Like to make pizza but don't want to turn your kitchen into a sauna? Well, you can have your pizza and keep cool, too, by grilling your pie outdoors. Grilled pizza is easy. It's a perfect vehicle for that bounty of local, seasonal produce. And it's a fun way to entertain.
As with so many good things in life (Roquefort cheese, Madeira, buffalo chicken wings), grilled pizza came about by accident. In 1982, George Germon was buying fish to grill at his Providence, R.I., restaurant, Al Forno, a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence winner. The fishmonger mentioned that he had just come back from Italy, where he had eaten grilled pizza. Though the fishmonger meant pizza cooked in a wood-burning oven, not on a grill, the idea of "grilled pizza" got Germon's creative juices flowing, especially since he had a grill but no wood-burning oven. Germon's wife and partner, Johanne Killeen, thought it was a dumb idea: "It'll sag through the grate," she warned. Germon persisted and put it on the menu that night. Today, Al Forno makes up to 150 grilled pizzas daily.
"With grilled pizza you get the nuances of the fire. It's exposed directly to the smoke [unlike wood-oven pizza]," Germon says. "It's the difference between grilled and baked food." Because grilled pizza is always paper-thin, you get the kind of crackling crisp crust you rarely find in oven-baked pizza. Toppings are lighter and fresher, so the pizza is less filling than a doughy, oversauced baked pizza.
Though Germon is credited with the modern grilled pizza, grilled breads go way back, according to Peter Reinhart, author of American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza (Ten Speed Press). "People have been grilling bread over coals and melting cheese and other goodies on it for centuries. In other words, grilled pizza may be as old as pizza itself," Reinhart writes.
Any pizza dough recipe will work for grilled pizza-even dough bought from a pizzeria-but one with all-purpose flour will make a lighter, less bready pizza. Seven ounces of dough makes a pizza that can serve as an appetizer for two to four people or an entrée for one.
A charcoal grill fired by lump hardwood charcoal (not briquettes) is preferred over a gas grill because it burns hotter and provides more flavor possibilities. However, you still need to create a cooler zone on the grill for better control over cooking. One way is to make a wall with a few bricks on the bottom of the grill. Put charcoal on one side of the wall for the hot zone. The cooler zone on the other side should have no charcoal.
At Al Forno, they create a sloping effect, with charcoal piled high at one end, less charcoal in the middle and no charcoal at the other end. This gives the maximum variation in temperature, allowing you to cook the pizza by moving it around as needed. It will still not be as evenly cooked as baked pizza. But that's part of the charm of grilled pizza.
Reinhart uses the entire charcoal grill as his hot zone and a gas grill as his cooler zone. This is handy if you are doing multiple pizzas for entertaining.
Turning out a grilled pizza is much like cooking a Chinese stir-fry. The cooking goes very quickly, so you have to have all your ingredients and tools at the ready-what the French call mise en place.
Set up a worktable next to the grill with enough space to keep the toppings, to roll out the dough, and to rest the necessary tools: cutting board, rolling pin, tongs, large spatula, pizza peel, oven mitts, a dish of olive oil and a pastry brush.
When the coals are bright red with a light ash on the surface, roll out the pizza. At Al Forno, the dough, which has rested for a few hours in a pool of olive oil, is not rolled but formed by hand into an oval or rectangle about 11 by 9 inches. Mine, using Reinhart's recipe, which made six 6.5-ounce dough balls, were about 11 by 14 inches. I've found that forming by hand-pushing and pressing with fingertips and knuckles-on a sheet pan is easier than rolling (especially when the dough is well-lubricated with oil).
The pizza should be somewhere between a sixteenth and an eighth of an inch thick. Don't worry if your pizza looks like it was formed by your 10-year-old. Again, it's part of the charm. Though Germon insists on forming the pizza immediately before grilling, you can get a leg up by forming the pizza 30 minutes ahead and letting it rest (covered) on a sheet pan in the refrigerator.
Once formed, lay the pizza on the hot zone of the grill; it will take about 3 minutes to cook. You'll probably notice some areas cooking faster than others. Move the pizza around, putting some parts over the cooler zone to achieve more even cooking. Use tongs, oven mitts and the pizza peel to help you do this.
After the bottom is done-it should be nicely charred and blistered but not burned-flip the pizza over onto the cooler zone of the grill. Brush the cooked side with olive oil. Then add the toppings, beginning with the cheese. (A list of toppings follows.) Don't try to cover the entire surface. Look for, as Reinhart puts it, "bursts of flavor" from your toppings.
Once the toppings are on, you can cover the grill and let the ambient heat cook the pizza the rest of the way in the cooler zone. Or you can put the pizza over the hot zone of the grill, again moving it around to cook evenly. This will cook the bottom faster but requires more attention. The entire process, from start to finish, should take about 7 to 10 minutes.
When it comes to toppings, less is more. One reason is that the thin crust gets soggy quickly. Besides, summer weather is more appropriate for lighter, fresher fare, beginning with ripe, local tomatoes chopped and mixed with basil, salt, pepper and a little olive oil. Make sure the tomatoes (and any other toppings) are well-drained before adding them to the pizza.
Because vegetables on grilled pizza don't get cooked as they would in an oven, use ones that are fine in the raw state, such as tomatoes, arugula and sweet onions. Or cook other vegetables ahead; roasted bell peppers, sautéed or grilled mushrooms, roasted eggplant and grilled asparagus are good choices. Fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, rosemary and oregano can be mixed in with vegetables or sprinkled separately.
For cheese, Reinhart suggests combining a good melting cheese such as mozzarella, Monterey Jack, cheddar or gouda (I like fontina) with a grated cheese like Parmigiano, Asiago or pecorino Romano. Al Forno uses Parmigiano and Bel Paese. These cheeses go on as soon as the dough is flipped and the olive oil has been applied, because they need to melt from the heat of the cooked side. Softer cheeses, such as goat and blue cheeses, go on last, after the other toppings.
Other toppings to consider are thinly sliced prosciutto or high quality Italian salami, strips of smoked chicken or turkey, olives, capers and pine nuts.
At Al Forno, the final topping is a drizzle of olive oil spiked with garlic, hot pepper flakes and paprika. The finished pizza is garnished with chopped scallions, though you could also use chopped fresh herbs.
Wines to accompany grilled pizza should reflect not only the lightness of the pie but the summer weather. Sauvignon Blanc is a good choice, especially if the pizza is heavy on the veggies. Sparkling wine helps to cut through saltier cheeses and prosciutto. Lighter, slightly chilled reds such as Dolcetto and Beaujolais are good too. But my favorite is a Rhône-style rosé, one that has some stuffing and isn't too sweet. You know, the kind you would drink in the sauna.
Sam Gugino, Wine Spectator's Tastes columnist, is the author of Low-Fat Cooking to Beat the Clock (Chronicle Books).
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