Pizza, formerly just one more gooey stepping stone on the path to dietary self-destruction, has become respectable. Even in health-conscious circles. Especially in health-conscious circles.
It turns out that pizza is a well balanced dish. There is the complex carbohydrate (the wheat in the dough), the high-vitamin vegetables (tomato sauce) and the dairy protein (cheese). This combination, especially using lowfat mozzarella and no high-fat meat toppings, has actually become today's dietary darling, even to the point that it's recommended on weight-reduction diets.
But all that oil? If it's olive oil it can actually be good for you. Olive oil is a monounsaturated fat which has been found to have a beneficial effect on blood cholesterol levels. (Of course you have to be careful about calories; olive oil has about 100 per tablespoon.)
When you make pizza at home there are ways to improve on this already outstanding equation. You can add whole-wheat flour to the dough, for instance, without impairing flavor. Some people even prefer the sturdier-feeling whole-wheat crust.
You can add high-vitamin, low-calorie vegetables like peppers. And you can use mozzarella cheese made from partly skimmed milk. It will be very slightly less rich in flavor than the whole-milk mozzarella the best pizza parlors use, but noticable only to real zealots. And you can stay away from sausage or pepperoni.
The problem with homemade pizzas, especially the ones that are loaded up with all those good vegetables, is the doughy, soggy crust that often results. Good professional pizza parlors circumvent this problem by using ovens that operate at temperatures home ovens can only dream about. Often the pizzas are baked directly on the super-hot ceramic oven floor.
So home pizza bakers have gone through all kinds of machinations trying to duplicate this effect, mainly by laying ceramic tiles on the oven rack, or through the use of store-bought pizza "stones" made of a material similar to fire brick.
The idea with these things -- as with the professional pizza oven -- is that you surprise the unbaked pizza by sliding it off the wooden paddle (called a peel) directly on to pre-heated stones or tiles, where it can form a crusty bottom crust instead of steaming itself to a moist goo under the toppings.
But there is another way to do it. In baking some flat Italian bread for which the recipe entailed rising, then baking on a sheet coated with olive oil, I noticed the baked bread had a familiar-feeling bottom crust. It was a lot like the crust of good pizza.
So I tried baking pizza several ways -- on a pre-heated pizza stone, on a pre-heated soapstone griddle, on a heavy black steel pan coated fairly generously with olive oil, and on an aluminum pizza pan with lots of little holes to let hot air circulate underneath the crust that the manufacturer hoped would solve the soggy-crust problem.
The holey pan was the least effective, but I think still better than a plain aluminum pan is. The soapstone griddle, which I tried in the oven because it's so good with top-of-the-stove griddle breads, produced a crust that was substantial but not crackling and crisp.
The pizza stone, a widely available brand, did better. It made a quicker-browning crust that's also slightly thicker and crunchier than with other methods.
But the oiled black steel produced what I had been looking for. Baked on the bottom rack of a 425-degree oven, the pizza crust was crunchy, chewy and crackling on the bottom without being hard or brittle. It baked into a wonderful blotchy brown without being either dry or oil-soaked. The amount of oil needed is not enough to add a lot of extra calories -- just half a tablespoon or so for a pan large enough to hold two medium-sized pizzas, and most of it stays on the pan as well.
And the oiled black steel has other advantages over baking tiles or stone as well. You don't have to mess with the sometimes tricky process of transferring the raw pizza from peel to oven, and you don't need to worry about moving six or eight tiles around when you're finished.
So start thinking anew about pizza, the diet food for the late '80s.