[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]
In 2005 I was working at a recently opened small fine dining restaurant just outside of Birmingham. At the time all the big restaurants, and in Birmingham at that time when you say all the big restaurants you meant Frank Stitt’s Highland’s Bar and Grill, eventual James Beard Most Outstanding Restaurant award winner in 2018, the newer places owned by former Highland’s employees clever enough to attract investors hoping to recreate chef Stitt’s success, and a handful of non-Stitt affiliated places venturous enough to open sans pedigree and good enough to make their own name, were located on the south side of the city, creatively known as Southside, with a few starting to bleed into downtown.
Most of the area’s money lived in the suburbs to the south; mainly in Mountain Brook and Vestavia but Greystone and other areas of Shelby County were pretty flush too. My employers’ plan was to get themselves a former Highlands sous chef and build a restaurant right in between all that suburban money and the great restaurants in Southside and save people some driving time while making a buck in the process. That’s just what they did.
We were open for lunch the first few months. Dinner was the primary focus but there were a few corporate headquarters located nearby so the thought was that clients would be entertained and working lunches would be hosted. What we got was cookie cutter perfect reproductions of a table of two elderly women sharing a single chicken salad sandwich and loitering until well into the time when dinner prep should have begun throughout. It was a good thought, but lunch didn’t work at that spot.
It wasn’t all in vain, though. We gleaned a little bit of wisdom re the habits of our clientele and, more importantly, I added a new pizza topping combination to my list of favorites.
On our service computer we had categories for apps, entrees, salads, etc. Under pizzas, we a Haller Pizza button. Haller was a daytime line cook and immensely talented. He would eventually become the Executive Chef and usher in a glorious age of astonishingly creative and perfectly prepared white fish among other things, but that was some ways off. Back then, he was the guy that made the pizzas and had a disproportionately hot girlfriend. I barely knew him by sight in the early days.
The Haller Pizza button was for employees only. When the order came up in the kitchen it was license for Haller to make whatever pizza he was in the mood to make with whatever toppings struck his fancy at the moment. You could type in dislikes or allergies but otherwise you were in his hands.
The concept that there is an aught has been with us for some time. The ancient Egyptians, Laozi, Thomas Aquinas, and John Locke all had ideas about it but I like C.S. Lewis on the subject:
“The Tao, which others may call Natural Law or Traditional Morality or the First Principles of Practical Reason or the First Platitudes, is not one among a series of possible systems of value. It is the sole source of all value judgments.”
It’s the antidote to those who confront claims of immorality with “Well, that’s just your morality,” or “According to whose morality?” Truth is outside of us and all we see, do, and think is either in harmony or cacophony with it. That includes pizza toppings.
Some are going to be more attenuated to the ways of the Tao than others. That’s why some can capture the expression of a matador’s graceful motions in oil on canvas and I spill paint on my shoes. People like Haller and Guðni Th. Jóhannesson demonstrate preternatural understanding of what does and does not belong in a pizza. Below is my recreation of the best of the Haller pizzas I was served. I liked it so much that the combination is known as The Haller Pizza at my house. We make it at least once a month.
The Haller Pizza
- pizza sauce
- 28 oz. can whole tomatoes
- 4 cloves garlic, minced
- ½ cup white wine (optional)
- dried oregano plus more to taste
- big pinch red pepper
- olive oil
- pizza dough
- 4 oz. ball fresh mozzarella, sliced
- 4 oz. fontina, shredded
- asparagus tips
- 1 ear’s shaved corn kernels
- 4 sliced thick cut bacon, sliced into matchsticks
Make the sauce ahead of time. Put the tomatoes in bowl with their juices and tear them apart by hand. You want to break them up into little bits, especially if you don’t plan on pureeing the sauce later, so take some time. I prefer doing this to buying pureed tomatoes because I believe that canneries use better products when they have to produce them whole and puree the lesser and I’ve read enough to make me think I’m right. That’s me though. I’ll leave it up to you as to how to proceed.
Start with a few glugs of olive oil in the bottom of a medium sauce pan and add the garlic. Turn on heat to medium-high. When the garlic becomes aromatic – do not let it brown – add the wine, torn tomatoes, oregano, and red pepper flakes. I always add a little more red pepper flakes than I usually would for a non-pizza tomato sauce because this sauce is going to be covered in spice moderating dairy and I want a bit of that spice to show through. Bring to a boil, turn down to a simmer, let cook for 15 or so minutes stirring occasionally. Salt and otherwise correct to taste.
Sometimes I’m in the mood to have little clumps and tendrils of tomato on my pizza because it makes me feel rustic but usually I puree the stuff. So let the sauce cool and then put it in a food processor or use an immersion blender to render it smooth. It’ll keep in the fridge for three or so days.
Start by sauteing the bacon until it colors and crisps. Remove the meat to a toweled plate leaving the grease.
Put the asparagus tips and corn in the pan and sauté until the you get a little char on a few kernels and then remove to the toweled plate to drain with the bacon matchsticks (you can call them lardons if you want to feel cool.)
Put the dough on a well-floured surface.
Roll out the dough. If you used my recipe the dough should allow for a 12” to 14” pie but keep in mind the dimensions of your peel. Mine is 12” by 12” so I roll out somewhere around 12” or 13” knowing that I’m going to crimp in a bit to make a raised crust on the edges. I rarely get a perfectly circular pizza. Australia shaped is not unusual for me, so don’t feel the need to fuss over form.
Flour your peel and scatter a bit of cornmeal on it. The cornmeal adds no flavor but acts like ball bearings and makes the slide from peel to pizza stone easier. Place the dough on the peel.
Once sauce touches dough you’re on the clock. You don’t have to blitz through the next few steps but the dough does soften with liquid contact so don’t wander off and play with the dog or anything.
Fill your ladle, pour a bit on, smooth it out with the base of the ladle and tip over more sauce as needed until you have coverage.
Space out the mozzarella knowing that it’ll melt and fill in gaps.
Sprinkle on fontina. I listed four ounces of each in the ingredients list but you won’t use all of it. Those are just the nearest amounts to requirements they’re sold in at my grocery store. If you’re making more than one pie, I get coverage for three pizzas from an 8 oz. package of both mozzarella and fontina. Just a little tip, fontina can be soft and a pain to shred so I put it in the freezer 20 minutes before grating.
Spread the topping as best you can. If your house is anything like mine the kids will have eaten half the bacon by the time you get to this step so maybe bulk up and increase from the recommended 4 slices in the beginning.
Before rolling out the dough you want to put a pizza stone on the middle rack and preheat the oven to 500°. Once that temperature is reached you want to let it heat the stone for a period to make sure the stone is 500° as well. The directions for my stone recommended 20 minutes but by the way it was written it seemed like they expected me to heat the oven and then put the stone it. I have the stone in as the oven pre-heats so I usually let the stone heat for around 10 minutes. I measured once with an infrared thermometer and it was fine. Do this all ahead of time so that when you get the toppings on your pizza the oven is ready and waiting.
Lightly shimmy the pizza off the peel and onto the stone. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until the crust is crisp on the edges and the cheese is melted with a fleck of brown here and there. Keep a long fork on hand and check the pizza every few minutes, popping air bubbles in the dough if they appear.
A quick thought on anchovies: I don’t see how they aren’t hugely popular. I don’t mean that from an “I like them so everybody should!” perspective. I’m not connected enough to The Tao to make that call, though I do like them and lean toward the idea that everybody else should too. I mean that from a historical perspective.
The Roman world was enamored of garum, a fermented fish sauce generally made with anchovies. Eastern Asia was and is still in thrall to fish sauce, again, made more often than not with anchovies. That is two huge swaths, giant populations of the ancient world that loved the taste of anchovies. Now adays most people accept that there may be some in their Caesar dressing and without knowing or thinking about it splash Worcestershire on a steak, but suggest them on a sandwich or pizza and everyone turns into a school kid with an out of date cootie shot. Thankfully my wife and I are in agreement so we always make a fishy pie for us and a pepperoni for the kids.
Look at them.
No matter what your toppings, I hope you have a Taoful pizza night. Enjoy.
In Loving Memory 2011 – 2023