In the Mahoning Valley, pizza allegiances run deep. Pizzerias that have been open for decades claim loyal patrons, and they will always carry a fond memory of their favorite pizza. Anyone who moves away knows what their first meal will be when they come home to visit. We always send my uncle home with a hot Sunrise pizza when he drives up from Kentucky.
Having moved from Warren to Youngstown, my pizza experience has definitely changed. I now sing the praises of Avalon Gardens to my family, and know more about the roots of the Brier Hill pie - I had no idea that's what a Sunrise pizza was when I was a kid. Around here, you can always tell where someone is from by what their favorite pizza is, and those loyalties are hard to break.
Recently, a friend of mine wanted to put those pizza allegiances to the test. He proposed a "pizza wars" party, where everyone brought their favorite pie, and after a generous tasting, voted on their favorite crust, sauce, toppings and overall best pizza. Surely, everyone would vote for the pizza they brought, right? Not so. Pizzas from Struthers, Campbell, Hubbard, Austintown, Canfield, Niles, Sharon, Pa., and Warren all made their appearances. Friends visiting from Oregon were especially looking forward to this culinary homecoming, and the pizzas were soon disappearing.
If you can’t pick sides in the pizza wars, you can even the playing field with your own Quattro Formaggio (“four cheese”) pie, adding your own toppings for a pie that will rival any local pizzeria.
Tribune Chronicle photos / Leonard Crist
There were definitely some pizzas there I never had before, and some area favorites like Wedgewood and Inner Circle. I was impressed by Elmton Pizza, about which I've heard many devotionals. But the pizza tasting gave way to dancing and conversation, and the winners were never announced. But the point was made - we are serious about pizza here, folks.
One guest brought a homemade pie, which was a highlight. Everyone wanted to try some, because the homemade pizza was neutral - it could have come from Switzerland. And in the pizza wars, making your own pizza is a good way to avoid having to choose from dozens of top-notch local pizzerias. Economic, custom-made and easily tailored to dietary needs, the homemade pizza is the best secret weapon.
In making my homemade pizza, I picked from several sources. Raised on Sunrise pizza, I enjoy a thick, crunchy crust. A recipe in "The Sopranos Family Cookbook" I got for Christmas one year has a great recipe for pizza crust, which includes many laborious hours of kneading and rising the dough.
1 package yeast
1 1/3 cup warm water
3 1/2-4 cups flour
Quattro Formaggio homemade pizza
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup olive oil
2 leaves fresh basil, torn
1 crushed garlic clove
2 cups shredded mozzarella
1 cup grated parmesan
1 cup grated romano
1 cup grated Asiago
To prepare dough for crust, dissolve one package yeast in warm water in small bowl. Let sit until yeast is creamy, then stir to dissolve. In a large bowl, combine flour and salt, then add dissolved yeast mixture. Stir until soft dough forms. Turn dough onto floured surface, and knead 10 minutes, adding more flour as needed, until dough is soft and elastic. Return to large bowl, coat with oil, cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm place to rise one hour. Transfer dough to 15x10x1-inch pan and press dough to fit pan. Cover with plastic wrap, and let rise another hour or until nearly doubled in size.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. In a saucepan, saute garlic in olive oil until browned, then add tomatoes. Simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, then add basil, simmering another 5 minutes.
Spoon sauce over dough, spreading with spoon. Bake with sauce for 20-25 minutes. Remove, then add mozzarella, then parmesan, then romano, then Asiago. Return pan to oven another 5 minutes until cheese is melted and crust is brown.
For the sauce, I went with the trusty formula of tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, salt and basil. If the basic elements are still the same after all these years, why mess with it?
As for toppings, I looked back on fond memories of a pizza place in Strongsville I used to visit, which had a primo four-cheese pizza. Mozzarella, romano, parmesan and Asiago are all great pizza cheeses, melting well together.
The making of the dough was the most labor-intensive step, but the effort pays off. The crust is crunchy on the outside, soft on the inside, and sturdy enough to support as many toppings as you want to add. The sauce is a little sweet, but can be remedied to taste by tweaking the other ingredients. The cheese was thick and bubbly, stretching as I cut a piece but not sliding totally off the slice, which is annoying.
This recipe is definitely a great foundation for any pizza, with room to add meats, vegetables, or whatever into the mix for a classic pie, or a gourmet masterpiece. Next time anyone starts a pizza war, you can bring out your secret weapon, and say "Try this!"