When I was a kid, pizza brought a certain set of sense memories: small round pepperoni slices, curled up at the edges, orange oil pooled in each one, crowded together on a thin layer of cheese. Mostly, we ate frozen pizza when I was growing up. Cardboard-tasting crusts. Toppings that refused to move, even when we bit down on them. Runty and unsatisfying simulacrums of the pizza I knew must be possible in the world, even if I had never eaten it.
The best evenings were when we found out we were going to Shakey’s pizza, for sizzling-hot pizzas delivered to our table, with the sound of pinball machines — and later Ms. Pac Man and Frogger — surrounding us as we ate. Maybe we had just finished a big soccer game, or my parents couldn’t stand another night in the house. Either way, I was happy. Thin crust that crackled when I bit it, slightly burnt at the edges. Those stamped-out pepperonis. Or little greasy crumbles of sausage, evenly brown, filled with fat. I seem to remember my brother going through a period when he would only eat plain cheese pizza — was this also when he would only wear beige clothing or khaki pants? — so I ate my fair share of that.
Later, we moved up to Round Table pizza, where the crust was far more doughy, and we graduated to green peppers or Canadian bacon and pineapple for toppings, and ordered from menus with vaguely Arthurian themes. If we worked at it, we’d save a few pieces to take home, to eat cold for breakfast the next morning, all the salt pooled at the top, the cheese congealed into a hard mass, the pepperonis curled up almost entirely into themselves — and all was right with the world for a few moments. How exciting to open that massive cardboard box and see the smear of tomato sauce and the bits of cheese sticking to the top.
It didn’t seem to matter just how bad the pizza was. I just loved the cheesy goodness. Eventually, I did have to draw the line at the pizza from the lunch room at my high school, which came in soggy squares and so much oil on the top that we had to wipe it off with paper napkins, which immediately became transparent from the amount of fat they soaked up. This is the place that also served us french fries so greasy we could actually wring them out like dishcloths. No wonder I ate a Yoplait yogurt and an It’s It bar for lunch every day of my senior year.
Still, I loved pizza. When I grew into adulthood, I ate increasingly great pizzas. And some were deeply memorable. Like the thin-crust, hot-from-the-oven slice I ate in Florence, Italy, just off the Piazza Santa della Croce. I was there alone for the weekend, not knowing a word of Italian, in the middle of February, when there were no other tourists. I didn’t speak to anyone for three days, which was like a lonely meditation retreat in the middle of Italy. But I could point to a slice and smile. This slice restored me to myself: the bite of the garlic; the supple depth of the tomato sauce; the fresh mozzarella better than any I had ever tasted. I sat at a table by myself, outside the cafe, waiting for a hail storm to stop, looking out over the piazza, eating my pizza, utterly at peace.
There was the evening my dear friend Sharon and I ate an entire deep-dish pizza at Gino’s East, in Chicago. We sat in a weathered wooden booth, exhausted from a day of driving, on our trip across the country. Five days into it, we had settled into a routine: eating, telling stories, and laughing. While we waited for our pizza to arrive, we looked around at the names carved into the walls, the black-and-white photos of Italian stars from the 50s, and talked about childhood friends. Sharon laughed so hard at the name of my favorite kindergarten friend that I suddenly realized just how funny her name had been. And there, the main character for my novel was born. When the pizza arrived, we were punch drunk with laughing and driving and knowing each other so deeply. When we bit down into the depths of that sauce and cheese and mushrooms and red peppers and the heat and the joy of it and the bottom of the pliable crust, we both looked up at each other, our mouths full, our eyes wide, and said at the same time, “Oh my god.”
Finally, there were the thousand gorgeous slices of pizza I have eaten at Sal and Carmine’s, on 101st and Broadway, just across the street from my apartment building in Manhattan. Coming home after a long day of exploring, writing, and gallivanting, I’d emerge from the subway at 103rd. If the air biting at my hands and cheeks was particularly cruel, I’d have to stop in for a hot slice before I ducked into my building and ascended the elevator to my apartment. A long sliver of a store, with little-to-no decoration, Sal and Carmine’s was only there to sell pizzas. Slices, mostly. I’d order one (or two) cheese slices and wait. With this pizza, I was perfectly content with merely cheese. This was no beige pizza. Sal (or Carmine; I couldn’t keep them straight) grunted hello, then turned toward the large ovens, and expertly slid out my slice and slipped it onto a white paper plate. He’d smack the brown paper bag with a flick of his wrist, for clearly the five thousandth time, and it would make a satisfying “pop” as it opened to the room. Then, he’d slide in my slice and hand it to me. I’d open the bag again to sprinkle hot peppers all over it, and throw in a couple of napkins. He’d slide me a Dr. Brown’s root beer, and I’d wave goodbye. Sometimes, I’d even wait until I’d crossed the street before I’d take a bite. But most of the time, I’d walk across Broadway with an enormous slice of pizza, folded over, hovering above my mouth.
When I first out I couldn’t eat gluten, I knew that I’d be fine, because I didn’t want to be that sick, ever again. But what about pizza? I thought I’d just never eat it again.
But I don’t give up that easily.
I’ve been experimenting with gluten-free pizza crusts lately, and I’m starting to sing with them. By no means am I done with my recipe yet — you can expect updates in the months to come — but the one I made last week that tasted authentically itself. Slightly nutty, from the quinoa flour. Thick and chewy, with a dense crunch. And the perfect repository for chunks of mozzarella, with fresh basil. Ah, another good pizza memory.
Lately, I find myself eating more crusty, bready, starchy foods than I have in months. It’s winter. It’s January, in particular. The dead, mid-winter month of the year. And this week, I’ve been run off my feet, so busy with projects and people and work that I haven’t posted here in days. This evening, once again, I found myself with only an hour at home before I had to head out again. (Soon, this will stop. It’s no way to live.) No chance to cook, and especially to make something up. So I did something I hadn’t done in years: I ate a frozen pizza, reheated in the oven.
Before you panic, I have to tell you, it was gluten-free. I don’t write about this much, but I’ve been receiving a lot of gluten-free foods in the mail. Large companies and small businesses read this site, then send me samples of gluten-free foods, hoping I’ll like them. Sometimes I do. Most often, I don’t. I’m picky. I insist that food taste like food. A few times, I’ve wondered if the foods were truly gluten-free, because I got a little sick after eating them. I don’t mention those here. I don’t write about free products, unless I like them.
But I do like these little gluten-free frozen pizzas I ate tonight. Made by Madwoman Foods (and you have to love that name), these pizzas are made from organic ingredients, the freshest foods, then shipped out with a little cold pack inside. And they’re great. They taste like real cheese, fresh spices, a rush of old pizza memories coming back. And they weren’t the memories of frozen pizza from when I was a kid. I recommend them to you. And the little tea cakes they make, to which I’ve grown a little addicted, especially the chocolate orange cakes. These are especially good, and made with ghee, so people who are lactose intolerant could have these cakes as well. I love supporting small companies who are trying to do right in the world. I hope you do too.
With rustic quinoa crusts, and even the convenience of an occasional frozen one, pizza doesn’t have to be forgotten by those of us who eat gluten-free. Really, how could it? Instead, I’m moving on, with a mind full of memories, and the persistence of invention, until I’ve perfected my own, favorite gluten-free pizza crust. Eventually, those mouths full of basil and spicy sauce will join the memories of Florence and Chicago and the median on 101st in the darkness. I’ll no longer think of it as only gluten-free pizza. Eventually, it will just become pizza.
crunchy, slightly nutty pizza crust
This recipe comes with a warning: this will not taste like a typical pizza crust. Gluten-free foods will never replace the glutened foods we once knew. They will always taste different. Maybe even better. With that in mind, I’ve concocted this one, with quinoa flour. Quinoa flour has a distinct taste: slightly nutty, ever present. It doesn’t blend in with the other voices; it sings out. Also, the texture is thick, crunchy on the top, much more bready than most typically thin pizza crusts. I like that. I want a gluten-free crust with heft. But if you wanted something thinner, more demure, try a different flour combination, a little cider vinegar, maybe even some egg whites. Experiment and try your own, then let me know what works for you.
two cups sweet rice flour
one-half cup tapioca flour
one-half cup quinoa flour
one teaspoon salt
one cup lukewarm water
one packet gluten-free yeast (Red Star yeast is gluten-free)
one tablespoon sugar
Half an hour before you want to make the pizza dough, pour one packet of quick-rising yeast into the lukewarm water, then stir in the sugar. Gently, stir the mixture together, then let the bowl (or measuring cup) rest on a warmed surface, such as the stove when the oven is on. Let this rest for half an hour or so, or until the yeast mixture has grown bubbly and swollen.
Mix the flours together in a bowl. Add the salt and stir well. Make a well in the center of the flour mixture, then pour the warm yeast water in. With a fork, stir the liquid into the flour, slowly, starting at the center and stirring outward. When the dough is thoroughly mixed and slightly sticky to the touch, let the bowl rest on the surface of the stove this time, for about twenty minutes. (Gluten-free dough, for hopefully obvious reasons, will not rise the way a wheat flour will. However, it’s good to let the dough rest a bit before rolling it out.)
Roll out the dough with a rolling pin, on a gluten-free-floured surface. Transfer it to a baking sheet and slide it into a 400° oven for eight minutes or so. You want the crust to feel slightly hardened, tending toward crispness. Top with your favorite pizza sauce and toppings, then slide it all into the oven again, for another ten minutes or so, or until the cheese has melted and the sauce crusty and bubbling.