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Thrilling Grilling: Making Pizza Al Fresco

Because food seems to taste better outside, summer is the prime season for grilling. Meats and vegetables are the mainstays of most American grilled meals, but in Italy, far more is served al griglia. And although Americans can find it on restaurant menus, this month’s culinary lesson shows how easy it is to grill a favorite: pizza.

An Italian Favorite in America

Pizza in Italy has been served since only the mid 1800s, and it wasn’t until 1980 that grilled pizza was first served stateside at a restaurant in Providence, Rhode Island called Al Forno. Since then, fans of the signature pizza are served not a circular pie but one shaped like a “C” because of an indentation made by the pizza peel, the long-handled board used to push the pizza from the mouth of the wood grill toward the flaming heat in the back. The paper-thin crust takes no time to cook, and Al Forno’s toppings are best at their most simple: cheese, chunks of tomatoes and scattered herbs.

Some Basics about High Heat

Though we associate typical restaurant pizza with massive electric, stone or brick ovens, even at-home grills can create high enough heat -- up to 3000 degrees -- to yield a crust we crave: crispy, crackly, chewy, and delicious.

A grill’s high heat is both its blessing and its curse since the method takes learning just the right placement of food over the coals or gas flame to ensure even cooking on the outside and inside.

For pizza, especially, a careful eye is the key to properly cooked pie. Even the most even-cooking grills may require turning your pizza so it cooks everywhere. If it cooks too fast on coals or gas, it can be moved to a more evenly distributed heat source (like the oven in your kitchen) for the last few minutes.

Ease Of Preparation

Preheating your grill is essential. Once it’s as hot as you can get it, here are three ways you can grill your pizza:
  • 1)
  •   Directly on the grill grate
  • 2)
  •   On a pizza stone
  • 3)
  •   In a cast-iron pan

Any pizza recipe can be turned into grilled pizza if you pay attention to two things: the thinness of your crust and of your thinly sliced toppings. Because grilling a pizza can take as few as 5 minutes as opposed to 30 or more in a conventional oven, uniformity is key.

If making your pizza directly on the grill grate, an option is to grill one side of your dough first with no toppings for about three minutes with the grill top closed (that way, all of the heat stays in). Check for brownness after a bit, then flip and “build” your pizza right on the grill with your choice of toppings. Alternately, you can place your entirely built pizza on the grate, stone or pan and cook fully at the same time.

Tools Of The Trade

Seasoned grillers have their favorite tools. Here are a few that make grilling pizza even easier:
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  • Long-handled spatulas help lift the pizza to check the crust for doneness.
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  • Cast iron pans or pizza stones are good vessels if you’re not grilling right on the grate.
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  • Cornmeal scattered on a stone or cast iron pan keeps pizza from sticking.
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  • Scissors cut thin crusts easier than knives and keep delicate toppings sliced clean and neat.


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  • If grilling directly on the grate, roll crusts into ovals or oblong shapes instead of circles because they take up less space and will let you grill more than one pizza at a time.
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  • Keep meat and vegetable toppings sliced thinly. Weighty crusts will force pizza through the grill grate or increase cooking time on a stone or in a pan that makes the crust cook before the rest of the pizza. Also, use less cheese than you might if cooking in your kitchen oven.
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  • Less liquid on the crust will yield one that is crispier. If using tomato sauce, use it sparingly. If using canned or crushed tomatoes, consider straining them.
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  • Be creative. Make pizzas with or without sauce; with or without cheese; use herbs and greens or only meat and vegetables. The best rule to follow is use the freshest ingredients, possible.