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The Pizza Lab Presto: Vodka Pizza

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[Photographs: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt]

Our office is at the epicenter of the vodka pizza universe, what with both Pomodoro and Rubirosa a couple blocks away. The former is not worth a damn (despite some rave Yelp! reviews)—overly greasy, unspectacular crust, and candy-sweet sauce—while the latter is spectacular. Crisp and charred with a pleasant chew like all great pizza, it's got a creamy vodka sauce that is just rich enough that you know you're not eating regular pizza, but not so rich that you feel like your stomach may fall out or involuntarily empty itself in protest by the time you're done. It's a great alternative when you've been stuck in a pizza rut, and a recipe that's good to have in your own home arsenal.

Spectacular is what we're after at home.

What's the secret to their success? A few things.

#1: Great Crust

A pizza, no matter how interesting or excellent the toppings, is only ever as good as its crust. While Rubirosa makes thin, thin Long Island-style bar pies, I prefer the slightly less crackery chew of a good New York-style crust, for which we, luckily, already have a pretty stellar recipe.

Baking the pizza on a baking steel will help ensure that you get the crisp bottom and nice charring that gives crust flavor (a stone will do, but not quite as well). With that in place, you've already got a huge leg up over the pale, wan slices at Pomodoro.

#2: Great Sauce

Making vodka sauce is not quite as simple as adding cream and booze to basic marinara sauce, but it's pretty darn close. In order to counteract the palate-dulling richness provided by the cream and slight sweetness of the alcohol, you need to season a vodka sauce with salt a little more aggressively than you normally would, and add a significantly larger amount of heat in the form of crushed red pepper flakes.

This spice, along with the back-of-the-throat heat that the alcohol provides, gives vodka sauce its characteristic punch.

And in case you were wondering, yes, the vodka really matters when you are making vodka sauce.

The recipe I use for my pizza is largely based on Josh Bousel's Vodka Cream Sauce recipe, though it's been tweaked a bit with some more cream and different seasoning.

#3: Get The Right Cheese

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Early in my testing, I made a number of vodka pizzas with regular old grated dry mozzarella—the cheese of choice for a standard New York slice. It didn't come out so hot. What with the richness of the vodka sauce and the fattiness of the cheese, the pie proved overwhelmingly greasy, despite having decent flavor.

It sliced alright, but as soon as I lifted it up, the entire sloppy contents of the surface poured off in a hot, wet pile. Yuck.

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A much better bet is to use fresh mozzarella that's been lightly drained. It melts into creamy blobs instead of a greasy slick.

#4: Apply Sauce Sparingly (But Not *Too* Sparingly)

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A normal tomato sauce can be applied sparingly because nothing really happens to it when it loses moisture as it cooks. It reduces and concentrates in flavor, but that's about it.

I tried making a vodka pie using the same amount of sauce I'd typically use for a New York pie (about two-thirds of a cup for a whole pie) and found that by the time the pizza was cooked, enough moisture had evaporated from the sauce that the cream broke, turning into a greasy pool with little curdled bits of milk solids floating around. You need to apply just enough to keep it from breaking, but not so much that it weighs down the pie.

It's not tough, just a few small details. Get all of this right, and you've got a vodka pizza really worth eating.

Get The Recipe!

Vodka Pizza »

About the author: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt is the Chief Creative Officer of Serious Eats where he likes to explore the science of home cooking in his weekly column The Food Lab. You can follow him at @thefoodlab on Twitter, or at The Food Lab on Facebook.

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