Can you top this? Perfectly grilled pizza is persistence pay-off

HAPPY EATER

September 02, 1992|By ROB KASPER

Until recently, I couldn't cook a pizza on the barbecue grill.

Each time I tried, the resulting concoction was darker and harder to chew than the pizza attempted before it.

You have heard of black bottom pie, what I made was black bottom pizza. Either that or manhole covers topped with cheese and tomatoes.

Most were marked by dark, hard substrata and had crunchy, almost raw, toppings. I ate these pizzas out of defiance. Other family members were not as enthusiastic. At best they separated the few parts that looked edible from parts that looked corrugated and tried to wolf them down.

My failures did give me pause. Maybe pizza was something beyond my grill skill level. Besides making the dough was a lot of trouble. You made the dough, let it rise, then punched it down. It was time-consuming.

It reminded me of raising kids. You work hard making sure they are properly formed. They grow, almost, overnight. Then, when they get an inflated opinion of their place in the world, you have to deflate them.

Moreover, some of my pizza dough seemed to suffer from separation anxiety, like kids at the first day of school. It was supposed to slide off the baking sheet and onto the grill, but often when it was supposed to say goodbye, the dough got clingy.

This happened to the tomato and goat cheese number I tried to slip onto the grill. Half of it wanted to go, half didn't. The result was a wad of ingredients that a trendy restaurant might have called a "pizza melange." I called it failed pizza.

Despite the setbacks, I kept at it. I wanted to grill a pizza, partly out of pride, partly out of stubbornness. Then there was the flavor.

While crunching through the pile of blackened dough I would occasionally hit a patch of perfectly cooked pizza. It tasted terrific.

Eventually I did get it right. The key to success proved to be following directions.

Long ago I had read the instructions in "Cucina Simpatica" (HarperCollins $25), the cookbook on grilled foods written by Johanne Killeen and George Germon, the husband and wife team from Al Forno restaurant in Providence, R.I.

But I had read them in a hurry, the way I sometimes listen to directions that people give me on how to get to their house. I was not noting the details, because in the back of my mind I was convinced I knew what to do.

It was only when things went wrong, that I was shocked into paying attention.

So I took a thorough look at the dough-making drill. All the ingredients -- yeast, cornmeal, whole wheat flour, white flour, olive oil, sugar, water and salt -- were accounted for.

But I failed to feed the dough. That is why it was clinging. The final line of the dough-making instructions said, knead in more flour if the dough is sticky. Once the dough-kneading needs were met, it easily slipped onto the grill.

Next I checked the fire. I had used the prescribed hardwood charcoal -- normal briquettes on gas grills are not hot enough.

But I had not put a brick in the bottom of my kettle grill. This time, to make up for past sins, I put in two. The bricks performed several functions. First, they neatly divided the grill into a hot side and cold side. Second, the heated bricks evened out the heat under the pizza, cutting down on the hot spots. Hot spots under a pizza easily translate into black spots on the crust.

Finally, and most importantly, I added an able assistant, my wife, to the pizza-grilling process.

The assistant came in handy. After cooking the pizza for a few minutes on the hot side of the grill, you gotta check the bottom of the dough. For this you need an assistant. I lifted the dough up, my assistant peeked at its bottom. We were quite a team.

Later we checked for doneness, by flipping the cooked dough over, from the hot to cold side of the grill. If the dough was sufficiently done, we would then brush the cooked side with olive oil and add toppings. Next, with the uncooked side facing the fire, we would push the pizza back over to the hot side of the grill to finish cooking. It was done in about 5 minutes, when the toppings began to bubble.

We experimented with toppings. We tossed on fontina, Romano and goat cheeses. We tossed on handfuls of minced garlic, sliced tomatoes and basil leaves fresh from the plant growing a few feet from the grill. We even threw on some slices of grilled eggplant. They actually tasted good, not like eggplant.

All the pizzas had an appealing grilled flavor. I felt proud, so proud that I left the bricks in the barbecue kettle. I wanted to grill pizza again.

I guess the moral of this story is never give up. And always read the directions.

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