When it comes to pizza, I’m a bit of a pizzaholic. I just can’t get enough and while I like most forms of za, I love my traditional Neapolitan thin-crust. I’ve even considered taking pizzaiolo (Neapolitan pizza maker) lessons but they are so pricey and only given in large urban areas (over $2k in San Francisco). So of course I got a little bit excited when my friend Jeff (Chef Jeff who teaches at Whisk in Cary) invited me over for an impromptu and excellent pizza dinner at his place in Cary. If you’re a pizza lover, read on my friend!
As much as I love my pizza pies, Jeff takes things a bit further. With a background and career in food and the culinary arts, Jeff is such a huge fan of Neapolitan pizza, he has a serious clay pizza oven at his house which is a small but similar version to what professionals use. Domed and wood-fired, it takes two or three hours to get it up to temp before you can get your cooking started. And we are talking h-o-t, hot! Pizza ovens will run 800 degrees and up, allowing you to bake your pizza pie in like 3 or 4 minutes, crazy huh? And that’s why pizza in your oven at home can never compare.
When I show up at Jeff’s place, he’s got everything prepped and ready to go. With a group of friends of over 10 people, you have to be neat and orderly. The dough (type 00 flour) has been mixed and stored for more than 48 hours which allows it to rise and develop that great texture needed for Neapolitan pies.
Jeff has got the usual meat toppings along with roasted and mashed root veggies, fresh basil, fresh mozzarella, other assorted cheeses, olive oil and a pizza sauce made of imported Italian tomatoes. While he will be putting together the pies in the kitchen, my friend Tripp will be the official pizzaiolo, tending to the pies in the oven and making sure they are cooked properly.
Jeff spreads out the dough with his hands and sets up the base with some red sauce and sprinkles the cheese and basil on top. Tradition at Jeff’s house is to do a margherita to start the meal off, a basic but simply delicious red pie. Tripp gets the stainless steel peel out and the fresh, unbaked pizza goes on top, about 16″ across. At the oven, Tripp pushes the wood to the side and scrapes the base of the oven floor to minimize ash.
We’ve already prepped up a pan of seared green beans to start the meal but in goes the first pie. You have to watch that pie carefully, letting the dough set initially and then spinning it at regular intervals to make sure the crust bakes evenly. With the wood and heat coming off of the back of the oven, it’s the only way to ensure it cooks properly. And the pie bakes fast, once it’s just about done, Tripp “domes” the pie by raising it on the peel toward to the top part of the oven which is super-hot and finishes off the bake process. Inside he quickly slices it with a circular cutter and we are ready to mangia!
As a pizza freak, I know it’s all about the crust and Tripp has done a great job with the pie resulting in a black speckled char around the edge (or cornicione) of the pie. And it’s an amazing crust. Jeff has salted it a bit and the texture is perfect: stretchy, chewy and fresh. Balanced with a light red sauce, light muzz and fresh wilted basil, a margherita pie is the base version of a Neapolitan pie that you use to judge a pizzeria and Jeff and Tripp have knocked it out of the park.
As the evening goes on, the variations get more adventurous with prosciutto, salami, mushrooms, honey, gourmet cheese and more. And they are all excellent, I only wish we had a pizzeria like this one in Raleigh. The closest options in the Triangle would be Pizzeria Toro and Pompieri in Durham but we are currently lacking in the Raleigh-Cary area.
Jeff decides to finish things off with a dessert pizza of nutella, crushed graham cracker and marshmallow, a wonderful finish to the meal. I mean who can resist warm nutella over a delicious crust? So yes, it was a fun, delicious and educational evening. I got to eat some amazing Neapolitan pizza right here in the Triangle but unfortunately Grimmarelli’s is not open to the public. Yet. And maybe I’ll still get to those really expensive pizza lessons some day because my love for great za seems to be a life-long romance, pizza out!