Al Forno in Providence, RI is known not just for being the birthplace of grilled pizza, but for proudly serving their unique and essential take on pizza since they opened over 30 years ago and earning themselves a place on the Eater Pizza 38. Married chef/owners George Germon and Johanne Killeen were inspired to create their famous style in an effort to take advantage of every piece of equipment in their restaurant, including its wood-fired grill.
Together they figured out how to build a pizza on the grill, and discovered that as with Neapolitan pizzas, cooking the pizza "as hot and as fast as you can" resulted in an exceptional pie. Germon explains that the high heat of his grill is part of what makes his grilled pizza great: "When the crust explodes and the inside is pully and chewy. There's a real magic." And with the menu staple Grilled Pizza Margarita, that magic is also about paying attention to the details and the balance. "You taste every ingredient. Too much cheese and too much tomato means each bite would be the same. I'm looking for variance."
It's important to note that Al Forno is not a pizzeria. Pizzas are served as an appetizer on the restaurant's rustic Italian menu, although many certainly order them as main courses. And nearly every table orders at least one. Germon says that on a busy night the restaurant will sell about 200 pizzas, all of which are made by a single cook working the grill station. Germon says he sometimes forgets the power of his pizza: "We've been doing it for so long now, I take for granted how special it is sometimes."
Below, the elements of Al Forno's Grilled Pizza Margarita:
1. The Dough
"It's very simple and there's no secret to it," says Germon of the pizza dough recipe he developed with Killeen. As is standard, there's flour, water, yeast, and salt. Where things get interesting is in what happens after the dough is mixed and how often. Where many pizza doughs are proofed for hours, sometimes even days, the Al Forno pizza hardly proofs at all. Because it is made in the kitchen just steps away from the blinding hot grill, the dough proofs extremely quickly, with the temperature of the room hitting up to 100 degrees. Unlike many restaurants, Al Forno's team is cranking out dough throughout the day in batches of 50 balls. The dough has a high gluten content, important for maintaining its structure over the hot grill.
After the dough is balled it is soaked in very light olive oil. Germon notes that there are a few key reasons why he doesn't use extra virgin olive oil at this step in the process: It's expensive and it burns too quickly to go onto the grill. Soaking the dough helps ensure a crispy crust. After it soaks, the dough is placed onto an upturned cookie sheet and "pressed out" by hand until it's the desired size and thickness. (The oil soak prevents the dough from sticking.) The cookie sheet is why the pizzas are rectangular, and is a step that Germon and Killeen developed in their first-ever pizza tests.
2. The Cheese
Germon explains that when he and Killeen started making pizzas, it wasn't the norm to use fine cheeses. "It was all fake," he says, so he went in the other direction, combining local cheeses with imports from Italy. On the Margarita he uses a blend that's 50% Fontina, 20% percent Parmigiano Reggiano, and 30% Romano. While each cheese has its own flavor and texture, Germon notes that all of them have fairly low water content, which prevents the pizza from getting soggy. The Fontina is the base, and as the moistest cheese of the blend it also is what makes it cohesive. All three cheeses are grated and then combined into what Germon refers to in the kitchen as "speed cheese," a mixture that makes for easier and faster spreading across the pie.
3. The Tomatoes
When it comes to the tomatoes on the pie, Germon and Killeen keep it simple. Germon takes canned San Marzano Italian tomatoes and drains them of any excess water. He decided on the San Marzanos because California tomatoes are too sweet ("you can't take away sweetness") and he prefers the more acidic Italian variety ("the acid is an essential ingredient"). The tomatoes are then crushed by hand. Germon prefers to keep his tomatoes a little bit on the chunky side, so that there's variance with each bite of the pizza.
4. The Herbs
The pizza is topped with a mix of fresh basil and parsley. Germon and Killeen found that basil on its own would blacken and its flavors would overwhelm the pizza. Germon now cuts it with the parsely and, in the Summer months, adds fresh thyme, oregano, and rosemary. In the Summer, they buy most of his herbs locally from Little Compton, RI. The head chef also grows herbs in planters at the restaurant.
At the very end of the grilling process, Germon tops the pizza with very thinly sliced raw scallions. "It's been our signature since day one," he says, "it looks beautiful on the pizza and gives another taste to it as well." Since every pie on the menu gets topped with scalliions, Germon says he's needed to assign a prep cook to scallion duty. That cook only cuts scallions, going through an entire case a day.
5. The Assembly
The grill at Al Forno was designed with pizza-making in mind. That's because Germon and Killeen replaced their first grill with a new one in 1984. The wrought-iron grates do not warp, and the grates slide like drawer, allowing Germon to move the grate when there's a flare up instead of having to move everything on the grill. Al Forno only burns Nature's Own maple charcoal, which he discovered after his charcoal supplier in Connecticut passed away. "Briquettes can be nasty things because you don't know what's in them," he says. "They're often compressed sawdust and held together with glue and not a pure product. The charcoal we use is really a pure product, a natural hardwood."
After the dough is stretched it's placed onto the hot grill. After the bottom side cooks, Germon flips it over and moves it to the cooler part of the grill. The need for pre-cooking is a matter of pizza physics: If Germon didn't flip the dough, the top side would remain raw underneath the toppings.
Next, Germon brushes the raw side with olive oil before adding the cheese. Cheese is added directly on top of the oil so that it melts faster.
Then, Germon uses a tablespoon to add about 12 "dollops" of sauce onto the pie and then adds the parsley and basil. He adds a swirl of Capezzana extra virgin olive oil. Killeen's favorite (and therefore "it's law" at the restaurant), the oil is rich and peppery and even burns a bit at the back of throat. Germon says this "pure Tuscany" taste mingles well with the crust when the pie is sliced by the customer. The oils pick up the smokiness of the carbon on the crust creating another element in the dish, and it "brings life to the other ingredients."
To finish it off, the pizza is topped with raw scallions and served whole to the guest. The entire process takes only two to three minutes.