Grilled pizza. It doesn’t sound right, does it? Whenever I tell my friends that I am making grilled pizza, they usually give me a skeptical look. It is not until I finish explaining the process that I hear a hesitant, “That sounds good.” Nobody really is completely sold on the idea until they actually taste the finished product. Once they take that first crispy bite and taste the smokiness of the crust and the flavor of the fresh toppings they become true believers.
I can’t blame my friends for being skeptical; I too was a doubter at first. After all, when it comes to pizza I am a purist. I don’t like anything too experimental. I rarely partake in any exotic toppings on my pizza; just a plain thin-crusted tomato and cheese pie is all I need. Grilled pizza sounded too new wave, too experimental, too California (in actuality it was popularized quite far from California – Providence, Rhode Island).
It wasn’t until I read the section about grilled pizza in Peter Reinhart’s excellent book, American Pie: My Search for the Perfect Pizza, that I decided to give it a try. Grilling pizza takes some practice, and you will probably produce some odd looking results on your first few tries, but stick with it and you will be rewarded with many smiling faces at your next cookout. Although Reinhart’s book is what started me on my grilled pizza quest, with experience/practice I developed my own techniques. The following is my method for grilled pizza, adapted from American Pie.
Dough: You will need pizza dough that can be stretched thin. Rheinhart’s recipe for Grilled Pizza Dough fits the bill and it makes enough dough for six small pizzas. If you are intimidated by the prospects of making your own dough, don’t be. It isn’t that difficult, especially if you have a good stand mixer. Remove the dough from the refrigerator and unwrap it 2 hours before making the pizza and place on a baking sheet with 2 tablespoons of olive oil per ball of dough.
Sauce: I like to take the grill theme to its fullest and make a grilled tomato sauce. It really works well on the grilled pizza. Just brush 6 large tomatoes with olive oil and grill them over medium-high heat, turning often, until they are slightly charred on all sides and are starting to soften. Transfer to a cutting board and chop the tomatoes coarsely (approximately 1/2 inch chunks). Put them in a bowl and stir in 1 tablespoon of olive oil, 3 cloves of minced garlic, 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh basil or oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Alternately, you can use a 35 ounce can of imported Italian whole plum tomatoes, just drain the juices and chop them up coarsely.
Cheese: You will need some grated Parmaggiano-Reggiano cheese as well as fresh mozzarella. The mozzarella can be shredded but I like to cut it into small chunks and dot them around the pizza. The Parmagianno-Reggiano can be replaced with pecorino Romana if you prefer. If you cannot find good quality fresh mozzarella use shredded low-moisture mozzarella.
Making the Pizza: Using a charcoal grill create a fire on one side of the grill with a couple of layers of charcoal just a few inches from the grate for a very hot fire, and the other side containing only a few coals for low heat. Reinhart is adamant about using only real hardwood lump charcoal and not briquettes. Although, I usually use the hardwood charcoal and prefer it, I have used briquettes and they worked just fine also, so I don’t take quite the hard-line stance that he does.
While the fire is starting, prepare your grilling station. You will need to have at least one spatula and a basting brush ready. I also keep tongs near by for flipping the dough over and checking the bottom, but if you don’t have tongs you can use the spatula. Keep your tomatoes, cheeses, other toppings and a small bowl of olive oil by the side of the grill for easy access. Finally make sure you have an empty baking sheet close by for the finished product.
Oil the bottom of a baking sheet and place one of the dough balls on it. Using your hands flatten it out to about 1/8 inch thick, it does not have to be perfectly round. Carefully slide the dough onto the hot side of the grill. You will have to jiggle the pan so that the dough comes off nicely and lays flat. Watch the dough carefully making sure it doesn’t burn by lifting it with tongs and peeking under.
Now you must work quickly. When the dough is charred on the bottom, flip it over and brush it with olive oil. Place the cheeses on first, sprinkle the Parmaggianno-Reggiano and dot the fresh mozzarella. Next use a ladle or tongs to place the tomatoes over the surface, trying not to take too much of the juices with them. With either the tongs or a spatula, slide the pizza to the cooler side of the grill, cover making sure the vent holes are open and cook for 3-5 more minutes. The pizza is done when the cheese is melted and the bottom is slightly charred.
Using a spatula transfer the pizza to a baking sheet, garnish with chopped fresh basil, cut with a pizza cutter and serve. While your friends get started on this pizza, start working on the next pizza.
Variations: As I stated previously I am not one for a lot of different toppings, but if you desire, you can add any of your favorite toppings after the tomatoes. One variation that I do enjoy, and make occasionally is a no-cheese pie with tomatoes, pitted and coarsely chopped gaeta olives and capers.