Pizza a Casa
371 Grand Street, New York NY 10002 (map); 212-228-5483 for general inquiries, 212-209-3370 for class tickets; pizzaacasa.com
Oven type: Conventional home oven
The skinny: Learn how to make pizza for yourself in a fun and encouraging learning environment
Price: $150 a person for a four-hour class
Sell the people slices and they'll eat for a day, teach them how to sling pies and they'll eat forever. So might be the mantra of Pizza a Casa, the self-described "Pizza Self-Sufficiency Center" on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Pizza a Casa ("pizza at home") operates out of a small storefront in the same low-slung mini strip mall on Grand Street that's home to the Doughnut Plant and Kossar's Bialys, and it's there that owner-instructor Mark Bello dishes out all the knowledge you need to make your own pizza. Equal parts teaching kitchen, pizza-supply store, and pizza museum, the space is perfectly set up to foster a budding love of pizza or reinforce an already raging pizza mania.
Though I've been making pizza at home for years it's my belief you can always pick up tips, and so I went through one of Bello's four-hour Saturday workshops recently to see what I could glean and whether, at $150, it was worth your time.
The shop is beautifully decorated — just kitschy enough without straying into the realm of self-parody, with red checkered wallpaper, wood paneling, and goofy pizza memorabilia hanging throughout. The space is fun and inviting and sets the tone for the class to come.
Bello and his assistant, Jenny Philips, begin the class with a brief overview of what you'll be doing, complete with a handout of suggested pizza. He sets out some common pitfalls of at-home pizzamaking and gives tips on how to avoid them — mostly having to do with proper ingredient measurement and restraint when it comes to the amount of toppings. And then the fun begins.
Bello first takes the class through making a basic pizza dough using flour, water, a tiny bit of sugar, and active dry yeast. I know some of you Slice'rs out there get pretty nuts about your doughs, but this is a pizza dough for beginning pizzamakers, and it handles beautifully for that purpose. It's plenty stretchy but not too wet or overly "extensible" as to be difficult to work with. He takes you through the mixing and kneading, has you divide the dough into quarters, and then container it for a quick 45-minute rise.
During the rise, the class takes a seat and Bello talks about toppings, from the plain and simple Margherita to some more inventive pies, like the Potato Rosemary (red potato pre-steeped in olive oil; pecorino-Romano; and fresh rosemary) or the Pear and Blue dessert pizza (ripe pear, Bayley Hazen raw milk farmstead blue cheese, and black pepper).
Through it all, Bello educates without pretension or condescension and patiently answers questions and give explanations in an easy-to-grasp way.
When the dough has risen, it's time for building pies. Sprinkling the marble work surface with flour, he teaches the class an easy way to stretch the dough — something he calls the "DJ Method" (which we'll feature in an upcoming Pieman's Craft video). Most people catch on pretty quickly, but for those who don't, Bello or Philips come around and offer quick one-on-one help to anyone who needs it.
After stretching, he has you sprinkle a little semolina flour on a pizza peel and transfer your dough to it. At that point, you're encouraged to go to town. There are a number of prepped toppings to choose from, and you're given free rein to do what you like — either following the "Pizza Possibilities" handout or birthing your own vision of pizza perfection.
Cooking is done in a dual stack of Viking ovens. And though they have a convection setting, Bello and Philips (above) place it on the non-convection setting — the idea is to replicate the home experience for most people. Pies are baked on pizza stones placed on the bottom and middle racks of the ovens — not directly on the oven floor.
The pizza comes out pretty nicely, and even the most timid of students seem to pick up the process with ease. When made the way that Bello and Philps advise (and they give you a great, detailed handout to take home and follow), the crust is crisp and just chewy enough — maybe a little closer to the "crisp" end of the spectrum but nowhere near the crunchfest that homemade pizzas have a tendency to become. All this with no OCD-level pizza hacks. The results are such that students leave feeling they can — and would actually want to — make pizza at home. In fact, this pizza is better and more satisfying than you're going to get at a run-of-the-mill corner pizza joint.
So is it worth $150? Bottom line: If you're the type of person who knows what "hydration," "baker's percentages," and "cold fermentation" are, you probably don't need this class.
But for absolute beginners, it's money well spent. I wish I would have had this instruction 15 years ago; it would have saved me a lot of time and effort. What Pizza a Casa gives you is the basic knowledge, confidence, and understanding of the tools you'll need to begin down the mad, mad path of making pizza at home.
It was a load of fun to see people go from "never made a pizza before" to "I'm going home and making pizza tonight!" And in both sessions I attended (one to actually make pizza and one to shoot photos), students were inspired enough by their experience to buy equipment (sold in the front of the store) to go home and repeat the process in their own kitchens. Who knows ... maybe we'll see them in future My Pie Monday installments.