At least to him. And when it comes to matters of the heart, like ultimate pizza satisfaction, who else’s taste really matters?
“I am obsessive-compulsive, almost, when it comes to the quality and type of pizza I want,” Bedenko said. On his backyard patio, he stretched dough that had been fermenting for three days over the back of his hands.
Behind him, hardwood smoke wafted from a Weber kettle specially outfitted to produce Neapolitan-style pizza at temperatures over 700 degrees Fahrenheit. Pieced together after years of trial and error, it’s equipped with an expansion ring to hold in the heat and a steel plate to blister pies from above. Bedenko has found he can buy happiness, at least when it comes to backyard pizza, and the price was $600.
“Purity and simplicity, that’s the beauty of it to me,” he said.
“This part is complicated,” he said, raising the dough, “but the actual pizza is the simplest thing in the world.”
He put cubes of fresh mozzarella, dabs of crushed San Marzano tomatoes and a few basil leaves on the stretched-out dough, the classic margherita pie, and sprinkled it with a pinch of salt. He lifted the paddle-like peel it rested on and, with the help of a spatula, scooted the dough onto flame-licked firebrick inside the kettle.
In the intense heat, the crust was puffing in 15 seconds, bread-baking fragrant by 30, and Bedenko was turning it with the peel a minute later, to even out the dark crust bubbles that were rising.
In four minutes, it was on a plate, where time stood still as hungry people wait for it to cool. Meanwhile, Bedenko had scooted the next one into the kettle already, bearing sliced fresh figs, Gorgonzola cheese and prosciutto.
“Mangia,” he said, offering a slice of the plate-sized margherita pie. The underside was too scorched – “The first one’s always the runt,” he said – but it was still delicious, crunchy-tender crust, fresh bread flavor, creamy cheese and a fruity burst of tomato, all touched with smoke.
“They’ll get better,” he said, working on the next one, flinching at the heat as he turned the browning pie. “They always do.”
Growing up in Westchester County, Bedenko was raised on New York City-style pizza, the local standard. But he was hungry for something more, especially after meeting his first Neapolitan pizza, in Knoxville, Tenn., of all places.
As an attorney and a local blogger with the handle Buffalo Pundit, Bedenko spends much of his day in front of a computer. As is so often the case, the Internet made his cravings worse. He devoured Slice (slice.seriouseats.com), where acolytes file detailed pie reports from local ovens across the nation and demonstrated how to create the best pizza at home.
There, Bedenko studied his one true pizza love: Neapolitan style.
Pizza in the style of Naples includes a thin, hand-stretched crust, made with a particular kind of flour, topped simply and slid into a wood-fired oven heated to 900 degrees, which cooks the pizza in less than two minutes. Presto: a crust blistered dark in spots but airy inside, crunchy yet tender. Classic examples bear a restrained amount of ingredients, chosen for their freshness.
Once he caught the Neapolitan bug, Bedenko did a tour of local establishments offering Italian-style pizzas, such as Rocco’s, Trattoria Aroma, and Romeo & Juliet’s. Though good in their own ways, he said, they weren’t what he was looking for.
To find that, Bedenko had to travel to Toronto. There, he found the blistered pizzas of his dreams at Pizzeria Libretto and Queen Margherita Pizza, two places certified by an international Neapolitan pizza standards group.
But an international border and four hours in the car limited his access. Bedenko turned his attention to his home kitchen. He tried a pizza stone in the oven, but household ovens top out at 500 degrees. He tried a pizza stone on his gas grill: little better. He grilled dough right on the well-oiled grate, flipping it and topping it while on grill.
“I don’t like putting toppings on a surface of already cooked dough,” Bedenko said. “It didn’t work for me.”
Reading Slice, especially the work of J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, spurred Bedenko on to the next step. He bought a Weber kettle grill, a contraption called KettlePizza that includes a pizza stone, and a rectangle of baking steel. The steel sits on the Weber grate above the pizza, radiating heat to blister the top.
A few gadgets here and there, and he ended up around $600. That’s not cheap, he allowed, but it has given him all the joy others might find in a good set of golf clubs.
So what’s his wife think of all this? “She loves it,” he said. Not just for the meals but for the fact he didn’t build that $2,000 backyard wood-fired oven he was contemplating.
His daughters enjoy it, too, even though they don’t like tomato sauce. “So they put pesto on theirs,” Bedenko said, and everybody likes sausage.
The dough is the sticky part now. Bedenko has been tinkering with his dough recipe, built on Caputo “00” flour from Italy, trying to get an easy-to-work-with consistency.
No matter how frustrating the process can be, homemade pizza always satisfies, he said. If he has to keep experimenting to get it right, that’s a sentence he’ll happily serve.
“I love it,” he said. “I love every minute of it.”
Sources: Kettle pizza insert with prograte and tombstone, $299, kettlepizza.com; baking steel, $79, bakingsteel.com; Caputo “00” flour, Guercio & Sons or Premier Gourmet.
Basic Neapolitan pizza dough
4 cups Caputo “00” flour
1a cups warm water
One packet active dry yeast
Pinch of salt
Add salt to flour in a large bowl. In small bowl, dissolve yeast in warm water. Let it sit about 5 minutes until it starts to bubble.
Add to the flour mixture. As the concoction turns into a ball, add water or flour as needed until it’s a workable, but not too wet, consistency. (I use a mixer because it helps me fine-tune the moisture.)
Put the dough ball in a bowl lined with a thin schmear of olive oil, cover with a damp cloth, set on counter and let it rise. Punch dough down after a couple of hours and let it rise again.
Punch it down, put it in a gallon ziptop bag, squeeze out the air, and let it ferment in the fridge for one to three days.
Remove from fridge an hour before use so it can come to room temperature. (If it’s dinner, I take it out that morning). Form five or six balls for pizzas and keep them in an airtight container in a single layer, until ready to use.