After recently posting a collection of pizza-making tips, I bought some Pizza Tonight dough and made some of my own dough as well. Then, I made six pizzas for 20 people at my wife’s birthday party and the outcome revealed a real disparity. My competently made pizza dough couldn’t hold a candle to Pizza Tonight’s. People raved about every pizza I made with it. I put white sauce on that light and airy dough and nestled brussels sprouts and caramelized onions into it. Draped some thinly sliced ham (donated by an attendee) and added smoked mozzarella. Scattered potato slices with garlic and rosemary. Each of those pizzas, in turn, totally stole the show. I’m telling you a monkey could make amazing pizza with Pizza Tonight’s dough as the foundation. Not a bite of crust was left behind.
We won’t get into how the pizzas with my dough fared. The point is, I was just about to call it quits. Stop the exploration of every kind of pizza. And just tithe part of my paycheck to Victoria Deroche’s Pizza Tonight business. And then Doug emailed me about New Jersey tavern-style pizza. What’s this? Bar pizza? A style of pizza I’ve never heard of? His name is Doug Mulvihill, and we first corresponded in response to my La Michoacana ice cream post. Months later, he saw my pizza post and let me know that he’s got some pizza secrets of his own from several years working on his technique. Now, let me get outta the way, so Doug can tell you how he, um… rolls.
it’s all Doug from here down
I love pizza, and I think I make fairly decent pies, so hopefully I can provide some information that might help someone. Before I explain everything, I need to provide some context on my pizza history and what prompted me to make my own pies.
We all have our favorite pizza. Based on what I have seen, most people become attached to the pizza of their youth. The pizza we eat as children shapes our appreciation. Generally people idealize their first pizza, and it becomes their favorite for life. None of us is wrong, we just like what we like.
I think the greatest pizza in the world is made in Orange, New Jersey, at Star Tavern. Star is famous for making a style some call “bar pizza”, which has a very thin crust and is quite popular in New Jersey (where I lived until 1990). I know that I am among many thousands of people who consider Star to be the very best pizza ever made. Although I have not had it regularly in the past 20 years, I have been eating it my whole life.
But this story begins earlier than that. My father has also been eating Star pizza for over 40 years. He lived most of his life in New Jersey, so his favorite pizza was always available to him. When he retired, he and my mother decided to move to North Carolina for a life of golf and leisure. Unfortunately, this meant that he would no longer be able to have Star pies regularly. This seemed unacceptable to my father, so he developed a novel solution. At his last visit to Star, he explained to the owner that he was moving to North Carolina and would probably not have access to good pizza. He asked the owner a simple question. “How do you do it?” Fortunately, the owner did not feel compelled to guard the secrets that made his establishment one of the most successful and famous pizzerias in the northeast. He didn’t just give my father some advice, he told him EVERYTHING. He brought my father into the kitchen and showed him all of the techniques for making ultra thin crust pizza. He gave him a few industrial sized cans of tomatoes, and wished him luck.
That was almost 15 years ago, and my father has been making New Jersey bar pizza (following the Star recipe) ever since. A few years ago, he gave me all of the necessary tools, and explained the process to me. He also taught my brother. Now we all make our version of Star pizza, using the same ingredients and same process.
That’s the back story. Now I will explain the particulars. Please refer to the footnotes for explanation, commentary, and guidance. I tried to keep the “recipe” section neutral and direct.
Star Tavern Style Pizza
On the morning of pizza day, make the dough*.
Add 2 cups lukewarm water to a large bowl.
Add 1 1/2 t active dry yeast (Red Star or Hodgson Mill).
Add 1 1/2 t sugar.
While the yeast is activating (allow 5 minutes), mix together 3 cups white bread flour and 2 1/2 cups semolina flour (Bob’s Red Mill) in a separate bowl.
To the liquid, add 1 T salt (maybe a bit more).
To the liquid, add 3 T extra virgin olive oil.
Add the flour mixture to the liquid, and mix with a spoon until the puddles are gone.
Dump the dough on a counter and knead for about 5 minutes, or until well mixed and smooth.
Rub olive oil in a large bowl and add the dough ball. Cover with plastic wrap.
After dough has risen (maybe about 4 hours), remove the dough from the bowl and cut it into 6 equal sized pieces.
Roll each portion into a flat ball.
Dough can be frozen to use later. Wrap these portions in plastic wrap, and a freezer bag.
Put the portions for immediate use on individual plates, covering with plastic wrap (I usually make three pies and freeze three dough balls).
The only other ingredients are the tomatoes and cheese. I use restaurant wholesale Stanislaus tomatoes. Two kinds of tomatoes are combined to create my pizza sauce. The 7-11 Ground Tomatoes are mixed with Full Red Tomato Puree, in a 2:1 ground:puree ratio**.
For cheese, I use a block of Polly-O whole milk mozzarella***.
After the dough has been separated into portions, it is time to prep the station.
First I clean the counter thoroughly (because the pizza is being made directly on the counter), then I position all of my material.
Put the cooking stone in the oven, and turn the oven as high as it will go.
Shred the cheese into three portions (a block of Polly-O makes three 13” pies).
Put the tomatoes into a bowl.
Rub a thin coating of olive oil on the guide tray, and sprinkle it with semolina flour^.
Sprinkle the counter with both white flour and semolina flour.
Rub the roller with bread flour.
After the stone has been in the oven for at least 30 minutes, begin assembling pies.
Coat hands with white flour.
Take a dough ball and, with hands, thin the ball into a disc (about 5”).
Place dough on counter and use roller to bring dough to about 14 inches^^.
Slide the formed dough over to the guide tray (this takes a bit of practice and is probably the most difficult part).
With hands, gently reshape the dough to a nice circle, and roll the dough hanging off of the tray into a lip at the edge of the pie.
Spoon the tomato onto the pie, all the way to the lip.
Sprinkle the cheese onto the pie, but do not go all the way to the lip with the cheese.
Pick up the guide by the “handle” and put it directly on the stone in the oven.
After about 3 minutes, slide the pie off the guide tray onto the stone (using an oven mitt, of course!!!)
Watch the pie carefully, and keep the cheese from rolling off of the pie while it cooks.
Cook until it is well done.
Using a spatula, slide the pizza off the stone onto a pizza serving tray.
Allow a few minutes for the cheese to settle, then slice it up (6 slices for this size pie)
* This dough has a large portion of semolina flour. The semolina removes most of the stretch from the dough, but results in a very flavorful, sturdy crust. This is the way Star makes their dough. My brother has eliminated the semolina from his dough and he and his family prefer that. This recipe results in a very salty crust, which is important because it provides an excellent balance with the very sweet tomatoes.
** My father gives me cans of tomatoes from his supply. I mix the cans and portion into freezer bags. So, I always have tomatoes on hand, and remove a bag from the freezer on pizza day. Some would scoff at freezing the tomatoes, but it’s my only option for using the right brand, and does not impact the taste (I have also made pies with tomatoes from the can before freezing). My pizza “sauce” is simply the uncooked tomatoes. No onions, no garlic, no oregano, no cooking. I like a nice zesty sauce, but for this pizza, it is not appropriate. I have tried to add oregano and other spices to the tomatoes on occasion and my family rejects those pies. Authentic pizza contains dough, tomatoes and cheese. These blend to make the perfect pie, rendering toppings and seasonings unnecessary. This is the way Star makes their pizza, and that is what I am trying to replicate. Note that the Stanislaus tomatoes are just tomatoes and salt. That’s it.
*** I do not have access to the quality cheese that Star uses, so the Polly-O is a bit of a concession. However, the Star owner insists that whole milk mozzarella must be used.
^ OK, this is where things will start to get very controversial. The guide tray is something that Star uses to facilitate getting the pies into the oven easily. It’s a steel deep dish pizza pan with most of the sides removed. As any amateur pizza maker knows, getting the prepared pizza into the oven can be a nightmare. I do not use a pizza peel (although that Super Peel thing looks intriguing), and the guide eliminates the horrors of dumping a broken pizza into the oven. It’s only under the pizza for a few minutes anyway. I don’t know if you can actually buy these in a store. My father made mine for me.
^^ Here’s the next major outrage. Yes, I use a rolling pin. As you can probably guess at this point, I use a rolling pin because Star uses a rolling pin. I know many would consider it a punishable offense to use a roller when making pizza. For this dough, it is necessary. The semolina makes it very difficult to stretch the dough, and we’re going for a very thin crust here. Trust me, the end result is a very thin crust that is crispy and sturdy.
I have explained how I make my pizza. I am certainly not saying that this is the right way, or the only way. This style of pizza might not appeal to some people. But I am being specific to help anyone interested in making this particular kind of pizza, and to pass along what I was taught. I should note that my pies are not nearly as good as the pies at Star. Also, even though my father uses the exact same process and ingredients, somehow his pizza is much better than mine. There’s some unknown intangible associated with making pizza that impacts the quality.
I also do not mean to suggest that all of this is easy and error proof. I make mistakes and I still get a bit stressed when I make pies. However, it does gradually become more routine.
A few pizza asides:
· I always make a salad to accompany my pizza (and to give people something to eat while waiting for the pies), often with vegetables from Fall Line Farms coop.
· I like to cook, but I do not like to bake. Cooking allows improvisation and creativity. Baking requires measuring and precision. Pizza is mostly baking, or at least the dough part is.
· I rarely add toppings to my pizza. I’m a bit of a snob and I think that good pizza does not require toppings. I don’t want to hide my pizza. That said, if I do add a topping to my pizza or at a pizzeria, I like meatball.
· My favorite pizza in Richmond is Angelo’s. My theory is that any pizza place that has a poster of the Italian national soccer team usually makes great pies. I have not been to any of the new wood oven places, but I’ll bet they are awesome.
· Freezing pizza works very well, with any kind of pizza. Let it thaw, heat up the stone, and cook it for a few minutes. It’s about 80% as good as fresh pizza, and certainly better than this. I always keep some pizza in the freezer so I can have pizza on demand.
If you are still reading, I admire your perseverance. Obviously, I really enjoy pizza and I have a lot to say about it. Remember, these are just my opinions and things I have learned from others. I hope that something in here can contribute to your own pizza success.
Thanks to Jason for asking me to share my pizza experience.