One of the most delightful aspects of the stay at home order with young kids is all of the things you get to do together that you said you’d do together but haven’t really done because yeah, no. Yeah, no meaning: there are not enough hours in the day, not enough fuel in the tank, and too many other things that prevent doing that thing you were going to do.
For me, it’s been a number of things, but one of the most rewarding was making pizza together. Most any parent knows that pizza is pretty much the ultimate meal for kids. You spend far more time saying, “No, you can’t have pizza again tonight,” than you do actually allowing it. During the pandemic, we’re on an every-fourth-day pizza rotation. Pre-pandemic, it was more like once every other week.
Making pizza is a fun and simple way to get the kids engaged in the process of feeding themselves. And because they know pizza is coming, they are excited to take part in making it.
When I eat pizza, I want it to taste really, really good. The dough is a big part of that. So instead of trying to pretend like I am going to be able to make it taste the way I want it — and do it really well — I called the pizza shop with what I think has the best dough in town: Manolo’s Pizza and Empanadas.
Of course, I know those folks, having worked at Canopy when the pizza joint opened back in 2006, so I figured I’d be able to get some dough as a favor. But as it turns out, they sell pre-packaged dough balls to go in 12 inch, 14 inch, and 18 inch sizes ($3/$4/$5). I was delighted.
Naturally, there’s nothing like a pizza oven for actually executing a great pie, so I texted long time general manager Adrienne Wingler about it. She’s the wizard behind the pizza peel at Manolo’s, and she gave me some pointers on how to make the dough work best in a home kitchen setting.
Manolo’s pizza dough is a New York style sourdough, made from scratch daily. Wingler told me that to get the most from the dough, let it proof first, ideally for a bit of time. Let it sit out at room temperature in a bowl covered with plastic wrap. (But you don’t have to do that, honestly; you can just get moving on it once it’s thawed.) When it’s time to roll it out, do so by hand. Coat the dough in half flour/ half cornmeal (which Manolo’s provides with to go dough). Begin by pressing the dough flat, and then gently work your fingers around the edges, careful not to stretch the middle too much. You want to let gravity pull the dough as you work it. Once it’s to the thickness you prefer, hit it with your sauce and toppings.
Manolo’s dough bakes best on a hot pizza stone, and if you don’t have one, they are glad to par bake it for you. I don’t have a pizza stone, and for me, personally, I like cooking pizza on a super duper hot outdoor grill with the charcoal set all the way to one side. Then I turn it four times, two minutes per turn, over about eight minutes, so nothing burns, and the pizza cooks evenly.
But on this particular day, I set my oven to 550 degrees and cooked it for seven minutes with a high broil finish to get the cheese bubbly. It came out pretty great!
In the end, there’s nothing you can do at home that will replace a pizza oven in a pizza shop. Now is as good a time as any to get delivery from Manolo’s or your favorite pizza joint in town. I have Papa Del’s on my list as well, and when Po’ Boys reopens, I am all about that too.
But let me say: this was pretty damn good. And the reason why was the dough. My pizza sauce is basic, simple, and easy. I am sure I could monkey around more and make it even better, but it more than did the trick. Regular mozzarella and toppings from the store worked A-okay, too.
You don’t need kids in order to have a fun pizza making night. It’s just where I am in my life right now. Every day is another chance to get closer to my kids in some new and unique way, and I am cooking 2-3 meals a day from scratch, so any time I can to get my kids involved feels like a big win. They didn’t respond quite as well to my request that they help make the g, gefilte fish for Passover, but it’s their eternal soul on the line there — and not mine.
Bottom line: Manolo’s in Urbana will sell you amazing dough to work with to make a pie of your own, and it’s a good way to spend an hour or two with a pretty fantastic reward at the end. This is a highly recommended activity any time, but right now, it has a particular appeal, and I look forward to doing it again soon.
Manolo’s Pizza and Empanadas
1115 W. Oregon St.
M – F 9 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.
Sa + Su 11 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.
Top image by Seth Fein.