This cookbook is just one of several on my shelves that focuses on pizza. Every cook who’s been bitten by the pizza-making bug is in “search for the perfect pizza”.
In American Pie (2003), Peter Reinhart searches for the perfect pizza in Italy and the United States (if he were to do an update, he should check out Japan). In his introduction, he points out that one’s perception of “perfection” can change. “For a long time, I thought the best pizza in the country was from Mama’s in Bala Cynwyd, just outside Philadelphia. And then something happened.”
That “something” was life: he grew up, moved away, worked (including time in a religious order and as a baking instructor at top US culinary schools) and married. Years later, he went back to visit his family and had another taste of his beloved Mama’s. “There was definitely something amiss […] ‘Maybe it’s me,’ I thought. It wasn’t just the crust that was a little different.
“The cheese and sauce certainly still resonated with old memories, and even if it wasn’t the best Mama’s, it was close enough that it should have elicited, within my usually tolerant margin-for-error forgiveness code, at least a sign of pleasure. But something had changed within me. My expectations, an internal bar of standards that is both conscious and subconscious, had been violated. A slow wave of realisation set in, one that I couldn’t suppress even though I tried.”
Perfect pizza, he writes, can be perfect just for the moment. While working as a houseparent for troubled children in Raleigh, North Carolina, he would often take his charges to a nearby pizzeria. “That pizza, and only that pizza among all the pizza shops in town, was a panacea, our emotional salve […] It was perfect […] Was it the best pizza I’d ever had? No, but it was ‘perfect’ pizza, a peerless match of textures and flavours that fed more than our stomachs and palates.
“But if I had it now, all these years later, I imagine it would be like having a Mama’s now. It would be good, perhaps the same as it always was, but it wouldn’t be the pizza of 1976, when teenage boys and girls from shattered families, with broken hearts and raging hormones, felt safe enough to confess their fears to me and to one another as they ate their pizza. That pizza, out of that context, could never be that perfect again.”
In his hunt throughout Italy and the US, he eats mediocre pizza, fantastic pizza, magical pizza and, yes, the occasional perfect pizza, about which he would not change a thing.
Reinhart gives recipes for making pizza at home. Will it be the perfect pizza? “Pizza is, after all, a peasant food at heart and should be as easy to make at home as meat loaf or macaroni and cheese. My goal is to win you over to this view by teaching you some basic principles and methods that, when applied, yield wonderful home-baked pizzas in a variety of styles.”
Keeping in mind that “perfect” is different for everyone, he gives recipes for several styles of crust (Roman, Napoletana, New York-style, Americana, grilled) and even more toppings (smoked eggplant purée; crab and cream cheese; quattro formaggi; white clam pizza; pizza alla pescatora; potato rosemary focaccia).