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Slice of Summer

Outdoor pizza turns dinner into a community event.

By Lavinia Spalding

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It's 75 degrees in Sonoma County, California, and your yoga class has just finished practicing on a wooden deck overlooking a 108-acre farm. The sun slowly dips into the ocean in the distance. The aroma of wood smoke is in the air, luring you through the herb garden to a patio where a crackling outdoor pizza oven awaits, its brick hearth just the right temperature.

A long table is set with heaping bowls of toppings: roasted garlic, caramelized onions, grated fontina cheese, freshly picked spinach leaves, ricotta-stuffed squash blossoms. As everyone gathers to watch your yoga teacher expertly stretching pizza dough and throwing it over her head, the first pie emerges from the oven—baked to a bubbling golden brown—and you think to yourself, "Oh, how I love summertime."

Welcome to Jenay Martin's family farm in Occidental, where she leads summer yoga retreats with a delicious twist: nightly postpractice pizza parties. "I'm Italian American, so the pizza thing comes naturally to my family," says Martin. "And it's perfect for feeding a crowd because you can cater to everyone's needs: You can go healthy with fresh corn, arugula, onions, and garlic; you can go dairy free if you like; you can have gluten-free crusts; you can do Ayurvedically balanced pizzas. The sky's the limit."

An age-old comfort food, pizza has enjoyed a renaissance of late, thanks to passionate chefs and bakers across the nation who are reintroducing artisanal breads and pizzas into our diet. Wood-fired ovens now inhabit countless high-end restaurant kitchens, and menus feature vegetarian pizzas with whole wheat crusts and farm-fresh toppings. But there's something special about pizza cooked outdoors—and the news seems to be spreading. At yoga retreats and wellness centers, in neighborhood parks, schools, cafés, and even backyards, outdoor pizza has everyone fired up.

Share the Spark

Baking outside is not a new idea; outdoor communal ovens date back millennia, and they continue to exist in small villages from the Mediterranean to the Middle East. Townspeople meet to bake side by side, sharing an oven along with stories and recipes, building community as they preserve custom and cuisine. Now, a burgeoning trend has similar ovens appearing across the United States and Canada. Locals congregate at public ovens to make pizzas, bread, and—since the ovens hold heat for many hours—slow-cooked casseroles, soups, and stews.

Minneapolis poet Mike Rollin helped build a community brick oven in a vacant lot of his Powderhorn neighborhood several years ago. "It was a way to bring people together informally," says Rollin. "You could stop by anytime while the pizzas were being made. It opened up more possibilities for connection."

Outdoor ovens have also become important educational tools. At Martin Luther King Middle School in Berkeley, where Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters's Edible Schoolyard project began, an outdoor oven has been active for 15 years, with students cooking pizzas decorated with vegetables they planted, cultivated, and harvested themselves.

The King Middle School students are learning what most busy adults know inherently: Cooking outside with friends is a rare pleasure and an inspired way of showing appreciation for beautiful produce (plus, it doesn't heat up your kitchen on warm summer nights). Picture your friends gathered round a hearth, chatting, laughing, and sampling each other's creations. You don't need access to a community oven—or even space to build your own—to make it happen.

According to Tony Gemignani, who is himself a nine-time world pizza champion, you can achieve great results right on your grill. "When it comes to grilling pizza, the dough is the most important thing," says Gemignani, who owns Tony's Pizza Napoletana and the International School of Pizza in San Francisco. "It really has to be fresh."

Gemignani recommends doing as much advance prep as possible. Wrap toppings like zucchini, eggplant, and pineapple in foil, he says, and set them on the grill to cook while you're getting ready. To assemble your pizza bar, set an outside table with bowls of sauce (think tomato, pesto, Alfredo, spicy peanut), cheese, and fresh vegetable toppings. Label everything with handwritten cards, keeping a few on hand for friends who arrive bearing toppings to contribute.

You'll want to offer some greatest hits, like olives, marinated artichoke hearts, crumbled feta, and sliced mushrooms, but don't be afraid to encourage experimentation. You might be surprised by how delicious pizza tastes with a farm egg cooked in the center—perfectly poached, the white hardened and the yolk oozing. Or try combos like white pizza with corn, mint, lemon zest, and pine nuts or with figs, goat cheese, and balsamic vinegar.

You can also designate a separate station stocked with items that guests will add to their pie when it comes off the grill. The ingredients added at the end, Gemignani says, are almost more important than those that go on first. Invite your friends to finish off their pizzas with chili flakes, shaved Parmesan, a handful of fresh arugula, a scattering of cherry tomatoes and Calabrese peppers, chopped fresh herbs, or a drizzle of olive oil.

Comfort Food

At the Clare Island Yoga Retreat Centre off the west coast of Ireland, Ciara Cullen and Christophe Mouze have discovered firsthand that pizza makes a great gateway food for introducing students to less familiar ingredients. Cullen and Mouze, who teach yoga and mindful eating courses, grow their own produce, grind their own grains, source their cheese locally, and often make pizza outside in a cob oven on the final evening of a retreat.

"A lot of people who come to our yoga courses aren't necessarily vegetarian," explains Cullen, "and during the week we try to stretch their taste buds with unusual combinations and vegetables they may not have tried before. So pizza as the culmination of the course is very comforting—they can relax because they know what it is. It's recognizable but with the twist of fresh and unexpected ingredients." The emphasis of their pizzas, Cullen says, is the toppings. "I always put greens on, and sometimes I just throw on a lot of fresh herbs and leave it at that. I use a light sprinkling of cheese so you can really see the other ingredients. I might not use tomatoes at all—we make our own pesto, so I'll use that as a base, or I'll purée chard or spinach or kale."

When your evening of pizza making is nearing an end, if you find you're feeling you haven't stretched the dough—or the possibilities—to the fullest extent, try treating your friends to dessert pizzas (what Martin calls "sweezzas"). Sprinkle cinnamon sugar on the dough, swap the savory topping options for Nutella, fresh berries, ricotta, and honey—and celebrate the sweetness of summer.

Custom Pies

Try these tasty topping combinations, or mix and match to create your own:

  • Sautéed wild mushrooms with baby spinach leaves, fresh oregano, and shredded soy mozzarella
  • Tomato sauce, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella, for the classic pizza Margherita
  • Sautéed sweet corn with mint, lemon zest, and pine nuts
  • Thinly sliced potatoes with roasted chilies, sage, and Gorgonzola
  • Sliced summer squash with crumbled goat cheese and walnuts

Tips for Great Grilled Pizza
  • Heat the grill to low or medium—not high. Brush the grill with oil.
  • Dust the dough lightly with semolina flour and then roll or stretch it to fit your grill. Lay the dough on the grill for 15 seconds; then flip it over and do the same on the other side, until it resembles a sturdy pita.
  • Remove the dough from the grill and transfer it to any metal pan, such as a cookie sheet, that fits on the grill and has been brushed with oil and dusted with semolina.
  • While the dough is off the grill, add your sauce, cheese, and toppings.
  • Return the pizza—pan and all—to an area of the grill away from direct heat. If you have three gas burners, turn on the right and left burners and leave the middle one off; then place the dough in the center. If you are using charcoal, build the coals in the shape of a doughnut, with just a few coals in the middle, and place the dough in the center.
  • Close the lid. Peek at the dough every minute or so, checking to make sure that it isn't burning.
  • When the cheese is melted, slide the pizza off, being careful not to burn yourself on the hot pan.
Get the Recipes:
Lavinia Spalding is the author of Writing Away.

August 2011

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