The art of making pizza dough

Pete Smyth’s cracker-like pizza base is a proven process.

Executive chef Pete Smyth rolls the dough. — Photo by Michael Cummo

It’s all about the crust. Most folks can be flexible about toppings — splitting a pizza is more common than not — but what we place our anchovies or pepperoni or caramelized onions on is sacred ground. Pizza crust is made in many ways and comes in many forms, from the lightest, thinnest, crispiest crust to the over-the-top stuffed crust to the bread-like deep-dish crust. We all have our favorites, and most of us won’t compromise.

Chef Pete Smyth of Slice of Life in Oak Bluffs is a self-proclaimed “pizza guy.” His Circuit Avenue establishment currently boasts six different pizzas for eat-in or takeout, and it’s a favorite with his wife and two daughters when he’s off the clock. He even has plans to expand his pizza menu in the fall. “You can get pizza in Oak Bluffs,” he says, “at Offshore Ale or the Ocean View, but there’s not a year-round pizza place. Gio’s does a good job, but they close for part of the year.”

Pete graciously allowed The Times to observe while he created the crunchy, cracker-like crust that keeps his customers hooked. He begins with a large industrial mixer, outfitted with a dough hook, and prepares to make 12 pizza crusts.

He dumps four pounds of all-purpose flour and two pounds of semolina flour into the giant bowl. He adds rapid-rise yeast, 1/7th of an ounce (approx. 1.5 Tbsp). Then sugar, an ounce and a half. He lets that all mix to combine. A quart and a half of water and 7 ounces of a blended oil (olive and some others) are poured into the dry ingredients. “For commercial use, it’s more accurate to go by weight rather than tablespoons or whatever,” Pete explains. He adds 2½ ounces of kosher salt. “It has more flavor and is easier to use,” he says. The mixer whirrs, and we wait.

Pete arrived on the Island about 11 years ago. He had met his wife, Jen, who’d grown up on the Island, when they worked at a restaurant together near Boston. Friends of theirs were planning to open a restaurant here, and asked the couple to work it. The plans fell through, but the Smyths decided to move here anyway. He became sous-chef at Café Moxie, but wanted more hours. A breakfast cook was needed at Slice of Life, and Pete jumped at the chance. Eventually his hours increased to full-time. At first he ran the line, then became chef, and, six years ago, purchased the restaurant.

After about 10 minutes, the dough has formed a clean, smooth mass. Pete flips a switch on the mixer, and it growls to a halt. He removes the bowl and dumps the dough onto a floured work surface. Ponderous and heavy, it looks a little like Jabba the Hutt. Using a bench knife, Pete begins to lob off rounds of dough, tossing each one onto a scale and adding or cutting away to correct for the ideal 7 ounces. He lines them up on sheet pans lined with parchment paper that’s been sprayed with Pam. “They have to proof [rise] until they’re double in size,” Pete explains. He removes a batch from the refrigerator. “These were made last night.” He picks up a proofed ball and holds it next to one he just made. “You can see the difference between the two doughs.” Definitely. “You can freeze it at this stage.” He holds out the unproofed ball. “I just use Ziploc baggies. Spray the inside with a little bit of Pam to keep it from sticking, and throw it into the freezer. I just let it defrost on the counter or in the refrigerator overnight.”

Pete’s eat-in menu lists six 12-inch pizzas. These are large enough for one very hungry person, or two dainty folks, to supplement with one of Pete’s yummy desserts (there’s always a crème brûlée). The most exotic, and probably the healthiest, is the signature Slice of Life pizza. It’s a gourmet pie: sun-dried tomatoes, caramelized onions, goat cheese, and black olive spread topped with mixed greens. Leftovers — if there are any — make a great next-day lunch. In the off-season, Slice of Life features a weekly “Build Your Own Pizza.”

Pete keeps a freezer full of pizza dough at home. With two little girls, Shealyn, 8, and Jocelyn, 3, it’s as much of a staple as sugar and butter. “The kids love making pizza with us,” says Pete. “On our family days that’s what we’ll do sometimes. One will make the sauce, one will shred the cheese, one might help me make the dough. We make everything.”

“You can go to any grocery store and get the frozen balls [of dough],” he adds, “but why do that when you can make your own?”

He sprinkles flour on the work surface and rolls out a ball of dough to a little larger than 12 inches. “It shrinks a little bit as it rests,” he says, and lets us in on a little secret. “We par-bake them for the day’s service,” he tells us. “That’s how they get that crispy, crunchy shell. About three to four minutes in a 550° oven.” They’re put aside until needed.

Before it’s topped and baked, Pete “docks” the dough. Using a knife, he pats the center of the dough with the edge to keep it from puffing up. He paints on tomato sauce and sprinkles on shredded mozzarella. While it bakes for the required three to five minutes, he waxes rhapsodic about the genre. “I love pizza,” he says. “It’s one of those foods that’s for everybody. Everyone has their own version. I think it’s so versatile.”

The pizza emerges from the oven. The edges of the crust are puffy, crispy, and tinged with brown. The cheese bubbles and sizzles. Pete puts it into a box and drops it into my waiting hands. “You can save it for lunch,” he suggests.

By the time I get to my car, the aroma has totally robbed me of my senses. The pizza is half gone before I leave the parking space.