Beyond brats
Up your grilling game with pizza over the coals

Beyond brats
Ari LeVaux - 05/27/2021

Grilled pizza does not immediately sound like the highest use of a grill – or a pizza. You’d think the bottom of the crust would burn to a blackened crisp, while blocking the coals from melting the cheese on top. But that notion didn’t seem to dawn on Johanne Killeen and George Germon, two art students from Providence, Rhode Island, who met while working for then Dewey Dufresne, a young chef with a big future of his own. When Dufresne’s restaurant closed, he went to New York and they opened Al Forno, in 1980. Al Forno means “from the oven,” an unlikely name for the birthplace of the world’s first non-baked pizza. But the restaurant space came with a grill, and they wanted to use it. Their pizza pie became that grill’s reason why.

In the early 1980s, while Germon and Killeen were inventing grilled pizza in Providence, I was 50 miles away, eating oven-baked pizza from Armando’s Pizza in Cambridge, quite certain that pizza couldn’t possibly get any better. My friend Michele, who grew up near Providence, knew better. Although she never ate there, Al Forno cast a long shadow. “Eating there was something that rich people did,” she recalls.  “It’s where my aunt’s boyfriend took her on fancy dates.”

Grilled pizza wasn’t the only way Al Forno was ahead of its time. In those days, few diners had heard of “pesto,” much less farm-to-table. In order to serve pesto, Al Forno contracted with a local farm to grow the basil. As for the pizza, it succeeded despite the obvious reasons it shouldn’t have. Or perhaps these hurdles are what sculpted the pizza into the work of art it is.

Michele recently introduced me to this pizza, which she plans to debut to her friends on Memorial Day. The core trick is to flip the pizza after grilling one side, and put the toppings on the hot new grill marks. This is how the puzzles presented by grilled pizza are solved. The extra-oily, extra-thin crust cooks quickly, all the way through, with no gooey inside to worry about. And it won’t stick to the grill.

The crust comes out crunchy, crispy, chewy and cracker-like, with a charred but hopefully not burnt bottom and smoky flavor. At Al Forno, you could, and still can, get toppings like nettle pesto, fried calamari, peaches and prosciutto to name just a few. Once you get the hang of grilling pizza, the precooked crust becomes a blank slate for whatever seasonal and creative toppings you can imagine. The most popular and longest-running version is the margherita, topped with a tomato sauce and the occasional pungent intrusion of half-cooked garlic, all held together by cheese.

If you know what you’re doing, you could grill yourself a lovely pizza with a hunk of store-bought dough, sauce and shredded cheese. Once you get the basic hang of grilling pizza, you can progress to thinking about toppings. And some day, perhaps, you’ll be ready to contemplate dough. I am not there myself, but luckily I can get decent pizza dough at my local store.

The Al Forno margherita pizza is a great, simple place to embark upon the path of grilled pizza. I have read every interview of Germon and Killeen on their margherita pizza that I could find. It changed over the years, so here is something in the middle, with adaptations for the Weber grill that I use at home. Killeen and Germon use maple charcoal, but I think any pure hardwood charcoal is fine.

Grilled Margherita ala Al Forno

Makes one medium-sized pizza that serves two

4 lbs hardwood charcoal

1 ball of pizza dough, 14-16 ounces

¼ cup extra virgin olive oil

1 clove garlic, pressed, grated, crushed or minced

3 ounces grated fontina cheese

1 ounce grated Romano cheese

½ cup chopped basil

½ cup chopped parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

14 ounces canned whole tomatoes, hand crushed

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Place dough ball in a bowl and pour ¼ cup oil over it. Roll it in the oil to coat and leave it to soak. Light the coals, and when they are about halfway ready, spread them evenly about 5 inches below one side of the cooking grate.

While the coals catch, remove the dough and place it on the back of a cookie sheet. Press it into an oblong shape about the size of the pan, and less than ¼-inch thick. It’s OK if some parts are thick and others thin. That’s part of the art. If you stretch the crust so thin that a hole opens up, don’t try to patch it. This is an artist pizza. Just don’t add any toppings to that negative space and you’ll be fine. Add minced garlic to the bowl with the remaining oil. Hand-crush the tomatoes and mix in the basil, thyme and parsley.

When the coals are a bit past their prime and not burning so aggressively, lift the crust by two points on the same edge and toss it onto the hot side of the grill, like you’d whip a fresh sheet onto a bed.

After about a minute, it should start to puff up. Carefully tug up an edge and peek at the underside. After another 30 or so seconds, before it blackens, grab the edge and flip the crust onto the cool side of the rack. (It’s impossible to give exact cooking times because they depend on the heat of your coals and distance from the grill.)

While it’s still piping hot, immediately brush or rub the newly browned side of the crust with the garlic oil. Sprinkle on the fontina and then Romano cheeses, and spoon on the herbed crushed tomatoes in dispersed little piles. Sprinkle salt, pepper, pepper flakes over the pizza.

With tongs or carefully with your fingers, slide the pizza onto the hot side of the grill, over the coals. Cook it as long as you can, ideally about four minutes, without smelling any burning. If the crust starts to blacken, pull it to the non-hot side of the grill and put the lid on until the cheese melts. Cut into artsy pieces with cooking scissors and serve. n

 

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