Sometimes even what seems to be simple foods take a lot of experience and attention to detail. Pizza, believe it or not, is one of those foods. A good slice of pizza often is more than meets the eye – or tastebuds.
“There’s definitely a finesse that comes with it that takes time to learn,” said Chef Michael Vogler, who first honed his own pizza-making skills while working at a restaurant under famed Chef Wolfgang Puck.
“You’d be surprised,” said Chef Michael Desorcie “how much the average person is doing pizza wrong.”
As chefs with Opal resorts’ Drift Kitchen + Bars – Vogler at Hutchinson Shores Resort & Spa in Jensen Beach on Florida’s Atlantic Coast, and Desorcie at Lido Beach Resort in Sarasota on the Gulf – they certainly know.
These two restaurants specialize in wood-fired pizza, thanks to the wood-fired ovens that grace the restaurants’ main dining rooms. In fact, stone-hearth ovens can be found within the restaurants of many Opal properties, including La Bella Vita locations at both Harborside Hotel, Spa & Marina (Bar Harbor, Maine) and Samoset Resort (Rockland, Maine), as well as Sea-Guini at Opal Sands Resort (Clearwater Beach, Florida). Taste one of the Neapolitan-style pizza from these locations, and you’ll know what gourmet, handmade pizza is all about.
Now the chefs are sharing their secrets – at least of them – to getting that perfect stone-cooked pizza in your personal home kitchen.
Invest in Two Starting Essentials: A Pizza Stone & Peel
What do the chefs have against a normal sheet pan?
“It just won’t get crispy on a sheet pan, like it will a pizza stone,” said Desorcie.
That is, the ceramic material of a pizza stone holds heat more evenly, therefore allowing the crust to cook more evenly, unlike the metal of a pan.
“Plus, by preheating the stone, it will give the dough a big burst of heat right of the bat when you slide it on there, which gives the crust a nice ‘puffing up,’” Vogler said.
Of course, you can’t have a stone without the peel – the paddle-looking thing that slides the pie onto and off the stone during the baking process. A 15- by 12-inch stone generally doesn’t cost more than $30. A paddle – wood or aluminum – goes for around $20.
The Right Flour and Resting Before Rolling
The chef-led pizza-making tutorials at Opal Sands Resort always stress the important step of letting your dough rest before rolling.
According to the chefs, the gold standard when making fresh pizza dough is to use 00 flour, which is a fine, soft white flour (the “00” refers to the grind size of the flour).
“It has a medium gluten content that makes for a nicely balanced crust – giving it enough of a chewy texture – but also letting it puff up around the edges of the pizza,” Desorcie said.
As for once you make and knead your dough, Vogler can’t understate the importance of letting it rest for at least a minimum of 30 minutes before rolling out.
“When you knead the dough, it activates the gluten, but the gluten needs to be given some time to relax after – otherwise it makes the dough difficult to roll out and shape,” he said. “It will snap back into place.”
Crank Up Oven at Least One Hour Before Inserting the Pizza
“Not just because you want to preheat the stone,” Vogler said, “but because you’re going to be cranking your oven to what is probably its highest setting: 500°F.” And when was the last time you did that? You’re going to want it to cook off anything inside that oven to make sure it’s clean.’’
Cornmeal – The Secret Sliding Weapon
The Enoteca Lounge at Samoset Resort’s La Bella Vita is where guests can watch chefs prepare pizza in the brick oven, plus other various appetizers.
Once your crust is rolled out, it’s time for the toppings, right? Not so fast. Vogler said you’re going to want to piece together your pizza masterpiece on the peel – not off of it as that can make for a messy transfer). But before you do that, sprinkle just a bit of cornmeal – two ounces will do – on the peel. Then once you put that dough on the peel, give it a little shake back and forth a few times.
“This is where that ‘pizza finesse’ comes in,” Vogler said. “Without that little shake to loosen it, when it comes time to put that pizza in the oven, you might find it doesn’t want to release.” And then that’s a big mess.
Put Away the Pasta Sauce
Think pizza and pasta sauces are pretty much the same thing? There’s a number of reasons why they are different, but, in the case of pizza, the most important one to know is that a tomato sauce meant for pasta is going to have a higher water content.
“If you use that on your pizza,” Desorcie said, “expect a very watery, wet-like pizza with sauce running all over the place.”
Vogler suggests simply using a straight tomato puree (anything from a can is fine) then mixing it with dry Italian seasonings and fresh basil.
Yes, There is a Thing as Too Many Toppings
The classic Margherita pizza does not have to be plain? Drift Kitchen’s version comes with house pomodoro sauce, fresh buffalo mozzarella, roasted tomatoes, and torn sweet basil.
A “Shrimp & Goat Cheese” pizza with spicy pesto as the base, topped with chimichurri shrimp, mozzarella and goat cheese, and cherry peppers. Or even a “Cheeseburger” pizza with a ketchup-mayo-relish sauce topped with ground beef, shredded cheddar, fresh tomatoes, and pickles. These are just two examples of creative pizzas that have been featured on the menus in both Drift Kitchen + Bars.
But while the variety of topping combinations are unlimited, the total amount of toppings definitely should have a limit.
“If you load up on the toppings, it’s going to be too heavy and fall apart as your eating, plus, the bottom of your pizza likely won’t cook fully and will be more soft than crispy,” Vogler said.
Desorcie suggests limiting your number of different toppings to three to five (not including cheese).
“More toppings than that and the more likely you’re going to load that thing up,” he said. “Plus, you don’t want it to be a mess of competing flavors, but a symphony that allows each of the toppings to have their own solo in each and every bite.”
Photo Credits: Opal Collection Hotels & Resorts