Jason's Sicilian great-grandmother's cooking is legendary in his family, spoken of in slightly awed tones, remembered with tinges of mouth-watering nostalgia. Luckily, Jason's mom spent a lot of time with Noni (who was her grandmother-in-law) taking down recipes and notes on Noni's cooking. Recently she loaned me her collection of 31 of Noni's recipes, which I'm going to be transcribing and trying out.
Noni lived long enough that Jason has many fond memories of her food, and her pizza was one of his favorites -- so that's the recipe we tried first. For me, this recipe was a revelation: Noni used Crisco in her pizza dough, which makes perfect sense when you think about it. The fat keeps the dough tender, gives it a pleasant crackery crunchiness, and helps the dough to brown beautifully. I've put a little olive oil in pizza doughs before, and it has always been an improvement over fat-free doughs, but Noni's method yielded an excellent result very close to that of Jason's favorite New York-style pizza joints.
Another interesting fact about Noni's pizza dough is that it is a very wet dough. This was less surprising to me than the Crisco revelation, because I spent some time working in an artisan bakery when I started college and picked up a few tips from the bakers: wet dough yields a crispy crust. Ciabatta, for example, that airy rectangular "slipper bread" which is very crusty and usually dusted liberally with flour, is a very wet dough. So in Noni's dough, the wetness makes for a good crust, which is prevented from being tooth-shatteringly hard by the tenderizing fat. Brilliant.
The only downside of Noni's recipe is that it is a little on the bland side. She made her pizza as an appetizer before the main family meal, something to serves a little nosh while the family was still hanging out in the den, and probably began mixing the dough a little before everyone arrived. According to the recipe as transcribed by Marsha, Jason's mom, Noni would mix up the dough, let it rise for an hour, then shape and bake it. I did the same thing, but a longer rise time improves the flavor of bread doughs considerably, so the next time I make it I'm going to mix the dough in the morning, then put it in the fridge to rise throughout the day. This will give a chance for the flour to more fully absorb the water in the dough, and for the flavors to mature. If you try this, just be sure to bring it at least mostly back to room temperature before shaping and baking.
Since I didn't have an extra 12 hours to spare last night, I just added a little more salt to the dough than called for in the recipe. Now, adding more salt to a bread dough without making any other alterations can cause problems, because salt kills yeast and can slow down the rise time, screwing with the whole recipe. But in this case, I had no idea how much yeast I was supposed to be using anyway (the recipe calls for "one cake" but I have no idea how much that would be in teaspoons) so I went with a salt-to-yeast ratio that made sense to me based on my experience with mixing up bread dough on the fly. Also, I don't know if Noni used table or kosher salt, but I use kosher, and one teaspoon of kosher salt does not seem like enough to me.
If you'd like to try making pizza alla Noni, here's what I'd recommend:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus lots of extra for kneading and shaping
1/3 cup Crisco
1 tsp active dry yeast
1 to 2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup warm water
Combine the flour and Crisco in a bowl. Use your spoon or a fork to break the Crisco into chunks, then use your hands to rub the Crisco into the flour. You should end up with a sandy texture when the Crisco is incorporated. At this point, stir in the salt and yeast, then add the water and stir well, folding over the dough with the spoon. (Don't overwork it -- I think that the dough will have a better, lighter texture if the gluten doesn't develop too much. This is also why I used AP instead of bread flour, though you are of course free to experiment if you want a chewier crust.) Let the dough sit in a warm spot, covered, to rise for about an hour. (Or, if you're making the dough ahead of time, let it sit for about 15 minutes and then put it in the fridge, then take it out about 40 minutes before you plan on baking it to give it time to come back to room temperature.)
Preheat the oven to at least 400 degrees. If you like a darker crust, go with 450. If you have a pizza stone, give yourself extra time so that it can heat through. You won't be baking the dough directly on the stone -- it's too wet -- but if it's underneath the pan, it will help a great deal in getting a nice brown bottom crust. When the dough has risen, heavily flour your board (this is a WET dough, remember) then turn the dough out onto the board and knead it a little. I just folded it over a few times, then shaped it into a ball and turned it with my hands, gently stretching the "skin" of the dough. Let it rest for about 10-15 minutes, then grease a large sheet pan or pizza pan and begin shaping the dough. Using your hands, get the dough as thin as you can. It's a tender dough and easily torn, so be gentle.
Bake the dough until it is just beginning to brown -- until it is just done enough that you could eat it without it tasting raw. At this point, pull it out of the oven and put on whatever sauce and toppings you desire. Just make sure the toppings are pre-cooked (in the case of mushrooms, sausage, etc.) and either warm or at room temperature. Place the pizza back in the oven until the cheese is warm and bubbly. We used the broiler to get the cheese and crust well-browned, but this is optional.