My best summer party trick – outside of the diving board backflip I mastered during middle school – is grilling pizza.
People love it – partly, I suspect, because pizza seems like something that couldn’t or shouldn’t be grilled. I remember when I first learned such a feat was possible. It was the spring of 2001, and restaurateur Tanya Tandoc was at her original location at 725 E. Douglas. She invited then new-to-town foodie Don Hysko to put on a grilling class at her restaurant. After demonstrating how to make a steak, he tossed a pizza crust on the grill, and wowed the crowd.
Not long after, I found a recipe for grilled pizza in one of my favorite cooking magazines, and it sounded sort of easy. The recipe, which I used for years, required a homemade dough that the article implied was the only dough that could withstand a grill. I would learn during the years of experimentation and practice that followed, that was hardly the case.
My relationship with grilled pizza has been long and bumpy, with extreme highs and lows. One year, I fed an army at a Fourth of July party in Oklahoma, and even though I was drenched in sweat by the time the last pie was served, my grilled pizza is still legendary in those parts. Last summer, at a family gathering at the Lake of the Ozarks, I used an unfamiliar half-gas, half-charcoal grill and created an embarrassing mess of half-burned, half-raw grilled pizza. Sadly, my grilled pizza also is still legendary in those parts.
Grilling pizza is an adventure, but with a little practice, it can be perfected. If done correctly, it’s a delicious, thin-and-crispy gourmet treat that’s less expensive than anything you can buy. And it prevents unnecessary oven usage during an already hot summer day.
Here’s how I do it:
For years, I handmade the dough from the recipe in my cooking magazine. It was your basic yeast dough recipe, which I created in the KitchenAid mixer with a dough hook. But it was time consuming and required advance planning, something at which I do not excel.
A couple of years ago, I was invited to one of Hysko’s legendary pizza grilling parties, which he regularly throws at his house. He and his wife, Pat, shared a life-changing tip that I have spread far and wide ever since: Several local pizza places will sell you, very inexpensively, hunks of their raw dough, and it is perfect for the grill. My favorite is Knolla’s, where I recently bought four rounds of dough intended for medium Knolla’s pizzas, and my bill was $8.53. Picasso’s at 621 W. Douglas also will sell you a sizable round for $5. (Note that you’ll need to call ahead if you want a very big order. Knolla’s, for example, is not usually willing to part with much more than the four medium rounds without advance notice.)
When you get the dough home, wrap the rounds in plastic if you aren’t using them immediately to keep the exposed surfaces from hardening. When you’re ready to roll, clear off and clean a flat work surface and sprinkle it generously with flour. Work and stretch the dough with your hands, stopping occasionally to roll it out with a rolling pin. Don’t worry if it’s not perfectly circular. It’s fun to make guests decide which country your irregular pizza most resembles.
Keep working the dough until it’s very thin. When you get a little experience, it’s fun to toss it in the air pizzeria style. This helps stretch the dough even more and also demands applause from your guests. When it’s thin and even, put the dough on a pizza pan or cookie sheet so you can transfer it outside.
You have two choices: Make your own sauce, and the Internet is full of basic pizza sauce recipes that are delicious and easy to prepare with ingredients from your pantry: canned tomatoes, canned tomato sauce, onions, garlic, basil, etc. (I like the Basic Pizza Sauce recipe from foodnetwork.com). There are also several decent pizza sauces sold in local stores, either canned or jarred. I look for one that has no hydrogenated corn syrup.
The crust is thin, so you can’t pile toppings too wildly, but otherwise, use your imagination. It’s fun at a party to set out lots of vegetables, meats and cheeses and let people customize their own pizzas.
I like to start a pizza grilling party by preparing a basic Margherita pizza topped with sauce, Mozzarella cheese, Parmesan cheese, thin sliced tomatoes and fresh basil to finish. Other favorite toppings that frequently end up on my grilled pizzas: pepperoni, crumbled Italian sausage, Canadian bacon, crumbled bacon, pineapple chunks, caramelized shallots, thin-sliced onions, jalapenos, bright orange, yellow or red peppers and soft cheeses such as Feta, blue or goat. I also like to top finished pizzas with raw spinach or arugula and a little salt and pepper.
Tools you’ll need
I prefer a gas grill with good temperature control, though charcoal can work if you’re skilled at controlling the heat. (I’m not.) You’ll also need tongs to flip the crust, a metal spatula to pull the pizza from the grill, olive oil or cooking spray to grease the grates and olive oil and a pastry brush for spreading olive oil on the edges of the crust.
How to grill
Get your ingredients prepped and arranged on a cookie sheet and place it by the side of the grill. You’ll need to move quickly once the process starts.
Clean and grease the grates on your grill, then heat one side to high and the other side to low. When the grill is ready, carefully place the raw, rolled-out dough onto the hot side. It should start to bubble on the top and harden on the underside. When the crust is set on the underside, which takes just a few minutes, flip the dough over to the cool side of the grill and quickly get to work with the toppings. First, spread a thin layer of olive oil around the outer edges of the dough using the pastry brush. Then, spoon your sauce generously into the center, spreading it quickly out toward the edges.
Next, layer your desired toppings evenly around the dough. Quickly cover the toppings with a layer of Mozzarella then a layer of Parmesan. Drizzle the top of the pizza with a little olive oil, then close the lid on the grill.
For the next several minutes, frequently check the pizza. The underside should be firming up but not burning, and the toppings should be melting. Frequently rotate the pizza with the tongs if one part of the crust seems to be browning up more quickly to ensure it cooks evenly.
When the top seems sufficiently melted and the underside sufficiently firm, slide the pizza off the grill and onto a cookie sheet. Let it cool for a bit then garnish with greens (fresh basil, arugula, spinach).
Cut the pizza into triangles or squares and serve to amazed and appreciative guests.
It works best when entertaining to cook the pizzas, one after the other, and let everyone enjoy a piece from each one.