Anatomy of a Pizza

Only a year old, Mia’s Pizzas in Bethesda is turning out some of the area’s best pies. Chef and owner Melissa Ballinger let us look as she and her staff went through the process of producing the simplest pizza on the menu. From the two flours she combines to make a flavorful dough to the Parmesan cheese rinds that infuse her tomato sauce, Ballinger’s many little touches add up to big flavor.

Photographs by Stacy Zarin-Goldberg.  

1. Ballinger’s yeasty dough starts with two types of flour: an Italian double-zero flour and durum flour. “The measurements of the two flours are kind of proprietary,” she says. “That’s what adds the structure to the dough.”

2. The flour is combined with water, salt, yeast, and olive oil in a 40-year-old, 60-quart mixer affectionately nicknamed Bertha.
3. The dough sits out at room temperature for its first rise. After about 30 minutes, buckets of it are transferred to the walk-in refrigerator, where they remain overnight for the second rise. This two-part fermentation “really develops the flavors,” says Ballinger.
4. Ballinger buys fresh mozzarella in one-pound balls. Cow’s-milk mozzarella goes on most of Mia’s pizzas, but in keeping with Italian tradition, the Margherita has the creamier, more pungent buffalo’s-milk variety.
5. The tomato sauce, as at many good pizzerias, is made from San Marzano tomatoes, a sweet variety from the Campania region of Italy. “We strain all the water out and put them through a food mill,” says Ballinger, who makes a ten-gallon pot of sauce two to three times a week. To intensify the flavor, she tosses in Parmesan rinds during the last 20 minutes on the stove.
6. The fire in the wood-burning oven gets going at 9 AM, rising gradually to the pizza-cooking temperature of 625 to 650 degrees. “We feed wood into the fire all day to maintain that,” says Ballinger. “The last thing you want is to have the temperature fluctuate.” The oven is round, so the fire licks up around the ceramic dome ceiling, creating a kind of convection oven.
7. Pizza rotation in the oven is key, Ballinger says. Each pizza starts at the same position on the stone floor—the spot farthest from the fire—and makes its way around in three to four minutes. “That way, the crust starts to rise slowly, and in the final seconds at the hottest part of the oven, the crust really browns and the cheese really melts.”
8. Once the pizza exits the oven, Ballinger adds a final touch: a swirl of extra-virgin olive oil around the dark-blond, crispy crust: “It adds just a little more flavor and makes the crust more supple.”

This article appeared in the October, 2007 issue of The Washingtonian.

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