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Lessons from Mark Bello: How to Make Pizza at Home

“People think bubbles are a wart or an imperfection. To me it’s character and it’s awesome,” says Mark Bello, founder of the hyperfocused Pizza a Casa Pizza School in New York. Here, he shares more tips for making pizza including the best ingredients and essential equipment.

The Dough

Best flour? Something all-purpose and unbleached. Tell me why you would want to eat benzoyl peroxide in bleached flour? You don’t need fancy Italian 00 flour unless you’re making Neapolitan pizza and you want to follow the rules. But Neapolitan pizza has a list of the different required ingredients, how much time you have to let the dough rest and all these things. The 00 flour holds a lot of liquid so Neapolitan-style pizza has a tender crust. But those pizzas bake in 50 seconds with a blast of 800-degree heat, so it helps them maintain their moisture content. But even in that setting, I like the way my all-purpose dough works even better.

Secret to kneading? There’s a lot to it. If you under-knead, the glutens don’t hold together and the crust won’t have enough texture. Conversely, if you over-knead you get a sinewy hockey puck that won’t stretch. That’s the complaint I hear about supermarket pizza dough—the person making it doesn’t know what they’re doing. It’s not a prescribed amount of time, it’s a visual and tactile thing. You know the texture of memory foam, or Tempur-Pedic? It should feel like that. When you poke your dough and it dents and gently springs back into shape, that’s when it’s done. I have a Tempur-Pedic sample in the classroom that I pull out and show people.

Best salt? Use a Sicilian sea salt called Trapani that we sell in the store, only $5 for a 2-pound bag. There are many parts of the world where it’s hard to get, and kosher salt is fine. But sea salts are showing up more and more now; the good ones are worth seeking out.

What causes the bubbles in pizza crust? To me bubbles are extra points. A big toasted bubble shows the person who handled the dough didn’t beat the crap out of it. Some places intentionally do something to prevent those bubbles called docking, where they take a wheel that has little cleats on it, like a pair of golf shoes, and roll it across the pizza to perforate it. People think bubbles are a wart or an imperfection. To me it’s character and it’s awesome. It can be caused by a couple of things, usually the expansion of something in there, like carbon dioxide expelled by the yeast—the last gasp of a particularly tenacious yeast cell.

The Toppings

Best sauce? On a Neapolitan pizza it’s usually just hand-crushed San Marzano tomatoes. In our class, we use La Bella San Marzano brand tomato passata, or tomato puree, which by the way is $3 a bottle, so it’s not like you have to buy some crazy exotic ingredient. The main thing is, you want to get something that pretty much just says tomatoes on the package, not all that other junk.

Best mozzarella? Again it depends on what you want. For slices, we use fresh mozzarella from Alleva Dairy, New York’s oldest Italian cheese shop. It’s made with cow’s milk curd from upstate New York. I’ve been a customer of Alleva since I was a little kid. My father and I used to drive into the city to go to Jets games at Shea Stadium and stop at Alleva on the way to shop for our tailgate picnic. But if I'm somewhere where fresh isn’t available, my default is the whole milk low-moisture mozzarella that comes in those vacuum bags. And that’s the best mozzarella for grating.

Best olive oil? I’m partial to Italian and extra-virgin, but it just depends on what I use it on. For the dough I use a good bulk Italian olive oil called Marinella that I buy in 3-liter cans. To finish the pizza I use an oil called Frescolio. The same company makes another more expensive oil called Segreto, but it’s too peppery, too assertive for most pizza combinations. I love it by itself, on a piece of bufala mozzarella. I get my oils from D. Coluccio & Sons, Inc., in Bensonhurst. I get pretty much all of my imported ingredients from them—oils, vinegars, bottled tomatoes. The store is awesome—really old-school, with Italian grandmothers doing their shopping.

Essential Equipment

A pizza stone. People resent being told they should spend the money on something like that, and you can use a cookie sheet or a perforated pizza screen, but ultimately a pizza stone is the closest you’re going to get to a commercial or wood-fired oven. A lot of Neapolitan ovens are made from the volcanic rock around Naples; the stone acts as a heat capacitor to help keep the heat in your oven even. If you’ve gone to the trouble of getting your oven to 500 degrees, a lot of that heat flies out as soon as you open the door if all you’ve got is a cookie sheet. A pizza stone not only retains heat, it’s porous: it will pull moisture from the dough as it bakes. There are cheap stones that only cost 15 or 20 bucks, but those are a waste of money because they aren’t thick enough, they don’t have the thermal mass, and they crack. We sell two stones that cost $40 and $50 that are both worthwhile investments: one from the Old Stone Oven, and one from Emile Henry. We prefer rectangular stones to round ones, because a square is an easier target to hit than a circle when you’re throwing in a pizza; and with heat retention, bigger is always better. But we sell some round ones because people like them, they fit well on a Weber grill, and some apartment stoves are so small the rectangular ones won’t fit.

A pizza peel. A wooden paddle, it helps to bring the pizza from the counter to the stone. We like the one from Epicurean because it’s a wood composite that, unlike wood, can go in the dishwasher, doesn’t warp and is food-grade safe.

A pizza wheel. For slicing, I love the Dexter P177A; I’m a fan of its function and its clever model number. We now carry it in white, red and green handles. So just like the Margherita pizza, we have them in the colors of the Italian flag. It’s by far the sturdiest one on the market; i t’s bulletproof. I still have the one I bought at a restaurant supply a decade ago and it’s still sharp. Most don’t have tempered steel wheels, so they dull after they cut just a few pies. The P 177A, I abuse it and it comes back for more.

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