The many perks involved with pizza tasting

What's not to love about pizza? It can be breakfast, lunch, dinner and even dessert. I've had it twice in a single day. Loaded with hash browns, eggs, sausage, bacon and cheese, it can be breakfast. And for dessert? Food porn alert: You can have Nutella pizza, caramel apple pizza, brownie pizza, cinnamon roll pizza and more. I'll stop there before my scale and hips explode.

When an acquaintance mentioned that a certain local pizza empire was looking for taste-testers, I was in. Not only was it a free lunch, but they gave away individual-sized pizzas at the end of each session. And they stamped a “frequent tasters” card so I could get even more free pizza once I attended a few panels. How could I not accept?

Various permutations of pepperoni were often the subject of inquiry. And while I make it a policy never to purchase a pepperoni pizza—vegetable toppings only for this serial dieter—anyone who has ever made the mistake of ordering pepperoni in my presence knows their slices are not safe. I reason that they contain fewer calories because I am not directly involved in their acquisition.

Of course, there were a couple of drawbacks to pizza tasting. The first involved the aforementioned calories and my subsequent avoidance of the scale. I worried that I might end up on My 600-lb. Life and watched the show regularly as a deterrent. The second is that not all samples are created equal; a few—very few in fact—were just downright yucky. But with fellow testers surrounding me, it was difficult not to consume at least a respectable amount of the slice. To do otherwise would seem rude and ungrateful. But I always told the truth in my evaluations.

And even though I had never ordered the local brand's pizza before, one snowy December Sunday night when I had run out of frequent taster cards and frozen freebies, I caved. I called the company outpost nearest to my address and ordered delivery.

Actually, according to a 2015 University of Michigan study, there is something to be said about the addictive properties of pizza. Scientists found that, along with other highly processed foods, much American-made pizza contains large amounts of fats and carbohydrates that are more quickly absorbed by the body than whole foods, resulting in a dopamine (also known as a reward and pleasure) high, a reaction uncomfortably close to that found in drug abuse. Also, like other milk products, cheese has a protein called casein that may produce a similar euphoria upon digestion. So along with pizza, I may never look at ice cream—my other treat of choice—the same way again.

But pizza can be good for you, especially if it's properly prepared. The BBC reports that Italian researchers discovered that regular pizza consumption greatly reduced the risk of developing cancer, particularly of the esophagus, colon and mouth. This is due to the protective qualities of lycopene, an antioxidant found in tomatoes and tomato sauce. The monounsaturated fats in olive oil, another popular ingredient of Italian-made dough and toppings, also help fight off cancer and are heart-healthy. Which makes sense, because the components of Italian pizza—whole grains, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese and olive oil—are found in the Mediterranean diet, considered by many to be the gold standard for healthy eating.

Make Your Own?

Despite the fact that Columbus has more than 150 different restaurants that either serve or specialize in pizza, I decided to explore the mysterious (to me) cult of creating your own. There is a dizzying array of pizza styles—New York, Chicago, Neapolitan, California, Sicilian, specialty grains and gluten-free. I also found several books written about pizza-making, including “The Pizza Bible” from 12-time world pizza champion Tony Gemignani—think Olympics for dough-tossers. There's also “The Elements of Pizza” by aptly named chef and restaurateur Ken Forkish.

“Some people take home-pizza-making very seriously,” observes Deborah Quinci, owner and manager of Quinci Emporium. The Italian native opened the Short North boutique featuring professional-quality cookware, imported food, wine, olive oil and more in 2016 and offers pizza-making classes, which quickly fill. “With the right recipe, equipment and paired with wine, it can become a fun experience that friends and couples can share,” Quinci adds.

Along with dough-making techniques, participants learn about the best accoutrements and ingredients. For example, organic olive oil [and] Italian-made ‘00' flour with no chemicals or preservatives can result in a fluffy, beautiful dough. The number rating on the flour refers to the level of coarseness, with 00 being the most finely ground.

Here's a fact I consider downright spooky: Those who know it best consider dough to be a living thing. “It's organic and responds to your touch,” explains Quinci. “You can feel a connection with it.”

Dough can also be a canvas upon which you can experiment with your favorite toppings, as Marco Auddino of Auddino's Italian Bakery of Columbus well knows. Auddino's, which has been around for 50 years and has been supplying pizza crusts and breads to restaurants since the 1980s, started selling the shells in their bakery based on customer demand. They often run out of pizza crusts before the end of the day.

“We make the dough from scratch every morning, using olive oil and no additives,” Auddino explains, advising “you need to use the crust within two days or, after freezing, 90 days.”

I decided to take a field trip to see what kind of pizza-making stuff was available in stores. My first stop was Ikea. They have everything, right? Although I was able to furnish my fantasy apartment in Florida at a very reasonable cost, among their 12,000 items was only one for pizza: STÄM pizza cutter, in red, white and black.

My other two visits, to Sur la Table and Williams-Sonoma, were more, for lack of a better term, fruitful. With an entire section devoted to sauces, seasonings, crust mix and olive oil that they call “pizza oil,” Sur la Table serves up a wide variety of pans, crispers, slicers and stones. Standouts included the Pizzeria Pronto Outdoor Pizza Oven ($299.95), which seems like a contradiction in terms, since the gentrified process of pizza-making seems diametrically opposed to slapping dogs and burgers on the grill while consuming beer and other bagged snacks. The mozzarella cheese-making kit might be a good choice for those with lots of time on their hands.

Williams-Sonoma offers similar items, although with dual heating elements and a built-in baking stone, the Breville Crispy Crust Pizza Maker ($119.95) promises uniformly baked pizza, accommodating thin, medium and thick crusts and any combination of toppings. But can't I do the same by just calling my favorite delivery place?

Maybe I'm missing the point here. After all, as Quinci says, “People can get emotional about their favorite pizza, especially when debating which is best.”

Regardless of how you slice it, make sure there's some pepperoni on there, please.

Pizza-Making Tools

J. Kenji López-Alt, chief culinary advisor of Serious Eats, recommends the following for those attempting to cook their own pizza:

1. Digital scale. “Forget measuring cups and spoons,” he writes. “They simply aren't accurate for baking, and without accurate measurements, you can't make consistent dough.”

2. Bench scraper. Along with scraping up dough scraps, it cleans up flour dustings and gathers up ingredients such as herbs and garlic for further cooking.

3. Baking steel or baking stone. López-Alt claims that the recently introduced baking steel is far superior to traditional baking stones, which “tend to crack with use, while a solid slab of steel will last a lifetime, or longer.”

4. Wooden pizza peel. While it basically resembles an outsized paddle, López-Alt sees this as a must-have for “launching” the pizza into the oven without sticking dough or spilling ingredients.

5. Metal pizza peel. This is for retrieving pizza after it's baked and unlike the thicker wooden peel, the thin metal can easily slide underneath the finished product.

6. Pizza wheel (aka pizza cutter). “When it comes to portioning pizza, a knife simply won't cut it,” he states.