Pizza


The pizza was pretty simple — and great! — consisting of lots of fresh basil, sliced Roma tomatoes, diced green onions and sopressata and loads of mozzarella, and then just a minute before the pizza was done, I flung on a handful of baby spinach and arugula and let that cook briefly. I wanted a red wine with some power and flavor but nothing flamboyant or overwhelming, and I got that from the Gary Farrell Bradford Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel 2010, Dry Creek Valley.

Gary Farrell produced his first pinot noir under his own label — from the Rochioli Vineyard — in 1982. He sold the winery in 2004 to Allied Domecq; it’s owned now by Vincraft, which also owns the noted pinot noir producer Kosta-Browne. Present winemaker for Garrell Farrell (the winery) is Theresa Heredia (formerly at Joseph Phelps’ Freestone), but the wine we’re looking at today was made by Susan Reed, now at Geyser Peak Winery. Gary Farrell (the person) presently is a partner in and makes the wines for Alysian. Readers, you can’t tell the players if you don’t have a scorecard.

The color of the Gary Farrell Bradford Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel 2010, Dry Creek Valley (made from 48-year-old vines), is medium ruby from stem to stern, not the deep purple-black of heavy extraction. There’s nothing over-ripe or sweet here, no boysenberry or fruit tart elements; instead , this is a balanced and integrated zinfandel that features aromas and flavors of blueberries, black currants and plums bolstered by cloves and allspice, clean graphite and a slightly and appropriately rustic brambly quality. The wine is quite dry, and it’s packed with dusty graphite-like minerality, spicy oak — it aged 13 months in French oak, 40 percent new barrels — and fairly dense, chewy tannins, though the effect isn’t ponderous, and in fact this zinfandel feels pretty light on its feet for all its dimension, aided by the bright acidity of a cool vintage. The long finish brings out touches of leather and pepper and a hint of fruitcake. 14.3 percent alcohol. Drink now through 2015 or ’16. Production was 318 cases. Excellent. About $45.

A sample for review.

Generally when we think of a wine to drink with pizza, we conjure a fairly simple, light-hearted but flavorful red wine with the sort of bright acidity that will stand up to the acid in tomatoes or tomato-based sauce, not that all pizzas involve some form of tomatoes, but many do. That’s why Chianti is a pretty natural choice for pizza (and pasta dishes) or non-blockbuster zinfandel or some of the inexpensive reds blends produced all over California, wines that aren’t too tannic or oaky. On the other hand, I receive many samples of wine every week, and sometimes, on a whim, I’ll open a bottle of an Important Impressive Red Wine for Pizza-and-Movie Night, a gesture I made recently in conjunction with a fairly unusual pizza topped with fresh figs, bacon, basil, green onions and a little mozzarella. This was wonderful.

The wine in question was no “fairly simple, light-hearted” quaff. Instead, the Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley, is an ambitious, profoundly structured limited edition cabernet sauvignon (with 12 percent cabernet franc) that would seem to exist in a world apart from a Saturday night pizza, but, you know, it was there, and surprisingly and happily the wine and the pizza turned out to be perfect for each other.

The Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 aged 20 months in French oak, 52 percent new barrels. The color is dark ruby with a hint of radiant violet at the rim. Aromas of lavender, violets and graphite are etched with charcoal and bittersweet chocolate, amid notes of intense and concentrated black currants, black raspberries and plums that after a few moments in the glass take on a spicy, macerated and slightly fleshy aspect; yes, it’s a tremendously attractive and seductive bouquet from which I found it difficult to tear myself away, but one must taste the wine too. Dense, dusty, velvety tannins coat the mouth and support precisely delineated black and blue fruit flavors that unfold in layers of sandalwood and mocha, cedar and loam, all enlivened by bright acidity and a distant mineral edge. The sense of proportion and balance, the character of detail and dimension in this cabernet reflect the quality of the grapes from which it was made as well as thoughtful and careful winemaking. Even as an hour or so passed, and the wine took on some austerity and more earthiness in the finish, we continued to enjoy it with the fig and bacon pizza. 14.7 percent alcohol. Drink through 2020 to ’24. Production was 381 cases. Excellent. About $75.

How did a wine of such scope and intensity manage a blissful marriage with a fig, bacon and basil pizza? Somehow the sweetness and earthiness of the roasted figs elicited a hint of sweetness and ripeness from the wine, while the currant and plum flavors added shades of succulence to the already sweet and savory figs. The savory, smoky meatiness of the bacon reflected similar nuances in the wine. Or perhaps I’m over-thinking the whole scheme; the wine and the pizza were terrific together; we can leave it at that.

A sample for review. The label image is one year off; the wine under review is the 2009.

Pizza and barbecue ribs don’t have much in common; the first is a form of savory flatbread, while the second is pure meat and bones; the first cooks quickly, the second luxuriates in long, slow heat. Of course pizza often has some form of meat as a topping (certainly the case at my house; I asked LL once if she would like a vegetarian pizza and she replied, “What’s the point?”) and frequently incorporates tomatoes, while ribs are, you know, meat and the basting sauce sometimes has a tomato base, so while we may not be talking about blood-brothers, there may be more going on here than I thought initially.

Anyway, here’s a roster of full-flavored, full-bodied wines that we have tried recently on Pizza-and-Movie Night, as well as a syrah and grenache blend that we drank with barbecue ribs. Not that these labels and recommendations are fused in iron; most of these wines, with their rich ripe fruit and stalwart tannins, could match with a variety of hearty grilled or roasted fare.

These wines were samples for review.
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Las Rocas Garnacha 2009, Calatayud, Spain. Gallo bought Las Rocas, which was launched in 2003, from its American importer and his Spanish partner in 2009; a smart move, since Las Rocas Garnacha is an incredibly popular, inexpensive red wine. Made completely from garnacha or grenache grapes, the version for 2009 is as we would expect: very ripe, floral and spicy, with teeming amounts of black currant, plum and mulberry scents and flavors bolstered by earthy and dusty graphite elements, moderately grainy tannins and bright acidity. The fruit qualities taste a little fleshy and roasted, and there’s a bit of heat on the finish, testimony to the exceptionally dry, hot weather in 2009 along that plateau in northeastern Spain. Quite enjoyable, though, for its frank flavors and rustic directness; try with pizza (of course), burgers and grilled sausages. 15.2 percent alcohol. Very Good. About $14.

With this wine came Las Rocas Red Blend 2009 ($14) and Las Rocas Viñas Viejas 2009 ($20) which I did not find appreciably better or much different.

Imported by Las Rocas USA, Hayward, Ca.
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Feudi di San Gregorio Rubrato 2008, Irpinia Aglianico, Campania, Italy. Campania is the province that surrounds the city of Naples and extends east from it. This area is almost the exclusive arena of the unique, rangy and rustic aglianico grape, though it also makes the DOC Aglianico del Vulture in Basilicata, to the southeast. The grape originated in Greece and was brought to central Italy by the Phoenicians, so it is of ancient provenance, as so much in Italy is. Feudi di San Gregorio’s Rubrato ’08 displays all the character of the grape in full. The color is deep, dark ruby; the heady bouquet is spicy and meaty, an amalgam of black and blue fruit, cloves, fruitcake, black olives, oolong tea, tar and blackberry jam. In the mouth, the wine, which aged eight months in French oak barriques, is rich and savory but firm, dense and chewy, fathomlessly imbued with grainy tannins, brooding mineral elements and teeming acidity. On the other hand, the alcohol content is a relatively winsome 13.5 percent. We drank this blood-and-guts (yet pleasing and user-friendly) red with pizza, but it’s really suited to barbecue ribs or brisket or a grilled rib-eye steak. Now through 2015 or ’16. Excellent. About $18, representing Good Value.

Imported by Palm Bay International, Boca Raton, Fla.
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Sausal Family Zinfandel 2009, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. Sporting a dark ruby slightly unto purple color, this zinfandel, made from vines averaging 50 years old, is robust and full-bodied, offering spiced and macerated red currants and blueberry with a bare hint of boysenberry; the wine is dense and chewy, permeated by elements of graphite and lavender, fruitcake and potpourri, with a bit of bittersweet chocolate. The wine aged 20 months in a combination of French and American oak, a process that lends firmness to the structure, suppleness to the texture and touches of cloves and mocha. Tannins are fine-grained and generously proportioned, while taut acidity provides vim and zip (sounding like characters in a play by Samuel Beckett). The long finish is packed with black and red fruit and earthy graphite-like minerality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 to ’15. Excellent. About $19, another Good Value.
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Benessere Black Glass Vineyard Zinfandel 2008, Napa Valley. Not a zinfandel that attempts the extracted uber-darkness/super-ripe effect, here the color is medium ruby with a dark cherry center and the bouquet focuses on red and black cherries with hints of sour cherry, plum skin, cloves, fruitcake and hints of earthy leather and brambles. Not that the wine isn’t ripe and rich or packed with juicy wild berry flavors; in fact, this is a remarkably sleek and stylish zinfandel that only shows its more rigorous side when the closely-knit tannins and dense oak — 18 months in new and used French and American barrels — make themselves known through the finish. The spice elements, a backnote of cocoa powder and more brambles and briers also build from mid-palate back, adding verve and depth, aided by lively acidity. 14.7 percent alcohol. A great match for pizzas with hearty topping like sausage, guanciale or spicy salami. Production was 390 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Amapola Creek Cuvée Alis 2009, Sonoma Valley. Here’s a blend of syrah (55 percent) and grenache (45 percent) fully worthy of its Rhone Valley heritage, but I have to apologize for its lack of wide distribution. In any case, this wine went head to head and toe to toe with a rack of barbecue ribs and did them both proud. The grapes were grown organically at about 900 feet above Sonoma Valley, in a vineyard that lies next to the legendary Monte Rosso vineyard, once the mainstay of the Louis M Martini cabernet sauvignon wines and now owned by Gallo. Cuvée Alis 09, named for Richard Arrowood’s wife and co-proprietor of Amapola Creek, aged 18 months in new and used French oak. The color is an almost opaque ruby-purple with a magenta rim; the bouquet is first earth, leather, smoke, ash, black pepper; then intoxicating aromas of pure blackberry, black raspberry and plum, permeated, after a few moments in the glass, with beguiling notes of sandalwood, cumin and cardamom, ancho chili and bittersweet chocolate. The wine is characterized by huge presence and tone; it’s dense and chewy and powerfully imbued with smooth packed-in tannins and an iron and iodine-like mineral nature, yet it remains vital and vibrant, even a bit poised, while black fruit flavors are spicy, fleshy and meaty. The finish, though, is daunting and rather austere, a quality that deepens as the minutes pass. 14.9 percent alcohol. Production was 95 cases, so mark this Worth a Search. Try from 2014 to 2018 to ’22. I wrote about Richard Arrowood’s Amapola Creek Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 and his history as a winemaker in Sonoma County here, and I rated that wine Exceptional; this Cuvée Alis 09 is no exception, it’s also Exceptional. About $48.
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I had more dough than I needed for last night’s pizza, so I sliced off a hunk, wrapped it and put it in the refrigerator. LL said, “You should make a breakfast pizza tomorrow.” I thought, “O.K., why not? Another first achieved in a lifetime of ever-higher yet moderately attainable goals.”

This morning when I arose from my slab of slumber to make my tea and toast and grab the newspapers from the end of the driveway, I retrieved the bit of pizza dough and left it on a cutting board to come to room temperature. Later, I turned the oven on to heat to 500 degrees and pondered how to make a breakfast pizza. The maxim “Keep it simple” came to mind. So, I diced one stalk (or whatever you call it) of green onion and the same to a handful of fresh basil leaves. We had some Newman Farms country ham in the fridge, so I sliced a small portion and diced that too; this is btw the BEST country ham I have ever eaten. I rolled out the little piece of dough really damned thin and scattered the ham, basil and green onion mainly around the circumference and then dotted that with some ricotta cheese. Carefully, carefully I broke two eggs into the center, grated on some Parmesan cheese and sprinkled on some salt and pepper. C’est tout.

As you can see from the image, the result was as pretty as a picture, and it tasted great too. The eggs had set just into the hard stage, beyond sunnyside up, and there was this conjunction of the solidified egg whites and the ricotta that was not far from sublime. We snacked on the breakfast pizza at about 10:30, so it made a handy brunch, at the time when brunch is supposed to occur. I mean, what’s with this “We Serve Brunch All Day” stuff? Remember, the “b” in “brunch” stands for “breakfast.”

To answer the question posed by the title of this post, what became a breakfast pizza most was a bottle of Schramsberg Blanc de Noirs 2007, North Coast. This sparkling wine is a combination of 74 percent pinot noir grapes (the noir part) and 26 percent chardonnay (blanc) and is a four-county blend: Napa (32%), Sonoma (31%), Mendocino (30%) and Marin (7%). The color is pale gold; the abundant bubbles surge upward in a constant stream of gold-flecked glints. Lordy, this is a big, dense, full-bodied sparkling wine, yet it has its delicate, elegant moments, too. The bouquet teems with notes of roasted lemon, pears and mango, with a backwash of biscuits, smoked almonds and sauteed mushrooms, all set against a foundation of limestone. In the mouth, it’s nutty and yeasty, with zesty acidity bringing liveliness to lemon peel and lemon drop flavors, with a hint of caramel, ensconced in a chewy texture. The finish brings in spice, limestone and damp gravel. Final call: Delicious, savory, sophisticated. Alcohol content is 12.8 percent. Winemakers were Hugh Davies and Keith Hock. Excellent. About $38.

A sample for review.


The pizza was great, one of my best efforts, and the wine was great too.

Sometimes these matters are ineffable, unexplainable. Whatever the case, I made the pizza dough exactly right, with the correct balance of flours, yeast, water, salt and olive oil; kneaded the dough just as long as it, um, needed; the heat on the back porch was perfect for the first and second rising; I mean it all worked so that the crust, when it emerged from the 500-degree oven after 11 minutes, was thin yet with a slightly dense and chewy texture and a bit crisp at the moderately puffy circumference.

(BTW, I read somewhere that an oven heated at 500 degrees for an hour will reach a temperature of 550, the upper limit for a domestic range. That’s adequate, but I yearn for a wood-fired brick oven and the ideal 800 degrees that cooks a pizza in four minutes and chars the bottom of the crust. Sob. Weep.)

As you can see in the photograph, the pizza was topped with slices of tomatoes and bell pepper — very thin slices — with splotches of ricotta and mozzarella cheeses and Italian sausage. Underneath was a foundation of chopped fresh basil. Also: some diced white onion and two stalks of chopped green onion and, finally, gratings of Parmesan and pecorino cheeses. A dribble of olive oil across the surface as the last touch. Have mercy, everything worked together beautifully.

So did the wine. I opened a bottle of the V. Sattui Black Sears Vineyard Zinfandel 2007, from Napa Valley’s Howell Mountain appellation. At an elevation of 2,400 feet, Black Sears in one of the highest vineyards in California. The wine ages 16 months in French oak, 50 percent new, 50 percent used or “seasoned.” The color is ruby-black, nigh unto opacity, and while that dark hue indicates quite a bit of extraction, the wine is compellingly clean and fresh. The bouquet teems with hints of blackberry, black currant and mulberry is a cloud of cloves, black pepper, lavender, licorice and slate-like minerality. The most important aspect of the wine, other than that it’s downright delicious, is its precise balance and its impeccable integration of elements married to the power of dusty, rock-ribbed mountain-grown tannins and scintillating acidity. It’s the sort of warm, spicy, lively wine that makes you want to keep sipping. Truly a fine example of the zinfandel grape, with no exaggeration, no flamboyance of over-ripeness or high alcohol; by high, nowadays, I mean 15 percent and over. Alcohol in here is 14.5 percent. Production was 400 cases; winemaker was Brooks Painter. Excellent. About $40, at the winery or mail order.

A sample for review.

As faithful readers of this blog know — bless yer little pointy heads! — every feasible Saturday night it’s Pizza-and-Movie Night in the FK/LL household. This has been a steady occurrence for 15 years or so, and for most of that time I adhered to pretty much the same routine in making the pizza. Recently, though, I radically changed the way I make pizza, in terms of basic ingredients and technique.

The first inspiration was an article that ran in the food section of The New York Times on May 18 (and available online), called “The Slow Route to Homemade Pizza,” by Oliver Strand. Following the advice of a number of professional pizza-makers, the story advocates making the pizza dough and letting it rise at room temperature for 24 hours or at least overnight. Now I’ve always indulged in what I thought of as a slow rising of the dough at about eight hours, but overnight was new to me. I tried the technique soon after I read the article, making the dough on Friday night and leaving the bowl on the counter until the next morning. About 11 o’clock, I punched the dough down, kneaded it a few times, put it back in the bowl and set it out on the back porch. By the time I was ready to make the pizza at 6 p.m., the dough has been working for about 20 hours.

What happened next was remarkable. Usually, when you roll out the dough, you have to have do it a couple of times because the gluten is still elastic, so it has to rest for a couple of minutes and then be rolled again. With the new technique, I rolled the dough out and it immediately spread across the edges of the wooden paddle and onto the counter. Whoa! I actually had to trim the circumference because the pizza would have been too big for the stone. (Sorry I don’t have images of the process.) When we ate the finished pizza, the crust was thinner than I have ever achieved before, yet still chewy, not cracker-like, with a texture that had a little give and a rim that was slightly puffy. Fabulous, yes, but for me anyway, this technique is a little tricky, and over the past two months or so, I have had — it seems to me; LL is more generous –about a 25 percent failure rate, by which I mean that the crust was not up to a fine standard. I think I just have to keep trying to tune the method until I get it right.

The other change is that I began buying, at the Memphis Farmers Market, the hard white whole grain wheat flour from Funderfarm, a milling operation run by a young couple in Coldwater, Miss. The flour is not cheap — $8.50 for four pounds — but it’s ground the day before I purchase it, and it contributes wonderful texture and flavor to pizza. Now I can’t make a pizza with only the Funderfarm flour (the result is rather heavy), so I worked out a formula of about 40 percent Funderfarm hard white whole grain flour, about 50 percent King Arthur Bread Flour and about 10 percent rye flour from Whole Foods. All of these flours are organic.

We have also benefited from a bumper crop of local aubergines, including little globular eggplant; slim, tender baby eggplant; and pale lavender eggplant with faint white stripes. I slice these thin, marinate the slices in olive oil, balsamic vinegar, thyme and oregano, salt and pepper and then grill them briefly over hardwood charcoal. This is great on pizzas, especially in conjunction with pepper-cured bacon (as in the image above), and what’s interesting is that usually I can’t stand eggplant, it sort of
hurts my stomach. Ratatouille, yuck! I also like combining fresh tomatoes and marinated dried tomatoes on the same pizza, dribbling on a bit of the marinade as the final touch. (This image is of a small vegetarian pizza I made one Saturday when LL was traveling.) And recently I’ve been using four cheeses: mozzarella, feta, parmesan and pecorino.

Anyway, that’s what’s happening in My Pizzaworld. As far as wine is concerned, here are notes on the variety of wines we’ve had with pizza over the past few months. These were all samples for review.

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When Easton says “old vine,” they’re not kidding. The grapes for the Easton Old Vine Zinfandel 2006, Fiddletown, derive from the Rinaldi-Eschen Vineyard, some of whose vines date to the original planting of 1865, up there in Amador County’s Shenandoah Valley. Can there be an older vineyard still producing grapes in California? This is a beautifully balanced and integrated zinfandel, with loads of poise and character. The color is rich dark ruby with an opaque center and just a nod to cherry-garnet at the rim. Scents of macerated and meaty plums and red and black currants are permeated with smoke and cloves with a touch of leather and briers. In the mouth, the wine is rich and warm, displaying an intriguing combination of the savoriness of ripe, fleshy black fruit flavors with a sweet core of spicy oak and a touch of the grape’s brambly, black pepper nature. It’s quite dry, though, gaining a bit of dignified austerity and mineral presence on the finish. Nothing jammy, nothing overdone, and surprisingly elegant for an “old vine” zinfandel. Drink now through 2014 or ’15. Winemaker was Bill Easton, who also makes Rhone-style wines under the Terre Rouge label. Alcohol is 14.5. percent. Excellent. About $28 and definitely Worth a Search.
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The Grgich Hills Estate Merlot 2006, Napa Valley, asserts an individual character, unlike so many merlot-based wines that just taste “red” or like an imitation cabernet. From the winery’s Demeter-certified biodynamic vineyards, this intense and concentrated merlot delivers a bouquet of ripe black currants and black cherries etched with smoke and bitter chocolate and hints of lavender and Damson plum. A few minutes in the glass bring on a slightly roasted element, with flavors of black currants and blackberries permeated by cedar and dried thyme, all of these sensations cushioned by gritty, velvety tannins and fairly militant dusty, gravel-like minerality. The wine aged 18 months in a combination of French barriques and casks (that is, small and large barrels), some 30 percent of which were new. Such a regimen lends the wine shape, tone and seriousness without the frippery of toast or overt spiciness. Try from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18. Winemaker is Ivo Jeramaz, nephew of the winery’s co-founder and winemaker emeritus, Miljenko “Mike” Grgich. Alcohol is 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $42.
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The winery was founded in Australia’s Barossa Valley as Karlsburg Wines in 1973 by Czech winemaker Karl Cimicky; his son Charles changed the winery’s name to Charles Cimicky Wines when he took the reins. The blend in the Cimicky Trumps Grenache Shiraz 2007 is 55 percent of the first, 45 percent of the second. The wine spends 15 months in two-year-old French oak barrels that lend subtle spice and suppleness. This is a big, dark, rich and, yes, jammy red wine that bursts with aromas of ripe black currants, blackberries and plums swathed with licorice and lavender and crushed gravel. Despite the intense black fruit nectar-like ripeness, the wine is completely dry, even austere toward the finish, but it also just rolls across the taste-buds like liquid velvet couched in furry, chewy tannins. A little swirling unfurls notes of clean earth, new leather and smoke. This was terrific with the night’s pizza, but Lord have mercy, would it ever be great with a medium-rare, pepper-crusted rib-eye steak. Alcohol content is 14 percent. Drink through 2012 or ’13. Very Good+. About $15 to $18.
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La Mozza is jointed owned by Lidia Bastianich, her son Joe Bastianich and his partner is the restaurant business, Mario Batali. None of these celebrities — especially Batali — needs an introduction. (Mother and son also own a winery, launched in 1997, in Friuli Venezia Giulia, in the Colli Orientali Giulia D.O.C. region.) La Mozza was founded in 2000 and is located in Tuscany’s southwestern Maremma area. La Mozza Aragone 2006, Maremma Toscana I.G.T., could be called a combination of Italy and France; on the Italian side we have 40 percent sangiovese and 25 percent alicante grapes, and on the French side, specifically the southern Rhone Valley, we have 25 percent syrah and 10 percent carignane. The wine aged 22 months in 500-liter French casks; the standard French barrel is 225 liters, so theoretically, because of the greater mass of wine in proportion to wood, the oak influence with a cask is less, or at least more subtle. Not that the point matters tremendously for this dark, robust and vigorous red wine. Scents of red and black currants (and a touch of mulberry) are permeated by elements of graphite and potpourri, moss, briers and brambles and a bass note of mushroomy earthiness. Yes, there are intriguing, seductive layers in the bouquet, and if the wine is a bit more brooding in the mouth, that’s nothing that a little bottle aging won’t ease. The wine is well-balanced, but the emphasis is on dense but smooth, almost sleek tannins and rich, smoky black fruit flavors that need a year or two to develop. Try from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18. Alcohol content is a comfortable 13 percent. Excellent. A few months ago, the price range for this wine was about $38 to $42; today it’s about $28 to $35.

Dark Star Imports, New York.
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Yangarra Estate Vineyard, located in Australia’s McLaren Vale appellation, is part of the Jackson Family Wines empire. While the Yangarra wines are promoted as “100% estate grown,” the federally required designation on the back label mysteriously does not say “Produced and Bottled by …” but “Vinted and Bottled by …”; the implication is that the Yangarra wines (at least the ones shipped to the U.S.) are not made at the estate. Whatever the case, the Yangarra Mourvèdre 2008, McLaren Vale, is a wonderful, I’ll say it again, a wonderful expression of the mourvèdre grape. While a traditional component of the blended red wines of the Rhone Valley, Provence and Languedoc in southern France, mourvèdre is seldom bottled on its own except for a few instances in California and Australia. At first, this is all black: Blackberry, black currant, black plum, black pepper, black olive. Then a touch of dried red current enters the picture, along with sweet cherry and sour cherry, red plum, new leather. Give the wine a few more minutes and it turns into a glassful of smoldering violets and lavender, with overtones of bitter chocolate, espresso and dried thyme. The mineral element expands into layers of dusty granite and graphite that permeate the bastions of polished, chewy tannins. The wine aged 18 months in French oak barrels, only 15 percent of which were new, so the wood influence is sustained yet mild and supple and slightly spicy. This could mature for a year or two, so drink from 2011 or ’12 through 2016 to ’18. Production was 500 six-bottle cases; winemaker was Peter Fraser. Alcohol content is the now standard 14.5 percent. Excellent. About $29.

Sovereign Wine Imports, Santa Rosa, Cal.
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Just as the Yangarra Estate Mourvedre 2008 mentioned above represents a Platonic embodiment of the mourvedre grape, the Nickel & Nickel Darien Vineyard Syrah 2007, Russian River Valley, performs a similar service for syrah. Syrah was planted in Darien in 2000 and 2001, so the vines have reached a point of development that should lend rich character to the wine and continue on a plateau of quality for 50 or 60 years. There’s a whole truckload of crushed thyme, marjoram and Oolong tea in this wine, as well as baskets of blackberries and blueberries imbued with hints of prunes, plums, lanolin and leather and an all-over sense of ripe fleshiness. The color is inky with a faint violet/purple rim; the granite and shale-like mineral element feels/seems inky too. So add the caprice of lavender, licorice, bitter chocolate and potpourri crushed by mortar and pestle and scattered on a smoldering field of wild flowers and herbs. Yes, I’m saying that this is a syrah that reaches a level of delirious detail, depth and dimension, and the deeper it goes, the darker and denser it gets, until you reach the Circle of Austerity and the Chamber of Tannins and the Rotunda of Oak. (The wine aged 14 months in French barrels, 42 percent new.) Despite those fathoms, the wine is surprisingly smooth and drinkable, huge in scope yet polished and inviting. Production was 974 cases. Alcohol content is 14.9 percent. Drink from 2011 or ’12 through 2018 to ’20 (well-stored). Winemaker was Darice Spinelli. Exceptional. About $48.
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Desiring something probably less complicated and certainly cheaper on a subsequent Pizza-and-Movie Night, I opened the Estancia Zinfandel 2007, Keyes Canyon Ranches, Paso Robles. Estancia was founded in 1986 on the old Paul Masson vineyards in Soledad, in Monterey County. The winery is now owned by Constellation. Keyes Canyon is in Paso Robles, down south in San Luis Obispo. The wine is touted on its label as “Handcrafted” and “Artisan-Grown,” whatever those nebulous terms mean. As is the case with many of the products from wineries purchased by Constellation, this wine says on the label “Vinted and Bottled … “; check your bottles of Mt. Veeder and Franciscan, also owned by Constellation. Actually what the complete line on this label says is “Vinted and Bottled by Estancia Estates, Sonoma Co.” So the question is: Where the hell was the wine made?

Anyway, I didn’t like it. I tried manfully for 15 or 20 minutes to coax something out of the glass that might resemble anything to do with the zinfandel grape, but all I got was a generic sense of smoky, toasty red wine that could have been cabernet or merlot. Alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Winemaker was Scott Kelley. Avoid. About $15.

Finally, LL said, “Oh, just open something else. Something better.” So I went looking and found the next wine.
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Yes, as you know, I’m the kind of guy who will open a Jordan Cabernet to go with pizza, but, damnit, the movie was going and we were chowing down and I had to grab something. And of course I’m not implying that a wine that costs $52 is necessarily better than a wine that costs $15; the case is simply that every wine should perform up to or better than its price range, and the Estancia certainly didn’t do that.

Anyway, the Jordan Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, Alexander Valley, offers lovely balance, integration and harmony. The blend is 75 percent cabernet sauvigon, 19.5 percent merlot, 4.5 percent petit verdot and 1 percent malbec. Aging was 12 months in French (67%) and American (33%) oak barrels, of which 33 percent were new. The bouquet is first a tangle of briers and brambles, cedar, thyme and black olive with a background of iron and dusty walnut shell; a few minutes bring in the notes of black currants, black cherries and cassis. The wine is intense and concentrated, dense and chewy, with finely-milled tannins and polished oak enfolding flavors of spicy black currants and plums and a streak of vibrant acidity contributing a sense of purpose. A model of the marriage of power and elegance and a delight to drink. Try now through 2015 or ’16. The alcohol content is 13.5 percent. Winemaker was Rob Davis. Excellent. About $52.

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As those of you know who have read this blog faithfully and in a state of more than semi-consciousness, Saturday marks Pizza & Movie Night in our house and has for 15 years or so. Last night was no exception. I had purchased some very cute baby eggplant and beautiful basil at Whole Foods, and yesterday, from opening day of the Memphis Farmers Market, we brought home, among other green things, garlic sprouts and spring onions.

I sliced the eggplant thinly, doused the pieces with olive oil, salt and pepper, and slide them under the broiler, watching carefully so they didn’t burn. For the rest, I used thin slices of Roma tomatoes, one of those garlic sprouts — they’re quite peppery — , chopped spring onions, diced applewood smoked bacon, and mozzarella, parmesan and pecorino romano cheeses. The dough had rolled out perfectly, so I was entertaining intimations of this being a great pizza, perhaps one of the best.

Now, to fill in the background of this story, we have been fostering a pit bull-boxer mix dog since December. Her name is Mary Sue. She’s not particularly large, weighing probably 35 to 37 pounds, but she’s very strong. I mean the muscles in her thighs are terrific; it looks as if she goes to the gym every day and works out with a personal trainer. Mary Sue’s obsession is fabric. When she first came to stay with us, she slept on a pallet of dog mats, blankets and towels that she carefully arranged when it was time for a nap or to settle in for the night. I mean, she would actually move the blankets and towels around and put them in what was to her proper order. (She sleeps in a crate now.)

When Mary Sue was intoduced into the kitchen/sitting room with the rest of the dogs, she transferred this fabricophilia to dish-towels, hot-pads and napkins, which at every opportunity she would filch from counter-tops and towel racks and dash off with, to chew and mangle and generally have fun. We find this activity quite annoying and try to stop her at every opportunity.

So, last night I had finished making the pizza, which takes me about an hour, with all the chopping and dicing and rolling out the dough and laying on the ingredients. Just before the moment of truth, that is, sliding the pizza from the wooden paddle onto the hot stone in the oven (always a tense interlude), I turned for a moment to store the cheese in the refrigerator. This action took all of five seconds, and when I turned back, there was Mary Sue, dragging the uncooked pizza off the counter.

I shrieked with the pain of any artist seeing a creation (and dinner) being destroyed by the teeth of a ravaging canine. LL came running and we managed to get the pizza out of Mary Sue’s mouth — by this time of course all the dogs were jumping around, snatching pieces of bacon, tomato and mozzarella from the floor — and fling it back on the paddle, a deconstructed heap of sticky dough clotted with food-stuff. I, ever the pessimist, said, “Well, that’s it. The pizza’s ruined. So much for Pizza & Movie Night.” LL, however, said, “Maybe we can salvage it.”

And so, working slowly and meticulously, we managed to pull the inter-folded dough apart and gingerly spread it out into an irregular shape. We picked through the ingredients and placed them back in some semblance of a pattern. It looked bizarre, but I slid it into the oven.

Mary Sue looked completely untouched by regret or remorse and, in fact, when the pizza came out of the oven thought she saw a second chance to grab the thing, though I kept it beyond her reach. It looked pretty damned good, and actually turned out to be a Great Pizza and One of the Best in the History of FK’s Pizza-Making.

To drink with it, I opened a bottle of the Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon 2007, a 100 percent cabernet franc wine from France’s Central Loire Valley, where cabernet franc is the dominant red grape. The domaine, founded in 1975, is fairly young by the standards of the Loire Valley. Bernard Baudry produces four levels of Chinon cabernet france, of which the “Domaine” bottling, produced from 35-year-old vines, is the second. Domaine Bernard Baudry Chinon 2007 is made from two terroirs, 50 percent gravel and 50 percent limestone soil. The wine is fermented in concrete vats and aged about a year in a combination of large casks and small barrels. No herbicides or chemicals are used at the estate.

This is classic Chinon, smoky and fleshy, though a bit broodsome in its notes of blueberry and black currant and its layers of black olive, dried thyme and leather. The wine is quite dry, and slightly woody tannins and dusty shale-like minerality produce some austerity from mid-palate back through the finish; I left the bottle with the cork in it overnight and by morning it resolved nicely, bringing in elements of Oolong tea, sage, bergamot, patchouli and bitter chocolate, though the tannins, bolstered by lively acidity, still cut a swath. Yes, it’s pretty heady stuff. I would recommend letting the wine breathe for an hour before serving. Drink now to 2016 or ’17, with hearty fare such as braised or roasted meat or eggplant-and-bacon pizzas. Very Good+. About $18 to $22.
Imported by Louis/Dressner Selections, New York. A sample for review.

Is it possible to make such a statement?

As many readers know, Saturday is Pizza-and-Movie Night in our house, and it has been for many years. If we suffer under the burden of a social or cultural obligation on Saturday, we can switch Pizza-and-Movie Night to Sunday, but it feels weird. Occasionally, LL and I joke about how many pizzas I have made, and the closest approximation we can calculate is somewhere between 500 and 600, which is pretty damned approximate. Trying to ascertain, from that number of pizzas, which is the best would seem fruitless folly.

Of course some pizzas are better than others. Once we situate ourselves to watch the movie and the wine is poured and the first bites of pizza taken, LL will usually say something like “Great pizza” or “Wonderful” or, occasionally, “Brilliant.” And sometimes a silence ensues, and I, suddenly worried, will sort of clear my throat and hem and haw a bit, and she will say, “Not one of your best efforts.” Well, come on, we can’t be perfect all the time.

In late Summer and early Fall this year, I went through a Golden Age of pizza-making, where it seemed as if I could do no wrong. Then I went into a bit of a slump. Usually the flaw with a pizza is not in the toppings, though sometimes there can be a Clash of Ingredients; no, the flaw — or the perfection — of a pizza is in the crust. Having created as many pizzas as I have, the making of the dough long ago became routine, yet there must be minute variations of which I am unaware that affect the outcome, an ounce more water one week, a smidgeon less olive oil another week, an extra minute spent kneading the dough while I’m distracted by other matters. Who knows?

Last Saturday, though, by whatever conjunction of physical, philosophical and spiritual elements aligned in utter harmony, the crust on the pizza was perfect. I mean, it was perfect. Thin but not too thin. Toothsome and almost flaky, but not “short,” as a pie crust would be. Around the edges, it was light and puffy, making little air pockets that crunched gracefully in the mouth. The toppings were a handful of shiitaki mushrooms, sliced thin; little red and green peppers, sliced thin; chopped yellow onion; diced salami, medium hot; one sliced Roma tomato; mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses; a scattering of thyme, rosemary and oregano. Scrumptious.

I opened a bottle of the Murphy-Goode “Liar’s Dice” Zinfandel 2007, Sonoma County, a wine that I have not tasted in five or six years. The winery was founded in 1985 by veteran vineyard developers and managers Tim Murphy and Dale Goode and their friend David Ready; in 2006, the estate was acquired by Kendall-Jackson. Murphy-Goode perpetually displayed a marked fondness for assertively ripe and fruity red wines; a predilection for sumptuous, voluptuous textures in red and white wines; and, in chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, an addiction to new oak so severe that a 12-step intervention — “Hi, I’m Bob, and I’m an oakaholic” — would have improved things greatly. I blew hot and cold about Murphy-Goode wines throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, generally cottoning to the reds better than to the over-manipulated, syrupy whites, so it was with some interest that I recently received a trio of reds (samples for review) from the winery, or, I should say, from Jackson Family Wines.

True to form, the Murphy-Goode “Liar’s Dice” Zinfandel 2007, Sonoma County, is rich and ripe, sleek and exotic. At 15.4 percent alcohol, it packs a heady hit as well as the sweetness that a high alcohol level often conveys. Black currant and blueberry flavors, with a hint of fleshy boysenberry, are threaded with briers and brambles, polished tannins and dusty granite, and sweet, spiced plums. The wine slides through your mouth like plush velvet woven with iron filings. This is a blend, with three percent each carignane and petite sirah grapes. Winemaker David Ready Jr. calls the “Liar’s Dice” ’07 “our most passionate wine.” It could use less emotion and more thoughtfulness, though, I’ll admit, its unabashed nature managed nicely with the hearty, earthy, slightly spicy pizza. Drink now through 2011 or ’12 with cumin-and-chili-rubbed pork roast, barbecue brisket and the like. Very Good+. About $21.

Curious about my reaction to previous vintages of the “Liar’s Dice” Zinfandel, I checked the archives of the newspaper for which I wrote a weekly print column for 20 years, and found a few references:

<>Exquisitely ripe and flavorful, the Murphy-Goode “Liar’s Dice” Zinfandel 2000, Alexander Valley, is a crowd-pleaser of sensual appeal that manages to be almost sophisticated. Very Good+. About $19.50.

<> Like mainlining blackberry jam and brandied plums – that’s about all you need to say about the extraordinarily vivid and vibrant Murphy-Goode Liar’s Dice Zinfandel 1999, Sonoma County. Fortunately, this wild thing has a full complement of minerals, oak and plush tannins to rein it in (sort of). Excellent. About $19.

<> … the Murphy-Goode “Liar’s Dice” Zinfandel 1998, Sonoma County, [is] a bit lighter than the previous vintage but delicious for its bright, ripe currant-cherry-plum flavors and touches of smoke, minerals and spice. Very good+. About $17.

In other words, the owner may be different, but the philosophy is the same.

Last night, of course, was Pizza & Movie Night around here, and by six p.m. I was fretting a bit about the wine. “We have tons of cabernets and zinfandels and merlots,” I said to LL, “but I want something a little lighter, a little more approachable, a little less alcoholic.”

“Like what?” she said.

“Oh, a carefree Dolcetto or Barbera, a Italian red with good acid and fruit, not too serious but not frivolous either.”

“You know,” she said, “you can always go out and buy a bottle of wine.”

Drum-roll. The earth stands still. Time stops.

Readers, you understand that I do not buy a lot of wine. I mean as a writer about wine and a reviewer of wine most of the wine I (and we) drink, taste, sip, comes to the house by UPS or FedEx. When I wrote a weekly national newspaper column (1984-2004), an ungodly amount of wine came to the building every day, I mean, cases of wine. I don’t get nearly as much wine now, but it’s a goodly number of bottles that can be handled very nicely, thank you very much.

Now, I’ll confess that for three years — 2005, ’06 and ’07 — I bought heaps of wine. I had my now-defunct website then and in December of ’06 started this blog, and I was always buying wines to “fill in the gaps,” and a couple of times a year I would host a blind tasting here at the house and I would buy wine, expensive wine, for those occasions. And Champagne, I mean, friends, you gotta have Champagne in the fridge! Finally, LL, said, “F.K., you’re outta control. We can’t afford this.” And she was right. You may say, “Wasn’t the wine you bought tax-deductible?” Well, sure, however the accountant could use the tax deduction to help out, but still, every month the old credit card statements come around, and they have to be paid.

So, the point is that I rarely buy wine nowadays, but when LL said, “You can buy a bottle of wine. What you’ll looking for should be pretty inexpensive,” it was like a revelation. Anyway, I got into the car and hied my way to The Wine Market, a retail store that’s about a 10-minute drive from our place. I’ve known the owner for years — he worked at another store for a long time, nursing his dreams — but since it was about 6:15 when I got there, he wasn’t around. I approached the counter and explained to the young people there what I was looking for. I did not say, “Hi, I’m Fredric Koeppel, world-famous wine-writer and blogger, blah blah blah.” What I did say was, “Hey, I need a wine for my pizza tonight, not a cabernet or zinfandel, nothing so big. The pizza is mainly marinated tomatoes and basil with a little pancetta. Maybe if you have a lighthearted Dolcetto or Barbera … ?”

A rather serious, even scholarly-looking young man detached himself from the others and said, “I think I can help you. Let’s go over here. We should be able to find something that will do. How much do you want to spend?”

“Oh, $15 to $20.”

I followed him to a section where a variety of fairly inexpensive Italian wines were displayed, and he pointed to a bottle of Colognole Chianti Rufina 2003. I am, I’ll admit, a bit leery of Chianti, a wine that too often turns out to be dried out and austere. Also, this was a 2003, almost six years old. In fact, I said, “This is a 2003, it’s almost six years old.”

“Right,” he said, “but the tannins have settled down really nicely and mellowed out. This is pretty smooth, and it’s got the fruit.” And it cost $17.

“O.K.,” I said, “I’ll try it.”

How was the wine? Let me put it this way: Basically, today’s post is in the form of a Thank You to the young man whose name I do not know for steering me completely in the right direction and, even more, for being courteous and accommodating.

Chianti Rufina is a region of Chianti production northeast of the city of Florence. Rufina was recognized as long ago as the mid-18th Century, before it became associated with the name Chianti, as an area capable of producing superior wines, because of the soil in the foothills of the Apennines and because the geography allows for cool temperatures at night. (Chianti was originally further south in Tuscany, around Siena.) Colognole, one of the best (and most picturesque) estates of Rufina, has been in the Spalletti family since the 1890s and is today operated by Contessa Gabriella Spalletti.

Colognole 2003 was exactly what I was looking for. Last night’s pizza was simple. I marinated three chopped tomatoes, red onion and basil in olive oil and a touch of balsamic vinegar for an hour, then drained the mixture carefully; we don’t want no stinkin’ soggy pizzas! I had a bit of guanciale — the pancetta I bought last month had turned so moldy that it looked like a science project gone horribly wrong — so I chopped that (I mean the guanciale, which is cured hog-jowl) and fried it. A few dots of fresh mozzarella and some grated Parmesan, and that was it.

The wine sported a lovely, warm medium brick-red color; aromas of dried red cherries and red currants with dried baking spices wafted from the glass. After a few moments, heady scents of lilac and rose petal began to weave their seductive way, followed, yet again, by elements of earthy minerals, moss and black tea. Those qualities, in a spare and lithe manner, make up the flavors too. Colognole typically ages 12 months in 660-gallon Slavonian and French oak casks, far larger than the standard 59-gallon French barrique, and then ages additionally in stainless steel tanks and concrete vats. The wine is indeed smooth and mellow, but it’s animated by a keen edge of acidity that keeps the package lively and taut (and that helped the wine work beautifully with the tomato-dominated pizza). What a treat! This is what old-fashioned Chianti is all about. Excellent for drinking through 2011 or ’12, and a Bargain at $15 to $17. Worth a Search.

Imported by Vin Divino, Chicago.


All right, readers, Part 1 of this two-part series got your pizza dough to the point where it’s rising in a bowl in a warm, nurturing spot (like Mom, back in the day), and now it’s all high and light and puffy (like me, back in the ’70s), and it’s time to take that dough, make it flat, put some toppings on it and get it into the oven! Yes!

First, a word about ovens and temperatures. Now most regular people who live in regular houses in regular cities don’t have wood-fired brick ovens at their disposal. They’re expensive to build, they take up space on the patio, and they require city permits to construct and use. Of course people are always saying that you cannot make good (or “adequate”) pizza without a wood- or coal-fired brick oven that maintains 800 or 900 degrees, that without that blast of heat you’ll never get a truly great crust with “blackened blisters” on it. Well, it’s correct that without 800 or 900 degrees of heat, you will not get the charred effect on the bottom of the crust — though you can finish the pizza on a charcoal grill — but at the 500 degrees that domestic ovens provide you will get a lovely, brown crusty crust, as the images further along in this post will prove.

So, turn your oven on to 500 degrees an hour before you’re going to slide the pizza onto the stone. Oh, yes, you absolutely must have a pizza stone in the oven, or at least some flat, unglazed tiles. I have been using the same stone for at least 15 years; the surface is completely black now, but it does its job of conducting heat exactly as it should; I like knowing that when the pizza touches the heated stone, it starts cooking instantly.

For our pizza tonight (well, Saturday night) I am avoiding tomatoes, not that there’s anything wrong with tomatoes, but I’m a little weary of pizzas dominated by their influence. So the principal toppings of this pizza will only be items that LL bought at the Farmer’s Market Saturday morning: arugula, spring onions, shiitake mushrooms and Italian sausage. In addition, there will be rosemary and thyme, mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. I do not, by the way, make pizza with a sauce; tried it once, years ago, didn’t like it. In the case of this pizza, of course, the first thing I did was cook the sausage.
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Now, generously sprinkle cornmeal on the paddle, or, as these devices are called in professional circles, when they’re more likely to be metal instead of wood, the “peel.” In addition to cornmeal, I use a little flour, just to ensure slippy-slidy action when the time comes. We’re going to be using a rolling pin to flatten and spread the dough — none of these tossing the dough into the air theatrics — so put a little flour on the rolling pin and on your hands too.

Whoa, there’s the risen dough, all light and soft and puffy. With both hands, plunge into the dough, pick it up, knead it a few times, and plunk it down on the paddle. Flatten it with your hands for a minute, spreading it out a little. Then start to work with the rolling pin, going at the dough from different angles. If it gets a little sticky, sprinkle on some flour. When the dough seems as if it has gone as far as it wants to, or if it wants to contract, let it rest for five or six minutes. Remember that the gluten in flour makes dough elastic, so if you go back to it after letting it alone — you can be slicing and dicing while it rests — you can roll it the rest of the way and it will be fine. The amount of dough you have should produce a 16-inch pizza, or something in that range.
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Pour a small amount of olive oil on the flattened dough and spread it around with your hand.
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Now we start to build the pizza itself with the toppings. First the arugula and the sliced shiitake mushrooms.
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Next, the sausage and the spring onions.
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Mozzarella and grated Parmesan.
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Once the toppings have been assembled — including fresh or dried herbs, salt and pepper — dribble a little olive oil across the top of the pizza. Remember that when you’re putting the toppings on the dough to leave an inch around the rim free, so it will rise and make a crusty edge.
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Now, carefully, run a spatula all the way around the edge of the pizza, checking for places where it might stick to the paddle. If necessary, shove a little cornmeal back under the pizza at the appropriate places.
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When the pizza is ready to go into the oven, open the over door, pull out the shelf with the stone, and carefully, using the spatula and all the finesse and “English” of which you are capable, slide the pizza onto the stone. It never gets easier; it never gets less nerve-wracking.Just get it over with. In a 500-degree oven, the pizza should take about eight minutes to cook. Visual checks every two minutes are important; when you see the risen areas begin to turn brown, take the pizza out and tap on the bottom; if it sounds solid and hollow at the same time, it’s done. If not, give it another minute.
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In the meantime, while the pizza is cooking, you might clean up the kitchen a bit. Lord have mercy, this place is a wreck!
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Whoa, here it is, the pizza!
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And a close-up.
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And look here: The inside of one of the puffy, crusty places. That’s yeast and gluten and heat at work!
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Any questions? You know where to find me.

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