The Perfect Pie – A La Carte Food Column, Central PA Magazine, November 2009

Written by NOREEN LIVOTI | Oct 15, 2009 5:58 PM

When you think of comfort food, a few things may come to mind: macaroni and cheese, lasagna or doughnuts, to name a few. But some may argue that the ultimate comfort food had its beginnings in the rustic kitchens of Italy and currently has more devotees than those other dishes combined. The simple flavor combinations of the original pizzas — garden-grown tomatoes, fragrant basil and a fresh-baked crust — have made it a favorite, but there’s no reason why you can’t stick almost anything on a crust and make it your own. For those who enjoy cooking but want to embrace their creativity, or perhaps for those who find recipes too restricting, pizza is the perfect dish to tackle in your own kitchen, with almost any ingredients you have on hand.

Although tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and pepperoni are the toppings of choice for the majority of pizza-lovers, Doug Barry, owner of The Pizza Grille restaurants in Camp Hill and Lemoyne ( sees no reason to stop there. “The reason why we chose pizza is that you can do so many things with it,” he says. But Grille-goers won’t find your typical fast-food pie. “We make most of our toppings from scratch and use different types of toppings than pizza shops.” Barry serves his customers concoctions including a smoked mozzarella, spinach and mushroom pizza; one featuring spicy shrimp; and another using black olives, feta cheese and other flavors reminiscent of a Greek salad.

At home, there’s no reason to stop with only one or two choices, either. A meal featuring homemade pizza is a great way for your family or guests to be involved in the cooking process, since often everyone congregates in the kitchen anyway. Even picky palates can be tempted, with each person creating his or her own flavor profile, and kids who have helped make a pizza may actually eat it without complaint.

First, have a variety of topping options set out, including veggies sautéed in oil or butter, shredded cheeses, cooked meats and two or three sauces, including a tomato sauce and an Alfredo cream sauce. “Whatever you want to try, give it a shot,” suggests Barry. Pick up some raw dough from your favorite pizza place, cut it into individual portions, and let diners create their own masterpieces using their favorite toppings. The mini-pizzas will cook up quickly, and since the meat’s not raw but doesn’t have to be hot, all the toppings can be prepared in advance.

For a sweet way to end the meal, dessert pizzas can be a bright, colorful option. Start with your crust — you can use the same kind for a sweet or savory pizza — and, depending on what you like, you can spread a bit of goat cheese or cream cheese sweetened with sugar on the crust as the “sauce.” “The best one we’ve done was with any kind of berry — raspberries, strawberries, blueberries — or even peaches, with brown sugar and butter,” says Barry. “Just sprinkle that on top, and as it bakes, the fruit gets hot, the butter and brown sugar melt, and it all comes together.” If you’re craving chocolate, try a take on a s’more: Layer chocolate, toasted slivered almonds and mini-marshmallows on a crust, and bake until it’s gooey and melted. Kids can add chocolate candy pieces, or you can toast the nuts with a pinch of cayenne pepper for a more grown-up kick.

And for those who cook more by their instincts rather than by recipe, pizza is forgiving enough to stand up to some crazy combinations. For example, Barry often puts things on his pies that would more traditionally be served in a sandwich. “We have one pizza where we make a Caesar salad, put it on top of a whole-wheat crust and crumble a crab cake on top,” he says. “It’s a different way to eat a crab-cake sandwich, really.” If you’re a cheesesteak fan, try sliced steak, or even some chopped roast beef from the deli if you’re in a hurry. Sauté peppers, onions and mushrooms in some garlic, add that and the meat to your crust, and cover in provolone or cheddar cheese. Bake the pizza, or if you’re using premade crust, grill it for a more homemade flavor. “There is no real ‘recipe,’” says Barry. “You put the toppings on it. There’s no measured amount. It’s whatever appeals to the individual.”

So before you search through your recipe books, perhaps you should make a visit to your favorite pizza place for a chunk of their uncooked dough, and then take a look in your fridge and pantry. Chances are you have the makings of a unique pizza lurking somewhere in your own kitchen. “You can try anything you think will be good together,” says Barry. “Odds are it will be.”

recipes to go!

As pizza is the ultimate laid-back dish, it’s also one that’s easy enough to tackle without a hard-and-fast recipe. Instead, consider the following guidelines The Pizza Grille uses to create some unique flavor combinations. Switch out ingredients you don’t like, add more of those you do, use a whole-grain crust for more nutritional value — the options are endless.

Spicy Shrimp Pizza

» Marinated shrimp

» Caramelized onions

» Spicy tomato sauce

» Mozzarella cheese

Pizza Margherita

» Mozzarella cheese

» Basil

» Sliced tomatoes

» Garlic

» Extra-virgin olive oil

The Pizza Salad

» Thin pizza crust

» Shaved Parmesan cheese

» Mixed greens tossed in a Dijon vinaigrette

Mexican Pizza

» Chorizo sausage

» Tomato sauce

» Monterey Jack cheese

» Chopped lettuce

» Chopped tomatoes

» Sour cream

Spring Pizza

» Steamed asparagus

» Roasted red peppers

» Mozzarella cheese

Seafood Pizza

» Garlic-infused olive oil

» Crab meat

» Shrimp

» Clams

» Scallops

» Mozzarella cheese

Southwestern Pizza

» Tomatillo sauce

» Grilled chicken

» Mozzarella cheese

» Spicy pico de gallo

Dessert Pizza

» Raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, peaches or a mixture of fruits

» Brown sugar

» Butter

Published in A La Carte

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