“Life is mostly pain and struggle; the rest is love and deep-dish pizza” ~ Benedict Smith
My love affair with pizza began when I was a teen.
After school, two or three of us floated between each other's houses. At mine, we ate lots of ring noodles with melted cheese or meals from the Schwan's man. At another, his mom was well on her way toward being newly single. In the fridge? Yogurt and Diet Coke. In the freezer? Frozen pizza.
We ate a lot of it. Cardboard-tasting crusts. Small round pepperoni slices, curled up at the edges, orange oil pooled in each one, crowded together on a thin layer of cheese. At the time, I certainly wasn't complaining, but also remember thinking there had to be something better, even if I'd never experienced it
On really special nights, we found ourselves at Happy Joe's, with sizzling-hot pizzas delivered right to our table. Maybe we had just come from a big football game, or we wanted a night with something different to do. Either way, the sounds of pinball machines, and later Ms. Pac Man and Frogger, surrounded us as we ate. Those were such happy days.
Their taco pizzas were truly something special. A crust that was crispy on the bottom and puffed around the edges, blistered with a thin layer of tomato paste. Above that, refried beans, cheese, and tomato sauce melted together into a gooey sameness. Seasoned ground beef and sausage topped with crunchy lettuce and cubed tomato. And, over everything, a blanket of crispy slightly crushed tortilla chips.
Later, during the season of college and being newly-married, I moved on to Great Plains Pizza, an Ames/Iowa State classic. The crust was far more doughy and best eaten with drizzles of honey. For toppings, we graduated to green peppers or Canadian bacon and pineapple and ordered from their Midwestern themed menu.
Even if we worked at it, there were still a few pieces to take home and eat cold for breakfast the next morning. All of the salt pooled at the top, the cheese congealed into a hard mass, dots of perfectly browned sausage scattered throughout. How exciting to open the cardboard box and see the smear of tomato sauce and the bits of cheese sticking to the top.
All was well with the world.
Early in my career, I did a lot of traveling for work and was lucky enough to have the sweetest woman to go with. If left to my own devices, this introvert would have ordered a salad and passed the evenings reading in my room. She, on the other hand, was always looking for interesting things to do and great local restaurants to eat at.
I'll never forget the time she and I ended up at Ginos East, in Chicago and ordered the deep-dish pizza. We sat in a weathered wooden booth, sipped on our drinks, mentally exhausted after hours of Oracle training. While we waited for our pizza to arrive, we looked around at the names carved into the walls, the black-and-white photos of Italian stars from the 50s, and talked.
The first bite into the depths of the sauce, cheese, and mushrooms, red peppers was incredible. The heat and the joy of it and the bottom of the pliable crust, we both looked up at each other, our mouths full, our eyes wide, and said at the same time, “Oh my”
It's been ten years now since she passed away from breast cancer, and one of my biggest regrets is not telling her how much I appreciated her taking me under her wing — advocating on my behalf when my career was just getting started. How great it was to have someone cheering me on and pushing me out of my comfort zone.
How thankful I am to have shared so many amazing meals together
As my kids grew, and their friends started to multiply, my son's DIY version of pizza became Saltine crackers topped with slices of Velveeta cheese, and pepperonis, cooked to melty (and messy!) perfection in the microwave.
I decided something homemade was in order and bought Artisan Pizza and Flatbread in 5 Minutes a Day, along with all the required pizza gadgetry. Every morning I formed a fresh crust for him so that he could make something delicious in short order after school.
As the days wore on, we made increasingly better pizzas. I'd dreamed of thick-crust, hot-from-the-oven slices with interesting flavor combinations like blue cheese and caramelized onions. He, being the pickiest of eaters, stuck to thin-crust plain cheese, and extra sauce. Was this also when he would only wear beige clothing or khaki pants? Anyway, I ate my fair share of that.
Finally, there were the gorgeous slices of pizza I've loved at Fong's Pizza, just a few blocks from our place. When I was living alone, one of my favorite things after a long day was to stop and pick up dinner before ducking into my building and ascending the elevator to my apartment.
It's a long sliver of a restaurant, with lots of fun decorations, and an interesting menu. They're also serious about their pizzas. I'd order one (or two) slices, sometimes a fruity drink that I'd never finish, and wait. While they have everything from their signature Crab Rangoon to Mongolian Beef, I was perfectly content with only cheese. But don't be fooled, this was far from a beige pizza.
Pretty soon, out came my slices that had been expertly slipped onto white paper plates. The bartender would smack the brown paper bag with a flick of their wrist, for clearly the five thousandth time, and it would make a satisfying pop as it opened to the room. Then, they'd slide in my order and hand it to me. I'd open the bag again to sprinkle extra salt and pepper all over it, and throw in a couple of napkins.
I'd wave goodbye. Sometimes even waiting until I'd crossed the street before taking a bite.
This spring, as we counted the weeks of social distancing, it was fun to hear all of the projects people took on. One friend took up kombucha making (and gave me a SCOBY!). Another painted her bedroom blue and built a beautiful hosta garden. My brother started and perfected sourdough.
Me? I made pizza crust.
Not any pizza crust, but King Arthur Flour's 2020 Recipe of the Year – Cheesy Pan Pizza. A recipe is reminiscent of Pizza Hut's personal pan pizzas, that comes out perfectly every time, and is so easy to make. From preparing the dough to pulling it out of the oven, the process is seamless
With its crispy golden edges, gooey layer of cheese (right to the edge!), and thick yet delicate crust, it has an excellent texture and amazing taste. Plus, the crust has just five simple ingredients, so it’s easy to pull off in a home kitchen. I’ll admit that fifteen minutes in, when the aroma started filling the kitchen, I was hooked!
“Our recipe incorporates four baking ‘tricks.' An untraditional, nearly no-knead method of folding the dough creates airy pockets in the crust. An overnight refrigerated rest allows the dough time to develop maximum flavor. Baking in a cast-iron pan makes an audibly crispy crust for your flavorful assortment of toppings. And finally, the unique layering of cheese beneath the sauce acts as a barrier to minimize sogginess.” ~ King Arthur Flour
Looking for topping ideas? King Arthur has been making variations every month for their Instagram. It's hard to go wrong following their lead or use whatever's in your fridge and on your mind. Just be sure to use a light hand with the toppings so the dough can puff up in all its cheesy-crispy glory.
Ah, yet another happy pizza memory.