatever sauce you like on your "pie"
pizza toppings of your choice
fresh herbs to scatter on the pizza, such as crumbled thyme leaves, minced rosemary and/or oregano

baking stone
mesh pizza screen
pizza peel, optional
pizza tray(s)
pastry brush

We prefer to use salami over pepperoni. And, a lot of it, as you can see.
I like these meshed pans for cooking the pizza directly on the stone, although my preference
 is to place the pizza directly on the stone using a peel.
1. Make the dough according to our original recipe for Freshly Made Thin Crust Pizza Dough. Prepare the dough one day ahead. Or, make the dough in the morning, and let it sit in the refrigerator until dinner time.
2. Make no cook Tomato Pizza Sauce, or for a delicious alternative try Michelle's Basil Pesto or whatever sauce you prefer.
3. An hour before making pizza, reheat the oven. Place an oven rack 4 inches under the broiler and top with a baking stone. Preheat the oven to 425°F.
4. If you are using fresh mozzarella, I recommend breaking the mozzarella balls into large chunks and then lightly sprinkle with sea salt and toss gently. Place the salted chunks into a sieve placed over a bowl or plate to drain. Less moisture on a baked pizza is a good thing.
4. After 30 minutes, remove the reserved pizza dough from the refrigerator. Pop the lids, to remove any pent up pressure, and let rest for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, turn the broiler on. For my oven, the broiler function is 550°F. I can broil with the oven door closed.
5.If using a pizza peel, generously sprinkle it with a combination of rice flour and cornmeal to prevent the fresh dough from sticking to the wood (or metal). If using a mesh pizza pan, spray it with olive oil and sprinkle with cornmeal.
Coat the dough ball on all sides with Mochiko sweet rice flour. 
Employ the "steering wheel" method to coax a thin crust from a dough ball. 
6. Fill a large cereal bowl with about 1/3 cup of the Mochiko sweet rice flour. Dust your hands with the rice flour and remove a dough ball from one container. Gently roll the dough ball in the rice flour until it is covered on all sides. Begin working the dough by holding it up and then with your fingers, begin working the dough in a circular motion to gently stretch the dough. We call this the "steering wheel" move, as if you are turning your car. If the dough becomes a little difficult for you to work with, you can also move the dough to the tops of your hands and forearms and work it in a circular motion until the dough is uniformly thin in the middle. Gently place the dough on the pizza peel or the prepared pan, and then gently stretch the dough into a uniform circle. Do not pat the dough down into the pan, especially if it has perforated holes or is a mesh screen. Let the dough sit a few minutes, if it is not stretching easily. Once the dough has "relaxed" it will be much easier to stretch to the edges of the pizza pan or pizza peel.
7. Lightly brush the pizza dough with olive oil or garlic oil, which helps the dough to resist getting soggy if toppings weep during baking. Top with the sauce of your choice; we use a generous 1/2 cup tomato sauce for a 12-inch pizza. If you are using commercial blocks of mozzarella, sprinkle the shredded cheese and Parmigiano-Reggiano before adding the toppings, to help prevent the cheese from burning. If you are adding fresh mozzarella, add it while placing the toppings, so it will melt properly. If you are using a pizza peel, occasionally  move the pizza peel to agitate the dough, to make sure it is still moving freely on top of the surface. You don't want the dough to stick to the peel when you transfer it to the hot pizza stone. If you are using a mesh pan, this step is not necessary as you will be placing the metal screen/pan directly on top of the pizza stone.

Lay the shaped dough on a screen...
... or, shape the dough and place directly on a rice flour and cornmeal covered pizza peel. 

If you are uncomfortable working with a a peel, simply use an open mesh screen
to transfer the pizza to the oven.
8.  If you are using a mesh pizza pan, simply transfer the pizza to the stone. Quickly close the oven door and let the pizza broil for 2-1/2 minutes to 3 minutes. Then with the aid of a spatula, remove the pizza from the mesh pan and let the pizza cook directly on the stone for another 60 seconds or 90 seconds To remove the pizza from the oven, simply use the mesh pan again to slip under the pizza, or use a pizza peel. Slice and serve.
      If you are using a pizza peel, agitate the pizza slightly to make sure it is not sticking to the peel. Place the peel towards the very back of the hot stone and with a determined, but slight jerking motion, slide the pizza to the hot stone. Quickly close the door and let the pizza broil for about 3 to 4 minutes. The pizza is done withe the crust has puffed and the crust chars in spots. Use a spatula to slide under the pizza to make sure it is not sticking and then remove the pizza from oven with the aid of the aforementioned spatula and a pizza peel or mesh pan. Slice and serve hot!

This is called "leftovers" pizza... it has tomato sauce, salami, bacon,
barbecued chicken and kalamata olives.
Use a spatula to loosen the pizza from the stone, then slide it onto a pan or
peel for easy removal from the oven.
The perforated pan and matching tray are perfect for cutting and serving the pizza.
We like our pizzas with a bit of char on the crust, which is called "leoparding" in the biz.

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