Make Gourmet Pizzas at Home

Is the best gourmet pizza recipe made with thick crust or thin? Is New York pizza better or Chicago pizza? Or, if you live in New England-home to the highest concentration of pizza restaurants per capita-how about Italian-style pizza versus Greek? Often, what it comes down to is that the pizza you grew up with is the gourmet pizza you'll always love best.

But many restaurants are trying to change that, by serving specialty pizzas that would make many a purist blanch in horror. These pies, loosely known as "gourmet pizzas," stretch the familiar dish's boundaries by adding pizza toppings, sauces and other ingredients that were unheard of a few short decades ago.

According to Steve Coomes of the trade web site Pizza Marketplace, the man largely responsible for this trend is the late Ed LaDou. In 1980, LaDou was working at Prego, a restaurant in San Francisco, when he served a pizza made with mustard, ricotta cheese, paté and red pepper to a customer. That customer turned out to be Wolfgang Puck, who hired LaDou to become his pizza chef at the famed Spago, in Hollywood. And in 1985, LaDou signed on to create the menu for a brand new restaurant, California Pizza Kitchen.

Today California Pizza Kitchen has more than 200 restaurants across the country, and California-style pizza is also served by smaller chains and independent restaurants from coast to coast.

The chain Garlic Jim's, based in Everett, WA, exemplifies the genre's explosive growth, opening more than 50 locations in its first four years. Specializing in takeout and delivery, the chain serves up such gourmet pizzas as the Smokin' Sweet BBQ Chicken (topped with barbecue sauce, grilled chicken, bacon, green peppers, red onions and cheddar cheese) or the Nutty Chipotle (made with chipotle pesto, spicy Italian sausage, pepperoni, red onions, tomatoes and cashews).

Pizzicato, with 20 locations along the Pacific Coast, starts with an authentic peasant crust, which is hand-tossed and brushed with garlic and olive oil. And all of their pizzas are made with mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, plus fresh herbs. Then the fun truly begins. The Wild Mushroom pizza adds oven-roasted shiitake, portobello and oyster mushrooms, along with chèvre cheese, roasted peppers, onions and garlic. And the Gamberetto is crowned with basil and garlic marinated shrimp, roasted peppers, scallions, tomatoes and feta cheese.

Pizza Antica, with four California locations, features thin crust pizza with seasonal toppings purchased from local producers. You might find such creations as asparagus, tarragon, preserved lemon and Parmesan, heirloom potato, caramelized onion and white truffle oil and grilled radicchio, goat cheese, pancetta and pesto.

As you might guess from the name, art plays a big role in the Arizona-based Picazzo's chain, where you'll find murals by Sedona artist Jean-Pierre Chesnel and works by area children. The pizzas are equally creative, including a Bacon Cheeseburger pizza and a Veggie Piasano pie, the latter made with smoked mozzarella. You can also design your own pizza, with your choice of four crusts (original, thin, super thin or gluten-free), ten sauces (including traditional red, Bangkok peanut and creamy ranch), ten cheeses (such as asiago, ricotta or Gorgonzola) and dozens of toppings (ranging from sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts to red pears and pine nuts to andouille sausage and homemade meatballs).

In North Carolina, Amante Pizza makes its own white and whole wheat crust, using it as a base for recipes such as the BST, made with bacon, spinach and tomatoes, along with Dijon-mayonnaise sauce and mozzarella cheese or the Jammin' Jamaica, finished with spicy black beans, mozzarella and Cheddar cheeses, red onions, pineapple, cilantro and jerk chicken. Even the four-store chain's Hawaiian pizza (perhaps the first exotic pizza to become widely popular) includes a twist, adding Mandarin orange slices to the fresh pineapple and Canadian bacon.

Specialties of the house at Gullifty's Pizza Grille and Bar, in Rosemont, PA, include the Chicken Diablo pizza (made with spicy Buffalo sauce, red onion, blackened chicken, Cheddar jack and mozzarella, and served with blue cheese dressing and celery sticks) and the Apple Pizza (topped with roasted garlic, apple slices, dried cranberries, bacon, Gorgonzola, and Cheddar jack).

And if you're looking for something even more unusual, many cuisines from other countries also feature pizza-like dishes.

When I was visiting a friend who lives just outside Washington, DC, he introduced me to Lebanese pizza. More properly known as manakish, this dish features a pizza-like dough topped with ground meat, such as lamb or beef, mixed with ingredients like tomatoes, onions, pine nuts, and herbs. Lebanese pizza is often served with pickles and yogurt.

The Gothamist blog's "Ethnic Pizza Patrol" column describes the fugazza at La Esquina Argentina, in Queens, as a wedge-shaped slice of focaccia-like bread topped with sliced onions. Author Joe DiStefano ordered a variety called the Argentina de Jamon, which was "decked out with cheese and ham and adorned with a green olive and a ribbon of red pepper."

And then there's Zante Pizza and Indian Restaurant in San Francisco. According to the San Francisco Bay Guardian, owner Dalvinder Multani worked in a New York pizza shop after moving to the States from India. In 1986, Multani journeyed west, turning an old pizzeria into an Indian restaurant, but he continued serving up pizzas. Zante's Best Indian Pizza comes topped with lamb, tandoori chicken, and prawns, plus spinach, eggplant, cauliflower, ginger, garlic, scallions, and cilantro.

But one of the more unusual pizzas around dates from the 1920s. Pepe's Pizzeria Napoletana, in New Haven, CT, sells the White Clam Pie, a thin, Neapolitan-style crust "strewn with freshly shucked littleneck clams, olive oil, garlic, oregano, and a dash of grated Parmesan," in the words of food author Michael Stern. On his Roadfood web site, Stern says that founder Frank Pepe was actually allergic to mozzarella and tomatoes, hence the unusual recipe.

Moving further east, we come to Providence, RI, home to Al Forno, which popularized the grilled pizza in the 1980s. While some restaurants bake their pizzas in wood-fired or coal-fired ovens, known for producing very high temperatures, Al Forno's owners Johanne Killeen and George Germon started throwing theirs right on the grill for an unmistakable hardwood grilled taste. Simplicity is the secret here, as pies are topped with olive oil, tomatoes, herbs, garlic, and fontina and Romano cheeses.

Yes, the possible variations on pizza seem almost infinite today, but if you really want to know what the best pizza in the world is, just ask my seven-year-old son. It's the good old-fashioned cheese pizza, from the little place down on the corner.

Article provided by Homesteader.

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