Homemade Herb Pizza Party

Make easy homemade pizza with fresh ingredients and herbs.

| August/September 1997

  • Pizza Ricca is herbs, garlic, and cheese on a light crust. What more do you need?

Round up a bunch of congenial people, add the makings of America’s favorite fun food, mix them up, and you’ve got a pizza party, a taste celebration made all the better by a generous helping of savory herbs. Pizza parties appeal to dainty ­nibblers and heavy eaters, to fans of simple fare as well as to partisans of sophisticated cuisine. Kids of all ages ­delight in getting their hands on the dough and love to make their own personal pizzas. Many like to help prepare toppings, such as plucking herb leaves and brushing mushrooms. Making pizza inspires even the most adamant “I-never-cook-anything” people to flights of fancy. Pizza parties are wonderful entertainment for everyone, whether you’re assembling the ingredients yourself or watching someone else do it. And everyone reaps the rewards.

The role that herbs can play in pizza is not exactly news to traditional pizza makers. Italians have been lavish with herbs on their pizza and focaccia for centuries. Persians and Egyptians have their versions of hearth-baked flat breads that carry abundant and varied herbs. Focaccia is made from the same dough as pizza, but it is shaped into a rectangle and is thicker, up to about 2 inches, with a dimpled surface that catches the sauces and light toppings. It is cooked at a lower temperature and for a longer period of time.

Below are a selection of unusual pizza and focaccia recipes, all based on a sure-fire basic dough recipe that lends itself to all kinds of variations. A few simple tools, a good hot oven, and a little time are all you need to produce the best pizzas you ever tasted, but because it’s more fun making them in a group, I’ve included suggestions for planning a pizza party. You might even like to plant a Piece of Pizza Pie Herb Garden so you can gather a wide array of pizza herbs in one fun little bed.

Better than bought

With a few ingredients and implements, home cooks can make pizza that’s better than pizza from any restaurant except those with wood-fired ovens. Ingredients can be as simple or extravagant as you wish, but six are essential: flour, yeast, salt, olive oil, herbs, and water. Baking stones, pizza paddles, and bakers’ peels help you make a good product great. They are inexpensive and will last a lifetime.

I learned to make pizza and focaccia on bricks in a traditional Italian hearth oven when I lived in Tuscany in the 1970s, and I’ve made hundreds of pizzas since then in all kinds of home and commercial ovens. The only ones unsuited for pizza are convection ovens. Even with the fan off, too much heat circulates above the pizza, sealing the top of the crust and drying out the toppings. For an ideal crust, bready and light inside, crisp without, pizza needs a good shot of bottom heat to start the dough rising as soon as possible after it goes into the oven.

In home ovens, this heat is best provided by placing a ceramic baking surface—pizza stones at least 1/2 inch thick, baking tiles, or kiln shelf tiles—on the lowest rack. Any of these will give your pizza a texture close to that of traditional hearth-baked pizzas. Heavy baking sheets and black steel pizza pans are nearly as good. Kits of baking tiles with metal underliners are sold in some cookware stores, but I prefer kiln shelf tiles (available at potters’ supply stores) because they come in different sizes, can be tailored to different ovens, and are very sturdy. The cost of stones, baking tiles, or kiln shelf tiles to cover roughly 20 by 16 inches in a home oven is about $25.

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