Pizza Nights and Starry Lights

The summer sun has already turned a raspberry shade of orange by the time the guests start arriving. Old friends, neighbors, new loves, with their old friends, neighbors, and new loves in tow. Each bears a favorite pizza topping: prosciutto, pineapple, balsamic, basil, feta, fig spread, jalapeno, honey. And tomatoes still warm from the garden.

We set a long table up on the patio, and soon it is a mosaic of sauces, spices, meats, and drinks. 

The offerings of dough come out next. Four hours of rising in a sunny kitchen window makes them silk soft and bubbly. We huddle, elbow to elbow, teasing our dough into amorphous rectangles and wobbly circles—perfect platters for each pizzaiolo’s family of toppings.

The string of bulbs wink on overhead as we open the pizza oven for the night’s inaugural bake. The sizzle of virgin dough on the brick’s inferno sends steam and smoke into the night. Bubbles along the pizza’s edge rise and blacken; the fresh mozzarella melts into its mattress of marinara, then bubbles and blackens as well.

We triumphantly pull the oven’s first offering out of the flames. We gather round like expeditioners over a treasure map, each examining the charred topography and circumnavigating the pie with comments on how well the toppings married before we slice into its story and pass the plate around.

On the other side of the patio, in the falling evening light, old friends and family reacquaint themselves, get to know each other again. Blackberries and mint sprigs drift among ice cubes in their frosty glasses.

The woman who I inherited the pizza oven from told me once, “The pizza oven makes the best party trick.” The pizzas are delicious, but that’s not why we do pizza nights. We make pizzas because they are an excuse to gather with loved ones, eat well, and enjoy the carefree childlike freedom of creation together.

The pizza plate comes around, and we all taste, remark, and invent another.

IDEAS FOR HOSTING YOUR OWN PIZZA NIGHT

Pizza nights are something I love sharing with others. With the changing seasons (and the interesting new challenge of COVID-19), we’re constantly trying new variations on these gatherings. Warm summer evenings and crisp fall soirees are the ideal time to host these, so we have created a collection of tools, toppings, and tips to help make your own pizza nights magical:

Yard games make a great ice-breaker for friends from different circles to get to know each other. All you need is to put a set of boulesMölkky, croquet, or Kübb on the lawn, and your guests take care of the rest!

Crafted drinks are a good way for guests to entertain themselves while they wait for the pizzas to come out. I like to set up a small table with a panoply of drink mix-ins: fresh lime and mint sprigs, watermelon puree, artisan syrups, cordials, club soda (or a water carbonator!), and a big bucket of ice. We have some fun new syrup flavors for you to try.

Bright joyful Italian music playing in the background does so much to set the mood. Once the pizza has all been eaten, you might even push tables to the side and dance! Here is a playlist we created to get you started.

Dress up the toppings table with a few gourmet accents. Real Italian olive oils, marinaras, and salts do the trick.

Keep a Pizza Nights guest book. Each time we host a pizza night, we set our guest book on the table, and people fill it with favorite pizza combos of the evening, funny moments that unfolded around the table, and notes of gratitude for the hosts. (This one designed by French chef Jacques Pepin is the one we use.) It’s fun to look back on all the friends and family we’ve shared pizza with.

Dessert pizzas are a perfect final act for full bellies. Our crowd favorite is dollopping globs of Nutella and Biscoff over the dough, with sliced bananas and a mound of mini marshmallows piled on top. Bake until the marshmallows start to brown.

The dough: Never stretch the dough. Let gravity do the work. An easy go-to are frozen doughs from the local grocer, or try a mix. Place the thrown dough on plenty of cornmeal to keep it from sticking to the peel and the oven. Once the pizza is cooked, crisp it on a cooling rack before slicing for a perfect crust. 

Recipes: Lastly, our favorite pizza combinations. I hesitate to send these out into the universe of the internet—I’d so much rather have each of you come try them at my place, over some blackberry lemonade and good conversation. But until then, hopefully you can enjoy and create your own “secret” combos. I hope you share when you do!

Pesto Presto: Pesto + Corn + Sun-dried Tomatoes + Mozzarella + Goat Cheese

White Fig: Fig Spread + Prosciutto + Caramelized Onion + Shredded Parmesan + Mozzarella + Basil + Finishing Salt

Sweet Honey Fire: Red Peppers + Sausage + Pepperoni + Onion + Jalapeno + Mozzarella. Finish with a healthy drizzle of honey.

BUON APPETITO!

August 13, 2020 — Carolyn Carter

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