Driftless Pizza

Feature Stories Summer 2011 Issue

Driftless Pizza

By Theresa Marquez | Photos By Jim Klousia 3

My adventures with pizza started when I was young, growing up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood. I am forever grateful that mom liked to cook and was curious and experimental. Although she was not Italian (she was Polish, Russian, German and Austrian) she set out to perfect the local pizza. And we, her eight kids, were her guinea pigs.

Mom had pizza rules. First, she always used her own homemade sauce made with tomatoes she grew, oregano and olive oil. She canned 50 quarts a year. Second, her dough was simple flour, water, salt and yeast that she claimed she kneaded for 40 minutes (really mom?) and let rise twice. Mother never rolled out her pizza dough. Instead, after letting it rest, we put the dough on a well-oiled cookie sheet with sides and stretched it over the pan.

As one might expect, I raised my two children on homemade pizza. And like me, my now adult kids took up the art of pizza making. In February of 2009, my son Zachary and I went to Italy; Napoli was a primary destination and diving deeply into Pizza Napoletana was our mission. Pizza Napoletana never came up while I was growing up because, most likely, the Italians in my neighborhood weren’t from Napoli. But today, what city doesn’t have a pizza restaurant that brags a genuine wood-fired oven?

Traditional Pizza Napoletana is a very thinly stretched round crust topped with San Marzano tomatoes and fresh buffalo milk mozzarella. The pizza is baked for a mere 60 to 90 seconds in a stone oven with an oak-wood fire. The results are at once crispy, chewy and exceptionally fragrant.

Back in the States, what is a person to do when they crave a Pizza Napoletana and the closest replica is 120 miles away in Madison? (As it turns out, there are three restaurants in Madison that make pizza in the authentic Neapolitan style, and one of them meets the strict guidelines of the Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) certification--see last page of this article.) The answer: Build your own fire and grill.

Here in the Driftless Region of Southwest Wisconsin, we have adopted our own “identity preserved” pizza: Driftless Pizza. We have our own standards, albeit not nearly as strict as the VPN certification!

And while our Driftless Pizza is grilled over an open fire, and though it takes longer than 90 seconds to cook, you won’t be disappointed when you take a bite, hear the delectable crunch of the crispy crust and enjoy the smoky marriage of cheesy toppings.

Ingredients to Assemble: 

  • Yeast or sourdough starter
  • Organic unbleached white flour
  • Whole wheat flour
  • Salt
  • Tomato sauce
  • Olive Oil
  • Basil or Oregano
  • Fresh Mozzarella or a combination of aged provolone, aged mozzarella, Muenster, or chevre
  • Aged Parmesan Reggiano or other delicious aged hard cheese
  • Other toppings of your choosing (optional): mushrooms, sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, spinach, pesto, onion and garlic (preferably caramelized)
  • Cornmeal


  • Fire pit or Weber grill
  • Wood for the smoky flavor (see the grilling section for using coals)
  • Large cutting board or a wooden pizza peel large enough to accommodate a 12-14-inch round pizza
  • Oven mitts
  • Good spatula that can take heat

The Dough
Start the dough long before you plan to make a Driftless Pizza. I like to use wild sourdough starter, but if you are new at this, start with a simple yeast dough. Adopting Pizza Napoletana guidelines, our Driftless pizza dough calls for four ingredients only: yeast, water, salt and flour. I don’t have a recipe written down because, depending on how many people are eating and how active my sourdough starter is, the quantities change wildly. Look to a cookbook you trust for a basic pizza dough recipe, or see the recipe included with this article.

I knead the dough by hand for as long as I can stand (sorry mom, I don’t reach 40 minutes). A Cuisinart or Kitchen Aid mixer is a great tool for cranking out dough quickly. For working stiffs, check out Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day by Minneapolis writers Hertzbert and Francois. They have great tips on making and storing dough ahead of time for quick pizza after work.

The Fire
Start a blazing wood fire two hours ahead of grilling. It is great to get a friend to start the fire while you’re making the dough, or vice versa.

Because the Driftless Pizza cooks slowly over hot but distant coals, your aim is a nice, deep bed of coals from the wood. Using a Weber and charcoal works, but do use a chimney to start the coals (not smelly starter fluid) and find slender pieces of some hardwood, like oak, to put over the hot coals to get some of that wood-fired, smoky flavor. I prefer the outdoor fire pit because it’s simply more fun (I feel like a cave woman), gives unique flavor, and imprints nice grill marks on the crust.

The Sauce
The VPN certification calls for only the freshest ingredients, and I can only agree. Like my mom, I grow my own tomatoes and can my own sauce. Sadly, those vine-ripened tomatoes are simply not available most of the year. When they are, for me nothing beats topping a pizza with freshly chopped ripe tomato, a sprinkle of salt, a drizzle of olive oil and chopped garlic. What a pretty sight red, orange and yellow garden tomatoes make on a pizza with some chopped fresh basil and a sprinkling of grated parmesan cheese. The rest of the year I use my own or storebought organic, canned, chopped tomatoes.

Preparing the Toppings
In Napoli, the most popular pizza is called the “Margherita” (no relation to our favorite Mexican cocktail). The Margherita has thin crust, fresh chopped tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, and fresh chopped basil with a drizzle of olive oil. But, let’s face it, what is more fun than loading pizza with your favorite toppings? Creativity, imagination, color…I like to think of that pizza crust as a canvas. Using fresh, local, organic ingredients is always best for flavor, your body and the environment.

Cheese: I use a minimum of two and sometimes up to four cheeses, depending on how many odds and ends are in my cheese compartment. (I confess, I actually used a Camembert on a pizza once.)

Mom always used parmesan cheese, which is always used in the Driftless Pizza. Although I do love fresh mozz, here in the rural countryside, availability is spotty.

Mushrooms: For grilled pizza, these will need to be sautéed ahead of time. I agree with Paul Stamets, the mushroom guru: wild mushrooms are best! If using your common white or brown button mushrooms, don’t eat them raw. (Note: for oven pizza, I use thinly sliced mushrooms always placed on top of the cheese. They can throw off liquid while baking and that results in soggy crust—something to avoid!)

Other Toppings: Chop and prep all toppings before grilling the pizza. The trick here is to keep everything as warm as possible. Although putting the pizza in the broiler to warm up the toppings and “finish off ” the grilled pizza makes sense, I confess, I rarely do this, preferring to top my pizza on the grill, take it off, slice and eat it right away.

Forming the Crust
After your dough has risen, divide it into small balls, each about a half-pound or so. I let these rest for 10 minutes before stretching the dough by hand into a round crust. For the smaller 12- to 14-inch rounds, throwing the pizza dough up to stretch it actually works! But it is a technique one has to work at. Cornmeal is essential, sprinkled generously under the pizza dough to facilitate the slide from the peel or board to the grill.

Since this is yeast dough, it will rise in contact with the heat of the fire. So what may seem thin to begin with will double in bulk. The ideal crust is very thin in the middle with most of the dough pushed out to the edges. As with pie crust, you can fold the dough edges over or under to form a thicker rim. One should be able to pick up the wedge and eat it out of hand, unless you have gotten carried away with toppings.

Grilling the Pizza
Here is the trickiest part. The coals need to be just right so you don’t burn the crust before the edges are cooked. Slow cooking over hot coals is best. When I feel the coals are just right—without flame—I gently slide the crust from the peel onto the grill. In a few minutes, the crust gets firm and the edges begin to rise. The middle sometimes forms a bubble, which you can prick to keep the crust flat.

Using a spatula, lift the edge of the pizza dough. When you see golden grill marks, it is time to turn the dough over. If the coals are hotter in one spot, which is not unusual, rotate the pizza while it is cooking so it will cook evenly. Right after flipping, I put on the cheese and a dribble of olive oil. Unlike oven pizza, the cheese goes on first not last. By the time the cheese melts the crust should be done crisping up. Once again, check for golden grill marks and a nice puffy rim. Then slide it onto the wooden board.

Topping the Pizza
This part is the most fun. Here is my routine: I put the chopped tomatoes or sauce on top of the melted cheese, grate on parmesan, and then I rub fresh chopped basil or whole dried oregano between my fingers while sprinkling them onto the pizza. I arrange other toppings as desired and voila—the Driftless Pizza is ready for eating!

One Fine Day
Recently the Edible Madison team joined me for a Driftless Pizza making session, and we made a Grilled Pizza with Basil and Pesto Sauce. I hope you have as much fun making and eating this delicious pizza as we did!

Pizza Napoletana in Madison

Cafe Porta Alba is the only restaurant that is Vera Pizza Napoletana (VPN) Certified, following strict guidelines for authentic Neapolitan style pizza set by the Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana in Italy and sourcing all ingredients and equpment from Italy.
558 N. Midvale Blvd. (in the Hilldale Mall), Madison, WI

Two other restaurants have taken their own twist on the VPN standards by using comparable local, organic ingredients in the Neapolitan style:

Pizza BruttaChef Derek Lee is certified as a pizzaiolo with VPN and uses local, organic ingredients and local firewood.
1805 Monroe St., Madison, WI

Lombardino'sNeapolitan style pizza using local, organic produce, eggs and meats.
2500 University Avenue, Madison, WI 

Theresa Marquez has been a passionate advocate for organic food and farming since 1978 and is considered a pioneer of the natural foods movement. Theresa spent 17 years as chief marketing executive of Organic Valley and today loves her new role as Organic Valley’s mission executive. She enjoys playing in the garden and experimenting in the kitchen.

Comments [3]

Scott | February 10, 2015

You mean a “pizzaiolo” not a pizza yolo.

Wendy Allen | February 10, 2015

Hi Scott, thank you for catching that! Pesky typos. And thank you for reading.

Steph | May 26, 2015

It’s been a while since you wrote this great article…I’m wondering if you could tell me where you got your grill or might recommend a place that sells these. Our family is getting into cooking over a fire and I think this portable option would be handy. Thanks!

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