Of course, I don’t mean, or intend, to trivialize my family members in any way; they were real and, in memories and family movies, continue to be as real as ever. It’s just that, for me, they have always seemed both larger than life and, as I never actually met them, somewhat elusive. I know that my great-grandfather had a hearty laugh and a love of sports and that my great-grandmother and namesake was a card shark who loved to gamble, was prone to exaggeration (really, just a euphemism for lies, but white lies only) and could cook circles around you in the kitchen. She also just happened to be petite and feisty, and I am often told that I am like her. When I look at her photograph and try to figure out what we more noticeably have in common, I immediately see the bump in her nose. And when I hear that, after being diagnosed with the brain tumor that would claim her life, rather than heeding the advice of the doctors, she instead stuffed her change purse full of the medication that she was supposed to be taking, I know that we are indeed cut from the same cloth.
In the early 1950s, Kathryn (the First) opened a small restaurant, the Ten Mile Pizza Hut, along the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania. Throughout my childhood, I heard much about this pizza, from my family and the parents of friends, who, upon meeting me, would say that my great-grandmother had made the best pizza in town. I would smile and say thank you, that I had heard of this pizza, but had obviously never tried it; secretly, I wondered if it was as good as everybody said, or if they were just being polite, remembering fondly what was no more. To my grandparents and mother, I would ask questions about both the family business, wanting to know why we never made this kind of pizza and why we weren’t, as the relatives of a woman who had run a ‘Pizza Hut,’ filthy rich. The second question was simple to answer: my great-grandmother had never licensed the name (it’s also possible that the brothers who founded the first ever ‘Pizza Hut’ in Wichita, Kansas, in 1958, themselves came up with the name and had never heard of the Ten Mile version). The first question was more complicated, and represents, in addition to spoiling her children one of the greatest regrets of my grandmother’s life: that nobody had ever thought to ask for this recipe until it was too late and the effects of the brain tumor had taken this knowledge away.
Fast forward to 2010, the year I began writing this blog. I went home that summer, high on the success of having passed my qualifying exams and excited to have, at long last, more time for personal pursuits. My summer goals were to learn to make pies and pizza and, while we did make both (I wrote this and this post and took some less than ideal food photos!), when it came time to prepare the pizza, I was shocked to discover that my grandmother used store-bought shells. I remember slowly processing this, “Shells…from the store?” It may sound (and maybe is) snobby, but it seemed impossible that a woman who could bake her way into the good graces of an Ottoman sultan and whose mother had run a small pizza empire would ever make pizza using “shells from the store.” I’ve had to accept, however, that, whereas I have quaint ideas about reclaiming the past and making cakes and all kinds of things from scratch, my grandmother has fully embraced the wide world of modern conveniences. And, in the case of the pizza shells, it wasn’t even so much a reliance on convenience; rather, it was the disappointment of having tried different recipes and flour ratios and never having been able to replicate the taste of the past. She had so hated the taste of these failed experiments that she had made herself sick trying different recipes. The store-bought shell was a concession and one that I think she made only so as to be able to enjoy pizza at all. The pizza that we made with it was fine, even good, but I knew that, when it came to homemade pizza, I was going to have to make my own way.
I started looking up recipes in the New York Times and on blogs, as well as asking trusted friends who had seemed to master the art of pizza which recipe(s) they liked. As I tried these recipes–Mark Bittman’s, Jim Lahey’s, Roberta’s–I also started a campaign, sending them to my grandma and encouraging her to try them. She had her preferences (Bittman’s was her favorite of the bunch) and I had mine (Roberta’s dough was excellent, but, since I rarely plan to make pizza ahead of time, I needed a more reliable and speedy dough) but it was only in Delaware in fall 2015, when my grandparents arrived on the Sunday before Thanksgiving to find me for them, that our pizza dough preferences converged. While I was shaping the dough, Deb Perelman’s “rushed pizza dough,” pulling and stretching it, she commented, “That’s nice dough, easy to work with too. It reminds me of my mother’s.” When the pizza, roasted sweet potato with a sage gremolata (a riff on the recipe I’m providing today), came out of the oven, and we all sat down to eat, she said, breaking the almost holy silence that fills a room when people are eating well, “This is good pizza. It reminds me of my mother’s. I want you to send the recipe to me.” I promised that I would and, life being what it is and despite my best intentions, I am doing so only now.
Given our family’s history with pizza, it seems strange that a recipe that I adapted from a lady in New York would become our (new) family recipe. Recipes, after all, are supposed to be passed down, but this one is being passed up. Parts of it, if you really think about it, have even come at us from the side: the addition of cornmeal that my Slavic BFF Cameron introduced me to, the world’s obsession with baking with whole-grain flours like spelt, which compelled me to try the dough with 1/2 cup of its nutty flavor, the interconnected nature of kitchens today via blogs and word of mouth, which is how Deb’s fast, easy and reliably good recipe ended up becoming my pizza recipe of choice. Truly, I have tried a lot of doughs and her trick of placing the prepared dough in an oven that has been warmed for 30 minutes (or longer in my experience) leads to the most supple and pliable of doughs, which, when baked, blisters and puffs up in all the right places. It also means that pizza can be dinner on any night of the week, provided you have the bare minimum in your fridge and pantry (flour, yeast, salt, oil, as well as cheese and your toppings of choice).
My favorite pizza, at least in the fall and winter, is one that my great-grandmother was definitely not serving in her restaurant. It is one that I first tried in Berkeley several years ago at a small hole in the wall called Gioia’s (Bay Area residents, though the pizza at both establishments is Brooklyn-style, don’t confuse the North Berkeley location with the much fancier and more spacious San Francisco one; the shop on Hopkins Street is tiny and has a gritty, New York feel to it): a “white” pizza with roasted butternut squash, mozzarella, gorgonzola and gremolata, an Italian garnish made of lemon zest, parsley and garlic. This combination–tangy, sharp, bright–livens up the soft sweetness of the squash, which, as we all know, can start to feel tired and overdone at a certain point in the fall and winter (I encounter this problem a lot; this post, that post and this new favorite can help you overcome your squash fatigue). Maybe even right about now…