We tapped Pasquale Cozzolino of New York City's Ribalta to show us how to nail the foundation of the pizza: the crust.
As the chef and pizzaiolo at New York City’s Ribalta, Pasquale Cozzolino serves some of Manhattan’s best pizza and Neapolitan food. The pizza is ethereal: a crust that delicately dances between between being crisp and chewy, with a toothsome texture, topped simply with fresh ingredients, and the cheese melted just so. (Pro tip: The baby octopus slow-baked with tomatoes, olives, and capers is incredible.)
Of course, Pasquale and other pros cook pizza in those gigantic ovens that are hotter than a July sidewalk. Can you make great pizza in a home kitchen, using just a regular oven? We invited an expert into the GQ Home Cooking HQ (a.k.a. my little Manhattan kitchen) to show us how to produce a crisp crust and delectable pie.
Cozzolino spent years studying pizza in Italy, where learning how make pizza is different from being a chef. “Being a pizza chef is my life,” Cozzolino says, and I could think of nobody better to teach me how make pizza than a Naples native named Pasquale who once lost 100 pounds eating only pizza.
My biggest takeaway from my day with Chef Cozzolino was that, in a macro sense, we’ve perhaps been thinking about pizza all wrong. We usually identify pizza almost exclusively by the toppings, while what really matters is what lies beneath: The crust is the foundation of the pizza, in every sense. Chef Cozzolino and I spent an hour talking about the crust and five minutes on the toppings. What you put on top of your pizza helps make it delicious, sure, but the toppings should be complementing the crust, not trying to hide it.
One other thing I didn’t realize was that you might need the brain of Walter White to fully grasp the granular complexities of making the perfect pizza crust. As we mixed and kneaded our dough, Chef Cozzolino talked breezily about the levels of yeast and the salt and gluten and varying flour types, and how they all work together and react over time to form the crust. For our purposes, Chef Cozzolino showed me a dough that needs to hang out in the refrigerator at least overnight. I made a batch of dough and left it in the fridge a few days, and it cooked up fine.
One last thing: If you really want to do this the right way, buy a pizza stone. It doesn’t have to be ultra expensive—I have this one. When you’re making pizza at home, nothing works better to get a proper crust.
Pizza Dough (makes enough for 4 small pizzas)
- 500 grams flour
- 325 grams water
- 25 grams salt
- 1 gram instant yeast
- 2 tsp olive oil
1. We began with liquids, pouring the water into a bowl and adding the olive oil. To this we added the yeast and salt, and then about a third of the flour. (Pasquale uses a personalized flour blend. He says you can use all-purpose flour, but for authentic flavor suggests using Caputo 00 flour.) Using a regular spoon, we stirred for a few minutes, until we had what looked like a papier mâché paste. We then added the rest of the flour and the salt, and continued stirring to combine.
2. Once it began coming together, Pasquale ditched the spoon and used his hand. (At Ribalta they make so much dough that they use machines, but back in Italy, Cozzolino said he used to shave his hand and forearm to prevent stray hairs from ending up in the crust. Wouldn’t they just burn away in the oven, I wondered? “Nobody wants hair in their food,” Cozzolino said. Correctly.) We fussed over the dough in the bowl for about five minutes, stopping to occasionally scrape scraps from the sides of the bowl.
3. Now that your dough is starting to look like dough, dust a countertop with flour and then knead the dough for five minutes. At this point you’re trying to work air into the dough, Pasquale said. He’s a big dude, and he made this look easier than it actually was.
4. Eventually the dough will take on a sheen. It should look smooth and nice, like a cue ball. At this point, stop and let the dough rest for about 15 minutes. This might be a good time to have a glass of wine or do your expenses from your last work trip.
5. Divide it into equal-sized portions, about the size of cue balls. Pasquale rolled each portion on the counter for a few minutes until they were even smoother, making completely perfect, seamless spheres of dough. My advice: Try to roll the portions into smooth balls as best as you can. We ain’t pros. Put the dough in a container or on a plate and cover loosely (the dough is going to rise). Refrigerate for about a day.
6. Okay, now FINALLY let’s make pizza!! An hour or two before you’re ready to cook, take the dough from the oven and let it get closer to room temperature. Crank that oven to 500, and put a pizza stone on a rack about halfway up, where it’s relatively accessible.
7. Do you have a pizza peel? You know, one of those wooden paddles with a long handle that you see people using to mitigate the danger of messing around inside a 900-degree oven? I did not, so we used a cutting board. (Any movable, flat surface would work. Say, a TRUMP/PENCE yard sign.) Dust it with flour, then gently flop a portion of your dough onto the surface.
8. I asked Pasquale if we were going to toss the pizza into the air to stretch it out. He looked at me with disappointment. He explained how that was called “freestyle” and went into a long explanation about our dough and gluten and… well, there was no way we were going to disrespect this dough by throwing it. Instead, for a few minutes we gently pressed down on the dough with just our fingertips, flattening it out until it was about the shape of our board, maybe a foot wide. Give it a shake to make sure it’s not sticking to the board.
9. Toppings. You do you, but here’s what Pasquale taught me: Less is more. We used maybe three tablespoons of pureed San Marzano tomatoes, a light sprinkle of grated parmigiano reggiano, and then maybe half a cup of chunks of mozzarella spread casually around the surface. That’s it. Resist the urge to overload your pie, at least on the first one, and I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
10. Oven! So close! Give your board (or whatever) a jiggle to make sure the pizza is moving freely and will slide off into the pizza stone, then carefully open the 500-degree oven, stick your arms inside there, and slide the pizza onto the baking stone. DO NOT TOUCH YOUR ARMS TO ANYTHING. Shut the door.
11. Bend down and look through the oven window as the cheese starts to bubble and shimmy and look wonderful.
12. After five minutes, when the crust looks done, remove your work of art. Maybe add a few leaves of basil and let the residual heat cook them. Once it cools, cut it into slices. Eat! (And then make a few more pizzas.)