Grilled pizza is almost as easy as pie

By Lisa Zwirn
Globe Correspondent / June 4, 2008

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Making pizza on the grill isn't new - some restaurateurs and home cooks have been doing it for years - but if you haven't yet slipped dough over hot coals, it's a great backyard treat, and the crispy, thin-crusted results will taste better than anything that might be delivered to your doorstep.

Pizza can be grilled on a charcoal, wood, or gas grill. The best pies are fashioned from homemade dough that is rolled out thinly, cooked briefly on a rack over the hot part of the grill, then topped with cheese and sauce - or whatever you come up with - and cooked a little longer on the cooler part of the grill.

The first order of business is to shake off any reluctance to working with yeast, which isn't as fickle as you may think. Second, drop your fears that the dough will slide through the grill rack. It won't. As soon as the round hits the hot grate, it will begin to firm up, and in just two or three minutes it will be nicely browned on the bottom and sturdy enough to flip with tongs.

Potential pizza grillers will find all the information they need in "Grilled Pizzas & Piadinas," by Craig Priebe with Dianne Jacob. Priebe, executive chef for the private investment firm Henry Crown & Company in Chicago, introduced grilled pizza to the Atlanta area in 1995. For seven years, Priebe and his wife, Karla, ran C.K.'s Grilled Pizza (named for Craig and Karla) in Norcross, Ga. Karla came up with the idea after reading about grilled pizzas in Johanne Killeen and George Germon's book "Cucina Simpatica: Robust Trattoria Cooking." The authors own the Providence, R.I. restaurant Al Forno, where grilled pizzas are a specialty of the house.

Imperfectly shaped and charmingly nonuniform, rustic rounds of grilled pizza aren't meant to be typical tomato sauce and mozzarella pies, but rather smoky-flavored, char-enhanced crispy crusts with an extraordinary garnish on top.

Priebe likes to blend flavor, texture, color, and aromatics in his recipes, so the dough becomes a stage for the world's cuisines. For example, the Vesuvian, fashioned after Priebe's Sicilian grandmother's chicken Vesuvio dish, is topped with grilled chicken, baked slices of potato, and onion. The Emilian, another Italian-style pie, is covered with prosciutto, cantaloupe, and crumbled Gorgonzola; the Jamaican features jerk-spiced pork, sliced mango, and plum chutney; and the Pennsylvanian dishes up chunks of smoked sausage, honey mustard glaze, and coleslaw.

At Cambridge, 1 in Cambridge and the Fenway the menu features 13 selections with toppings as varied as meaty Bolognese with Fontina cheese; ham and Manchego; and lobster, corn, and scallions. Co-owner Chris Lutes explains that in the early 1980s, during his college years in Providence, he fell in love with the grilled pies at a little place called Bob & Timmy's. Today, the casual pizza parlor in Federal Hill's Italian neighborhood turns out those pizzas under the experienced hand of current co-owner Jose Sanchez.

At the hip, Italian-style Stella in the South End, a super thin grilled pizza crust is topped with sautéed mushrooms, white truffle oil, and arugula. "For me, it's all about the flavor and versatility of the grill," says chef and owner Evan Deluty. "I like the flavor of the dough when it gets charred."

All great pizza starts with good dough, and author Priebe's recipe is a mixture of unbleached and whole wheat flours with white cornmeal. "It's got a slightly nutty, hearty flavor and more resilient texture," he says. The chef cautions against overworking it, which makes the dough "too energized and rubbery," he says. "Treat it gently and roll it out slowly." Too much flour will make the dough stiff and difficult to roll.

Although both charcoal and gas grills work well, says Priebe, "cooking over natural wood gives the best flavor." Indoor cooking options, perfect for rainy days, include a stovetop griddle, grill pan, or panini machine.

Have your toppings ready because the cooking goes fast, advises Lutes. "It's six minutes max from when the dough first hits the grill to when the pizza is finished," he says. His restaurants use hardwood charcoal instead of gas, he says, which "allows us to get a hotter fire."

Grilling the pizza is actually quite simple. You slip the rolled-out dough onto the grate and cook it until grill lines appear on the underside. Flip the crust and pull it off the direct heat. At Cambridge, 1, says Lutes, "We immediately hit it with the cheese." On go the other toppings, which warm up as the bottom of the crust browns.

Stella's Deluty explains, "You have to baby it because it can burn within seconds." His cracker-thin crusts are particularly prone to charring. "We lose a couple every night."

Not weighing down the crust with topping is key. Grilled pizzas are best lightly garnished, with dollops of yummy ingredients. "Every bite should be different," says Priebe.

A little imagination and a fearless approach can bring you the world on a piece of grilled dough.

Cambridge, 1, 27 Church St., Harvard Square, Cambridge, 617-576-1111 and 1381 Boylston St., the Fenway, 617-437-1111; Stella, 1525 Washington St., South End, 617-247-7747.