I’m Dreaming of a Good Pizza, Just Like the Ones I Used to Know

In the old days before Celiac, there was at least one night every week or two when it was a long day of school or work and we had no energy left to cook an involved dinner, a day when someone was feeling under the weather and needed quick easy comfort food, or nights when we just wanted a yummy dinner that was befitting of a Friday or Saturday movie night. In all of these cases, someone would say, “let’s get a pizza.”

     My parents and I liked to go to a sit-down restaurant for pizza occasionally, and occasionally we would carry out pizza from Pizza Hut or Rosati’s. But as we matured and became (slightly) more health conscious, we became fans of the take-and-bake revolution. When we baked pizzas, not only were they fresher and hotter. They also seemed less greasy. Come to think of it, that was around the time that a Papa Murphy’s opened up just five minutes from our house.

     It wasn’t long before we had the cooking instructions for Papa Murphy’s pizza memorized, so when Mom or Dad called to indicate they were on their way home from work and almost to Papa Murphy’s, whoever was home would set the oven to preheat. If it was a weekend and we were all home, someone would set the oven before we left. (We have one of the new energy efficient ovens that takes forever to be ready, but we had the timing for Papa Murphy’s down like clockwork. If we preheated the oven before we left, or when Mom or Dad was close to Papa Murphy’s, we could hear the “Beep beep beep” announcement from the oven that it was ready as soon as we walked in the door with the pizza.

     Unless there was an irresistible special pizza we had to try, or a silly, cute novelty like the thick-crusted pizza designed to look like a Jack-o-lantern for Halloween, we would almost always get a family size delite pizza (with Papa Murphy’s signature cracker-thin crust). Usually, we ordered it with canadian bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, green peppers and onions. If Dad found a coupon that was only good for one or two toppings, he would quickly slice up our own vegetables and add them to the pizza. This was delicious too. Occasionally, we also enjoyed trying something unusual like the chicken parmesan delite or chicken artichoke bacon delite.

     The name sure suited these pizzas well. Just carrying them in to the house when they were still a giant cold paper plate of uncooked dough and toppings wrapped in saran wrap was a delight. When we got the fully loaded pizza, I swear that plate weighed five pounds, and it was the kind of pizza you had to carry cradled in the flat palms of both hands or else the plate would buckle under the weight of all the deliciousness it was carrying.

     It only got more delightful from there. In the few minutes when the pizza smelled wonderful but wasn’t quite done yet, I would be salivating like a dog. When Mom or Dad pulled the pizza out of the oven and placed it in the center of the table, those seated at the table would go “ah!” the same expression of contentment as when a cool breeze comes through an open window. Each slice felt like eating a delicious work of art too. They were the kind of slices that fit perfectly on a dinner plate. The crust of each triangular slice fanned out like wings across the whole width of the plate, and each slice also had to be cradled in both hands while being eaten because the thin crust would buckle under the weight of all the delightful toppings. From the crust that actually crunched like a cracker, to the crispy yet moist center where the cheese stretched with every bite and the tomato sauce oozed over the edge onto my face, each slice was a delight from start to finish, and there was always enough for us each to have two or three. In the early days, we would just get a 14-inch large pizza or get the 16-inch family size and have leftovers. But as time went on, we came to love the pizzas so much that we didn’t bother saving leftovers and would go ahead and eat ourselves in to a delightful stupor. With each pizza costing under $10 for my parents, the price was delightful too. What a perfect pairing of gluten and glutton that was!

     We were once loyal customers of Papa Murphy’s with a punch card that rewarded us with a free pizza when it was full, but last weekend, we had to accept reality and give our punch cards to my brother when he came home to visit. Papa Murphy’s does not have gluten-free pizzas and the gluten-free pizzas we have had just aren’t the same.

     On Friday July 20, just two days after my Celiac diagnosis, I was already hit with a pizza craving.

     “We can still have pizza,” my mom said, “we’ll just make it ourselves.” That night, she rolled out two pizza crusts from a Bob’s Red Mill kit. We all agreed it was too thick, doughy and dry. A couple weeks later, we tried putting toppings on pre-made crusts. I think they were from Schar. They were better in that they were thinner than Bob’s Red Mill, but still they seemed dry and doughy to me. The same was true of pizza I had at three local places that offer gluten-free pizza.

     I later found out that these pizza places don’t handcraft a gluten-free crust but throw their toppings on gluten-free crusts from companies like Schar as well. I don’t fault these restaurants for doing this. At this point in time at least, the Celiac population is still relatively small, so I suppose it would be impractical for these businesses to invest in the training and materials needed to make a gluten-free crust from scratch, and I suppose a hand-crafted crust would raise the risk of accidental cross-contamination. I liken it to the availability of Braille menus at restaurants. Since the blind population is also very small, very few restaurants offer braille menus, but when a restaurant does have one, I get a warm fuzzy feeling. This restaurant thought of people with special needs like me! I know I could read the menu online and decide on what to order before leaving home, but it is so exciting to be able to page through a menu with the rest of the family and read mouth-watering descriptions of their dishes rather than sitting with nothing to do while everyone else looks over the print menu. I get flustered when on occasion, I will place my order only to find out that the braille menu is out of date and the restaurant doesn’t offer that dish anymore. But once I recover and find something else, I don’t hold any hard feelings toward the restaurant. Ideally, it would be nice if they kept the braille menu up to date, but the blind population is so small I can understand how a restaurant just wouldn’t think of it, or maybe found it too impractical and expensive to update braille menus all the time for such a small market. It’s the thought that counts. Since a lot of places, including good old Papa Murphy’s, still don’t offer gluten-free options, I will gladly patronize pizza places that do have gluten-free options even if they aren’t spectacular, handcrafted creations because they thought of people with special needs like me! I would much rather eat a less than ideal pizza than live a life where I had to eat dinner at home before going to dinner with family or friends because restaurants didn’t have anything safe for people with Celiac to enjoy. Some people with Celiac have told me this was often the story of life even just five years ago.

     To be fair, there is still one more local pizza place yet to try, Transfer Pizzeria, which some friends I made in a celiac support group said is the best. It is kind of far from where we live so it hasn’t been convenient for us to get there yet, but I cannot wait to try it, especially when I found out that they get their crusts from Molly’s Gluten-free Bakery, a locally popular bakery about twenty minutes from our house that also supplies gluten-free items to stores and restaurants in our area. Their sandwich bread was the best I have had since going gluten-free, and their mint brownies are heavenly too, so I have high hopes for their pizza crusts. If we like the pizza we get at Transfer, we could go to Molly’s and buy their crusts to fill with our own toppings.

     We also have yet to test the truth of the advertising on a kit for Hodgson’s Mill pizza crusts that claims they come out light and crispy. We have a pizza crust recipe on a box of Betty Crocker gluten-free Bisquick we haven’t tried either, and I have high hopes for this crust too because it made the best banana bread I have ever had, including my life before Celiac, and it makes for excellent dipping batter that I never would have guessed was gluten-free. This has caused my parents and I to suspect that while many gluten-free product lines clearly taste gluten-free and cater to people who want to give up gluten for weight loss or a desire to go organic, Betty Crocker’s products must have been scientifically tested (and probably infused with chemicals, but oh well), to make them appealing to Celiacs and their families who are going gluten-free because they have to.

     I have an aunt who doesn’t have Celiac but goes gluten-free most of the time because she is sensitive to it. She has been a wonderful trail blazer giving Mom and I advice. She prefers thin pizza crusts too and told my mom to try rolling the pizza dough out on parchment paper instead of using a greased pan as the directions for these kits say. Mom found that when using the greased pan, she couldn’t get the dough thin because when she rolled it out, it would just spring back like a rubber band. But my aunt said this doesn’t happen with parchment paper so she can roll the dough thinner that way. And once the family comes to a consensus on the best type of flour for a gluten-free pizza crust, she wants to start making them from scratch.

     For now when we want a quick easy pizza, we turn to Udi’s. My parents bought two Udi’s frozen pizzas, an uncured pepperoni pizza, and a four-cheese pizza. Of course these pizzas lacked the delightful freshness and flavor of a fully loaded Papa Murphy’s pizza, but the crust crunched like a cracker! That’s a wonderful start!

     Although less important in the grand scheme of things, I look forward to the day when we–(or Papa Murphy’s? If you are an owner or CEO for Papa Murphy’s and you found this blog, I urge you to think about it)–get the confidence to make pizza crusts from scratch to resolve another disappointment our family has experienced with gluten-free pizza crusts. They don’t come in family size. The standard seems to be 12-inch crusts, the equivalent of a medium size pizza at Papa Murphy’s (and more expensive than the Papa Murphy’s family size too). This is just not enough for our family of big eaters. Of course we can and do make two pizzas which actually amounts to more pizza than the family size as two 12-inch pizzas means we can now indulge in 24 inches of pizza! But our oven can only cook one pizza at a time, so while we start on the first pizza, someone has to check the progress of the second one in the oven. And the presentation just isn’t the same either. We still go “Ah!” as each pizza is put on the table because it still smells wonderful, but 12-inch pizzas don’t cut beautiful masterpieces of slices that spread the entire width of a dinner plate. I can hold gluten-free pizza slices in one hand like a football, and even though we get more pizza, it seems like less because we have started using smaller plates. These skinny slices would look pitiful on a dinner plate. I don’t know why companies make gluten-free pizza crusts so small. Maybe it has something to do with the chemistry of gluten-free dough and the pizza may not hold together if it is too big, or more likely, most gluten-free clientele probably aren’t as gluttonous as I am. But whatever the reason, I have been dreaming of the day when I can enjoy the perfect gluten-free, family size pizza on a cracker-thin pizza crust that would make pizza nights a delite once again.

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