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Thrill of the Grill

Why heat up the oven on a hot day, when grilling pizza outdoors will do?



Grilled pizza does not sound like the highest use of a grill or a pizza. Wouldn't the bottom of the crust burn into a blackened crisp long before the cheese melts? Luckily, nobody told Johanne Killeen and George Germon, two art students from Providence, Rhode Island.

They met while working for Dewey Dufresne, a young chef with a big future of his own. In 1980 they opened Al Forno, which means "from the oven," an unlikely name for the birthplace of the world's first non-baked pizza. It sprang from the fact that their new restaurant space came with a grill. They wanted to use it, and their signature margherita pie became that grill's reason why.

Grilled pizza: another reason to cook outdoors. - ARI LEVAUX
  • Ari LeVaux
  • Grilled pizza: another reason to cook outdoors.

In those days, dishes like pesto were exotic, and the married chef/owners had to contract with a local farm in order to get enough basil. They credit Dufresne for their focus on quality ingredients cooked simply. As for the pizza, it succeeded despite the obvious reasons why it shouldn't have. Or perhaps these hurdles are what sculpted the pizza into the work of art it is. The crust—or my version, anyway—comes out puffy, crunchy, crispy, chewy and cracker-like, with a charred but hopefully not burnt bottom and smoky flavor.

While Germon and Killeen were inventing local grilled pizza in Providence, I was a mere 50 miles away, eating oven-baked pizza from Armando's in Cambridge, quite certain that pizza couldn't possibly get any better.

The core trick is to flip the pizza after grilling one side and put the toppings on the cooked side. This flipping solves the problems presented by grilled pizza. The cheese melts. The extra-oily, extra-thin crust cooks quickly, all the way through, with no gooey inside to worry about. And it won't stick to the grill.

Once you get the hang of grilling a pizza, the precooked crust becomes a blank slate for whatever seasonal and creative toppings you can imagine. But none of Al Forno's specials ever supplanted the simple margherita, topped with a juicy tomato sauce with herbs and the occasional pungent intrusion of half-cooked garlic, all held together by cheese.

You could grill yourself a lovely pizza with a hunk of store-bought dough, a jar of sauce and a bag of shredded cheese. But there are levels to this. Once you get the basic hang of grilling pizza, you can progress to thinking about toppings. And some day, perhaps, you'll be ready to contemplate dough mixing. I am not there myself, but luckily I can get decent pizza dough at my local store. Without the fuss of crust, we can focus on toppings and grilling. We have all summer to figure out the dough.

Grilled Margherita ala Al Forno

The Al Forno margherita pizza is a great, simple place to embark upon the path of grilled pizza. They use maple charcoal, but I think any pure hardwood charcoal is fine.

Makes one medium-sized pizza that serves two

4 lbs hardwood charcoal
1 ball of pizza dough, 14-16 ounces
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, pressed, grated, crushed or minced
3 ounces grated fontina cheese
1 ounce grated Romano cheese
½ cup chopped basil
½ cup chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
14 ounces of canned whole tomatoes, hand crushed
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Place the dough ball in a bowl and let it sit for about an hour. If it rises, punch it down and pack back into a ball. Pour the oil over it and roll it in the bowl of oil to coat it all around, and leave it to soak. Light the coals. When they are about halfway ready, spread them evenly about 5 inches below one side of the cooking grate.

Remove the dough and place it on the back of a cookie sheet. Use your fingers to press and stretch it into an oblong shape about the size of the pan, and about ¼-inch thick. It's OK if some parts are thick and others thin. That's part of the art.  If you stretch the crust so thin that a hole opens up, don't try to patch it. This is an artist's pizza. Just don't add any toppings to that negative space and you'll be fine. Add the minced garlic to the bowl with the remaining oil. Hand crush the tomatoes and mix in the basil, thyme and parsley.

When the coals are a bit past their prime and not burning quite so aggressively, lift the crust by two points on the same edge and toss it onto the hot side, like you'd whip a fresh sheet onto a bed.

After about a minute on the grill it should start to puff up. Carefully tug up on an edge and peek at the underside. After another 30 or so seconds, before it blackens, grab the edge and flip the crust onto the cool side of the rack. (It's impossible to give exact cooking times because they depend on the heat of your coals and their distance from the grill.)

While it's still piping hot, immediately brush or rub the newly browned side of the crust with the garlic oil. Sprinkle on the fontina and Romano cheeses, and spoon on the crushed tomatoes and herbs in dispersed little piles. Sprinkle the salt, pepper, pepper flakes over the pizza.

With tongs or carefully with your fingers, slide the pizza onto the hot side, over the coals. Cook it as long as you can, ideally about four minutes, without smelling any burning crust. If it starts to blacken, pull it to the non-hot side of the grill and put the lid on until the cheese melts. Cut into pieces with cooking scissors and serve.

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