Tomato Tasting at Razza, Jersey City


I was so completely delighted to attend a tomato tasting at Razza Pizza Artigianale in lovely Jersey City a few weeks ago! The owners, Dan and Fred, are solid dudes and they truly care about their goodies — enough to invite a bunch of folks over to taste 11 different canned tomato products. 


Everybody got a super-detailed scoring sheet, complete with grading rubric and helpful hints. All the cans were covered so we couldn’t see labels. Dan mashed all the can’s contents with an emersion blender and that was that.  

He even put his own sauce into one of the cans to see how it held up against the rest. The results were pretty consistent with tomato tastings I’ve done before (2010 part 1, 2010 part 2, 2013) so that was comforting!

Cameo by Pizza A Casa's Mark Bello as Dan unveils the results!

The Results
1. Stanislaus Alta Cucina - 3.6 (a tomato from central CA, usually wins)
2. Ciao - 3.5 (Italian tomato found on the pies at Keste and Don Antonio in NYC, among others)
3. DiNapoli - 3.4 (lovely California tomatoes)
4. Escalon 6 in 1 - 3.28 (a crushed tomato product on the sweet side)
5. DaniCoop San Marzano DOP - 3.26 (Very good DOP tomato)
6. Razza’s Pizza Sauce - 3.23 (I LOVE that Dan included this!)
7. Jersey Fresh - 3.18 (another crushed product, I dig it)
8. Muir Glen - 3.1 (California organic product)
9. Cento San Marzano DOP - 2.76 (go-to supermarket availability)
10. Bianco DiNapoli - 2.1 (I love these, surprised the came in so low)
11. Teo - 2.04 (private label tomato from Chef’s Warehouse)


Tastings like this are important because the crop changes every year. If you’re struggling with your sauce, start by finding a tomato you like. The better the base, the less you have to do. Most NYC pizzerias use the Stanislaus Alta Cucina tomato, but that’s not available in stores unless you’re a restaurant. Good comparable tomatoes are the Trader Joe’s whole peeled variety (I used them on my pizza last night!), which you can get either salted or unsalted.

Big thanks to Dan and Fred and everyone over at Razza for having us! Best part after tasting all those tomatoes was having their delicious pizza! They’re hardcore about dough and natural fermentation, so DO NOT skip the bread when you go to Razza. EAT EVERYTHING YOU CAN!


The Dreaded “Gumline”

See that tubby mystery layer between crust and sauce/cheese? Gross.

You know when you’re eating a slice of pizza and there’s a gooey area between the base and the topping? It’s a serious problem known in the pizza world as the gum line and it’s ruining pizza everywhere. How can this be if the exterior of my crust is a beautiful golden brown? What is this invader doing in my pizza? Where does it come from? What can we do to stop it? There’s nothing a consumer can do to prevent the dreaded gum line, but the world’s pizza makers should be aware of this common flaw.

There are dozens of potential causes but the bottom line is temperature. Since deck-baked pizza is baking from the bottom up through direct conduction from the oven floor, the underside is baked first. If you top your base with refrigerated sauce, cheese and vegetables, there’s a good chance you’ll form a gum line. Excess moisture from sauce and vegetable toppings also can cause a gum line by penetrating the upper layer of dough and cause it to cook unevenly.

There’s also a huge matter of dough management. Dough is alive and its temperature is super important, so if it’s sealed in a container too quickly post-mix, moisture will condense and the exterior will get sticky. Allowing the dough to sit too long before scaling and rounding it can also be a big issue because the outside warms up before the inside.

An article by Tom “Dough Doctor” Lehmann points out that too little yeast in the dough can cause an uneven bake because the dough will not rise quickly enough during the bake. The first minute or so in the oven dictates the texture of the crust, so a fast spring will produce a more open internal crumb structure. How exciting!

Some pizzerias prevent sauce and topping moisture from seeping into the dough by applying a thin skin of oil to the surface after it has been opened into a skin. It’s the same principle behind spreading mayonnaise on your sandwich bread — fat blocks moisture. Some pizzerias are able to prevent the gum line by swapping the cheese and sauce so the cheese goes down first. I’ve never seen a gum line at Totonno’s, Grimaldi’s, Johns on Bleecker or Arturo’s - all of which apply their cheese first.

On the dough management side of the equation, pizzeria operators can cross-stack their dough trays for the first hour or so of the rise, allowing moisture and heat to escape. It all depends on where you are and how dry it is. Beyond that, it’s all about allowing dough to cool down evenly.

First of all, they taste gross. Secondly, it’s undercooked dough and it will likely give you a stomach ache. Finally, improperly baked pizza is giving this food a bad name and MUST BE STOPPED! Too many people are used to the gum line and actually think it’s a normal part of pizza. It is not. Please help spread the word and if we work together we can stop the dreaded gum line.

For more information, read amazing articles in Pizza Today Magazine, Canadian Pizza Magazine, the PMQ pizza making forum and the forum.

Yesterday’s Pizza making Session

Yesterday’s pizza. Cow’s milk mozzarella, basil, parmigiano, Jar Goods “classic red” sauce.

I had some dough left over from Tuesday but didn’t get a chance to use it until yesterday. Pretty good excuse to experiment with 3 day cold rise dough on my new Baking Steel! The dough is my standard formula:

315g water
500 g flour
4g yeast
10g salt

Last time I used the Steel I had it up at the top rack but the pizza got a bit too charred so I lowered it for this round. I technically split the difference between the top rack and the center rack by inserting some of my baking tiles in between. The result was pretty good! Underside of the crust was more even but I could still use more char up top.

Last week’s pizza, baked higher in the oven. Basil, grape tomato, mozzarella di bufala. Fancy!

Testing My New Oven

I just moved into a new apartment and, unlike my old place, this one has one of those tiny apartment ovens that barely fits a Hot Pocket. The major upside is it goes up to 550 degrees F (old one hit around 500) so I was able to get some major puffy action!

Here’s a quick peek under the hood. You can see some nice spotty charring and a line from the gap between my oven tiles! Yes, these slices are being eaten off a pizza slice plate. You’re welcome.

Super Simple Dough Recipe:
500g All purpose flour
315g room temp water
5g active dry yeast
10g salt

3 day cold rise (that means put it in the fridge)

Breaking in a Pizza Stone with Kate and Nir

As do most newlyweds, Kate and Nir have a neglected pizza stone. It was pretty obvious from looking at it that its only purpose had been reheating a couple rogue slices. There are certainly better ways to reheat a slice (or maybe this one) and most folks who have stones have no idea how to use them, so I figured this would be a great opportunity to show them you don’t need a brick oven to pop out a good pie.

This was a particularly rainy night and I foolishly rode my bike across town so I traveled pretty light. All I had was some dough, a bit of cheese, can of tomatoes, small tin of oil and a cheese grater. No peel, no extra flour, no slicer, etc. I like improvising but the underside of a lipped cookie sheet isn’t the most efficient means of transporting a dressed dough skin into the oven. I had some near disasters but the resulting pizza, however misshapen, was still pretty tasty.

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Cheese First vs. Sauce First

Sauce first, then cheese first. Completely different results. Both delicious.

I made these two pies over the weekend with the exact same ingredients yet the first was topped with sauce followed by cheese and the second started with cheese and sauce came last. They look and taste completely different! Starting with sauce makes sense because pizza began as a peasant food and the high cost of cheese made it more of a garnish than a main event. As costs decreased, cheese proportions increased and became what we see today as a typical “New York Style” pizza. But cheese is a great base because it protects the crust from getting gummy.

I love doing cheese first because it melts right onto the crust and you get little to no cheese drag: when your bite pulls a blanket of hot molten mozzarella off the slippery surface of a saucy pie directly onto your clean face and shirt. It also means that the surface sauce is more susceptible to evaporation, so it tends to thicken and sweeten. This order is sometimes referred to as tomato pie, as at Delorenzo’s in Trenton, NJ, but it’s also the preferred method at New York joints like John’s on Bleecker Street, Sam’s Restaurant in Brooklyn, Arturo’s in Greenwich Village and Totonno’s on Coney Island.

600g flour (I used Pillsbury bread flour for this batch)
396g water
13g salt
6g dry yeast

Starting with the water (room temp), add yeast then flour. Mix in salt and fully incorporate all ingredients. Give it a few minutes to rest while you check the mail and then knead it until smooth and springy. Cut into 4 even pieces and round into balls. Store for 1-3 days in sealed container inside refrigerator. I used mine after 2 days and it was lovely but I bet it would last 5 if push came to shove.

If you want to get a bit more depth, you can mix together 50g or flour and 50g water plus a pinch of yeast (~1g) 10-12 hours before making your dough. I did that before heading out to do a pizza tour, then when I came back 10 hours later the mixture had more than doubled in size. (Room was 71 degrees F so a warmer room will rise faster, cooler room rises slower.) I added this mixture to the remaining ingredients in the recipe (550g more flour, 346g more water, 5g yeast) and continued with the process. This allows for some fermentation to occur in advance with just about a minute of prep time. There’s no salt in the preferment because it slows down yeast fermentation. I did this preferment for the crust you see in these photos. It would be more effective if you could have tasted it. Not as much flavor as using a starter, but still really tasty. 

Winter Project: Homemade Sicilian Pizza

There she is, a Sicilian pie so good I emailed a picture of it to my dad.

Winter is the perfect time for thick crusts and gooey cheese, so I decided to make it a February project to learn how to make the perfect Sicilian pizza. After purchasing a coated black pan from Bari Equipment, my favorite restaurant supply store on the Bowery, I set out to craft a square pie that wouldn’t be the all-too-common heavy rock in the stomachs of all wide-eyed eaters. Here’s a rundown of my journey thus far.

I made a batch of dough using little bits of leftover flour from several different sources. This probably wasn’t the best idea, but I couldn’t bare to see lonely little bags of flour just sitting there in my flour bin. So I mixed 50g whole wheat with 350g bread flour and 196g all purpose. I did a 66% hydration with 110g Ischia starter. That means there was 650g total flour, 55 of which came from a starter. If you don’t have a starter, just use 650g flour and you’ll be set (but you’ll have to use more yeast). The 66% hydration means I used a water with a weight of 66% the 650g flour weight. That’s 429g, but 55g of water were already in the starter so I only had to add 374g water to the mix. Confused? Just remember that most starters are 50/50 water to flour, so a 200g portion of starter is 100g water and 100g flour. To boost the air content, I added 1g active dry yeast. After mixing by hand and a 30 rest period, I kneaded in about 15g salt. After another 30 minute rest, I loaded the finished dough into a lightly-oiled  container and let her sit in the fridge for a couple days.

My oiled dough prepping for its final rise on baking day.

I ended up baking my pizza about two days after making the dough. Unlike with Neapolitan pizza, square pies require a long rise after stretching and before baking. Getting the dough into the square pan requires a series of short rises inter-cut by delicate stretching. It took about three hours to get the dough from a ball to this square shape. I’m actually going to try a longer rise and a single stretch next time because this pie came out a bit too dense for me. I should note that this dough is lightly covered with oil, so it won’t dry out during the rise.

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Fried Pizza - The Perfect Food?

Montanara at Forcella in NYC.

Yes, you read that correctly. Fried pizza is real and it’s comin’ to getcha. Imagine a sweet, innocent pizza walking home one night only to be cornered in a dark alley by a dangerous deep fryer. Sounds terrifying, but the confrontation actually results in a flavor mashup the likes of which few tongues have ever tasted. It combines the danger of oil with the familiarity of typical pizza toppings. New York pizza is currently experiencing its first real dose of the deep fryer, but what exactly is it and where does it come from?

I became a big proponent of fryers when I bought one in college. We had parties on Friday nights in which friends would bring over anything they wanted to fry. Yes, we did call it FriedDay. People brought anything from chicken and fish to cookies and Hostess cupcakes. We formulated different batters for sweet and savory items and eventually bought a second fryer to accommodate both genre. Come to think of it, I don’t remember cooking anything else when I was in college - those fryers were pretty much it!

Suffice it to say, I was into frying almost as much as I was into pizza. So when my friend Jeff called me in 2003 to tell me there was a place doing deep-fried pizza in Brooklyn, I jumped on a train from New Jersey and met him at Chip Shop in Park Slope. What we got was a lackluster slice from the pizzeria across the street battered abused by the deep fryer. We could still taste the briny residue from the day’s orders of fish and chips. It was totally gross.

New York Post article about Forcell’s Montanara. The media loves it.

Luckily, the fried pizza hitting NYC today is a completely different animal. I remember hearing about it from Keste’s Roberto Caporuscio, but Giulio Adriani was the first to pull it off at his Williamsburg pizzeria Forcella. The process begins with a stretched piece of dough, opened in the same way a dough would be stretched for pizza. The one major difference is that the dough is punctured at several spots inside the outer rim. This “docking” process eliminates gas pockets that would normally expand when met with extreme heat. The dough is then placed into the deep fryer, where it puffs up and forms a bread bowl that is both light and crispy. After pulling the dough out and drying it for a few seconds, toppings are applied and the whole thing slides into the oven in a small metal dish so the oily dough doesn’t make contact with the brick hearth and send smoke throughout the space. After a quick dip into the oven, the cheese is melted and the sauce is cooked. The result is a complete departure from pizza baked solely inside an oven.

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Experimental Emergency Dough Excitement

Ready for the drama? I made a batch of dough last week and gave it the usual 3-day rise, but just a few hours before the baking session began I realized too many people were coming over and I needed (kneaded?) more dough. Not a huge deal, I learned a great recipe for 1-hour dough from Mark Bello at Pizza a Casa, but I wanted to kick up the flavor a bit to better match the depth I was planning on getting from my 3-day batch. Sounds like a potential tragedy, but it was actually the perfect opportunity for me to attempt something crazy.

Regular batch, using Bob’s Red Mill flour and a 3 day rise.

Allow me to explain. A dough develops more flavor with longer fermentation because of bacterial replication. Therefore, dough baked after only a short fermentation will not have as much flavor because of lower bacterial content… unless you add some yourself! I figured I could take a shortcut and add something that derives its flavor from a bacterial culture: yogurt.

Here’s the formula I used:
600g Bob’s Red Mill flour
384g water (100 degrees F)
15g instant dry yeast
25g salt
26g Chobani plain Greek yogurt

Mixed all dry, added wet, mixed and autolyse (just lettin’ it chillax) for 30 minutes. Kneaded for 5 minutes, rested for 5 minutes, kneaded until tight enough to bounce back from a poke. Then split and balled, packed in lightly oiled plastic pint containers for quick room temp rise.

Here’s the result….

Thinly sliced raw potato and red onion with fresh mozzarella.

Caramelized onions and sauteed mushrooms atop a bed of mozzarella and scamorza.

Crust flavor wasn’t as tangy and bright as I had hoped for, maybe I need to add more yogurt. But the pies I made with the short dough did bake up nicely. They were more dense and crunchy than those made with the 3-day rise, but certainly tasty enough to eat. One friend suggested I add a small squeeze of citrus to the yogurt for some extra zing. I’ll try that next time I’m in a bind and need more dough last minute.

My standard formula worked out well, I’m pretty happy with it as a go-to recipe when I know I have the luxury of a 3-day rise.

Fresh mozzarella, garlic and sun-dried tomatoes with grated piave cheese.

Here’s the skinny:
600g All Purpose flour
379g warm water
100g Ischia starter
20g salt
1.5g instant dry yeast

Mixed all dry, added wet, mixed and autolyse for 45 minutes. Kneaded for 5, rested for 5, kneaded until tight enough to bounce back from a poke. Then split and balled, packed in lightly oiled plastic pint containers for 3-day cold rise.

Now back to the drama. Some of my pals had to leave early so I ended up with leftover dough after all. No problem, we baked some bread the next morning! All we did was pull it out of the fridge, let it rise on a well-floured peel (covered with a dish towel) and viola!

Weekend Pizza Making

I made a batch of pizza on Friday and it came out great so I thought I’d post some photos and current dough formula for those who are interested in trying it themselves. Here’s the scoop on the dough:

380g warm tap water
595g King Arthur All Purpose flour
20g salt
2g instant dry yeast
100g Ischia starter
splash of olive oil

I started with the water, to which I slowly added the flour as I mixed. About halfway through adding the flour, I tossed in the yeast, salt and oil. When everything was incorporated, I covered the bowl and went out to run some errands. This is the autolyse phase, during which the flour gets hydrated and kneading becomes easier. I usually give about 30 minutes for this but errands took longer than expected so I didn’t get to the kneading phase until 5.75 hours later. By that time, the dough was totally ready to rock! I poured it onto my kneading surface and spent about 5-6 minutes working the batch until it felt done. I just split the mass into four 275g chunks, balled, then stored in oil-lined plastic quart containers in the refrigerator. 

Four days later, I took the dough out of the fridge and gave them about 2 hours to rise (still in their containers). The oven took about 1.5 hours cranked on broil in my basic gas oven (the broiler is on the bottom so I get most of my heat this way). Each pizza spent about 4.5 minutes in the oven before a 180 degree rotation and a final minute to finish. The results were pretty even, although my stretching definitely improved over the course of the night. Here are a couple of the results:

Mozzarella, crushed tomato, basil, sun-dried tomatoes.

Spinach, garlic, mozzarella, crushed tomato, black pepper.

I also conducted a quick, completely non-scientific, experiment using tomatoes left over from the tomato tasting I hosted at the Brooklyn Brainery a couple weeks ago. I tried two different tomatoes, one from Paulie Gee’s secretly sourced stash (Italian) and one from a popular restaurant supplier (California).

Uncrushed Paulie Gee tomatoes (Italian), hand-crushed tomatoes from Stanislaus (CA).

Both were plenty tasty and the pizzas were a bit different so I can’t report any conclusive findings, but the California tomatoes were definitely saltier. As always, use whatever floats your boat.

And finally, for all the pizza nerds who like looking at the details, here are a couple glory shots.

All pies were baked in a quarry tile cave. Check out the video at EconomyBites.