Grilled Pizza: a Savory Fourth-of-July Treat

It requires more finesse than burgers, but it's sure to set off some taste-bud fireworks and jazz up the barbecue scene

Pizza may not be the epitome of patriotic food. But many will argue that it has become America's favorite food. And perhaps it's time that America signed a declaration of independence from Italy and its Old World dominance of pizza.

As people toss around ideas for Fourth-of-July festivities, they may do well to consider cooking pizza on the grill.

Does this mean you have to give hamburgers the heave-ho? Of course not. But offering pizza will set off some taste-bud fireworks, not to mention make the barbecue scene more fun for the tong-wielding grillmeister and the neighborhood kids.

While you may "throw" a burger or dog on the grill, pizza requires a little more finesse. You guide or place the dough on the grill for a few minutes until crisp, then turn it over, (deep dish this is not) and top it with a temperate sprinkling of goodies. You can even decorate in patriotic colors, if you wish - red peppers or tomatoes, white cheese, and, well, blue is a little problematic.

"Pizza has universal appeal," assures chef George Germon, widely recognized as the originator of and expert on grilled pizza. Together with his wife, Johanne Killeen, Mr. Germon owns Al Forno restaurant in Providence, R. I., which was recently named the best casual restaurant in the world by International Herald Tribune food critic Patricia Wells. ("The best pizza I have ever eaten came from the hands of George Germon," Ms. Wells proclaimed.)

Germon "discovered" grilled pizza by mistake some 10 years ago.

A friend came back from a trip to Italy and described this outrageously delicious "grilled" pizza he had in Florence.

Germon and Ms. Killeen looked at each other and shrugged: In all their travels in Italy, they had tasted scores of pizzas, but they were all baked in traditional wood-burning ovens, never on a grill. As it turned out, their friend mistakenly referred to the beehive-looking oven as a "grill."

However, Germon was so intrigued with the idea of making pizza on a grill - over an open flame - that he started to experiment. Much to the chef's surprise, the dough didn't fall through the rack. Even better, the crust was more flavorful because it came in direct contact with the fire and smoke.

Today, grilled pizza is Al Forno's trademark, and it has been copied by restaurants around the world.

The following recipe for pizza - with homemade dough - is quite detailed, but don't let that put you off.

"We've taught classes with 6-year-olds," Germon says.

"They love it, but we have to keep the amounts of cheese down. It becomes a game of 'how much you can load on top.'"

That tendency is by no means limited to people born after the bicentennial. Americans in general seem to have a fascination with piling "the works" on pizzas.

Here, subtlety is key. Especially on the grill, you want to be delicate, Germon says. Don't overwhelm the crust. "If the ingredients are all good, no need for extra." (Plus, if you have too much on top, the crust will burn before the toppings heat through.)

Germon suggests grinding the cheese very finely, so it melts faster. Also, if you want a crispier crust, you can soak the dough in olive oil.

For the best effect, use charwood, not charcoal brickettes, Germon says. (Charwood is available at many whole-food stores. One brand is Nature's Own, and can be ordered from Peoples Woods in Cumberland, R.I.: 800-729-5800.)

PIZZA DOUGH

The following recipe will make enough dough for four 12-inch pizzas. Each pizza will serve 4 as an appetizer or 1 as a main course. They are so irresistible, however, that you may want to have extra dough on hand in case your guests demand an encore. Any leftover dough can be wrapped and refrigerated overnight, but remember to bring it to room temperature before grilling. We don't suggest freezing the dough. It toughens and does not spread easily to achieve the thin crust characteristic of grilled pizza. Before you become expert with the technique, make sure you have extra dough on hand for mishaps.

1 envelope (2-1/2 teaspoons) active dry yeast

1 cup warm water

Pinch sugar

2-1/4 teaspoons kosher salt

1/4 cup johnnycake meal or fine-ground white cornmeal

3 tablespoons whole-wheat flour

1 tablespoon virgin olive oil

2-1/2 to 3-1/2 cups unbleached white flour

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water with the sugar.

After 5 minutes stir in the salt, johnnycake meal, whole-wheat flour, and oil. Gradually add the white flour, stirring with a wooden spoon until a stiff dough has formed.

Place the dough on a floured board, and knead it for several minutes, adding only enough additional flour to keep the dough from sticking.

When the dough is smooth and shiny, transfer it to a bowl that has been brushed with olive oil. To prevent a skin from forming, brush the top of the dough with additional olive oil, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place, away from drafts until double in bulk, 1-1/2 to 2 hours.

Punch down the dough and knead once more. Let the dough rise again for about 40 minutes.

Punch down the dough. If it is sticky, knead in a bit more flour.

Makes about 24 ounces of dough or enough for four 12-inch pizzas.

GRILLED PIZZA MARGARITA

You will note that the ingredients given in the following recipe are for individual pizzas. You may want to have different toppings on hand for a variety of pizzas. Feel free to invent your own combinations, but keep in mind that this is one situation where less is more. Use a judicious hand, and suppress the natural tendency to cover the entire surface of dough.

6 ounces Pizza Dough (recipe left)

1/4 cup virgin olive oil for brushing and drizzling

1/2 teaspoon minced fresh garlic

1/2 cup loosely packed shredded fontina

2 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino Romano

6 tablespoons chopped canned tomatoes in heavy puree (less watery the better)

8 basil leaves

Prepare a hot charcoal fire, setting the grill rack 3 to 4 inches above the coals.

On a large, oiled, inverted baking sheet, spread and flatten the pizza dough with your hands into a 10- to 12-inch free-form circle, 1/8-inch thick. Do not make a lip. You may end up with a rectangle rather than a circle; the shape is unimportant, but do take care to maintain an even thickness.

When the fire is hot (when you can hold your hand over the coals for 3 to 4 seconds at a distance of 5 inches), use your fingertips to lift the dough gently by the two corners closest to you, and drape it onto the grill. Catch the loose edge on the grill first and guide the remaining dough into place over the fire. Within a minute the dough will puff slightly, the underside will stiffen, and grill marks will appear.

Using tongs, immediately flip the crust over, onto the coolest part of the grill. Quickly brush the grilled surface with olive oil. Scatter the garlic and cheeses over the dough, and spoon dollops of tomato over the cheese. Do not cover the entire surface of the pizza with tomatoes. Finally drizzle the pizza with 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

Slide the pizza back toward the hot coals, but not directly over them. Using tongs, rotate the pizza frequently so that different sections receive high heat; check the underside often to see that it is not burning. The pizza is done when the top is bubbly and the cheese melted, about 6 to 8 minutes. Serve at once, topped with the basil leaves and additional olive oil, if desired.

Serves 1 as a main course or 2 to 4 as an appetizer.

- Recipes from 'Cucina Simpatica: Robust Trattoria Cooking,' by Johanne Killeen & George Germon, owners, Al Forno restaurant, Providence, R. I.

(Harper Collins, 1991)

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