A CHEF’S INSPIRATION

It’s no secret that I love pizza. Yeah, if pizza were drug, I think I might need an intervention to get off the stuff! What’s more, making pizza it is probably my second favorite thing to do in the world! (My favorite thing? I’ll leave that to your imagination.)

While my passion for pizza is out in the open, I am keeping some of the secret tricks used by great pizza-makers under wraps for the time being. Yes, we in the pizza world have more secrets than we are willing to share with Joe Public. I have entertained the idea of writing a tell-all book that would reveal these untold tricks of the trade. But I have decided against that for fear of upsetting the balance of power in the pizza universe. I am afraid that as the tide rises, not-so-great pizzas might get lost in the shuffle. Making spectacular pizza does require careful attention, especially to quality ingredients. Less-than-spectacular pizza is going to cost less and be more readily available than primo pizza. There’s a place in many lives for inexpensive pizza. Besides, pizza to me is kind of like sex. Even when it’s not the best you have ever had it is still pretty darn good. (Not sure who deserves credited with that saying, but I like it.)

So, for now, my way to share some my love of pizza is to make different types available here in Des Moines. The best known types are ready to eat at Centro, Gateway and now at Django. But I will also give you the ideas for you to make your own from ingredients at Gateway. It has taken me a lifetime of obsession to know all I know about pizza and I am still learning.

On a recent trip to France, I was blown away by the amount of pizza that I saw. Pizza with French style was something that had not really occurred to me. I have played around with Japanese-inspired pizza and Mexican-inspired pizza. I believe that just about any sandwich can be made into a pizza. But I had not given much thought to French pizza. When we opened Django we made these wonderful Alsatian style tarts that were essentially pizza, just not called that. The abundance of pizza in France came as somewhat of a surprise to me.

I saw all types of pizza throughout our trip. But the further south we went, the more the food style started to resonate with me and the more comfortable I felt with the people themselves. They were just a little more friendly. They even started to look a little more like me. A few times I would walk into a little shop and the shop keeper would greet me in Italian.

For part of our trip, we left mainland France and headed for the island of Corsica, located southeast of France and west of Italy. I love the Islands of the Mediterranean. I have a connection with island people. I am the son of a proud Sicilian woman. I think there is something special about island people and their food. Over the centuries almost all island people have cultivated food with flavors and a style of its own. Island cuisine tends to be distinct from that of the mainland. More often than not, the signature dishes of an island have been influenced by the people who had once conquered or inhabited the land. This was apparent on the island of Corsica, where I found my favorite “French” pizza.

My happy discovery came with moments of my arrival. With a few students from the Iowa Culinary Institute, I went off looking for local food. We soon happened upon a sort of restaurant row. Pizza was being sold all around us. Much like pizza in the United States, there were many different kinds of crusts and toppings. The ones that I liked the most were the thin crispy type. Upon my first bite I thought this is great pizza! It was of a style that Americans would appreciate, I believed. The pizza embraced different cheeses. The sauce was a slightly sweeter and more seasoned sauce than Italian-style. Think fromage blanc, béchamel or creme fraiche. For toppings they played with all sorts of ingredients. Yes, they take pizza seriously in Corsica!

Chefs often travel to get inspired in other cities or countries. It helps with perspective. The chef can get a better idea of how the food translates to a customer. Some chefs move to certain places to try their hand a particular cuisine. I decided quite a long time ago not to move away from Iowa. My dream was and still is to bring my favorite flavors from around the United States and the world to Des Moines. So here we go, adding another one – Corsican pizza – to the list at Django. In keeping with the spirit of what I saw on the island, we will do an assortment of braised meats, confits and other toppings that pay homage to French flair. So come to Django and enjoy this cook’s inspiration.

Want to make your own? Try this pizza – I’m making it here in Django’s kitchen. Here’s what you’ll need:

Ingredients

Dough, semolina, herb mixture, béchamel, Parmesan, toasted bread crumbs, tomatoes and cheese.

  • 16 oz. of pizza dough. You can make your own, or grab some of Gateway Market’s pre-made dough.
  • Semonila
  • Olive oil
  • Garlic
  • Fresh herbs
  • Béchamel or Alfredo sauce
  • Cheese (fromage blanc? gruyère? Swiss? Your call.), including Parmesan
  • A couple tomatoes, sliced.
  • Toasted buttered panko bread crumbs (if desired)

Start by dividing your pizza dough equally into two. Preheat a baking stone in a 525 degree oven.

Rolling Dough

Roll the dough – don’t worry if it’s not perfectly round.

Roll the crusts as thin as you like using semolina to dust. Dust a pizza peel with semolina and place crust onto it.

Adding Semolina

Adding semolina. I’ll flip the crust so that’s the bottom before topping.

Rub the surface of the crust with olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs.

herb mixture

Adding the herb mixture to the pizza crust.

Use Gateway’s béchamel or Alfredo sauce, fromage blanc, grated gruyère or Swiss cheese. Then add sliced tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. If you like sprinkle on some toasted buttered panko bread crumbs.

Sprinkle Parmesan

Add sauce, tomatoes and Parmesan, then grated cheese. Finish it off with breadcrumbs if you’d like.

Pizza's "before" shot

En route to the oven.

Bake ’til crust is brown and top is hot and bubbling. Enjoy!

Finished product

Remove the pizzas from the oven after they’re sufficiently crisp around the edges.

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