Lately I’ve been thinking about barbecue pizza. My favorite local purveyor of pies recently had a daily special he called, “BBQ Pizza.” I could not order it. I have little doubt that it was a delicious nosh, but the name just rubbed me the wrong way, and I shared my thoughts, which follow here, with the pizziaolo.
Topping a pizza with some combination of meat and barbecue sauce—regardless of quality—does not constitute barbecued pizza. Likewise, grilling a boneless, skinless chicken breast covered with sauce is not barbecued chicken. To be sure, the term “barbecue” is one of the most misunderstood, and consequently, abused terms in the culinary world.
A quick web search for the definition of barbecue clearly demonstrates the lack of clarity
surrounding this seemingly simple word. It is a noun which describes the gathering of friends, family, enemies, neighbors or anyone else in an area to eat food cooked on a grill, or not. It is also a verb that describes cooking in some fashion, though exactly how depends on who is supplying the definition. As a barbecue purist, or “barbesnob,” I find comfort in the definition of barbecue that was provided by the Kansas City Barbecue Society (KCBS) while I was training to become a Certified Barbecue Judge with that group. According to the KCBS, barbecue is: " Meat cooked over wood or charcoal—not gas, though it is OK if gas was used to ignite the wood—at low heat until the exterior has formed a crust (or bark in the parlance of the folks that 'Q for a living), the fat has rendered and the meat, after cooking, weighs less than or equal to 70% of the raw weight."
According to this definition, a barbecued pizza cannot exist! Sure there are outrageously good pies made in wood burning ovens. And I admit that my view of pizza was forever changed while watching an episode of Julia Child’s television show nearly twenty years ago when she had the owners of Al Forno, a restaurant in Providence, RI, on her show demonstrating how to cook pizza on a grill. But these are not "barbecued" pizzas.
All of this barbe-confusion might not bother me at all except for one mighty fact—I’ve actually once eaten a pizza that I absolutely consider a true barbecued pizza. The occasion was the 18th Annual Jack Daniel’s World Championship Invitational Barbecue competition, a gathering of 65 of the very best competitive barbecue teams on the planet going head to head in a number of categories. I had the honor of being selected to judge this event, which meant I got to eat samples of mind blowing barbecue all day long. Before the serious and highly regulated meat categories are judged, they have a “Cook’s Choice” category, in which teams can present the judges with any creative item they want as long as it is cooked barbecue style. Since the judging is blind, I’ll never know who prepared the pizza that was submitted to my table for judging, but it was a pizza I will never forget. The sauce was made from tomatoes, garlic and onions that had been slow smoked and pureed, topped with smoked mozzarella cheese and smoked hot Italian pork sausage. And while I will never know for sure how they did it, my attempts to re-create this masterpiece lead me to believe that they formed the dough into a pie shape and placed it in the smoker, far away from the heat, so the dough absorbed what tasted like crisp oaky-smoky flavor, before being placed directly over the burning wood and covered with the aforementioned topping ingredients and getting crazy crispy while staying soft and springy inside.
It was amazing, and the only pizza I’ve ever had that passes for real “BBQ Pizza.” If some barbecue smokehouse out there adds this pizza to the menu, let me know and I’ll be there.