Culinary Keepsakes: That's amore

Sun City Hilton Head man takes love of pizza to new level with home-built brick oven

August 17, 2011 

  • Makes: enough for 5-6 Pizzas; about 4 ounces for each 12-inch pizza

    1 (28 ounce) can San Marzano whole peeled plum tomatoes

    1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

    3 tablespoons granulated garlic

    1 or 2 teaspoons dry oregano to taste

    1 or 2 teaspoons dry basil to taste

    2 tablespoons red wine vinegar or fresh lemon juice or combination of both

    1/2 teaspoon sea salt or salt to taste (optional)

    Cut the green/yellow stem ends off the tomatoes and discard. Strain out the tomato seeds. Put tomatoes in an immersion mixer or blender and go easy. You want to crush them, not purèe them. Hand crush the dried oregano and basil with your fingers.

    Stir all ingredients in bowl and let sit for an hour. Store amount to be used in next 7 days in refrigerator. Freeze remaining sauce in individual freezer bags.

    Modification of Peter Reinhart's recipe published in "American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza"

Making pizza from scratch isn't an impossible task. You don't have to break down any brick walls, so to say. You just have to build a few.

Ben Farmer has made his Sun City Hilton Head kitchen into his personal pizzeria. He makes his crust and sauce from scratch and then fires it on a small brick enclosure he's built on his gas grill.

Just about every week he's making pizza for himself and his wife, Peggy, or friends. Once he got into it, he realized it wasn't so hard to cook from scratch. All it takes is a little ingenuity, a little creativity and a little brick oven.

Shortly after he and his wife moved to Sun City from Atlanta in 2004, he decided to take his love of pizza to another level. He wanted to make it on his own. But the store-bought crusts never really tasted right, perhaps because he'd look at the side of the box and find ingredients he couldn't even begin to pronounce. He decided he'd just have to do it all himself.

He started to read books and articles online about creating your own dough for flat-bread pizzas, including the site for Atlanta pizza maker Jeff Varasano, who's known for his sourdough crusts. Farmer orders sourdough starter from Italy -- so called because it serves as the basis for the batch -- and leavens the dough over days. He crushes plum tomatoes with a blend of basil, oregano, garlic, black pepper and red wine vinegar to create a sauce that plays off recipes found in his research.

He kneads the dough in his kitchen and spreads the sauce on in wide even circles, drizzling a ring of olive oil on the edges to make it bubble. From there, he goes about adding the ingredients, usually starting with slices of fresh mozzarella. He prefers minimal toppings. Tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and leaves of fresh basil top his veggie pizza. He used to add peppers, but it got to be too much. A good pizza isn't just about what comes on top. It's about how the crust, sauce and toppings interact with each other.

"A crust isn't a vehicle to pile things on," he said. "It's part of the experience."

The pie is then fully formed, ready to be heated. The next step became the turning point in his amateur pizza chef career.

As he was researching proper pies, he found that a good pizza is heated at a high temperature, much higher than the oven in his house. He read that some amateur pizza makers cook theirs using the self-cleaning mode on the oven, simply breaking the door lock to allow easy access. But his wife wouldn't let him do that. So he figured out a different way. He made a brick oven.

He arranged firebricks on his gas grill to form a small enclosure. He can get temperatures up to 800 degrees, perfect for a 12-inch pizza. After just a few minutes, the pie comes out with the thick mozzarella melted smooth and creamy; the bottom slightly charred but not burnt.

The couple has returned to Atlanta to visit Varasano's restaurant. Farmer got some tips from the man himself, and he made them Nana's special pizza that's simply mozzarella, tomato sauce and a blend of Italian herbs.

Farmer found out that even a professional pizza maker like Varasano can tinker for years before finally finding happiness in pizza. Varasano writes on his website that it took him six years of trial and error before he finally perfected a pie modeled off his favorite pizzeria in New York.

For Farmer, that just means that no matter what gets in the way, great pizza is a matter of patience.

"Like anything else, you learn as you go," he said.

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