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The new pan pizza: No oven required

Special to The Times

WHEN the esteemed New York chef Mario Batali opened a pizzeria called Otto early this year, it was the talk of the city. Everybody had to try Mario’s pizza -- which, with Batali’s usual showmanship, was completely different from any other pizza in New York. It was cooked on a griddle instead of in a blazing oven.

Night after night, crowds pressed in the door, willing to wait hours for a slice of the superstar chef’s new creation. And then the assessments started to roll in: Mario’s griddle pizza was mercilessly panned. The problem was the crust -- tough and heavy, they said. “This Pie Doesn’t Fly,” the New York Post sneered. One critic, William Grimes of the New York Times, observed dryly that Otto was “the only pizzeria in New York where it’s possible to skip the pizza entirely.”

And yet, we knew Mario was on to something.

Because no matter what you’ve heard about the glories of the brick oven, the coal fire, the pizza stone or any other pizza-inferno lore, the truth is you can make an astonishingly good pizza on your stove top.

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We’ve been doing it for years -- with a skillet. And we’re not talking about making any compromises: This is pizza with a perfect blistered crust, crisp and slightly charred, just thick enough for a soft interior with some real flavor.

If you’ve had Mario’s, you will marvel all the more: This one is infinitely better.

And it’s easy.

Start with the pizza dough. Many are hard to work with. They usually require at least five minutes of kneading plus a long proofing time to develop a good flavor and gluten structure. In the end, you get a crust that’s heavy and chewy.

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This dough supplies all the right qualities of a good pizza crust -- including a touch of honey and olive oil for flavor -- but the best thing about it is how easy it is to handle and how quickly you can get it to the table.

After a short time in an electric mixer, it’s kneaded just enough to remove the stickiness.

Now, the pan. We use a 10-inch straight-sided nonstick skillet. The idea is, you’re going to create an oven that cooks from the bottom up.

Heat the skillet on medium-low until a drop of water sizzles and dances across the surface. Then turn down the heat to low and add just enough olive oil to lightly coat the bottom of the pan. You can use a paper towel if you work quickly and carefully. (If you’d like to add another layer of flavor, sizzle a couple of whole cloves of garlic in the oil first.)

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Roll out the dough into a 10-inch circle, then lift it into in the pan. Pat it into the corners, and cover the skillet with a lid for a minute or two, until the dough bubbles up and looks slightly dry. Remove the lid and keep on cooking until the bottom is golden brown.

All that’s left is to flip it with a pancake turner (a lot easier than flipping a pancake, because the dough is so sturdy) and add whatever toppings you like.

Don’t cover the pan again unless you need more heat to melt cheese. At this point, covering the pizza will soften the crust somewhat. As soon as the bottom crust is browned, you’re all through.

And there it is: a sophisticated, thin-crust pizza. It’s fantastic with the simplest assortment of toppings -- even just a dusting of Parmesan with some mushrooms and olives brought raves.

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One with black kale, sausage and Manchego was even better. But experiment -- it’s hard to go wrong. Just don’t top it too heavily, or your crust will go soggy.

Mario, go buy a skillet.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Skillet pizza

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Total time: 1 hour, plus 45 minutes rising

Servings: 8 (4 pizzas)

Note: For a thicker crust, divide the dough into 3 parts.

1 (1 1/4-ounce) package active dry yeast

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1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees), divided

1 teaspoon honey

About 2 1/2 cups flour

2 tablespoons olive oil

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1 teaspoon salt

1. In the large bowl of an electric mixer, stir the yeast into 1/3 cup of warm water until dissolved. Stir in the honey. Let stand until the mixture becomes foamy, 10 to 15 minutes. Add the remaining 2/3 cup water, 2 cups of the flour, olive oil and salt. Mix on low speed until a soft dough forms, about 1 minute. Place on a floured board and knead 3 to 4 minutes, adding in enough of the remaining flour to make the dough soft but not sticky. Place the dough in a greased bowl and cover. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size, 45 to 60 minutes.

2. Divide the dough into 4 balls, cover with plastic wrap or wax paper and let rest on a greased baking sheet while you make the pizzas. For each pizza, roll out a piece of dough on a lightly floured surface into a 10-inch round. (You can store the rolled-out dough in the refrigerator until ready to use; stack between pieces of wax paper and tightly cover.)

3. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat until hot, reduce the heat to low and brush with olive oil. Heat an additional 30 seconds. Place a dough round in the skillet and cook, covered, 1 minute. The dough will puff and rise. Remove the lid from the skillet and cook, uncovered, over low heat until the crust is golden brown on the bottom, 3 to 4 minutes. Use a spatula and turn the dough over. Top with desired topping combinations and cook until the bottom of the pizza is golden brown and crisp, an additional 3 to 5 minutes. If a large quantity of cheese is used, cover the pan briefly to melt the cheese. (Covering the pan softens the crust slightly.) Cook an additional minute to crisp the bottom crust.

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Kale topping: For one pizza, heat a small skillet and add 1 teaspoon olive oil. Add 1 clove minced garlic and cook 30 seconds. Add 1 cup chopped kale and stir. Add 1/3 cup chicken broth and cook until the kale is slightly soft but crisp, 5 minutes. Drain and press dry with paper towels. Spread the kale on top of the pizza as directed for toppings, then sprinkle with dried red pepper flakes to taste, and add 1/4 cup crumbled feta cheese and 1 tablespoon pine nuts.

Each pizza (2 servings): 613 calories; 1,291 mg. sodium; 33 mg. cholesterol; 26 grams fat; 8 grams saturated fat; 75 grams carbohydrates; 23 grams protein; 6 grams fiber.

Mushroom topping: For one pizza, heat a skillet over medium heat. Add 1 teaspoon olive oil and heat. Add 1/2 cup sliced shiitake mushrooms and cook until golden brown, 4 minutes. Spread the mushrooms on top of the pizza as directed for toppings, then sprinkle with 2 tablespoons chopped pitted Kalamata olives, 1 teaspoon dried oregano leaves or savory and 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese.

Each pizza (2 servings): 570 calories; 1,109 mg. sodium; 16 mg. cholesterol; 21 grams fat; 6 grams saturated fat; 78 grams carbohydrates; 21 grams protein; 7 grams fiber.

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