SEATTLE — After I graduated from college, I decided to take a full-time job as a cook (a move that left my mother disappointed for well over a decade, until she finally read my byline in this newspaper). My job was as a pizza-maker at Cambridge 1, a minimalist bar in Harvard Square from the restaurateurs Matthew Curtis and Chris Lutes that served nothing but salads and pizzas that we cooked directly over a hot grill.
Of all the techniques I’ve learned in the food industry, that grilled pizza is the one that has served me the most consistently and most successfully, year after year. For two decades it has been a backyard staple for my family in the summertime, one that’s just as easy to pull off on a Friday night after work as it is for an afternoon cookout with all the neighbors invited (remember when we used to do that?).
Why grilled pizza? It all has to do with high heat and speed. The most celebrated pizzas in the world are baked in ovens that generate temperatures in excess of 900 degrees. At these temperatures, a pizza takes around two minutes to cook, and something magical happens to the dough as it rapidly puffs and chars, creating a smoky, crackly eggshell-thin crust that covers a poofy, steamy, lightly chewy crumb underneath. Unless your home is outfitted with a dedicated pizza oven, the grill is the only piece of equipment where similar temperatures (and thus, similar pizzas) can be achieved.
Of course, there’s a good deal of technique involved with converting an ancient recipe designed for the oven to a backyard grill. My own method has evolved from the techniques I learned at Cambridge 1, which in turn traced its lineage to Al Forno, the Providence, R.I., restaurant where George Germon and Johanne Killeen are widely credited with inventing grilled pizza in the mid-1980s.
At Cambridge 1, the basic process went like this: I (the pizza cook) would stand in front of a custom-made cast-iron grate that slid forward and back on casters set in a track. In its forward position, the grate would get a bit of indirect heat from the blazing fire we kept fed with hardwood charcoal at the back of the grill. Roll the grate back and that fire would be directly underneath it.
When a pizza was ordered, I’d roll out a ball of dough into a thin oval, pull the grate toward me, then drape the dough over it before sliding the grate back over the heat, allowing the pizza to cook until the top surface started to ripple and bubble — no more than 30 seconds or so. I’d then use a thin metal pizza peel to peek underneath the crust, rotating it and adjusting its position over the flame until it was evenly browned and lightly charred in spots.
Next, I’d slide the peel underneath, flip the crust over and immediately start topping it as the underside blistered and charred. Finally, I’d slide the grate off the flame, let the pizza rest for 15 to 30 seconds until the cheese fully melted, sprinkle it with basil and thinly shaved scallions (just as they do at Al Forno) then transfer it to a hot plate. From the time the raw dough hit the grate to the time guests would take their first bites would be no more than a few minutes.
At home, without the benefit of a sliding grill grate or the pressure of a table waiting for its order, I take a more relaxed approach, but the basics are the same.
With most pizza recipes, stretching a dough into a skin (what pizza-makers call the stretched-and-ready-to-be-topped dough) that’s thin enough to bake up with no doughiness, but just thick enough to support toppings is a skill that comes with lots of practice.
At Al Forno, this process is simplified: Rather than being lifted and stretched in the air, each ball of dough is coated in oil, then pushed out with fingertips on top of an aluminum baking sheet into an irregular, oblong shape. At Cambridge 1, we took an even simpler approach: flattening the dough into an oval with a rolling pin on top of a well-floured countertop. With grilled pizza, a completely flat crust grills better than one with the cornicione, or a lip of thicker dough around the rim of the crust, which actually inhibits even cooking.
At home, I use a hybrid method: After dividing store-bought dough into roughly 5-ounce balls, I drop them into oiled bowls (soup bowls work great), turn them to coat them in oil, cover them with a kitchen towel, then let them proof at room temperature for a couple hours. Oiling the surface of the dough ball prevents it from sticking to the bowl and keeps it from forming a dry “skin.”
Afterward, I toss the dough balls in flour before rolling them out with a pin. The flour allows me to preroll as many skins as I plan on grilling, stacking them on a sheet tray, separated with sheets of parchment paper.
For the grill, the high heat of charcoal works best. I build a two-zone fire, spreading a full chimney of hot coals under one side of the grate and leaving the other side empty for an indirect-cooking zone. With a gas grill, set half the burners to high and leave the other half off.
By far the trickiest part of the technique is draping the dough over the grill. This is a one-and-done step; once it’s on the grill, you won’t be able to move it until the underside has cooked enough to hold its shape. The key is to pick the oval up from one end, then lay it across the grates in a single, smooth motion to avoid stretching or folding the dough; if you have a round Weber-style grill, you can lay the crust out over the cooler side of the grill, then use a set of tongs to rotate the grill so that the pizza ends up directly over the coals. After that, a set of long tongs and a thin metal pizza peel or wide spatula are the best tools to adjust the position of the crust to encourage even cooking.
Once the underside is charred, the crust is ready to be flipped. At the restaurant I’d top the pizza as the second side cooked, the heat from the grill melting the cheese as it goes on. At home, I prefer a method that is not quite as high-stress and high-heat: Cook the second side until it’s charred, then top the pizza over the cool side of the grill at a more leisurely pace. This has the advantage of allowing you to prebake all of your crusts, which makes topping them and finishing them a streamlined affair.
A typical baked pizza gets a layer of sauce followed by cheese. This makes sense in a pizza oven that radiates heat downward from its roof, melting the cheese. With a grilled pizza, the heat comes mostly from below, thus the order of toppings must be reversed: I sprinkle the cheese directly on the crust, followed by sauce and toppings (for this same reason, any toppings added to a grilled pizza must be fully cooked before they are applied).
There is another important factor that the top-down heat of an oven offers that a grill does not: evaporation. Traditional Neapolitan pizzas are made with a semiliquid passata of San Marzano tomatoes and fresh buffalo mozzarella with a very high moisture content. Watch as a pizzaiolo pulls a margherita pizza out of a wood-fired oven and you’ll see clouds of steam erupting from its surface as the sauce thickens and excess moisture from the cheese evaporates. Even so, Neapolitan pizza made with fresh mozzarella can be … soupy. Use these same ingredients on a grilled pizza, which has virtually no surface evaporation, and it becomes a soggy, watery mess.
To combat this issue, you need to take two steps. The first is to use a relatively small amount of dry cheese. At Cambridge 1, the basic margherita pie was topped with a thin layer of grated fontina, Romano and Parmesan (the same blend used at Al Forno). At home, I’ve had success with dry cheeses like low-moisture mozzarella, Cheddar, provolone, sliced havarti, Jack, Manchego and others.
My basic rule of thumb: If you can easily grate it by hand, it’ll work on a grilled pizza. Grating works well for pepperoni, too. Keep a stick of pepperoni in the freezer, then grate the frozen stick directly on the large holes of a box grater and combine the grated pepperoni with your cheese before spreading it on your pie.
The second step is to remove excess moisture from the tomatoes. You can do this by cooking canned tomatoes down into a heavily reduced sauce, or by carefully draining canned tomatoes. My fast-and-dirty method is to drain a can of whole-peeled San Marzano tomatoes through a fine mesh strainer then, with the tomatoes still in the strainer, to grab them in my fists and squeeze them through my fingers until they’re broken down into a very chunky sauce.
(A quick tip to keep your apron clean: Poke through each tomato with a fingertip before you start squeezing to prevent them from bursting, or, alternatively, enlist the help of an eager toddler or partner for this task. The strained juices can all be saved for a Bloody Mary or a batch of sloppy Joes, depending on the age and inclination of the helper.)
Rather than attempting to spread this thick purée out onto the crust, grilled pizza works better with the sauce applied in distinct dollops on top of the cheese, spaced so that every bite will get a bit of sauce.
Because I top my pizza over the cooler side of the grill at home, the cheese can use a little assistance in properly melting, so the final modification I make is to cover the grill for a moment after topping it, encouraging hot air from the fire to circulate above it and melt the cheese.
Grilled pizza, like most pizza, is best eaten as quickly as possible. I like to transfer the pizza straight to a cutting board, cut it into rectangles, then encourage diners to make sure that the cutting board is empty before the next pizza is ready a few minutes later. This has never been a challenge for them.
I spent a week in Cambridge this past summer and was saddened to hear that Cambridge 1 had closed its doors permanently in 2019. Thankfully Al Forno is still going strong, and my own backyard grill is hot and ready for that summer afternoon when I’m finally comfortable having all the neighbors over again.
Recipe: Grilled Pizza
And to Drink …
Most people know what they like to drink with pizza, grilled or baked. If a modest red wine, beer or cola does the trick, that’s fine. But pizza also goes particularly well with counterintuitive wines that people might reflexively reject. Like Champagne. Bubbly wines are wonderful with pizza. If you don’t want to spend for Champagne, consider a sparkling red, like a dry Lambrusco, or even more obscure Italian sparklers, like gragnano from Campania. Chianti is great, but so are exalted Barolos or other nebbiolo wines, especially if they are aged past the highly tannic stage. You prefer a white? Why not? Try a dry riesling, if you like, or even a moderately sweet bottle, like a German spätlese. Don’t fret about the toppings. Pizza is amazingly versatile with wine, regardless of the add-ons. ERIC ASIMOV