There are two ways to grill a pizza - you can take the delectable path or the incinerated route. I've traveled both.
When done correctly, you get a grilled pizza with a crisp, slightly smoky crust, velvetlike cheese and tomatoes oozing with warm, tangy juice.
When it's fouled up, you get a charred, blackened brick.
Trust me, it is easy to end up with the blackened brick. If you don't sprinkle a little olive oil on your dough when you roll it out, if you mosey away from the grill at the wrong time, if you don't have all your toppings at your fingertips, if you take one too many sips of your cold beverage and gaze too long at the sunset, your pizza is toast. Been there, burned that.
Yet, if you pull it off, the grilled pizza will astound your family, impress your friends and feed your fantasy of shucking the day job and opening that joint on the corner.
A core ingredient of a superior pizza is the dough. The best pizza dough is the one you make yourself. I have a favorite homemade dough that uses an Alice Waters recipe and calls for a mixture of rye and all-purpose flours.
Any dough you make yourself will have more flavor and texture than the store-bought types. However, making your own dough requires an investment of time - it takes about a half a day to let the dough do its levitating - and a risk of bruising your ego. To be blunt, when it comes to grilled pizza, I do not want to risk torching dough that I have nurtured from its yeasty beginnings.
Besides, the store-bought balls of pizza doughs work just fine. I usually have several in the freezer that I have snagged on a trip to Trinacria. Whenever I visit this Italian grocery on North Paca Street, I get refrigerated pizza dough and an assessment from proprietor Vince Fava of how the Ravens will fare. In both cases, the product is chilling.
At home I toss the extra balls of dough into the freezer for use later, but put one on the kitchen countertop to warm up. Pizza dough should be warm and soft to the touch. When the dough reaches room temperature, I slice the ball in half and then roll out the two pieces.
When working the dough with a rolling pin, I sprinkle it with a little olive oil. This moistens the dough, and keeps it from sticking on the hot grill. I roll each piece of dough several times to get it to the desired thickness, somewhere between one-half and one-quarter inch. Good pizza dough has to be rolled out several times, nagged if you will, to attain the proper posture.
Next, I build a fire in my kettle cooker. I am a charcoal griller, and in this instance I use lump charcoal, which burns hotter and faster than the briquettes. You could use a gas grill as well. But whatever fuel you use, you have to confine your fire to half of the grilling surface.
Once the fire is ready, I toss a few Italian sausages on it. The sausage will end up as pizza toppings, but like any meat you put on grilled pizza, it has to be precooked. Once that dough hits the grill, there is no time for dawdling.
As part of my preparation for the big grilling moment, I shred the cheese, slice the tomatoes, make some pesto and slice the cooked sausages. I place these toppings in bowls on a table within easy reach of the grill.
It is important to have a large, flat, stable surface to hold your pizza dough and your finished pizza later. I use a wooden cutting board or a wooden peel.
The moment of truth comes when the dough goes onto the grill. With the help of a large spatula, I position the dough directly over the hot fire. It does not sit there very long, perhaps a minute, over the blazing charcoal. If my timing is right when I flip the dough, I see appetizing light-brown marks on the dough. If I have lingered, the dough is black. Black is bad. I have eaten blackened pizza dough, but cannot recommend it. Best to start over.
If things are going well, I grill the flipped side of the dough for about a minute, and then maneuver it away from the fire, to the other side of the grill.
Then with lightning speed, the toppings go on. The cheese goes on first; this is a quirk of grilled pizza, because the cheese has to be close to the heat to melt. Then on go the pesto, the sliced tomatoes and the sliced pieces of sausage.
Finally, I put on the cooker lid, with its vent open, and give the pizza about two minutes to finish. This is a nervous time, because I want the toppings to be warm, but don't want to burn the dough. I often pull off the lid and peek. Once the cheese has melted, you are home free, especially if you use garden tomatoes, which taste good regardless of how warm they are.
A grilled pizza is not as stiff as the ones that come in cardboard boxes. I make it a point to have my cutting board or peel next to the grill as I lift the pizza off the fire with the extra-wide spatula.
I usually make two grilled pizzas. The leftovers make savory, if somewhat soggy, microwaved lunches. Moreover, when you make two, if one turns to cinders, you still have a second shot at attaining pizza perfection.
Look for Rob Kasper's column Wednesdays and his Takeout column Thursdays in You.