But you can come pretty darn close.
While the standard home oven can't hold a flame to the high radiant heat of the professional brick or wood-burning variety, by following some basic dough-making principles, you can create a flavorful pizza with a stellar crust that will likely save you some trips to the local pizzeria.
As popular as pizza has always been, its standing in the culinary community seems to rise with each passing year, as restaurateurs, from Wolfgang Puck to Mario Batali, stake their reputations — and their enterprises — on their signature pizzas.
With pizza's growing esteem has come a budding passion among home cooks for reproducing the pies they've come to crave when eating out.
While there seems to be no limit to the kinds of toppings that can adorn a pizza these days, it is ultimately the crust, thin or otherwise, that separates the sublime from the simply ordinary, most pizza experts would agree.
"To me, the topping is almost a bonus," says master breadmaker Peter Reinhart, author of "American Pie, My Search for the Perfect Pizza." "My definition of a pizza is dough with something on top of it."
Most pizza dough recipes are simply a variation on a few basic ingredients: flour, yeast, water, sugar, salt and sometimes oil, the combinations of which yield different results depending on the type of crust you favor.
For instance, sugar not only helps hasten the activation of the yeast, but also lends a caramelized color to the crust, while oil produces a softer, more pliable dough and a more tender crust.
Pizza makers have varying opinions on what kind of flour to use and how much gluten it should have, but most agree it should be unbleached. According to Reinhart, unbleached is preferable because it still has beta-carotene pigments, which he says give the dough a better flavor and aroma.
Two of Reinhart's key tips are to bake the pizza at the highest temperature possible as quickly as is feasible and to take time in fermenting the dough, preferably overnight. His target baking time is no longer than seven minutes, although that probably is not long enough for many home ovens.
"The challenge of making a good pizza at home is we don't have a true, authentic pizza oven that will bake at 600, 650 degrees or higher, and our home ovens won't go higher than 550," explained Reinhart, an instructor in the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C.
"Pizza crust is relatively thin, so you want the outside crispy before the inside dries out. That's why a hot oven is so valuable. A common mistake a home pizza maker makes is to bake it at too low a temperature, and by the time it appears done, the crust is really more like cardboard."
While grilling pizza directly over coals or in a barbecue is one way around the limitations of a home oven, perfecting the technique takes some practice and if not done correctly, parts of the crust may not cook evenly.
Luigi Agostini, owner of the always crowded Pizzeria Luigi in Golden Hill, Calif., favors a thin-crust, New York-style pie and uses no oil in his preparation, which accounts for its crispier crust.
"You want to have a little crunch on the bottom, so it's not like chewing gum, and you want a little air," advised Agostini, who hails from north of Milan and recently opened a second Luigi's. "Some pizzas from the chains are very thick and it's like eating a piece of bread with sauce. It gets very soggy."
No matter what type of pizza you make, many experts advise refrigerating the dough before using it, which some say enhances the flavor as the yeast ferments.
Agostini said he finds that leaving the dough covered in the refrigerator with a damp cloth not only makes it easier to work with, but more importantly, it keeps the dough from over-rising and losing its elasticity.
When mixing the dough by hand, Agostini spends at least 10 minutes working the water and yeast mixture into the flour with his hands, giving the dry ingredients adequate time to fully absorb the liquid. The result is a soft, supple mass of dough.
"You don't want it to be sticky to your hands. If it's too sticky, it will be more like a bread dough," he said. "If you put too much water in, the dough will spread. During the year, I change my recipe three times based on the weather."
Great News cooking instructor Katherine Emmenegger likens the feel of a well-mixed dough to a "fat belly," she says with a bit of embarrassment, but says that's the best description she's come up with.
"I run the dough through a mixer with a dough hook, and it'll be a little on the sticky side, but as it finishes, it should start to pull away from the bowl so it becomes completely clean. I coat it with oil before I let it rise, which I do at room temperature, but find it's better if I put it into the refrigerator before I use it."
Although an experienced pizza maker, Agostini is unaccustomed to preparing it in a home environment and recently did some experimentation before creating a recipe that would work well outside of a professional kitchen.
A fan of homemade pizza myself, I decided to put Agostini's home demonstration to the test. I've tried a variety of recipes with varying degrees of success but was especially eager to test Agostini's as his restaurant's thin-crust pizza has long been a favorite of mine.
While I normally mix the dough with a stand mixer, I decided to do everything by hand after watching Agostini methodically meld the flour, water and yeast with his left hand and rotate the bowl that the mixture was in with his right hand.
After doing the same, I sought to mimic his deft kneading technique, grasping the dough ball in both hands and folding it in on itself while regularly turning the dough in my hands. The result was a smooth, slightly tacky dough that held its shape after I formed it into two 12-ounce balls.
Unlike Agostini, who baked his pizza in a round metal pan in an electric oven, I used a heavy pizza stone in my gas oven. Either way, the end result was divine. While neither of the home versions exactly duplicated the pizza sold at Luigi's, they were perfectly crisped and slightly chewy, while the edge of the crust was a golden brown.
When it comes to toppings for pizza, Agostini and others subscribe to the theory that less is more. Too much sauce and a weighty pile of ingredients on top can lead to a soggy, undercooked mess.
"Only use as much sauce as is needed to cover the crust and no more than three things on top of the pizza," Reinhart cautions. "The kitchen sink thing that Americans like you'd never see in Italy.
Remember, he said, pizza is all about balance.
LUIGI'S SPINACH-RICOTTA THIN-CRUST PIZZA
_1 (0.25-ounce) packet active dry yeast_
1 1/4 cups water, room temperature
_1/2 teaspoon sugar_
3 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour_
1 teaspoon salt
_3 ounces fresh spinach_
4 ounces ricotta
_8 to 10 ounces mozzarella_
1/8 cup grated parmesan_
cloves garlic, chopped
Makes 2 (12-inch) pizzas
Dissolve yeast in water and add sugar. Mix well, and set aside. Place flour in mixing bowl. Return to water, add the salt, and mix well.
With your fingers, make a small well in the flour and slowly pour about a third of the water into the well. Mix with one hand. Add another third of the water and continue to mix. Add remaining water. Work the dough with your hands until it is smooth and firm and still a little sticky. This could take about 10 minutes. (If you are using a mixer with a dough hook, mix in about 1 cup of the water to begin with. If the dough, once mixed, seems too dry, add the remaining water.)
Cut the dough in half. For a true thin-crust pizza, the dough should weigh about 11 ounces to 12 ounces. For a slightly thicker crust, 14 ounces is good. Knead the dough for a few minutes, form it into a ball, and seal the bottom.
Place the dough on a plate and cover with a smooth, damp towel and let rise for about 25 minutes. Chill dough in the refrigerator for at least 15 to 20 minutes. When you take it out of the refrigerator, dough can be used right away. Alternatively, you can leave it covered in the refrigerator for several hours or overnight.
Let the dough rest for about 15 minutes. Flour both sides, and put it on the countertop. Flatten the dough with your hands, and use your fingers to create a rim. Continue using the heels of your hands to flatten and stretch the dough to form a 12-inch disk. You can also use a rolling pin.
Preheat oven to 475 degrees. (If using a stone, preheat it for about 45 minutes to an hour.) Lightly oil a metal pizza pan, and place the dough on the pan. Top first with mozzarella, then parmesan. Scatter spinach leaves on top of cheese, and dot with spoonfuls of ricotta. Last, scatter chopped garlic. (If using a stone, place the pizza on a floured pizza peel, add toppings, and then slide the pizza directly onto the stone.)
Bake for about 10 minutes. Check the underside of the pizza and the edge of the crust to make sure it is golden brown. Leave pizza in oven longer if it is not brown enough.
— Pizzeria Luigi
Lori Weisberg writes about food for The San Diego Union-Tribune.