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On the Side: Pizza maestro

When Osteria's chef directs a workshop, his students dream of crackling crusts drizzled with delight. First lesson: Artistry takes time.

When the word went out that Osteria's estimable chef Jeff Michaud was hosting a pizza workshop in the demonstration kitchen at Foster's Homeware in Old City, I could feel a mischievous glint rising in my eye.

I'd always wondered how he pulled it off; made those smoky, crackling-crusted pizzas so thin, so perfect, some so plain (with uncooked tomato sauce and basil), some so refined (with arugula, fontina cheese, and prosciutto di Parma, or sunny egg, or green and white asparagus.

Wouldn't it be a coup to learn the trick? I had visions of wowing my guests - wowing myself - with home-baked pizzas that at Osteria's moody North Broad Street digs go for $15 and up for pies the size of dinner plates.

Things did not start well. I would be needing (kneading?) special pizza flour, and a dough-hook attachment (which I don't have), and a pizza stone (which I don't have), and a paddlelike pizza peel (which I don't have). Michaud recommends flexible stainless steel over wood.

I learned some secrets right off the bat. First, flour can get very complicated. You can use all-purpose flour, or King Arthur high-gluten bread flour. But Osteria uses a special-order pizza flour blended from hard and soft wheats, soy, and who knows what else.

The night before you want your pizza, here's what you do: Mix about 21/2 pounds of pizza flour with the following:

1 ounce of yeast

1/3 cup of olive oil

21/2 cups of water

1/4 cup of sugar

Mix in a mixer with the dough-hook for eight minutes.


Add 1 tablespoon of salt.


Mix three more minutes.

Now cut off six-ounce chunks of dough (about seven or eight of them), and roll them into round balls. (You can dig your fingers in the bottom and pull the dough around to fill the hole. But whatever, you have got to make the ball round, otherwise the pizza crust won't be.)

Put the balls on a cookie sheet, about three inches apart. Cover tightly with plastic wrap. In the next day, those suckers will swell up by about 25 percent.

Let us discuss sauce. I am not about to make my own cotecchino sausage, a central feature of the Lombarda at Osteria, which is finished with a glistening cracked egg.

But the sauce for the Margherita was more my speed.

Here's the recipe:

1 16-ounce can of plum tomatoes (Michaud uses Lavalle, reputedly the finest of the San Marzano brands)

1/4 cup of olive oil

8 basil leaves

salt and pepper

Puree coarsely in blender. (Don't cook.)

Store in jar in refrigerator.

That part, I get.

At Osteria, the wood-fired oven hovers at about 650 degrees. At home, you're not going to get more than 500 or so. So two points: Stick a pizza stone in the oven for an hour ahead (once it's preheated to 500) so the bottom of the pie gets a quick hit of heat. Two, spray a mist of water in the oven to help with crisping.

Have on hand the following: Mozzarella cheese, cut in half-inch slices so it won't melt all the way into the crust. Fresh basil leaves, washed and patted dry.

Now for the dicey part. Michaud tosses fistfuls of pizza flour mixed with semolina flour (three to one) on the countertop at Foster's. With his fingers under one of the dough balls, he works it gently into a light, semi-flat disc.

Then he plops it on the flour - a handful of the flour - and (after flouring the surface, too) begins crimping a curb around the edge with his fingertips.

The curb is narrow, maybe half an inch. With a thumb pushing out on one side of it, he turns it like a DJ working a record, his fingertips fanned against the opposite side.

As it grows, he works it with two hands, spinning the dough on the counter, never letting his palms touch it.

Then he drapes half of it over the edge of the counter, working the part on the surface around and around, letting gravity assist.

He ends up with a pie crust about an eighth of an inch thick, maybe thinner. He slaps it between his hands, dusting off the flour.

I end up with a seized-up, dispirited saucer of a pie crust, the curb at the edge nonexistent: A fellow classmate describes it, hurtfully, as, "Pizza without borders."

Michaud dispenses a large kitchen spoon-and-a-half of the tomato sauce in the middle of the pie and swirls it around with the backside of the spoon.

The cheese goes on.

He hitches the floured paddle under the crust, slips it in the oven directly on the stone (no cornmeal sprinkled on it).

He turns it after a few minutes.

In about eight minutes, it's done, lightly blistered and fragrant, the cheese creamy, the basil freshly applied along with a finishing drizzle of the house extra-virgin olive oil. The crust is passably crunchy, though not quite as crisp as from Osteria's wood oven on North Broad.

I plan to continue graduate studies at that very hearth, happily paying $15 a session to witness the master at work - absorbing the nuances that may have eluded me in the starter class.

I have a learning trick of my own.