At chef Nancy Silverton's acclaimed Los Angeles restaurant Pizzeria Mozza the craft of pizza making has been "without a doubt" reimagined from a bread baker's perspective, says executive chef Matt Molina. Pizzeria Mozza's unique dough recipe and cooking process ensures that a well-structured crust is a star component.
Of course, Silverton, Molina, and their team devote the same concern to what goes on top of that crust. Take, for example, the extremely popular Fennel Sausage and Panna pizza. Inspired by a sausage and panna (cream) pizza the two chefs shared in Umbria, Molina and Silverton created a recipe that celebrates fennel flavors and creamy textures that is entirely their own. Adding scallion, red onion, and of course, a uniquely flavorful crust, Pizzeria's Mozza's beloved pie has become a reflection of the pizzeria itself: "It's true to what we do. We take things that are very soulful to us and refine them."
With top notch pies (and not too mention an absolutely essential Butterscotch Budino) Pizzeria Mozza has earned a spot on the Eater Pizza 38 and Eater LA recently declared its slices as among the best in the city. Eater LA associate editor Matthew Kang says why:
"Mozza changed the pizza game in LA. Before then, people thought gourmet pizza was something made by Wolfgang Puck or even California Pizza Kitchen. The wood-fired, bready crust with top notch ingredients was something of a revelation. And for the first few years, the diminutive space had reservations going out to a month, proving that anything Silverton touched in LA turns to gold."
Below, the elements of Pizzeria Mozza's Fennel Sausage and Panna pizza:
1. The Dough
Because they don't have room to make it, Pizzeria Mozza has Silverton's La Brea Bakery prep the pizza dough and deliver it to the restaurant daily. (Pizzeria Mozza in Singapore and San Diego both make their dough in house). The dough is made using a sponge starter, which is a yeast pre-ferment. This allows the pizza dough to have a stronger flavor almost like a sourdough and is, as Molina puts it, "a bread baker's approach to making a pizza." Then the rest of the dough ingredients are added: rye flour, barley malt, salt, bread flour, water, and salt. The entire dough-making process takes about 10 - 12 hours, and the dough rests overnight before being delivered to Pizzeria Mozza.
Once delivered to the restaurant, the dough must be handled extremely gently Molina says. "At this point, the dough is a living thing and it has a personality," he says, "the dough and I have been married for seven years. I know how to treat it." Molina tries to disrupt the dough as little as possible as he shapes it into round, wheel-like shape. Using his fingertips to "pat down" the middle, he creates a one-inch rim around the edge which will become the crust. Once it is uniform, Molina pats the dough down with his hand to create a flat surface upon which to build the pizza. At that point, the dough is then ready to be stretched and placed on the pizza peel.
2. The Sausage
Molina and his team make the fennel sausage for the pizza in house. Molina uses Heritage Farms pork, which he likes for its consistency, strong porkey taste, and its firm fat. In the sausage, the ration is 25% fat. To amp up the fennel flavor, Molina adds fennel seeds and pollen. He also adds mild smoked paprika to give the sausage a bit of spice.
One of the so-called "secrets" of the sausage is that it is not cased. Instead, Molina shapes the mixture into a meatball-like structure and par-cooks them to medium rare on a sheet pan. Par-cooking allows the sausage to release a lot of that fat, which otherwise would end up as grease on the pizza. After they cook, the sausages cool down before Molina "breaks them up" and adds them to the pizza.
3. The Cream
The trick to adding cream to a pizza is figuring out how to make sure it has enough body not to run. After creme fraiche and mascarpone both failed to deliver the flavor and consistency they were looking for (creme fraiche was too runny, the mascarpone too dense), Silverton and Molina discovered that all they needed was basic heavy whipping cream. Molina whips the cream to soft peaks, adding just enough air for the cream to "stay put and not tarnish the dough."
In addition to cream, Molina also adds low moisture mozzarella. The cheese adds a desired tanginess to the pie, but Molina says it also serves a more practical purpose. When the cheese melts, it cools down the cream, which breaks in the heat of the oven. The cheese helps emulsify the cream and it also browns nicely in the oven. Molina cuts the cheese into cubes rather than grating it because he does not want it to melt into a uniform topping. Each bite, he says, should be slightly different.
4. The Toppings
The pizza is topped with sliced red onion and scallion. After they're sliced, Molina mixes the raw onion and scallion together and then sprinkles them on top of the pizza. Molina cuts both the onion and scallion extremely thinly so that they cook through while they are in the oven. It's about finding the most effective way to cook the ingredients, Molina says. Leave the slices too big and they won't color. Par-cook ahead of time and they will be soggy.
After the pizza comes out of the oven, Molina adds the final touch: a small amount of fennel pollen. Molina uses fennel pollen for its bright, sweet flavors. "It's a fennel sausage pizza," Molina says, "it should taste like fennel."
5. The Assembly
Before adding any toppings, Molina brushes a mild blend of olive oil and canola oil onto the outer rim of the pie. He then salts the dough. "As a chef, you season as you go," he explains. "The dough has salt in it already, but we want it to stand up to the other ingredients."
Next Molina adds the panna, then the sausage. Molina then adds the onion and scallion, tops the pie with cheese and puts the pizza into the oven.
The oven at Pizzeria Mozza runs at 560-570 degrees. The oven burns double-split almond wood, readily available in California. Because the pieces are smaller, they burn faster and allow Molina to more precisely control the temperatures in the oven.
"It's a bread baker's perspective" says Molina of the cooking process of the pizza, which can take 9-12 minutes depending on how hot the oven is. "To layer the flavors and structure of the dough it takes times." Cooks at Pizzeria Mozza monitor the oven constantly to make sure there are always embers on the oven floor. The heat allows the dough to "spring up" as it cooks. The heat from the logs in the mantle in the upper part of the oven cook the pizza from above. Molina turns the pizza once in a semicircle to ensure even cooking.
After the pizza comes out the oven, Molina adds the fennel pollen. On a busy night, the 65-seat restaurant will serve some 40 pies.