Panzanella's margherita is the only local pizza I crave. Bella Mia and Pizzeria Toro produce dignified versions of the Neapolitan pie, but Panzanella's pie—chewy, crispy, charred, slightly sour—evokes the Northeastern corridor and the pizza ecstasy of my youth: the sore jaw, the burnt palate, the blood humming with glycemic joy.
The master bakers of Weaver Street Market—Panzanella's parent organization—produce the dough during the wee hours of the morning at their Hillsborough facility and ship a steady supply of oven-ready balls to the Carrboro trattoria. The finished crust exhibits all the artisanship these virtuosi bring to their ciabatta and most particularly to their miche, a rustic French sourdough that I consider the crowning achievement of the Triangle food culture.
The crust requires a sourdough starter (you knew there was a catch). At 10 on Saturday night, you will be in the kitchen "feeding" your goopy, smelly puddle. At 10 on Sunday morning, you will be doing the same, with the added chore of cleaning the goop that you were too lazy to dump the previous night, which now covers bowl, spoon, faucet and counter (not to mention bathrobe) in a cement-like crust. But producing a pizza that needn't apologize north of the Mason-Dixon line surely justifies the off-kilter hours, the mess and the upsetting flashbacks to freshman-year organic chem. It's worth remembering that airport security—the pizza lover's Plan B—is a headache in its own right.
A blend of fresh and low-moisture mozzarella, thick wedges of roasted tomato and a scattering of fresh basil finish the pie. Rejecting the orthodoxy of the pureed, the crushed and the sliced, the tomato wedges—quartered Romas baked for 90 minutes—are ingenious. They are pulpy, sweet and filled with steaming juice: the perfect complement to the sturdy crust and grassy cheese.
Yields 4 crusts
430 grams King Arthur organic all-purpose flour (11.8% protein)
50 grams Lindley Mills pastry flour (8% protein)
320 grams non-chlorinated room-temperature water (i.e., bottled or boiled)
35 grams levain, i.e., sourdough starter (see notes)
10 grams kosher salt (not iodized)
1/8 tsp. instant yeast (not "active dry")
Combine the ingredients in the bowl of a stand mixer equipped with a dough hook. Knead on medium speed (Kitchen Aid #4) for 10 minutes. The dough should be soft, smooth and slightly tacky. Place the dough in a large bowl and seal with plastic wrap. Proof at room temperature (ideally 75–78 degrees) until doubled in size, 2–6 hours, depending on room conditions. Divide the dough into four pieces (200 grams/7 oz. each). Form tight, firm balls by gently tucking the edges of each piece under itself (as if rolling socks). Place each ball in an oiled bowl and seal with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for 24–72 hours. The balls will expand only slightly.
Yields 4 single-serving pies
6 Roma tomatoes, or to taste
Salt, pepper and olive oil for dressing tomatoes
16 oz. fresh mozzarella (4 oz. per pizza)
16 oz. whole-milk low-moisture mozzarella (4 oz. per pizza)
1 cup loosely packed basil leaves
Coarsely ground yellow cornmeal and flour (to dust the peel)
Quarter the tomatoes lengthwise and toss in salt, pepper and olive oil. Place on a foil-covered baking sheet, skin side down, and roast at 300 degrees for 90 minutes. Reserve in the refrigerator (for up to three days). One hour before baking, place a baking stone in the oven and preheat to 550 degrees. Meanwhile, remove the dough balls from the refrigerator and allow them to warm. Thinly slice the fresh mozzarella, grate the low-moisture mozzarella and roughly chop the basil.
Divide the ingredients into four portions. When the oven has fully preheated, generously dust a peel with flour and cornmeal. Dredge the first ball in flour and allow it to rest for five minutes. Place the knuckles of both hands beneath the dough round and gently stretch it into a 10-inch circle. To produce a gracefully rounded cornice, avoid grabbing or pinching the edge; stretch the dough from the inside out. If the dough resists, allow it to rest. Utilizing a quarter of the topping ingredients per pizza, lay a foundation of fresh mozzarella (don't worry about gaps). Spread the tomatoes over the mozzarella slices. Finish with the basil and low-moisture mozzarella. Slide the pizza onto the stone and bake for 10–12 minutes, or until browned, blistered and crisped. Repeat with the remaining dough balls.
For expert discussions of sourdough technique, consult Chad Robertson's Tartine Bread and Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery. I particularly recommend Jeffrey Hamelman's Bread: A Baker's Book of Techniques and Recipes (second edition), which gives the following method for producing a levain, with water measured by weight (pg. 429).
Day 1: Mix 4 oz. whole-rye flour, 4 oz. unbleached white flour (11%–12% protein) and 5.6 oz. non-chlorinated room-temperature water. Seal with plastic wrap and ferment in a warm area (75–80 degrees) for 24 hours.
Days 2–5: Every 12 hours, mix 4.5 oz. of the existing levain (discard the rest), 4 oz. unbleached white flour and 2.4 oz. non-chlorinated room-temperature water. Seal with plastic wrap and ferment at warmish room temperature. The levain is ready for use by day 6.
The pitfall of fresh mozzarella is crust-sogging moisture. Avoid really weepy mozzarella and pat excessively moist slices with a paper towel. Low-moisture mozzarella (i.e., garden-variety supermarket-style mozzarella) is too often a factory-produced insult. Melted, it should be opaque and stringy, not translucent and drippy. Both Weaver Street Market and Whole Foods sell decent low-moisture whole-milk mozzarella in plastic-wrapped chunks. Avoid low-fat mozzarella.
The margherita is a point of departure. Here's an intensely flavorful white pizza of my own invention: sliced provolone, halved artichoke hearts (Native Forest brand), julienned soppressata, minced garlic and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. The legendary Pizzeria Starita in Naples serves a remarkably nuanced pie topped with pistachio pesto (pistachio, lemon juice, Parmigiano-Reggiano, olive oil), fresh mozzarella, mortadella, pecorino romano and basil (hat tip Saveur).
This article appeared in print with the headline "Masterful margherita."