In researching my cover story on pizza (in the current June 30, 2008, issue of Wine Spectator), I came across some truly inventive options that went well beyond toppings. In the end, the story focused entirely on more traditional pizzas and modern variations, and omitted the most intriguing idea of them all—charcoal-grilled pizza, made famous by Al Forno in Providence, R.I.
Today, Al Forno is a big, thriving restaurant, but an early storefront version had a grill instead of a pizza oven. Owner George Germon told me how that led to inventing a new technique for char-grilling pizza, and demonstrated how it's done. Check out my video to see the process.
One day Germon heard his fishmonger describing pizza in Italy that was grilled over a wood fire. Turned out that the guy's memory was faulty. He was thinking of a wood-fired pizza oven. But Germon wanted to experiment with the idea anyway. His partner, ex-pastry chef Johanne Killeen, made a soft bread dough and Germon went to work on the grill. "I thought it would stick, so I rolled the dough first in olive oil," he recalls. Knowing that it was only going to get heat from below, he made it thin and cooked it on one side first before turning it over and applying thin layers of toppings.
Amazingly, it worked, and the customers loved it. I did too. The pizza comes out very thin, but not cracker-like, and the judiciously applied toppings deliver vibrant, pure flavors. I also love the imperfect shapes the technique creates. In the one Germon demonstrates, it comes out looking like a map of Australia (without Tasmania).
The toppings go on in reverse order: brushings of oil first, then grated cheese to melt closer to the heat, and finally a few spoonfuls of sauce. Fresh herbs cut into chiffonade are added in a final sprinkling. A modern chef's impulse to use the highest-quality ingredients in an entree is evident in the way that Germon chooses to top his pizzas. One consists of sliced fresh mushrooms and a cooked mushroom duxelle. Another uses baby shrimp. As it grills, the pizza must be moved on and off direct heat so the dough browns and cooks through without burning.
The pizza has extraordinary texture. It chews like a second cousin to lahvosh, barely pliable and crispy on the surface. The thinness makes it feel light even though it has more than a nodding acquaintance with olive oil. The heat of the grill concentrates flavors of the toppings.
As a full-service restaurant, and a darn good one at that, Al Forno also has an extensive wine list, which makes it a great place to experiment with pizza and wine. On my visit, I loved the combination of Prosecco, the northern Italian sparkling wine, with both the mushroom pizza and the baby shrimp pizzas. I liked the margherita better with a glass of Refosco, a northern Italian red.
Indirectly, Al Forno inspired Mario Batali to get radical when he opened his own pizzeria in New York. I visited with Ladner and got the lowdown on how Otto doesn't even bake its pizzas in an oven. The chefs use an electric griddle to grill them, finishing them off under a hot salamander to apply heat to the top. It takes longer, but Batali's chef, Mark Ladner, argues that they can actually crank out more pizzas at once than from a pizza oven, allowing for a bigger restaurant.
No one will confuse the results at Otto with Neapolitan or New York pizza, but classic ingredients such as San Marzano tomatoes, excellent mozzarella, fresh herbs and cured meats from Batali's father's salumeria in Seattle make a fascinating hybrid of pizza and flatbread. (Batali also partnered with Nancy Silverton for Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles, which I blogged about a few months ago. At Mozza, Silverton puts her own spin on pizza dough by thinking of it as a kind of bread. She bakes it in a classic wood-fired pizza oven, with creative toppings that hew pretty closely to Italian ingredients. I prefer it to Otto's pizza. Check out this video, which takes a look at Mozza's pizza process.)
Would I want either Al Forno's or Otto's pizzas to replace the classic oven-fired styles? Not on your life. But I praise them for the inventiveness that created something distinctive and weirdly appealing.
Peter Cargasacchi — Sta. Rita Hills — May 31, 2008 8:32pm ET
Robert Martin — June 2, 2008 10:36am ET
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — June 2, 2008 1:58pm ET
Marco Laico — charlotte n.c — June 6, 2008 1:28pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — June 6, 2008 1:43pm ET
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