pizza – in town and in the kitchen

I hate to hate on Pagliai’s Pizza. It’s a local institution. It’s family owned and over fifty years old. According to my sources (yelp and anecdote), it’s the best pizzeria in Iowa City.

And I believe it, too. That’s the problem. This is, in all likelihood, the best pizza within a hundred mile radius of our house (outside it you’re at Centro, of course, and that’s a different foxhunt altogether). But crowning it best area pizza, a title it no doubt richly deserves, doesn’t mean it’s the kind of mouth-watering goodness that invades your dreams. Which is how I’m used to feeling about my pizza.

(An aside: this isn’t snobbery. It would be much more insulting if I deemed it “A+ … for the Iowa scene.” I’m sticking to my guns. All places that brand themselves “an independent pizzeria” should be judged on the same playing field, with no pity points for small-town joints.)

We’ve gotten take out from Pagliai’s half a dozen times. (No delivery: eat in or take out only.) It’s been consistently good each time, but also consistently lacks the wow factor. The crust is a bit too bready, and certainly not thin enough. The toppings are all fresh and high quality — even if you couldn’t tell from the taste, the website reports that the mozzarella, for instance, is both shipped weekly from Wisconsin and made especially for Pagliai’s — but they’re stacked on too heavily. They may be what keeps the crust from bubbling airily up. The cheese (yes, custom cheese!) lies thickly over the entire pie, hardly letting any sauce peek out, in a manner that seems more in line with the Domino’s aesthetic than a real boutique pizzeria.

The bottom line is, I never made pizza at home in New York because it was never as good as the pies I bought. And here, I do all the time.

Not that I’m complaining about the opportunity . .. it’s always delicious and cracks up in just the right places, and thanks to Smitten Kitchen, we can all channel Mario Batali at home, minus the brick oven. (To wit: the brick oven factor is the only appreciable difference between your pizza and his. It makes a big difference, but not big enough to stop me from breaking out this recipe every week.)

Your New Favorite Pizza Dough

From Smitten Kitchen, from Mario Batali in the NYT

  • 6 tbsp warm water
  • 2 tbsp white wine
  • 3/4 tsp active dry yeast
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp honey

Whisk together wine, warm water, and yeast in a small bowl until dissolved. Let stand until bubbly, about ten minutes. (If it doesn’t bubble, the yeast is dead. Get new stuff.) In a large bowl, combine flour and salt. When the yeast mixture is ready, add it, along with the honey and olive oil. Stir with a wooden spoon until combined, then use your hands until it comes together as a dough. (Add up to one tablespoon of water if essential.) Knead for a minute or two on a floured counter, then lightly oil that large bowl. Put the dough in it, cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm nook for an hour or two, until doubled in size.

When it’s nicely swelled, gently deflate the dough on a floured counter. Form it into a loose ball, cover with plastic wrap, and let it sit for another fifteen minutes. Roll it out until it’s Kate-Moss-thin. Lift it onto a pizza stone (or the back of a cookie sheet) sprinked with cornmeal. Add sauce, torn gashes of mozzarella, and any other toppings you like, keeping them thin. (We like tomato sauce, fresh mozz, caramelized onions, red bell peppers, thin-sliced fresh tomato, prosciutto, basil, and parm.) Bake for 10-15 minutes, at hot as your oven can go.


6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Abrah on December 2, 2009 at 1:03 pm

    Is that your Madeira ring I see in the dough mixing pictures?! I love it. I still wear mine everyday even four or goodness are we approaching five years later! How crazy! Also, will call back soon. I promise!


  2. Posted by Ron Harris on December 3, 2009 at 12:31 pm

    Wonderful to learn you will be here to thaw out come early January. Billy surely has lost his six-pack with all your amazing cooking, though law school exams will sweat a few kilos off. Billie, taking lots of practice exams is essential, if for nothing else it gets the timing down. Have a terrific Christmas back east and truly look forward to seeing you two in a few weeks. Sorry about the Rose Bowl.


  3. Posted by Charlie on December 18, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    What about the Wedge, Pizza on Dubuque and the Wig & Pen? As a foodie, I suggest the Wedge, and don’t be afraid to mix and match from the “build your own” pizzas rather than taking one of their tasty, but doughy, default offerings. I don’t think there’s a good “New York”-style pie in town, but there are certainly better offerings than the bland Pagliai’s. Pizza on Dubuque is all whole wheat, and probably best after a night on the town when they’re coming hot and fast out of the oven. I haven’t visited the new cafe (hearth?) attached to 126 as I hear they have pizza too. Monica’s on the “strip” is potentially worth a shot as they have a new location, but I’ve found them a bit likely to pile on cheese over flavor. Oh, the Wedge on the ped mall does breakfast and is rarely full. Welcome to the middle west, hopefully the fly-over is keeping you entertained!

    Don’t forget to check out Redhead in Solon (, Augusta in Oxford (, Dodici in Washington( Unfortunately Simone is off on an adventure so a trip to the best French restaurant in hundreds of miles is not an option till next summer ( I’m sure there’s a venue or two I’m forgetting but those are the can’t miss spots!


  4. Posted by Al on January 23, 2010 at 8:26 pm

    I still think the best pizza in Iowa City is Falbo’s. But you’re right, Pagliai’s sucks. Seriously, I can eat there, but they only serve horrible beer? My favorite part of eating out is getting trashed and pretending that it’s classy. Pagliai’s doesn’t even get that right.


  5. […] used my favorite dough recipe and topped it with premade fresh pesto, mozzarella and goat cheese, prosciutto, caramelized onions, […]


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