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December 15, 2010

A Pizza “Star” is Born

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.

Thinner = Winner (depending on who you ask)

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

A clean and orderly workspace (w/mise en place).

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.

Thin and flat for a crisp crust.

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).

Slide it onto your oiled/floured cookie sheet.

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).

Shape the edge to form a handle.

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”).

Check out the special "guide tray"

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.

Ta-dah. Bar pizza!

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.

27 Responses to “A Pizza “Star” is Born”

  1. Mel says:

    Awesome! Slice calls it the Pizza Cognition Theory–the pizza you ate as a child shapes your preferences. I read about this kind of pizza on Slice but it’s cool to see a Richmonder writing about it and making it at home. Yours looks delicious!

    I don’t fault you at all for using a rolling pin. It never works on my pizza dough, but I also don’t use semolina. I know from pastry-making it’s the only way to get a nice thin dough.

    Thanks for writing this Doug and thanks for posting Jason!

  2. jasonguard says:

    I love a crisp pizza dough with a chewy center. And cracker crust from Pizza Hut was a staple in my house as a kid. But this “sturdy” dough you’re making sounds different, Doug. Can you describe it a little further? Is it a defining element of bar pizza? And can you explain “bar pizza” for those of us who only think in terms of NY vs Chicago (and a little Neapolitan)?

  3. Doug says:

    New Jersey Tavern Pizza, or Bar Pizza, is not the only kind of unique pizza in the Garden State. New Jersey is also famous for Trenton tomato pies, which are kind of like normal pizza with less cheese, and the tomato goes over the cheese.

    Anyway, Bar Pizzas were originally developed thin in order to keep patrons from filling up on pizza, which will encourage more drinking. So, Bar pies are all similarly thin with a crispy crust. A hungry person can eat a whole pie pretty easily. I have not been to the other taverns in New Jersey that make it (Reservoir Tavern is the second most famous) but I have heard that they are all basically the same style.

    Bar pizza is even thinner than the already thin New York style pizza, and in particular has a much smaller edge/lip. Also, bar pizza is usually cooked well done, to the point where the lip and some of the center will be black. I think it has more of a salty/burnt flavor than NY pies (also probably to promote thirst for more beer consumption). However, Bar pizza certainly has more in common with NY pizza than the casserole they make in Chicago.

    My crust is thin and crispy, but I do not consider it a cracker crust. It does have some chewyness to it, but keep in mind that the crust is so thin that there is not much center area, and as mentioned the lip is also thin. As I said, my brother has abandoned this crust recipe because he considers it too thin and crispy.

    I call it sturdy because I can pinch a slice at the lip and it will stay upright. Star pizza is slightly floppier than mine.

  4. Doug says:

    For more information on bar pizza, Ed Levine’s Pizza: A Slice of Heaven has a chapters covering both New Jersey pizza and bar pizza.

  5. jasonguard says:

    The day I posted Doug’s story, I decided to try and make his Star Tavern dough. The dough ball looked good and it rose over night, but something wasn’t right. The ball was rubbery. Well, it turns out I added 2 cups of vital wheat gluten instead of semolina flour. Doh! That would have exactly the opposite effect. The dough balls would barely stretch at all and they’d snap right back when I flattened them. Curse me for not labeling my bulk bin bags. Well, I went and bought some semolina flour. Can’t wait to try again.

    Not to detract from the Star Tavern style, but I just read the best pizza-making article in the Feb 2011 issue of Cooks Illustrated, “Foolproof Thin-Crust Pizza.” The author, Andrew Janigian, really captures the obsession of perfecting your homemade pizza, the painstaking process of trying to get it right, and he goes into food chemistry that’s over my head. Luckily, it includes the recipe for their best thin crust, best sauce, and type of cheese. I really highly recommend picking that up or subscribing to their website.

  6. stump says:

    Good Stuff!

    Hey Doug, Have you tried the Grande cheese? You can get it here

    Very good pizza cheese.

  7. boscodagama says:

    There’s a RED STAR Bakery & Pizzeria in West Trenton. I’ve eaten lunch there a couple of times.

    “Avanti la bandera rossi!”

  8. jasonguard says:

    I made the dough as directed and it was a big success. The rigid crust made every bite thin and crunchy, light and delicious. There wasn’t much chewiness, but that’s a different pizza experience, really. One night we had four pizzas (two basic reds, a white and a dessert pizza). And another it was a red and a white. I’d definitley make this dough again. I didn’t, however, attempt to duplicate the cheese/sauce of Star Tavern. Maybe Doug will just have to have me over so I can get the complete experience.

  9. square_pie says:

    I guess I;m lost in the middle/muddle of links, but I MUST FU on this. THis is world-class pie and I know that it can be done in a home oven. ‘Some’ semolina is a good thing. I;ve been playing with my food long enough to know that the 2.5 cups cited is either wrong or a type-o. Sure, just leave it out, but that does not work either. Would someone please offer a little help or correction, here? Some other source says that Star Tavern does not current use semolina at all. Other, even relatives say that they also do not use it. Either way is fine, but I still think 2.5 cups is just not right. Some semolina in teh dough is not a bad thing, but something got lot in the translation and the published recipe is a bit whacky. Can someone please get me on the straight and narrow. Why? Pretty damn simple: he sever pix of this pizza suggest that it is very close to my ideal. WHIle I will not travel 2500 miles to get it, I can, repeat CAN make this at home. If someone’s Dad can do it, I can do it. Thanks and please explain/discuss the semolina thing. Use less: OK, less water, too? Quit the semolina in toto? That’s OK too, but where are we going with the water? Some semolina is probably a good thing and may be essential for this crust. I;m happy to use it, but I have some bog reservations about 2.5 cups in this formula. Please… I just have to make this pizza.

    • jasonguard says:

      I’m really having trouble following this comment. I suggest disregarding it. The recipe makes a snappy crust. Next time I drive through NJ, I’ll find a way to stop at the source and taste the original inspiration for this story (and it’s a good story).

  10. square_pie says:

    The first run through is in the works. So far so good. A good, thin crust pizza is worth almost any amount of trouble, so we slog through it . Repeats are always easier. The complete method and details are much appreciated as one just has to make the ‘original’ before incorporating any modifications. Thanks, Doug M!!

  11. meegwell says:

    Big fan of Star Tavern here. I’ve lived in Richmond for 20+ years but grew up in Jersey and visit the Star whenever I can when I go up to visit family. My wife and I have matching Star Tavern shirts.

    I never bothered explaing the whole ‘bar pizza’ thing in all the pizza discussions of late. I figure it would just confuse the matter and us Richmonders are busy swallowing the influx a nap pizza at the moment. We are blessed with a few great NY style choices. Bar pizza (jersey tavern) is distinctly different. A bit more greasy, thin crisp crust and usually a smaller size pie.

    For those Mary Angelas fans, ever notice that a medium pie is usually better tasing than the large? (in house only, dont count delivery becasue the box time severley messes with the crust….)

    If you’re visiting the Star after dark, be careful!

    On a realted note I finally tried that joint in the TJ Maxx shopping center. Awesome. Thinner and more crips than MAry Angelas. Great flavor. Just spectacular. My paper plate was cripled by the orange “juice” hehehe. Great stuff out there.

  12. Birhwe querp says:

    A small amount of people like to try the food at their favorite restuarant but don’t have enough cash for it, I like going to places knowing that i’d be okay covering the bill.

  13. Diane Larsen-Pareed says:

    I grew up on Star Tavern Pizza and I am so excited to try your shared recipe!
    Its the elusive pizza that every slice i’ve eaten since moving away, is compared
    to. I’ve had a couple of slices in 39 years that have measured up. Thats it! So
    kudos to you snd your dad! I’ll post when i get a chance to try the recipe!! Merci
    from Quebec!!

  14. Diane Larsen-Pare says:

    Oops spelled my name wrong , sorry

  15. Kristen says:

    Just made your recipe at home and it was a huge success! Not quite the Star but close! The semolina makes it soooo easy to roll that super thin dough. The tomatoes taste right too! I sometimes find that the top of the pie cooks faster than the bottom :( any suggestions to remedy that? I want that slightly floppier crust.

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