So yeah, in high school and college I was a pizza omnivore. I ate whatever was cheap. I ate Domino's, stopwatch in hand back when they had that "thirty minutes or free pizza" rule that led to so much pizza-delivery-guy carnage. I ate the pies during the "Pizza Wars" in Pittsburgh that sold for $2 for a large pie plus a 2-liter bottle of Coke. It was basically cardboard with ketchup and lumpy mystery "cheese" on it, but it was cheap and filling, and that was my priority.
But then I moved to the NYC area, and I started sampling the local product. And, oddly, there were also Pizza Wars going on, new joints popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm: Ray's™, Famous Ray's™, Famous Original Ray's™, Super-Famous Really Truly Original Ray's™, Super-Duper So-Famous-That-I'll-Suck-Your-Dick-If-You-Eat-Here Ray's™, it was confusing to a naive lad from far shores.
And then I found John's of Greenwich Village (motto: "NO SLICES"). My pizzapiphany. The crust, so perfect, thin as a manila envelope, just burnt to a light scorch on the bottom, chewy and resistant in my mouth; the sauce, so minimal and tangy; the cheese, melty but not scorched, just ambrosia. The penny dropped, the pizza dragon that was to be chased materialized and hacked up a big pepperoni hairball onto my grateful plate. All the wanton pizza dabblings of my youth fell away in the face of such purity.
Since then I've been lucky enough to sample many of the great pizza options that this town has to offer. And yet the question always remained, lurking in my cheapass lizardbrain: "How can I do this at home? For cheap? Like, for really cheap?"
Well, turns out you kind of can't. Cause in most homes a 1,000-degree oven isn't practical. But you can get pretty close, and here's how to do it, for pretty cheap.
First, get a pizza stone and a pizza peel. The former is just a thick round ceramic plate that sits in your oven and gets really, really hot (approximating the professional pizza oven), the latter is the broad wooden tool you use to put the pizza in and take the pizza out of your oven. You need these, but you don't need to spend Williams-Sonoma kind of money. Check Bed, Bath and Beyond or Target. My stone was about twenty bucks, and I've had it for about fifteen years now. They don't wear out. My peel was about fifteen bucks and is nicked and battered and shopworn from use, but still does the trick nicely. Necessary tools for the home pizza fiend.
Now you need the ingredients, which are as simple as the day is long, and various other clichés. Flour (I use "better for bread" flour, but you'd be fine with all-purpose), water, salt, olive oil, yeast, for the crust. That's it. For the sauce, I use about half a can of cheap tomato paste mixed with about the same amount of cheap, slightly sweet industrial marinara sauce (like Ragu), then throw in some parmesan cheese, oregano, garlic powder and crushed red pepper until it tastes really tangy and spicy but has a fairly thick, dry texture so it spreads easily and isn't even close to watery. Stick your finger in it, taste it. Is it just slightly too tangy and dry, with the texture just on the moist side of smooth peanut butter? Good, you're there.
Mix one packet of active dry yeast with one cup of warm water. If you like, and I usually do, toss in a teaspoon of sugar to help the yeasties activate. When it's nice and bubbly, add it slowly to two cups of flour, just under half a teaspoon of salt, and two tablespoonsful of olive oil. You may only want to add three-quarters of the yeasty water, you want to create a silky texture that's not stiff or oversticky but is still easy to knead. If it gets too stiff, add more water; if it gets too sticky and sloppy, add more flour. Alternate. Then knead that mothergrabber for at least ten minutes like your life depends on it and your carpals tunnel to China, until the gluten breaks down and the texture gets really silky, then toss it into a lightly oiled bowl to rise and let the yeasties do their work.
Now here is where the choices come. If you're in a hurry, two hours at warmish room temperature is fine. If you want to let the dough develop even more complex flavors with a slightly nutty edge, let the yeasties play in the fridge overnight. If you're an anal-retentive pizza maniac, let it go for two days, you won't regret it.
Either way, you'll have preheated your oven to INCINERATE, or whatever the highest setting is, with the stone on the top shelf. Let it get up to top heat for about an hour.
'Kay, whatever fermentation time you decide, the next step is the same. Roll out the risen dough onto a lightly floured surface. Anyone who can toss and stretch should do that. Me, I tend to drop it on the floor, and cat hair isn't as universally accepted a food ingredient among my colleagues as it is at home, so I use a rolling pin and roll it so thin that it's translucent.
Now it's time to assemble. Sprinkle some corn meal on the peel, to act as ball bearings and let the pizza slide around freely, then lay the dough on top of that. Brush it lightly with olive oil (helps it to not get soggy), then lay down a thin layer of your tangy sauce. Then a good coating of cheese, then any meats or veggies you want, or just some basil leaves or whatever, really, make Spam pizza, whatever floats your boat. I used to create a "lip" by folding the edges of the dough over, but I abandoned that after three or four tries, because the crust creates its own lip if you've done it right. If your cornmeal is working correctly, a little flick of the wrist is all that's required to slip the pie gently onto the hot, hot stone.
My gas home oven gets up to about 650 degrees at best, and at that temp it takes seven or eight minutes to cook a pie and get it lightly scorched and lovingly crunchable. You'll need to watch things closely in your first few attempts, until you have a feel for the way your oven works once it's past the red zone. Like, you know, that submarine movie with Matthew McConaughey, where the sub goes DEEPER THAN THE INSTRUMENTS ARE BUILT TO MEASURE? Yeah, it's just like that. Except with more cheese and fewer depth charges and anguished shots of sailors staring upwards while sweating profusely.
The pizza gods may chain me to a mountain and have a Noid feast on my liver daily for bringing mankind the secrets of great home pizza, but some secrets are not meant for the gods alone.
Remember me tonight in your pizza prayers, O ye of the pizza faith.