At the best of times, January can feel like the bleakest month. The twinkling Christmas lights disappear, grey rules the sky and, after any snowfall, the pristine landscape that seems to mirror the blank slate of the new year turns into a muddy mess. This year, however, things feel even more grim, fraught with anxiety and base showmanship, although there are the occasional glimmers of hope from the most unexpected of places. Even so, all of this makes me want to retreat back into the promise of December, when I was home for the holidays and treated to daily helpings of family stories. 
These stories inevitably focus on my maternal great-grandparents, though they also sometimes veer into the more distant past. There was the great-great-great-grandmother who was serenaded by a gentleman back in Italy (where, we don’t know for certain, but I like to imagine Tuscany) and married against her family’s wishes; a car accident in the ‘new country’ that nearly claimed lives and instilled a lifelong fear of motor vehicles; children abandoned and raised by their older siblings; and enough broken hearts and stolen money to populate a serial on the BBC (or a Dickens novel). Hearing these stories, I am always struck not only by how much the world has changed and how shocked these people would be to discover these changes, but also by how colorful and how rich their lives seem in comparison to our computer-dominated existences. I also sometimes think that, given the surreal nature of some of these tales and the fact that I had been made privy to them at a fairly young age, it’s no wonder I found myself on the doorstep of Russian literature.

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’sJim Lahey’sRoberta’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…

Quick, Yeasty Pizza Dough
Adapted from The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook
Makes 2 pizzas (round or rectangular) 
I like making my pizza dough by hand, but you can also use a food process or mixer as well. 
1 cup warm water 
2 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
240 (2 cups) grams unbleached bread flour (N.B. If not using spelt or cornmeal, use 360 grams bread flour)
60 grams (1/2 cup) spelt flour
86 grams medium grind cornmeal* (N.B. This is if you like more texture; if you don’t, use 66 grams [1/2 cup] fine cornmeal)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Olive oil for coating

Preheat the oven to 225 F. Once it reaches and maintains this temperature for 5 minutes, turn it off.
Pour the cup of water into a large bowl and sprinkle the yeast over the water. Let stand for 5 minutes or until lightly foaming. 
While the yeast is being activated, whisk together the flours, cornmeal and salt. Once the yeast and water mixture is ready, slowly pour it into the bowl with the dry ingredients. Using a wooden spoon, mix until the dough roughly comes together (if more water is needed, add one tablespoon at a time), then turn the dough and any loose scraps onto a lightly floured countertop. Knead for 5-7 minutes or until the dough is smooth and springy. Test the dough by poking it with your index finger; if it springs back, it is ready to rest. 
Lightly coat the inside of a mixing bowl with olive oil and place the dough in the bowl, turning it over once so that both sides of the dough have been coated with oil. Cover with a towel and place in the previously warmed oven. Let the dough sit in the oven for at least 30 minutes (longer is also fine). When you take the dough out of the oven, it should have doubled in size. 
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured countertop and divide the mass into two parts (you can use a scale for precision, but I usually eyeball it). 
Lightly rub olive oil into your hands and shape and stretch your dough to about 12 inches (if making a round pizza) or to roughly 9×13 inches (if making a rectangular pizza); if it tears, just lightly patch it together. Add your toppings (see recipe below), then repeat with the second ball of dough. 
*These measurements are based on Bob’s Red Mill brand, which I use. And, just in case you were wondering, this is not a preference based on sponsorship, but quality. 
Butternut Squash Pizza with Gremolata and Gorgonzola
Makes 4-6 servings, with a side salad

I like to prepare my toppings in advance, so I would recommend at least roasting the squash and before starting the dough. In fact, given the recipe for this dough, it would be easy to put the prepared dough into the oven after removing the squash and letting the oven cool for at least 10-15 minutes.
When I was experimenting with different pizza recipes I was finding online and in cookbooks, I liked the trick, which I learned from Sam Sifton’s article on Roberta’s Pizza, of coating the dough with a little cream–at least for a white pizza– before adding the toppings. I now do this with some of my favorites: for spring, asparagus and taleggio; for summer, a zucchini and tarragon pizza that I learned from my friend Cameron and call, in my head, the Cameron and Eric; for fall and winter, this one, as well as herbed ricotta pies
For the squash: 

Peel and cube a butternut squash. Lightly coat with oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast at 400F for 20-25 minutes.
For the gremolata
Gremolata, as I mentioned above, is a classic Italian garnish that combines parsley, garlic and lemon zest. But, as with all things, it doesn’t have to be that way. You could mix up your herbs (I have made sage gremolata and cilantro gremolata and even three-herb–parsley, rosemary and thyme–gremolata) and even your citrus (why not lime, orange or blood orange?). When I was making and photographing the photos for this recipe, I didn’t have enough parsley on my plant or in the fridge, so I used parsley, rosemary and thyme;  I will provide this version below, but feel free to mix things up. 
      Also, while I recognize that this is supposed to be put on the pizza once it comes out of the oven (the Gioia way), I have started putting it on the pizza before baking it. It’s not traditional, but, again, it works. 
3 tablespoons fresh parsley, finely chopped
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
2 cloves of garlic, finely chopped
zest of one lemon
For the pizzas: 

2 teaspoons of heavy cream (1 tsp. per pizza) 
10 ounces of grated low-moisture mozzarella, divided into two 5-ounce piles
3 ounces of crumbled gorgonzola or other bleu cheese, divided into two 1.5 ounce piles
roughly one cup of cubed roasted squash (about 1/3-1/2 cup squash per pizza)
the prepared gremolata, halved
olive oil, for rubbing on the crust
a squeeze or two of lemon juice (optional)
To assemble one pizza: 

Preheat the oven to 500 F. If you have a pizza stone, place it in the oven. 
Using the dough that you have stretched and shaped onto a pizza pan or rectangular baking sheet, rub the teaspoon of cream onto the dough, leaving the outside border (about one inch) bare. Scatter the mozzarella over the dough evenly, then add the crumbled gorgonzola and cubed squash. Sprinkle the gremolata over the prepared pie. Lightly rub or brush the exposed dough with a little bit of olive oil, then place the pie in the oven (or on top of the pizza stone that has been heating in the oven) for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the dough is blistered in places and the cheese is bubbling. 
Remove the pie and serve immediately, adding a squeeze of lemon juice if desired. 
Repeat the process with the second ball of dough.

3 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Pizzas

  1. This is so amazing!! I had no idea your great-grandmother and namesake had opened a restaurant! I wish so much that I could have eaten there. I have no doubt that it was impeccably delicious. Funny too, I haven't thought in ages about putting cornmeal in pizza dough, though truthfully there has been a very regrettable lack of pizza in my life lately, mostly because I fear having an oven that hot, tiny curious hands, and a kitchen with no door! This will hopefully be remedied with a baby gate in the new house. I send this missive from Medford, Oregon, on our way up to the land where I will probably never be sorry to have an oven at 550 on cold, rainy days:)

  2. Let me just say, dear friend, that while it is nice to have an excuse to turn on the oven, cold and rainy days, at least when they come in pairs (or weeks). can become rather tiresome. 🙂 But they are a good reason to turn on the oven and make pizza or bake bread (yesterday's occupation!), so they do have their charm.

    And, yes, my great-grandmother had this restaurant for 10-15 years, I think; it was all Italian food: pasta, meatballs, pizza….and probably something for dessert, although I can't say exactly what (clearly the next question to ask my grandmother). I wish I could have eaten there, too. In some ways, I feel like I have, since my grandma learned to cook from her mother, but, still, there are things, like the pizza recipe, that were lost along the way.

    And how funny that you no longer add cornmeal to your dough (I was recently wondering if I should cut back to 1/4 cup if using medium grind, or if I should just revert to 1/2 cup of fine cornmeal; tweak, tweak, tweak…). 🙂 You were one of my earliest pizza-and-bread-baking-at-home inspirations. I still make that zucchini and tarragon pizza that you served at your first dinner party with Eric; I always think of it as the “Cameron and Eric.” I hope the new kitchen will be everything you have hoped for (I still want to see more photos, but all in good time). In the meantime, happy road tripping; stay warm and be safe! x

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