The Quest for the Perfect Slice
Sure, you can pull a pre-made pizza out of the freezer for dinner. It’s quick and easy and probably cheap, too—and some of them are even half-decent tasting. But for a truly transcendent slice, you’re going to have to leave the house, hopefully heading to one of Frederick’s pizza hot spots.
To get a better picture of the pizza in Frederick, we went straight to the sauce, err, source, polling five gurus about the secrets of good pizza, how to make great pizza at home, and some of their secret favorites. Our panel includes: Ric Ade, corporate chef for Fountain Rock Management Group, which owns Pistarro’s; Tony Illiano, owner of New York J&P Pizza; Ken Nelson, owner of Toppings Pizza; James Mahoney, owner of Ledo Pizza in Frederick; and John Perrin Jr., who co-owns il Forno Pizzeria with Mike Bateman.
Ade: Simplicity and how difficult it is to form four ingredients together to get it perfect every time.
Illiano: Pizza is a hearty thing to eat and it’s easy to make. It’s always something you can have—for lunch, for dinner, for breakfast.
Mahoney: Ledo was a good product and I knew going into the business with a good product and good mindset we’d be able to make it work. It’s a great product; the quality of food Ledo was putting out we thought was a top quality.
Nelson: I went to school for engineering, got a degree in engineering and worked in the field for 15 years. I thought pizza was going to be easier … but I found out that it was the hardest thing to do. I’ve worked seven days a week for 16 years now, but I love making something that pretty much almost everybody enjoys.
Perrin: The cheesy answer is kind of true: It reminds me of growing up. Every Friday night was pizza night; I remember being really excited as a kid that the family would get together for pizza night. As I’ve done this for 25 years, I’ve seen tons of regulars that do this. I think that’s what makes pizza special.
What is the secret to a great pizza?
Ade: The dough would be number one and number two would be the temperature it’s cooked in. We do Neopolitan-style, so we cook it at about 900 degrees. The pizza cooks in about 90 seconds.
Illiano: The secret comes from the good sauce and good crust. The trick is the oven has to be at the right temperature, not too high, not too low, or your pizza won’t come out good. … The important thing to me is the sauce. If the sauce tastes good, the pizza is good.
Mahoney: We just have a thinner crust, so you’re not filling up on the bread part, and we have a sweeter sauce. We use 100-percent smoked provolone, and our large pizza gets a pound of cheese on it.
Nelson: The crust and the way it’s cooked. We make our crust from scratch every day—30 hours of proofing—and cook it on a four-inch-thick stone. High-gluten flour and the stone make all the difference in the world. You just can’t use regular flour, it has to be high-gluten flour, and the stone from the hearth makes pizza great.
Perrin: Ours has to be the wood-burning oven. Gas and electricity, are nothing like that, and you’re getting cooked straight on a lava rock—fire and natural heat cooking.
What is your approach to making dough/crust?
Ade: Our dough is conditioned. We don’t use it for a minimum of 24 hours before we turn it into a pizza. It has to be conditioned and left to rest.
Illiano: We use good flour and make the dough here. Always the same recipe: yeast, flour, water, olive oil, salt, and that’s it.
Mahoney: It’s freshly rolled when you order it. It’s not a product that is frozen; you call and place an order and it gets rolled on my rolling table right then. The dough gets made every couple hours usually, and any leftover gets discarded and remade fresh the next day.
Nelson: I change the recipe every single day, depending on the weather. I always check the weather for the next day and the humidity, because sometimes you have to add ice to the mixture to make sure it doesn’t blow up too quickly, but sometimes it’s warm water. I think that’s why I work seven days a week– because I want it to be right. You have to have that experience to change it each day due the weather.
Perrin: We have a thing not many have—we put no salt and no sugar in our dough. A lot of people do one or both. Ours is old fashioned: yeast, water and flour. We make it three times a day; the dough is made that day, or within 24 hours.
Toppings, yea or nay? What kind are your favorite?
Ade: I like toppings. I tend to be for Neopolitan pizza to stick traditional; no more than three things on a pizza. Our pizza’s so light it kind of bogs it down. It doesn’t stand up well to too many ingredients. I like prosciutto, and when it’s finished baby arugula and parmesan cheese.
Illiano: My favorite is pepperoni, it’s a very good-tasting pizza. It gives it a little flavor, a little greasy, a little spicy.
Mahoney: I feel when you get too many toppings, you start losing the taste of the toppings. Some are overbearing. You put green pepper on there and you taste mostly that. I’m into a lightly topped pizza, one or two toppings so you get the taste of them.
Nelson: I always say eat what you like. The cheese topping is the number one seller. I’m from New Jersey; in New Jersey we like it a little less cheesy and more well-done. People here like it a little bit more cheesy.
Perrin: If you want to try pizza for the first time, and you’re walking in for the first time, I say old school Margherita: mozzarella, basil, sauce, cheese. After you find a place, mix it up. I like meat—sausage, pepperoni pizza, and I like garlic and basil.
What’s your experimentation process for creating new recipes?
Ade: We look at what’s seasonal and take it from there. In the summer, we have a lot of summer squash, so we’ll experiment with squash blossoms, maybe a particular herb that would complement that. A white pizza, a red pizza a pesto pizza or something altogether different; we run through those gamuts, maybe try making it vegetarian or vegan.
Illiano: We make the pizza and we eat them! We just try them before we put it on the menu. Sometimes the people that come in want to try a different sauce, and we switch that up.
Mahoney: The employees come up with things sometimes. Some things, if they come out good, we tell the franchise about it. We send stuff over and say this is a good combo, try it. We have a barbecue chicken pizza that came out that way.
Nelson: When I started this [restaurant], I kind of evolved it into what it is now just by experimenting with everything. I went through 27 different brands of cheese to find the right one. We use about half a ton every week, just one little pizza place tucked away in Frederick. It took me a long time to pick the right tomatoes, and I went through 14 different types of chicken tenders. I’m really picky.
Perrin: I do most of it myself. A lot of it comes from our regular menu. Our big one we just did was a crab pizza. I’m a huge crab fan; my staff, we all love crabs. … It went off the hook. Our Greek salad sells real well, so we took that and put it on top of the pizza. We did a cold cut pizza since we have a cold cut sub, we did a cheeseburger once. We try for a week or two, and see if it does well.
What are the common mistakes home cooks make with pizza?
Ade: Oven’s not hot enough. I found a recipe for home use, but even if you have an electric stove you have to let the broiler be on full blast for about two hours to get it close to where it would be for a wood-fired pizza. You’ll have a two-to-three minute cook time on that, but it takes a couple hours to heat up.
Illiano: When you go home and bake a pizza it will be crispy, because the oven won’t reach 600 degrees. Because it takes longer to reach the temperature, it’s always crispy. It’s more like cookies.
Mahoney: Probably not enough cheese or the wrong kinds of cheese, or if they’re trying to imitate us and they use a cheaper cheese. Also, canned sauces which are just going to be a blander.
Nelson: I think people don’t let the dough proof long enough. It can take 24 to 30 hours to rise. We have a walk-in box at 40 degrees, and it rises just enough in that 24 to 30 hours. People don’t let it have enough time.
Perrin: It’s very hard to make your own dough at home. If you can do it, you’ll have good pizza. I think people buy the already-made dough and they’re just not as good. The dough is just too hard to make at home; to make dough for yourself at home is not fun.
What is the best tip you can give to novice pizza makers?
Ade: True San Marzano tomatoes. They’re imported, a little more expensive, but that’s pretty much the best you can do for sauce.
Illiano: First, buy a stone for the oven then crank the oven all the way up to the maximum, 400, 500 degrees. Make everything from scratch. Make the dough, and they have to have good sauce. You can’t buy Ragu and put it on a pizza.
Mahoney: Just give us a call, it’s easier.
Nelson: I would get a pizza stone, and make sure your dough rises almost double to what it was. And just use really good ingredients. Don’t buy the cheap stuff; the cheap stuff really damages the pizza.
Perrin: Make your own dough; the store-bought ones are not going to be as good. … Spend the time to make the dough. Sauce is pretty easy, cheese is easy. If you want to make a good pizza, the pizza stone is also helpful.
What’s your secret, off-menu favorite pizza?
Ade: We played around with a Brussels sprout pizza once. It was pretty good, but we’d never menu it. … They were deep fried.
Illiano: We use a spicy sauce, fra diavolo sauce. Fresh mozzarella instead of shredded and we put spicy stuff on it, like jalapeño peppers.
Mahoney: I do an Alfredo sauce with spinach and chicken and green olives and meatballs. I cover it with provolone cheese and we have a blended cheese like a fontina cheese. And when it comes out I sprinkle parmesan on top.
Nelson: I think probably one of the weirdest was we did a hot dog pizza. It had hot dogs on top with ketchup and mustard. That was really odd.
Perrin: My cook can make a crazy sick cheesesteak pizza—steak, cheese and onions. But we make it really thick like we don’t normally do. We kind of keep that secret; it’s like a double cheese steak and dip it in marinara. It’s not that kooky, but it’s really good.