Hunting And Gathering: Lisa's (Pepe's) White Clam Pizza
by Lisa Barlow
My favorite all time surprise present wasn’t a big fat check or anything shiny under the Christmas tree. It was a pizza…a large clam pizza that had traveled 75 miles in the trunk of a car to reach me, stiff and cold in a grease-stained box. I couldn’t have been more happily startled than if it had been a bouquet of roses or a string of pearls. My dad, the inspired giver, knew exactly how to cheer up a housebound new mother with a colicky infant.
Pepe’s Pizza, for those of you who have never been to New Haven, CT, is the Holy Grail of tomato pies. That’s arguable, of course, and I’ve had many a heated discussion while rooting for my team pie. In fact, in the old days when I was a student in New Haven, one of the great distinguishers was “Sally’s or a Pepe’s?” I was a Sally’s girl then, with a favorite booth and a favorite Frank song on the jukebox. Sinatra had his favorite booth there too. Though I never saw him in the restaurant, a laminated photo of Ol’ Blue Eyes was framed above the seat closest to the cash register.
My defection to the Pepe’s camp came years later on a rainy night during a long multi-State drive when my daughter and I pulled off of Interstate 91 in eager anticipation of a hot Sally’s pie, only to find the restaurant closed that night. Pepe’s was there for us. The white clam pizza was deliriously delicious and with my daughter as a new convert, I never looked back.
So what makes a Pepe’s pizza the stuff of daydreams and an inspired gift? Start with the way it’s cooked. Pepe’s has used a coal fired oven since it opened in 1925. The oven is 14 feet by 14 feet and the arthracite coal is placed directly on the oven floor. When the temperature reaches 600 degrees, it’s pie time, and one of Pepe’s expert peel wielders slides a pizza in near the coals. 8 to 10 minutes later, the pie is cooked, a little charred in places, traces of semolina on the bottom of the crust, bubbly from the heat.
And why a clam pizza, which doesn’t even have tomato sauce or mozzarella cheese? Well, because once you’ve tried one, you’re in for life. Oil, garlic and oregano mingle with fresh littleneck clams and a dusting of Parmesan on a chewy charred crust, and suddenly you are on a beach tasting the ocean and inhaling the smoky scent of a crackling bonfire.
Pepe’s does make other kinds of pizza, as evidenced by the elegantly minimalistic neon sign over the counter that shines “The Original Tomato Pies”. I like the bacon and onion pie tomato pie, as well as the roasted chicken one, though I have a hard time ordering anything but their signature white clam special. Should you be lucky enough to be near New Haven, Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana and Sally’s Apizza, it’s friendly rival, are on Wooster Square. But if you need one right now, here is a recipe that tastes pretty great.
White Clam Pizza
You’ll need a pizza stone, a wooden pizza peel and a long spatula. These are good investments if you don’t have them already, because making pizza is easy and will catapult you to even greater popularity than you already enjoy.
Crust for 2 12-inch pizzas:
The easiest crust I’ve found for this pizza is Mark Bittman’s recipe from his book, How to Cook Everything. Since it is something of an internet sensation, reprinted liberally, I feel comfortable passing it along verbatim.
Mark Bittman’s Basic Pizza Dough
1 teaspoon instant or rapid-rise yeast
3 cups (about 14 ounces) all-purpose or bread flour, plus more as needed
2 teaspoons coarse kosher or sea salt, plus extra for sprinkling
1 to 1 1/4 cups water
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
Combine the yeast, flour, and 2 teaspoons salt in the container of a food processor. Turn the machine on and add 1 cup water and the 2 tablespoons of oil through the feed tube.
Process for about 30 seconds, adding more water, a little at a time, until the mixture forms a ball and is slightly sticky to the touch. If it is dry, add another tablespoon or two of water and process for another 10 seconds. (In the unlikely event that the mixture is too sticky, add flour, a tablespoon at a time.)
Turn the dough onto a floured work surface and knead by hand a few seconds to form a smooth, round dough ball. Grease a bowl with the remaining olive oil, and place the dough in it. Cover with plastic wrap or a damp cloth and let rise in warm, draft-free area until the dough doubles in size, 1 to 2 hours. You can cut this rising time short if you are in a hurry, or you can let the dough rise more slowly, in the refrigerator, for up to 6 or 8 hours.
Proceed with any pizza recipe, or wrap the dough tightly in plastic wrap and freeze for up to a month. Defrost in a covered bowl in the refrigerator or at room temperature.
Clam Topping for 2 12-inch pizzas
1 pint shucked littleneck clams with juice (About 4 dozen)
¼ cup heavy cream
4 cloves sliced garlic
1/8 cup chopped fresh oregano or ¼ cup chopped fresh parsley
Handful Parmesan cheese
Olive oil for drizzling
Red pepper flakes (optional)
Note: You will also need some semolina or cornmeal to sprinkle on the pizza peel so that the dough slides easily onto the pizza stone.
Put pizza stone in oven. Preheat to 450 degrees.
Mix clams, clam juice, cream, garlic and oregano or parsley in a bowl.
Take risen dough and roll it out on a floured board. Using your folded hands, knuckles up, pull the dough outwards until it is about 12 inches in circumference.
Sprinkle semolina or cornmeal onto the pizza peel and place dough on top.
Spread about ½ of the clam mixture on the dough. Don’t overload with topping because you don’t want a soggy crust.
Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.
Drizzle with olive oil.
Toss some of the red pepper flakes on now if everyone likes a little heat.
Slide the pizza into the oven.
Bake 8-10 minutes or until crust is nice and brown on the edges.
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