If you could only have one food for the rest of your life, what would you choose? I recently asked this poll-type question on my Facebook page, just for fun. The answers were quite varied, ranging from salad to ice cream, and from tacos to seafood of various kinds. One guy even said cereal. And as much as I like all those things, I wouldn’t choose any of them. I would choose pizza.
Pizza has been a common thread through my personal culinary history. It feels almost like a familiar friend when I’m in the kitchen making up a soft, warm batch of dough or rolling it out with a rolling pin after it has finished rising to form a puffy cloud of yeasty goodness, which I smash down with my two fists before rolling it out to the perfect freeform shape: sometimes roundish, sometimes more like an oval, sometimes a nice symmetrical (sort of) rectangle. Regardless of shape, it always comes out delicious.
My mom used to take a shortcut to make her pizza dough; she would buy the Chef Boyardee pizza kits in a box, which contained the dough mix that you added water to and allowed to rise before pressing into a pizza pan. She would use two of the kits and make one large rectangular pizza instead of a small round one. I can still smell that dough filling up our little circa-1978 kitchen, with its burnt-orange counter tops and a warm gas oven for rising the dough on.
The toppings for those pizzas were simple; some pizza sauce (included in the kit), Parmesan cheese (ditto), mozzarella, and plenty of mushrooms and pepperoni; classic and fantastic. That fed our family of four with sometimes a slice or two leftover. My sister and I still crave this kind of pizza from time to time, I must admit. When the kit calls, it’s ok to answer.
When our family wanted to splurge and buy a pizza, we would go to the Pizza Hut in Callaway. Back in the day they were on top of the chain-restaurant pizza game, with their delicious, deep-dish pan pizza brought hot to your table, generously covered with your favorite toppings. In the mid-1980s, Pizza Hut built a somewhat more upscale restaurant over on 23rd Street in Panama City. Instead of the trademark red roof, vinyl booths, and carpeting, the larger, well-lit interior was done in shades of beige, cream and sage green. The pizza was still just as good; back then, it seemed they put melted butter in the bottom of the deep dish pizza pans before spreading out the dough and baking it. When the oven did its magic, the bottom was a beautifully crisp, golden brown. I haven’t found that perfect crust in many years at “the hut.” Perhaps they’ve changed their recipe.
Back closer to home in St. Joe, there wasn’t a Pizza Hut, but there was, for awhile at least, a pizza place on nearby Mexico Beach that took phone orders for pick up, and it was not bad! I believe it was where Castaways Southern Cuisine was recently, until Hurricane Michael took the building. I don’t recall what that pizza place was called, but we loved the convenience of having a handy pizza joint just five minutes away. What a luxury for a small beach town in the ‘80s.
Fast forward to today, and there are at least two great places to get pizza in our area, and I hear more are on the way. One is Crazy Beach Pizza on Mexico Beach. I found two of my sons eating there one day a couple of years ago when I had been out shopping with my sister, so we joined them to enjoy a cold drink and a sample of the boys’ pizzas. Jared had gotten “The Key West,” which is topped with ham, mushrooms, bell pepper, shrimp and pineapple. I really liked that somewhat unusual combination. I admire creative pizza chefs. Crazy Beach Pizza is definitely creative.
A few weeks ago, my sister and I were craving pizza, so we met our friend Ann for dinner at Joe Mama’s on Reid Avenue in St. Joe. I was expecting a place with old-school vinyl booths and kitschy red and white checked tablecloths. Imagine my surprise when we walked inside to find a modern interior nice enough for a date night or girls’ night out with friends. Outside, there is a pet-friendly patio with misters to keep you cool, and a small bar. I had been missing out on all these years of Joe Mama’s that I could have been enjoying; I’m so glad that it’s in our town for folks to enjoy.
The pizzas we ordered came to our table hot from the 800-degree wood fire oven which the restaurant’s website reveals was imported from Tuscany. A wood fire oven turns out a more crisp outside, chewy inside crust that we loved. The toppings were delicious: prosciutto, Italian sausage, fresh basil and the like. They have their own creative combinations, or you can have them make your own favorite combo. We wished we could have sampled them all, as there were so many specialties and options on the menu.
We loved our pizzas nearly as much as we loved visiting with our friend Ann, who then brilliantly decided that we should try dessert. We ordered one slice of cheesecake with fresh strawberries and one “pot of chocolate.” Both were good, but we all preferred the chocolate mousse-like pudding. It was creamy, fluffy and decadent, topped with real whipped cream; the perfect way to end our night at Joe Mama’s, gathered over shared desserts talking and laughing as we enjoyed the chef’s offering. That’s a good restaurant experience.
You likely have your own favorite toppings combination that you can’t imagine eating pizza without! And you may know of some hidden gem of a pizza place along our beautiful Forgotten Coast. Shoot me an email to fill me in so I can try it, too!
Here are two recipes I use when I want to make a completely from-scratch pizza; however, if you don’t want to go to that cooking “extreme,” it’s fine to use a Boboli crust, a refrigerated crust, or even French bread slices for mini-pizzas. It really is all good.
Bobby Flay’s Simple Pizza Dough
3 1/2 to 4 cups plain flour, plus more if needed 1 teaspoon sugar 1 envelope instant dry yeast 2 teaspoons kosher salt 1 1/2 cups warm water (110º) 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons olive oil
Yields enough dough for 2 14-inch pizzas
1. Combine 3 1/2 cups of the flour and sugar, yeast, and salt in a food processor; pulse to combine. (Alternatively, use a heavy stand mixer. When the dough begins to form a ball, switch from the paddle attachment to the dough hook.) While processing, add the water and 2 tablespoons of the oil until dough forms a ball. If the dough is sticky, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time and continue processing until it comes together in a solid ball. If the dough is too dry, add 1 tablespoon of water at a time. Scrape dough onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead until smooth. Form into a smooth ball.
2. Grease a large bowl with the remaining 2 teaspoons of olive oil, add dough, cover with plastic wrap, place in a warm area, and let rise until double in size, about 1 hour. Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface and divide into two equal pieces; cover each with a clean kitchen towel and let rest for 10 minutes.
While the warm, fragrant dough was rising, I made the pizza sauce. It’s quite simple to do, and I love the ability to adjust the flavors to my own preference.
Easy Pizza Sauce
2 tablespoons olive oil 1 small onion, finely diced (I used a small yellow onion; any kind will do) 2 cloves garlic, finely chopped Pinch of red pepper flakes (or more if you prefer more heat) 1 28-ounce can pureed tomatoes 2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped (dried basil is ok, as well as other spices you may enjoy, such as oregano; use 1/3 as much dried as you would fresh) Salt and pepper
Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add onion and cook until soft, about five minutes. Add garlic and red pepper flakes; cook 1 minute. Add tomatoes, increase heat to high, and cook, stirring occasionally until thickened, about 20 minutes. Stir in basil; season with salt and pepper to taste.
Yields enough for 2 14-inch pizzas
After making the dough and sauce, top with your favorite grated cheese (mozzarella for most, but for a taco-style pizza, I use shredded colby-jack cheese), vegetables and meats. Try something different, or stick to what you love. No judgment here.
Have a festive pizza night with your family or some friends, or just relax on your own with a good book or favorite movie and a slice or two of Italian happiness. Enjoy!
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph.” She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three young adult sons who can practically eat twice their weight in pizza. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com or contact her at email@example.com.