THE professional pizza oven is a formidable, fire-breathing thing, usually gas- or wood-fired. The pizza bakes directly on the oven bottom, which in the case of gas ovens is lined with a sheet of firebrick. In wood-fired ovens the pizza sits directly on the brick floor, nestled right next to the fire. A gas-fired oven I saw recently was set at 600 degrees. The combination of high heat and an absorbent, drying surface is what gives the pizza its crackling brown crust.
But you can get the same effect at home, with the right equipment. Homemade pizza has obvious advantages: Everybody who cares can stand in the kitchen decorating it wedge by wedge. And homemade pizza always arrives hot.
It is possible to approximate the floor of a professional pizza oven by lining the rack with firebrick. One baker-handyman I know bought eight firebrick "splits" (bricks cut in half horizontally) for 50 cents each, bored holes in them and fastened them together with gigantic metal screws. This project obviously required a certain amount of determination, to say nothing of tools and skill, but the brick lining produces pizza crusts that are crisp, crackling and wonderful. My friend leaves the bricks in the oven, taking them out only when he is cooking something that requires fast changes in temperature (the bricks hold the heat so well they won't cool off readily). Firebricks are available at several places around Washington. Look in the Yellow Pages under "Brick, fire."
A simpler, if more expensive, solution for pizza lovers is the manufactured "pizza brick" sold in kitchen and department stores. The pizza brick (or "baking stone") is made from a refractory material like firebrick but is stamped out in shapes more convenient for pizza-making. It is also somewhat thinner than firebrick splits and therefore lighter and easier to handle. The pizza brick produces a crust as crisp and wonderful as any commercial oven can.
The bricks come in large rectangles or rounds, and in six-inch squares. Unless storage is an awful problem, buy the largest single-piece round or rectangle you can find, making sure it will fit your oven with an inch all around for air circulation. It's easy to make your pizza a little too big, with the result that it flops over the side of the brick and drips cheese and oil on the oven floor. The small squares tend to jiggle around as you slide the pizza in and out of the oven, with the same result. Pizza bricks are widely available in kitchenware and department stores. A 12-by-15-inch rectangle costs about $20.
Unglazed quarry tiles are another option. Though much more appealing to purists who don't like to buy things in cute little boxes, quarry tiles are slightly less satisfactory than pizza bricks partly because they tend to slide around in the oven and partly because they don't produce quite as crisp a crust. But they are cheap--about 40 cents per 6-inch square--and easy to store. You can leave them in the oven when baking other things. Buy as many as it takes to line the rack completely, with an inch all around.
Firebricks, the pizza brick and quarry tiles all should be allowed to heat up for 15 minutes to half an hour before the pizza is laid on them. Surprising the crust with fast, high heat seems to make it crisper.
Black or "blued" heavy-gauge steel baking pans also work well, though they don't have the drying effect of the bricklike materials. But they absorb heat quickly and will produce a fairly crisp crust, if not quite as dry and crackling. They also have rims, which alleviates the dripping oil and cheese syndrome.
To round out your pizza equipment, you might want to invest in a peel. Though all sorts of homemade contraptions are possible, the peel (about $14) is much preferable. It looks like an oversized wooden paddle. The pizza is constructed directly on the peel. The motion required to get the pizza onto the hot oven surface is a little like pulling the tablecloth out from under the dishes. The light weight of the peel, its smooth, slippery surface and its handle make this operation less tricky. If you don't want to buy a peel, try a heavy piece of cardboard dusted with flour or cornmeal, or a rimless cookie sheet.
Finally, a pizza cutter, a short-handled little thing with a circular blade, will whiz right through your gooey creation. It costs about $5 to $10.