When he’s not making pizza at downtown Durham’s Pizzeria Toro, chef-owner Gray Brooks likes to make it at home with his eight-year-old son, Cole.
It’s an improvisational process: floury hands, sticky dough, and just the right amount of kneading.
“The dough that he’s working usually winds up a disaster, but it’s it’s a beautiful disaster,” Brooks says. “The trick with any dough is to work it as little as possible. But when you’re eight-years-old—telling someone to work that dough a little bit is like saying, only play with that thing a little bit.”
Brooks, who used to sometimes bring Cole into work with him, says that making pizza at home is now a ritual (Brooks might have a gin-and-tonic; Cole a tonic water). They work the dough and talk about life.
Brooks hasn’t been pulling many shifts at Toro, lately. Since the coronavirus pandemic and bans on dining-in have decimated the restaurant industry as we know it, Toro has been running limited takeout hours, and Brooks primarily reserves them for employees who need them. Toro’s sister restaurants, Littler and Jack Tar, have been closed since the beginning of the shutdown.
“We’re making enough of a profit to make enough money to pay for our group health plan,” Brooks says. “When this all started, this is the thing that we were all terrified about. We have close to forty people in our company on the health plan—it would’ve been heartbreaking to drop that right now.”
Takeout isn’t a long term solution but reopening also has its economic hurdles: restaurants typically have to run an entire payroll cycle just to reopen. Inventory has to be re-purchased. Restaurant owners will never recoup the months of lost revenue.
For now, those Friday-night pizza orders are just enough to keep staff insured, Brooks says, and many of them working. Orders have been steady and on weekend nights the kitchen churns out as many pizzas as it was before. For an hour or two it’s almost easy to pretend that things are as they were, but the acoustics of an empty restaurant give reality away.
On a normal weekend night the restaurant would be, as he puts it, “tense in a good way,” flush with the murmur of patrons, sliding chairs, and clinking dishes. Now the sound of a stone shifting in the oven echoes throughout the restaurant. Brooks likens it to the last few basketball games played to crowdless arenas, early-on in the pandemic—sneakers squeaking against the court, the echo of a dribble.
The Pizzeria Toro kitchen staff, too, are playing to an absent crowd.
“It’s weirdly serene,” Brooks says. “You hear details in the kitchen that you don’t normally hear.”
Below you’ll find Gray Brooks’ pizza recipe. He recommends uses a Ken Forkish pizza dough recipe when cooking at home, which you can find a recipe for here. Alternately, you can purchase a pre-made dough ball on Toro’s online menu—and slip it in your freezer for next pizza night.
Gray Brook’s Bacon and Spinach Pizza
· Pizza dough (see attached recipe)
· 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
· 2 tablespoons butter
· 1 tablespoon chopped garlic
· 1 cup milk
· 1 teaspoon sea salt
· ½ teaspoon black pepper
· ¼ cup grated parmesan
· 1 Ib fresh, hardy variety spinach
· 4 slices of your favorite bacon, cut into 1/3s
· Zest from 1 lemon (best to zest directly onto pizza after baking)
· More parmesan for finishing
Make the Parmersan Bechamel
1. Over medium-low heat, sweat the garlic in the butter until soft, about 2 minutes
2. Stir in the flour and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes
3. Whisk in the milk and bring to a simmer, until just beginning to thicken
4. Remove from heat; stir in salt, pepper, and parmesan; set aside
Assemble the pizza
1. Preheat the oven and stone or baking sheet to it’s highest setting
2. Lay out bacon in a sauté pan and place in oven; you will want to cook it about halfway to crispy
3. While the bacon is rendering, stretch pizza dough on peel (or cutting board, cookie sheet, etc)
4. Ladle bechamel onto the dough, and using the ladle in spiraling motion, spread the bechamel over the expanse of the dough, leaving about a thumbs width at the edge free of sauce
5. Pile the spinach evenly over the bechamel covered pizza dough
6. Remove the bacon from the oven; using tongs (the bacon will be hot), scatter the par-cooked bacon across the spinach
7. (Optional—drizzle the rendered bacon fat over the spinach as well)
8. Depending on your dough recipe, bake pizza accordingly
9. Remove from oven; garnish with olive oil, sea salt, parmesan, and lemon zest
Contact deputy arts and culture editor Sarah Edwards at email@example.com.
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