Bibliobites in March: Pizza: A Love Story

America’s love affair with pizza is deep and enduring (dare we say passionate?), and continues to blossom in new and unexpected ways.  In fact, one could argue that pizza is a unifying cultural force, because who doesn’t love pizza?  Regardless of age, race, gender, ethnicity, or political persuasion, there are very few of us who have never happily downed a slice of cheesy goodness.  According to multiple sources, over 90% of Americans consume pizza at least once a month, and the ongoing pandemic has probably only increased that number!   Though most of us are quite content to get our pizza fix through takeout or delivery, our ever-intrepid Bibliobites group spent the month of March perfecting homemade pies.  The pros have 900-degree ovens and plenty of experience with finicky pizza dough– could we even come close to that?  And ultimately, would we even want to bother, when ordering from any number of places is oh so quick and easy?

We had two titles to guide us on our path to pizza perfection: Truly Madly Pizza by Suzanne Lenzer, and Todd English’s Rustic Pizza by Todd English.  Both feature extensive information and instruction on crust-making, arguably the most intimidating part of producing pizza at home.  Some found the multiple pages of instructions to be a bit of overkill, but once we got past the plethora of details, the dough was simple enough to make.  Two people had high praise for Lenzer’s dough, which made a light, slightly chewy thin crust.  This dough required a fermentation period, so you needed to make it ahead (at least 8 hours); but this did make evening pizza production quicker.  English’s crust didn’t insist on a waiting time, which worked well if you were using regular white flour; but if you sourced the suggested “00” Italian-style flour, the crust was much tastier after sitting in the fridge for a day.  Though making your own crust is quick and easy (once you’ve digested all those instructions!), many in the group don’t bother with making their own pizza crust, especially since there are now plenty of respectable alternatives out there.  Many supermarkets carry more than one brand of dough, and some takeout places sell theirs (one member likes the dough from Sal’s).  Plus there are always premade crusts (like Boboli); and lavash, pita, or naan are also good bases if you’re in a hurry.

OK– crust conquered!  On to the toppings!  Interestingly, though both books have sauce recipes, many of the pizza recipes feature no sauce.  The sauces in both books were solid, though “nothing to write home about.”  One person did think that English’s sauce was “really good;” but neither sauce stood out enough to be a keeper.  Beyond red sauce, there were plenty of toppings to try, both traditional and more unusual.  Two people made roast chicken with fennel and onion jam, which was a tasty combination, though it “needed something.”  One person added a drizzle of balsamic vinegar, which seemed to do the trick.  But the recipe was good enough that it was worth another try.  A few recipes used caramelized onion jam, which was “delicious– I liked it a lot,” and was a good condiment to have on hand.  Marinated artichokes with spinach and feta was a yummy version of this classic combination; and sweet and sour onions with butternut squash and ricotta was also a winner with its caramelized squash and pillowy ricotta.  But, caramelized fennel and pears with stilton was way too heavy on the blue cheese; perhaps a milder blue would have played more nicely with the other ingredients?  If you can’t or don’t do dairy, there were several no-cheese options; curried cauliflower with tomatoes and cilantro had so many lively flavors that you didn’t even notice that there was no cheese involved.  Broccolini, mushroom, and crunchy breadcrumbs, though it contained a small amount of ricotta, would have been equally good without it– or maybe with some of that marinara sauce?

All of the above recipes are from Truly Madly Pizza.

While most of us had checked out Lenzer’s book, a few dipped into Todd English’s.  One person praised his almond pesto, which was creamy and delicious and almost dairy-free, having only one teaspoon of Parmesan in the batch.  Chicken chili was used as a topping, though of course it could be eaten on its own; this was “worth trying” especially if you’re a beer lover, since that was its signature ingredient. The margherita was a solid version of this classic, and the roasted eggplant pizza was “really good,” with plenty of eggplant complemented by the traditional sauce and cheese.   Chicken tikka masala pizza was a keeper; it used jarred tikka sauce for an easy flavor boost, and you could use naan for the crust, as suggested.

There were, as always, some complaints.  Many, if not most, of Ms. Lenzer’s pizza toppings consisted of ingredients scattered over the crust; often there wasn’t a binding ingredient like sauce, and/or the cheese was dolloped rather than spread all over.  The toppings would often fall off as we tried to cut and/or eat the pizza, which was a bit frustrating and sometimes messy.  And even though many topping combinations were delicious, they were things we probably could have just pulled out of our own fridge; there wasn’t much that was really innovative (or maybe we’ve just been spoiled by the numerous choices we’ve already sampled via takeout?).   Still, most of the pizzas were tasty and quick to put together once we had the dough made or bought; and both authors’ recipes certainly took us beyond your standard cheese and pepperoni, should you want to branch out.

So after the ovens had cooled, did either of these books turn us into at-home pizzaiolos?  We started our meeting with most saying they rarely or never make pizza at home– and at the end of our discussion opinions hadn’t changed much.  Takeout pizza is widely available, and in our area we’re lucky to have several high-quality options.  On the other hand, some in the group say they only eat homemade pizza; but they already have their favorite ways of doing things, and neither book motivated them to change.  But a few (including yours truly) were inspired by Ms. Lenzer’s dough to make more pizza at home, now that they’ve become familiar with her reliable and simple recipe.  Voting reflected our overall ambivalence, with both books averaging out to just over 3 (out of a possible 5).   Our love for pizza may indeed know no bounds– but most of the time, we’ll let the pros do the cooking!

Survey says….We started our meeting with a brief poll:

If you want to eat pizza in a restaurant, where would you go?

  • Bertucci’s (Chelmsford), “still good!”
  • Evvivva Trattoria (Westford), “like the high-tops, good beer selection!”
  • Cane Rosso (Dallas TX), a bit of a hike, but “absolutely delicious– lots of different toppings!”
  • Pizzario (Hillsboro, OR), an even bigger hike, “olive oil in/on the crust is very delicious– love the live music and local art on the walls.”
  • Longtime New England favorites Pizzeria Regina and Frank Pepe’s.
  • Newer local chains Otto’s and Max and Leo’s

For takeout only, where would you go (if different from above)?

  • Silver Palate (Westford), “I like that they also will make pizza on Syrian bread.”
  • Sal’s (Chelmsford and others), “they sell giant slices!”
  • Chelmsford Pizza (Chelmsford), “Greek-style pizza…fantastic gargantuan roast beef sandwich.”

Favorite pizza topping:

  • Mushroom (3 people)
  • Onion
  • Sausage
  • Prosciutto
  • Roasted red pepper
  • Pepperoni
  • Anchovy

If you’re ready to move on from pizza, join us at our next meeting on Friday, April 30 at 11 AM; we’ll be discussing Ottolenghi Simple, a streamlined take on Middle Eastern-ish food by well-known chef/restaurateur Yotam Ottolenghi.  Copies are available at the main circulation desk or via curbside pickup.  We’ll chat on the 30th via Zoom; if you would like to attend but are not already on our Bibliobites mailing list, please email group leader Andrea Grant.  See you then!