Any way you slice it: Sundays at the community oven aren't just about the pizza.

Author:Gurwitt, Rob
 
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By now, it's a ritual. I weigh out two kilos of flour a little before noon and make dough, then set it aside to rise. At 3 P.M. I realize I only have an hour for toppings and frantically throw together a sauce, slice and saute potatoes, get onions and olives ready, grate cheeses. At 4 o'clock I pick through the woodpile, hunt around for matches, and head down the hill into town.

The oven is a hulking presence on the edge of a mostly unused field, a 10-foot crouching beaver, as the old Quebecois farmers to our north used to say, made of thick clay, with an iron door at one end, and resting on stocky blocks of granite. A waist-high wooden workbench stretches out from one side, and a couple of picnic tables, weathered to capriciousness, sit nearby. The oven has no chimney or flue, and heating takes time. You have to light a fire in the mouth, then gradually push the burning pile back as you keep feeding it, setting up a current that sucks air in along the floor of the oven and carries smoke out in a layer above. Inevitably, as I toss in wood or peer inside to consider the flames, there's a breath of singed hair, and it's not because I touched the fire.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The field is quiet. There's work to do--wash down the workbench, fetch a bucketful of water from the nearby stream in case things get out of hand, chop scrap lumber into manageable lengths--but mostly I sit in the sun, tend the fire, watch the occasional car pass by, and wait for things to heat up. Which they will. I have a comrade in arms in this undertaking, Dan, and soon enough he'll be here to finish off the firing and lay out his half of our prep space while I go home to get my dough. In short order the field will fill with cars and people, and Dan and I will be madly flattening dough and topping it and choreographing our two long-handled peels, while kids cluster at the workbench or chase each other around and their parents sit and yak, and we bring out pizza after pizza until everyone is sated and it's hard to see what we're doing in the sudden dusk.

"You know what I love most about this?" Dan once asked after everyone else had left and we were cleaning up in companionable weariness. "You never know how many people are going to show up."

It's true. Dan and I, taken with the idea of making pizza for a crowd, started these Sunday evenings at the oven a while back. At first, we'd get a dozen people or so--our own families and one or two others--but these days it can be as many as 40 or 50. Friends bring friends or parents or the out-of-town guests who are a fact of life during a Vermont summer, and the possibility that we might not have enough to feed everyone gives the whole thing the occasional edge of desperation. Dough meant for a single pizza extends to two or three, while toppings grow out of whatever's at hand: a smear of basil puree, a touch of leftover olive paste, a friend's fiery homemade salsa. It's been a near thing once or twice, though people bring salads and pies and sometimes their own pizza makings. We've never sent anyone away hungry.

Heartening as it may be to feed this many people, for me the deep satisfaction lies elsewhere. What I love is that it's all about the pizza. And that, of course, it's not at all about the pizza.

Most Americans don't take pizza seriously. This is because what they consider to be pizza really isn't to be taken seriously: a circle of dough with indifferent sauce and far too much cheese. The advertisements you see on television with a slice being lifted away while thick strands of molten cheese stretch just to the breaking point? They're not ads for pizza; they're for cheese resting on a convenient tray of bread.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that pizza ought to be turned into some epicurean jewel--"Ah, is that a Ligurian-style crust?"--a la coffee or chocolate or, God help us, beer. It's just crust and toppings.

Still, why settle for mediocre? Given a choice, wouldn't you go for a pizza whose crust is thin and crackly but yields to chewiness? Whose sauce (if you like your pizzas red) is robust with long-simmered tomatoes and edged with a little salt, basil, and oregano? That holds a balance among crust, sauce, cheese, and whatever else is going on top, so that each flavor stands out in your mouth yet manages to blend in? Whose top is blistered and bottom charred in a few spots so that you get a fleeting but deeply satisfying feel for the alchemical power of intense heat?

If you live in New Haven, Connecticut, where I grew up, or in one of the other East Coast cities where...

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