Backyard Pizza Is The New Barbecue

Credit: Photographs by Matthew Scott

When it comes to backyard cooking this summer, maybe think beyond the grill. Think about cracker-thin pizza, cheese blistered on top, cooked for 60 seconds in a wood-fired oven, and topped with white clams, oregano, and garlic, or smoked mozzarella, pineapple, Canadian bacon, and chilies. It's dealer's choice. Just make sure to plug in the string lights and crank Spotify.

That's how chef Zach Pollack does summer. He made a name for himself with his celebrated restaurant Alimento, on the east side of Los Angeles, where he delivered unlikely (but unpretentious) takes on Italian classics, like a rebooted pig in a blanket, composed of a thick piece of mortadella, spelt puff pastry, and pickled mustard seeds. But at his just-opened Echo Park pizza joint, Cosa Buona, Pollack pays homage to the kind of Neapolitan pies he ate while traipsing around Italy as a study-abroad kid in 2005.

There are tons of ways to make great pizza at home, he explains. Pollack himself has tried it in his kitchen with his oven turned on the cleaning cycle. But for summer pizza done right, the 33-year-old chef suggests investing in a wood-fired, backyard oven. He prefers Italian maker Stefano Ferrara, and it sells mobile versions that start at more than a hefty $9,000. But you can find ovens for as little as $200. There are conversion kits that will turn your Weber or Big Green Egg into a pizza oven. "I've never used them," Pollack says, "but I've heard they can be pretty decent."

What's more important than price, Pollack says, is finding "something with mass. Generally, the heavier the better. If the oven wall is an inch and a half thick, pass." (A thicker-walled oven, two inches or more, will have more thermal mass and more insulation.) Also, look for an oven with the smallest possible mouth. And avoid anything that has an internal exhaust. "Ovens with large openings or exhausts inside the dome will let way too much heat escape," Pollack says. You want the oven to get to a minimum of 800 degrees. It can have a chimney, he says, but it must vent from the front — above the oven mouth, not inside the dome. Finally, look for an oven with a low dome, which will "literally press the heat down onto the pizza, giving you the gorgeous blistering and supple texture I look for in great pizza."

For your neo summer barbecue, here's Cosa Buona's recipe for escarole, Gaeta olive, and burrata cheese pizza. Serve fresh out of the oven, says Pollack, "preferably with a Paper Plane." That's equal parts amaro, bourbon, Aperol, and lemon juice. Mangia.

Escarole, Gaeta Olive, and Burrata Pizza

  • 2 cups escarole (or endive), cut into ½-inch strips
  • 1 tbsp Gaeta olives
  • 1 tbsp capers
  • 2 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for finishing
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 ball pizza dough (recipe below)
  • 6 anchovy fillets (optional)
  • 1 cup burrata cheese, at room temperature
  • 1 tsp Sicilian oregano

1. Toss escarole with olives, capers, olive oil, salt, and pepper.

2. Stretch pizza dough to a 12-inch diameter. Cover the dough with the escarole mixture. If using anchovies, scatter fillets evenly over the pizza. Bake for 90 seconds at 800° or higher.

3. Top with dollops of burrata, a dusting of Sicilian oregano, and a few glugs of excellent olive oil.

Pizza Dough

  • 2 lbs unbleached flour, plus extra
  • 1 tsp instant yeast
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 2 cups cold water
  • 4 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra

1. In a large mixing bowl, mix flour, yeast, and salt. Add water; stir until roughly combined. Mount bowl to mixer with dough hook and mix, gradually increasing speed to medium for about 5 minutes.

2. On a floured surface, knead dough gently, folding over once with a coating of flour. Let rest 15 minutes.

3. Add oil to the bowl, then place dough in and toss to coat. Refrigerate overnight.

4. Six to 8 hours before use, form dough into 4 even balls and refrigerate.

5. Four hours before use, bring dough to room temperature (no cooler than 55° at shaping time).

Pollack's Rules for the Perfect Pie

1. Buy Caputo flour.

"Most of Caputo's wheat is grown in America and Canada," says Pollack. "But it's milled in Italy and then shipped out. If you're concerned about your carbon footprint, I'd say don't go with Caputo. However, it is specifically engineered for pizza." He's not kidding. Caputo 00 flour is finely ground and has a lower gluten content than competitors'. (With too much gluten, you're biting into rustic wheat bread, basically.) "There are all these data points that I don't understand," Pollack says. "Like ash content and this weird shit. But it's the best."

2. Make your own sauce.

"Pass canned tomatoes through a food mill" — or in a pinch, a food processor — "then season with olive oil, salt, maybe some grated garlic, and oregano," says Pollack. "I never, ever precook the tomato sauce I use on pizza. It loses its vibrancy and becomes too sweet."

3. Don't mess with a good thing.

"Good mozzarella is still relatively inexpensive," he says. "I sure wouldn't splurge on some washed-rind, ripened, cave-aged cheese. When you start putting truffle-berry cheeses and shit on pizza, it becomes a different thing entirely."

4. Make your dough at least 24 hours in advance.

"Put it in a clear container. You want to see tiny air bubbles forming. A lot of home cookbooks on bread and pizza tell you to wait until it's doubled in size. I think that's too much. Then stretch it with your hands, not a rolling pin. You want to push the air bubbles toward the crust so you get that nice, aerated cornicione." As for the texture, you need to experiment to get it right, but think putty. On the topic of store-bought dough, Pollack doesn't mince words: "If you're buying jarred tomato sauce rather than canned tomatoes to make sauce, then it's fine. If you have any integrity, then it's not."

5. Drizzle olive oil when it comes out of the oven.

"Olive oil, added at the last moment, gives an indescribable depth to a dish. I put it on grilled meat, vegetables, and pasta. But it's particularly great lightly drizzled atop a Neapolitan pie." Also, when making Neapolitan pizza, buy a good Italian wine from the Campania region, like Cantina Giardino. "What grows together goes together."

Our Pick: The Pizza Powerhouse

Using eco-friendly wood pellets, the Uuni 3 pizza oven heats up to a scorching 932 degrees in 10 minutes and cooks pizza in 60 seconds. This oven has a small mouth, which Pollack calls vital. And it weighs only 30 pounds, so you won't break your back installing it. You can even bring it to a friend's house — pizza, delivered. [$299; uuni.net]