The Food Lab: How to Make New York's Finest Sicilian Pizza at Home

The Food Lab

Unraveling the mysteries of home cooking through science.

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A spicy, cheesy, well-risen square pizza with crispy chalices of pepperoni. [Photographs: J. Kenji López-Alt]

You want to show your friends and family that you really love them (or, at the very least, are willing to buy their affection and admiration with pizza)? This is the recipe for you. It's easy, it's insanely delicious, and it feeds a crowd.

Take a look at where you're living, and think about what you're going to miss most if you ever decide to leave it. It's probably not going to be the things that you think of. Sure, you've got a nice pad, but you'll soon find another living space to call home. Watching the sun rise over the ocean is enjoyable, but it turns out that watching the sun set over the ocean is pretty spectacular, too. Even friends can be replaced (especially when you have this recipe in your back pocket—and can you really call them real friends if they don't even have the decency to move with you?). But food! The food is the problem.

It's the middle of a Sunday afternoon. I've already weeded the garden and walked the dogs around the block of San Mateo that I now call home. I'm on my fourth rearrangement of the kitchen closet—the most times one can reasonably rearrange the closet on a Sunday—when suddenly I get that aching, irresistible itch for a slice of great pizza. And not just any pizza. Times like these, there's a hole in my belly, and it's shaped like a big, fat, pepperoni-topped square. I'm talking about the Spicy Spring from Prince Street Pizza in Nolita. It is, I can say with confidence, the greatest slice of Sicilian-style (read: thick and square) pizza in New York City, and, by extension, the world. (Fight me on that, I dare you.)

The crust is thick, slightly chewy, and packed with big bubbles, like the interior of a good baguette. For a piece of bread an inch thick, it's remarkably light, but it's still gonna fill you up. It's baked inside an oiled baking dish so that it ends up with a crisp, golden-brown, almost fried texture to its bottom. The toppings are simple: melted aged mozzarella cheese (that's layered on under the sauce to keep the dough from getting soggy), a sweet-and-spicy fra diavolo–style tomato sauce, ground Pecorino Romano cheese, and, most importantly, a ton of pepperoni. And not just any pepperoni. We're talking spicy, natural-casing pepperoni. The kind of pepperoni that Adam Kuban, former Serious Eats managing editor and current proprietor of Margot's Pizza, refers to as "crispy grease chalices," for the way in which they cup up and fry around the edges, their interiors glistening with pools of rendered pepperoni fat.

It's an incredibly good pizza that has only two problems. First, with all the toppings and that olive oil–packed crust, it's heavy enough that you can't eat it more than, say, once a month. The second problem is that it doesn't exist anywhere else.

I'd rather have the first problem than the second, and, for anyone living outside of Lower Manhattan, the second problem pretty much solves all the issues brought up by the first, so today I'm going to focus on solving that second problem (so that we can reintroduce the first). That's right. My goal is to be able to produce a (reasonably good) facsimile of this pizza anywhere in the world.*

* Except for, you know, the 70% covered by water, and perhaps other high-altitude locations, where making great pizza is not just difficult but seemingly impossible for a man of my means.

Know the Dough

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You can't make a great sandwich with bad bread. Likewise, the most important step for making great pizza is starting with great dough. Fortunately, I've been studying pizza dough long enough to know the kind of ballpark I want to be playing in.

For this pie, I started with my Basic Square Pizza Dough, which is quite similar to my Foolproof Pan Pizza Dough. It starts with all-purpose or bread flour, along with some salt and yeast. There's a little olive oil, which adds flavor and tenderness, and a good amount of water. My original pizza dough recipe has a hydration level of 70%—that is, for every kilogram of flour, I would add 700 grams of water. With this much water, you get a huge number of large bubbles in the dough. I wanted this particular pie to come out a little denser and chewier (to be able to stand up to the heavy toppings), so I cut the water back to 65%. It's important that you use a scale when mixing dough for pizzas, as volume measurements for flour are notoriously inaccurate.

To mix the water in, there are three basic methods: the food processor, the stand mixer, and the no-knead method. The food processor is by far my favorite if quick and easy results are what I'm after. The violent beating that dough gets inside a quality food processor will very rapidly form the gluten network that gives good pizza dough its structure. A stand mixer will do in a pinch, though the gluten formation is never quite as good.

If you don't have any equipment at all, the basic no-knead method will work as well. Just mix the ingredients together in a bowl, cover it with plastic wrap, let it sit on the counter, and allow time to do the work. Over the course of 12 to 24 hours, the dough will naturally start to bubble and form its own strong gluten network.

Whatever method you use, the next step is simple: Dump the dough into an oiled rimmed baking sheet, cover it, and let it sit.

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If you were to immediately try to stretch the dough out, you'd find it to be extremely elastic, wanting to pull back into a tight ball. But as the dough relaxes, its gluten network will naturally slacken, allowing it to slowly fill out the sheet pan. After a couple of hours, all it'll take is a few gentle pushes and tugs to get it to completely fill the pan. I always make sure to lift up each corner and edge to allow any air bubbles trapped underneath to escape. This is essential if you want to maximize the amount of crispy, golden-brown crust in the finished pizza (and who wouldn't want that?).

After stretching it out to fill the pan, I set it aside for a second rise—this will ensure that the pizza is extra bubbly and light; uncovered is fine at this stage—while I focus my attention on the sauce.

At a Loss for Sauce

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Frank Morano, the owner of Prince Street Pizza and the man behind the pies, has said that his sauce is made with imported olive oil and tomatoes, garlic, and a few spices, so that seemed like a good place to start. You can see how much garlic is in the spicy tomato sauce when you order a slice, so I started with a full nine cloves, roughly chopped and sautéed in olive oil. To bump up the flavor, I also added some dried oregano (oregano is one of those herbs that still pack great flavor even when dried) and a hefty dose of red pepper flakes, which is how the Spicy Spring gets its bite. We're looking for hot-enough-to-notice here, not hot-enough-to-destroy-you.

Once everything is nice and friendly in the pan, I add a can of tomatoes. For this, you want really good-quality canned whole tomatoes, which have a bright hit of acidity and a natural sweetness. DOP San Marzano tomatoes are consistently a fine choice (they're pricey, but worth it), though, if you have access to Chris Bianco's Bianco diNapoli tomatoes, those are good, too. In any case, look for a brand packed without calcium chloride, an additive that is sometimes used to help tomatoes keep their firm shape.

I prefer whole peeled tomatoes to diced or crushed, as it gives you more control over the finished texture. You can chop the tomatoes in a variety of ways. I used to either squeeze them through my fingers in a bowl, or mash them with a potato masher in the pot, but recently I've discovered an even better tool for the job: a stiff-bladed pastry blender. Its firm blades let you efficiently chop up the tomatoes to whatever consistency you'd like, directly in the pan.

Topping Time

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With the sauce and dough done, there are only three remaining ingredients: low-moisture (aged) mozzarella cheese, Pecorino Romano cheese, and pepperoni.

The Mozzarella: Typically, New York–style slices are topped with grated aged mozzarella sprinkled over the sauce. I'm talking the dry stuff that comes in blocks, as distinct from the balls of wet fresh mozzarella used to top Neapolitan pizzas. For the Spicy Spring, the key is to use sliced mozzarella and to place it under the sauce for even, shingled coverage that offers protection to the dough and prevents the sauce from sogging it out. (This is sometimes referred to as an "upside-down Sicilian" in pizzeria lingo.)

The Pepperoni: You must use a high-quality, natural-casing pepperoni, lest you fall victim to one of the two classic pizza blunders—the most famous of which is "Never question your pizza toppings in Asia," but only slightly less well known is this: "Never order a Sicilian when you spy flat-lying pepperoni on the line."

Pepperoni curl is caused by the bull's-eye-shaped pattern of varying meat density inside the casing, and this pattern occurs only in pepperoni with a natural (hog) casing. (See more on the science of pepperoni curl here.) My favorite brand is Vermont Smoke & Cure, though Boar's Head also makes a great, extra-spicy product. (Check out our taste test for more recommendations.)

The Pecorino Romano: Don't skimp on the good stuff. Look for real, imported Pecorino Romano in solid blocks, and grate it yourself at home. You can either roughly chop it and finish it off in the food processor, or use the grinding faces of your box grater. (You know, those faces with the poke-y bits that you didn't think had any purpose? That's what they're for.)

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By the time you've finished making the sauce and preparing the toppings, your pizza should be through with its second rise and ready for assembly. Shingle on the mozzarella, spread out the sauce (you want it thicker than on a standard New York– or Neapolitan-style pizza, but don't go overboard), then cover the face with pepperoni. And I mean cover it. The pepperoni shrinks as it cooks, so 70–80% coverage from the get-go is a good goal to aim for.

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At Prince Street Pizza, they use ovens that hit up to 750°F, though I'm fairly certain that they typically run a little cooler than that. At home, my oven maxes out at 550°F, but that's still plenty hot enough for a thicker, pan-style pizza like this to crisp up without drying out—a real danger when it comes to thinner styles of pizza.

The trick is to bake it close to the floor of the oven, where it will get the most radiant heat out of the base, helping that bottom crisp up to an extra-crunchy golden brown.

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If all goes well, that'll be just about the same time that the pepperoni on top of the pizza is reaching maximum crispness and the cheese is starting to bubble up through the sauce and brown in spots. I mean, just look at that. Isn't it almost worth flying across the country for?

No? Let me try to make my case a little stronger:

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How do you feel about that now? Not a stretchy-cheese person? How about a little of that crispy underbelly?

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That's the stuff.

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You know what the best part of my job is? I get to make and eat pizza and call it "research." Don't get me wrong: I'm still going to be hitting up Prince Street Pizza every time I come back into the city (for research purposes, of course). I may just be doing a little bit of extracurricular studying back home in the meantime.