Easy as pie: Making the perfect pizza

Originally published on the Rutland County Express on Dec. 8, 2011.

Pizza is in my blood. Of all my family’s culinary traditions, it is easily our oldest and, through The Palms, our most widely shared. In Vermont, we practically invented pizza.

No joke. The Palms was the first restaurant to sell pizza in the state — or so the legend goes. This was back in the late 1940s, when, if a Vermonter wanted pizza, they apparently had to call it in to New York State and wait for delivery at the border. (I’m guessing the “30 minutes or it’s free” policy was never honored.)

Then one day, my great-uncle Primo mounted his horse and rode out to Troy, N.Y., to learn the sacred craft himself. As a child, hearing this story for the first time, I always envisioned this trip as some sort of epic journey fraught with danger and intrigue at every turn until he finally reached some hallowed pizzeria where he met a wise sage (possibly Yoda) who taught him the art of pizza making.

In truth, he probably took a car, and the whole ordeal was completed in an afternoon. As for Yoda, he was likely somebody’s cousin named Sal. And the instruction was less “Do or do not, there is no try” and more “Yeah, I know a good tomato guy.”

Either way, the recipe Primo brought back with him has become one of Rutland’s great food traditions alongside such other local staples as Gill’s grinders, Ted’s pizza or Jones’ doughnuts.

In my family, making a pizza is one of the first initiations into the business. I remember standing on a milk crate as a little kid, spreading the dough and learning how to ladle the sauce, sprinkle the cheese and add my favorite toppings, which at the time were mushrooms and nothing else.

Unlike making lasagna or marinara, which is time-consuming and methodical, pizza is quick, easy and always different. A piece of dough is like a blank canvas and the possibilities are endless.

The typical Palms pizza is fairly traditional — the decision to offer pineapple as a topping was hotly debated within the family — it’s a simple thin-crust, red sauce, square (technically rectangular) pie that has varied little from its original incarnation.

The classic Palms pizza is the Deluxe: a square pie with pepperoni, sausage, mushrooms, green peppers and onions. True appreciators will order it the right way: with anchovies. And those with long enough memories will go for the Original: pepperoni and anchovies.

By contrast my own pizzas share the same dough and little else with the Palms cousins. Like I said, pizza is one of the great, wide-open culinary mediums that invite creativity and play. Aside from the basic ingredients — dough, cheese, toppings — there are no rules.

Over the years, I’ve treated friends and family to a number of these apocryphal Palms pizzas — the same dough, often the same toppings, but prepared in ways that would send Palms purists and even some family members running for the door.

While I usually follow the practice of never making the same pizza twice, some of my creations, like my clam, mozzarella and arugula with white bean spread and balsamic drizzle pie, are frequently requested.

Back in the Palms kitchen, my pizzas are met with skepticism. Andy, restaurant’s longtime pizza chef, adheres to Palms pizza orthodoxy. He regards my occasionally localvore, often-esoteric foodie pies with dubious interest. My roasted butternut squash and herbed chèvre pizza with maple-curry olive oil was so radical he wondered if I wasn’t adopted.

But I am undeterred by my detractors. While none of my pizzas will be gracing The Palms’ menu anytime soon, they still remain my personal take on a family tradition.


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