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Proper way to bake pizza is subject of heated debate


IT WAS A STAG SUPPER at our house, so my teen-age sons and I had the usual Mom-is-away meal -- pizza. I overcooked the first pizza, or so I thought. But the guys wolfed it down anyway. Then, as the second pizza cooked in the oven, we argued. We often argue about baseball, basketball and football. This time we debated the best ways to cook pizza.

Frozen pizza is best when it is almost burned, the 18-year-old said. Since he had eaten a few thousand frozen pizzas in his lifetime, I let him have the floor first.

The key to a successfully prepared frozen pizza is to get the dough crisp, he explained. To do that, he said, you must keep the pizza in the oven until the pepperoni slices start to shrivel and the cheese darkens but doesn't turn to cinders.

The first pizza, the one I had cooked until it resembled the color of a manhole, was perfect, he said. Compliments to the chef.

Since I was the chef, it was hard to disagree. But I did.

There were several shortcomings in the pizza, I said. First, it was not cooked on the pizza stone, the slab I put in the oven when I bake bread. Instead, following instructions on the package, this pizza was placed on the oven rack.

I hate the rack. I love the stone. The stone holds the heat and can make a noble crust crisp. But even as I spoke, I knew the pizza stone had trouble working its bottom-firming magic on frozen pizzas.

I was reminded that the last time I used a pizza stone to cook a frozen pizza, its bottom sagged. When you are a pizza, or a person in an exercise class, there is nothing more embarrassing than having a saggy bottom.

Shifting gears, I argued that a truly perfect pizza does not have frozen dough. Instead, it is made with fresh-dough pizza bottoms, purchased at Italian grocery stores such as Trinacria on North Paca Street, or it has homemade dough.

I reminded the guys of previous pizzas I had made. I recounted the night that I had taken a Trinacria crust, brushed it with olive oil, then cooked it for about 10 minutes on the pizza stone in a 400- degree oven. This made the crust firm, but not brittle.

Then, I had taken the crust out of the oven, smeared it with pizza sauce, added fresh shredded mozzarella cheese and slices of pepperoni, and put it back in the oven on the stone. I let it bake for another 20 to 30 minutes until the cheese bubbled.

When you sliced that pizza, nothing drooped. The crust had a pleasing, crisp texture.

The 18-year-old countered that it wasn't fair to compare a frozen pizza to a fresh pizza. They occupy different realms of the pizza world, he said.

He had a point. A frozen pizza, I conceded, is a convenience food. Something you pull out of the freezer and make quickly. You are willing to trade flavor for speed.

Making a pizza with fresh dough, I continued, is a more time-consuming process, but it can yield better flavors.

We agreed that we were not debating how to cook the perfect pizza, but rather how to perfectly cook each style of pizza. For frozen pizza, that meant cooking it on the oven rack, until the topping got brittle. For pizza made with fresh dough, that meant baking the shell first, on the pizza stone in the oven, before adding toppings and baking it longer.

During this debate, the younger kid, now 14, didn't have much to say. Now he spoke up. "Is there any more?" he asked.

"Yes," he was told. "There is another frozen pizza in the oven, but it is not quite burned yet."

Pub Date: 02/28/99

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