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As an equal-opportunity pizza lover, it's always exciting to me when a style that's been heretofore outside of my personal pizza sphere enters into it. It happens with increasing rarity these days, which is both a good and bad thing. Bad, because like my marriage, I never, ever want things to become routine (not that they've started to yet, dear), but good because it means whenever I do manage to try something that's both novel and stellar, it's all the more exciting.
It's usually very thin-crusted to (I'm guessing) leave plenty of room in the eater's stomach for beer. It's baked in a gas oven that may have replaced a coal oven if the bar is old enough. Bar pizza is made with decent, commercial, aged mozzarella and comes topped with canned mushrooms, standard pepperoni and, if you're lucky, house-made sausage.
But that doesn't begin to describe the awesomeness of the crust, which, as with most pizza, is really what the bar pie at Star Tavern is all about.
The uniquely crisp, crunchy, slightly chewy underbelly comes from a two-stage cooking process. The dough is first rolled and stretched onto an oiled pie plate from which all but the back lip has been cut off. During this stage, the bottom of the pizza begins to fry a bit, the oil working itself up into the crumb.
As soon as the pie is firm enough to move without losing its shape, it's slid off of the pan directly onto the floor of the gas oven, which I'm guessing runs at 550°F to 600°F—the pies take about 10 minutes to cook through.
This two-stage cooking method forms a deeply burnished, lightly charred, golden brown crust that's a hybrid somewhere in the bottom of a New England Greek Style pan pizza, with its oil-soaked crust, and a New York–style gas-oven, thin crust, with its significant, crisp bottom. It's not greasy (unless you count the generously applied mozzarella), but there's a definite oiliness to it, with a structure that's firm enough to stand out straight when you grab a slice from its edge.
The other unique feature of the pie is its crustless edges: cheese and sauce are applied all the way to the outer rim, even spilling off and coming into direct contact with the oven floor. The result is a crisp edge with a frico-like crunch. It's a really interesting alternative to a real end crust.
What's that? You don't live in Orange, New Jersey, and never intend on making a trip there even if there's awesome pizza involved? Not to worry: Here's how to make the stuff at home.
There's been a bit of debate on Slice about the makeup of the Star Tavern dough. On the Caramelized OpiNIONS blog, there's a recipe that supposedly comes from the Star Tavern's actual owner. The recipe contains a good deal of semolina flour, which didn't make much sense to me, because I certainly didn't taste it in the finished pies. Adam also straight-up asked current owner Gary Vayianos about the semolina situation, and he confirmed that there is no semolina in the current dough recipe.
For my sauce, I used my New York–Style Pizza Sauce, which gets a flavor boost from a touch of butter. To match the smooth, easy-spread consistency of the Star Tavern sauce, I blended it for a few extra seconds with a hand blender after it was all done cooked. The cheese is applied in two steps. First, a bare dusting of grated aged Parmesan gets sprinkled over the sauce, followed by a pretty heavy layer of grated dry mozzarella. In due diligence, I made a couple tester pies using both straight up bread flour, and bread flour cut with semolina. There's no question that the former was closer to what I had at Star Tavern.
That said, it wasn't exactly right. Given its proximity to New York, it's a good bet that their dough recipe is at least somewhere close to a New York–style pizza dough, which means a hydration of around 66%, the addition of oil to improve tenderness, and a slow rise. My regular New York–style dough recipe worked alright, but the pies were tougher than they should be. Switching bread flour out for regular all-purpose flour was the solution. All purpose flour has a lower protein content than bread flour, thus forming a weaker gluten network, and a more tender crust.
Just like with a regular New York–style pie, I found that the dough improves with a cold ferment—that is, a few nights of resting in the fridge to allow the yeast to slowly reproduce and digest starches, producing a slightly sweeter dough with a far more complex flavor and better browning qualities. One night was a minimum, with the dough reaching maximum flavor between three to five days or resting.
The beautiful thing about bar-style pies are that they're ridiculously easy to form. The thin, edgeless crust doesn't require the kind of gently hand-stretching that a New York or Neapolitan pie requires. In fact, peeking into the kitchen at Star Tavern, I noticed that they simple roll it out with a rolling pin, making this the ideal pie for even a total amateur to try their hand at.
I don't have custom-made aluminum baking dishes with built-in handles like the Star Tavern does, but I do have an aluminum pizza pan (you can get'em off Amazon for under $15), and it seems to work just as well for this application.
I knew that to get the right fried-charred texture, I'd have to follow their protocol, starting with a fry period on the aluminum, followed by a stop on a hot pizza stone. The question is: where do I place the stone and the pie pan?
I'd already explored the best positioning for pizza stones in a regular oven, and how its placement can affect convection and radiation heating patterns, so I knew that to get the top and bottom to cook evenly, I'd want to place my oven all the way on the top rack, maximizing both radiative heat from the roof of the oven as well as convected heat from the air currents.
But placing the aluminum pan directly on the stone caused a problem: the bottom was cooking too fast. Because of the high thermal mass of the pizza stone and the high conductivity of aluminum, the bottom was frying much too fast. This is fine for a Neapolitan or New York style pie in which you want very rapid and relatively uneven charring, but for these bar style pies which should take 10 minutes to bake, you want slightly slower, more even browning to achieve the right texture.
There's no way I could raise the stone any more, so the solution turned out to be to start the pie on the rack below the pizza stone. By this method, the top of the pie still cooks relatively quickly due to the radiative heat emitted by the bottom of the pizza stone, while the bottom fries at a much gentler pace.
As soon as the pie is fried enough to be able to transfer it without breaking it (about 5 minutes or so), the rest is easy. Just slide it onto the stone, and cook until crisp and bubble with darkly charred edges.
Check out that nice crust! Thin, almost cracker-like, but with a distinct slightly chewy later at the sauce-crust interface. I didn't go all out and make my own sausage for this pie (as Adam would've probably done), but I did top it with a few token slices of pepperoni, because that's that I had on hand in the fridge. In retrospect, I should have used far more than I did. Because of the relatively long cooking time, the pepperoni slices curl up into little cups with crisp edges—these are the best bites of the pie, in my humble opinion.
Here's the undercarriage, nice and brown.
The greatest thing about bar pizza is that it is, as Ed says, "a very forgiving style. Once you enter the realm of bar pizza, basically anything goes." You like cheddar cheese? Go for it. Prefer a sauce of fresh rather than cooked tomatoes? That's your prerogative too. Once you get the basic method down for achieving that perfectly crisp and crunchy chew, topping variations can be as wild or as tame as you'd like them to be.
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