I’d like to think I wasn’t the only person who, upon hearing that Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film was called Licorice Pizza, thought the movie might contain a quirky scene involving someone eating a licorice-topped pizza. Watching star Alana Haim glower and giggle through the trailer, I could easily imagine I was looking at a manic pixie licorice pizza–eating dream girl.
I was sadly mistaken: No one eats licorice, pizza, or any combination thereof at any point in Licorice Pizza. The phrase is actually a slangy way of referring to vinyl records, and it was the name of a record store chain in Southern California that Anderson remembers from his youth. (The store doesn’t appear in the movie either, but the words conjured the vibe he was looking for in a title.)
Once I had this explanation, I probably should have moved on. But some disappointment lingered within me: The idea of licorice pizza had captured my imagination, and I wasn’t ready to let it go. Maybe this was one of these gross-sounding combinations that’s actually gold? I decided to do what anyone in this situation would do: I would obtain—or make myself, if necessary, and it was—and eat my own licorice pizza.
This was not easy. The only actual example I could find of someone cooking something resembling licorice pizza was an-unrelated-to-the-movie video posted on YouTube by a man who runs a pizzeria in Michigan. Both the pizzeria and the person go by the moniker Fredi the PizzaMan. The pizza Fredi makes in the video—a simple mix of dough, sauce, cheese, and a sprinkling of black licorice, baked together in a pizza oven—didn’t look at all appealing to me. Plus, considering the video’s popularity (it’s only been viewed about 370 times, several of which were me) and Fredi himself’s lack of confidence in it (he doesn’t even offer it on his menu at his shop, he says in the video), I decided not to pursue his recipe.
Other pizzaiolos had trouble embracing my vision. Mark Bello, who teaches pizza-making classes at Pizza School NYC, which he owns and operates with his wife, Jenny, tried to be open-minded at first. “Something that we tell people is that pizza is a blank canvas for expression,” he offered. He told me stories of making pizzas inspired by bagels and lox and pizzas that used ingredients like sauerkraut, salami, and mustard, so I was hopeful that he would have a suggestion for how to pull off licorice pizza. But after considering it, he said he just couldn’t see it: “I don’t know how you would make that in a pizza where it would be good. Just being straight up.”
If you baked it (like our friend Fredi), Bello thought, the sugars would burn and it would turn bitter, so he was thinking a post-bake application. But even then, he thought the flavor would cancel out the rest of the pizza’s taste. “In pizza school, we say, ‘If it’s something that goes good with warm bread, it’ll be good on a pizza,’ ” Bello said. “But licorice and warm bread? I’m just not for it.” Perhaps this was a situation where less is more? “Maybe just make pizza and do a shot of ouzo or something?” Bello suggested, referring to the Greek liquor that has a similar flavor to black licorice.
I gently raised the idea to Bello that maybe red licorice would be more workable than black. In truth, I had been envisioning red licorice all along. Red licorice is one of my favorite candies, and I in no way would have set out on this journey if I knew it was going to involve black licorice, which is disgusting. When Fredi the PizzaMan said in his video, “Who doesn’t like black licorice?” I’d thought, “Um, everyone, Fredi the PizzaMan, everyone doesn’t like black licorice!”
Bello was quick to dismiss that notion. “If you’re talking about a record, I mean, records are black,” he said, acknowledging the rare exception. I had to admit he was right. If I wanted to make a licorice pizza that was true to the spirit of the movie and the phrase’s meaning, it should probably use black licorice. Not that Bello was encouraging that. “I’m not telling you that your idea of licorice on a pizza is absolutely a no-go kind of a thing, but at the moment, I’m drawing a bit of a blank.”
While it is disappointing to be told by a pizza-maker that your pizza concept is not viable, I pressed on. I thought maybe I would have to expand my definition of pizza. I came across an upstate New York–based business called the Chocolate Pizza Company, which does what it sounds like: It makes pizzas out of chocolate. They don’t use bread, sauce, or cheese, so they’re not technically pizzas, but they are flat and round and can have toppings, so that’s something, right?
Its owner, Ryan Novak, told me in an email how he would interpret the licorice pizza assignment: “We would use our gourmet milk chocolate blended with homemade English toffee, add a dash of licorice flavoring, pour it into a pizza pan, top it with red-black licorice candy bites and maybe a splash of rainbow sugar sprinkles for color. Seal it in cello and serve it in our custom pizza box.”
The chocolate pizza sounded pretty good, but I knew it wasn’t a real pizza. Luckily, before I could despair too much, another pizzaiolo got back to me. Tony Gemignani, whose email signature identifies him as a 13-time world pizza champion and who is also the author of The Pizza Bible, told me he had a dessert pizza recipe that uses licorice that he could share with me. “I have more of a red licorice pizza than a black licorice pizza, I just wanted to get that one set straight,” he warned me, describing it as a pizza he used to make for kids. When I asked him about the possibility of making a black licorice pizza, he, too, had trouble imagining one that would actually taste good. “You could go down a pasta route [and try] a dried licorice, not necessarily a black licorice but a standard licorice that you’d buy,” he said, but admitted, “it’s one of those recipes that you can do and it’s cool to kind of see, but nobody would like it.” So dessert pizza it would be: It wasn’t black licorice, so it wouldn’t be very rock ’n’ roll, but it was a bona fide licorice pizza recipe, and I wasn’t about to look a pizza champion gift horse in the mouth.
Gemignani sent me the recipe and I started to gather the ingredients, but in the meantime, I decided that if I cared about the integrity of my project, I had to try the thing I’d envisioned at the beginning of all this: eating normal pizza with licorice on top of it, and because of the whole vinyl thing, I had to try it with black licorice, not just red. I ordered a small pizza and picked up five types of licorice: Twizzlers, Red Vines, Australian red licorice, Australian black licorice, and Smart Sweets red twists, a low-sugar licorice candy that I sometimes buy because I am very susceptible to both diet culture and nice packaging.
The pizza I got was a typical New York cheese pizza, which is to say beautiful and perfect and a shame to sully by covering in licorice. I decided I was allowed to eat one plain slice before embarking on my project, a gesture of respect to whom exactly I’m not sure, maybe the pizza gods. Next, I cut up some Australian red licorice like pieces of pepperoni, as Gemignani had advised me to when we spoke on the phone.
I knew I liked pizza and liked red licorice, so I didn’t think it could be all that bad, but everyone’s lack of enthusiasm for the idea of putting licorice on pizza had gotten into my head, so I braced myself. But you know what? It was … fine! Completely fine. The cheese overpowers the licorice, so you barely taste it, making the exercise sort of pointless. But bottom line: It’s fine to put red licorice on your pizza. I don’t intend to start any sort of green-peas-in-guacamole controversy when I say this, but it really is fine.
I repeated the process with Twizzlers: similar results. The most annoying part is cutting up the licorice, which doesn’t slice easily. Actually, I take that back: The most annoying part is that licorice doesn’t really stick well to pizza: It’s constantly falling off your slice, and then you have to put it back on and just hope it stays there long enough to maneuver it into your mouth. After Twizzlers, I tried pizza with sliced Red Vines, and here is where things get a little interesting: Red Vines might actually be better on pizza than they are alone. I confess there is some anti–Red Vine bias informing that opinion. And you do still have to deal with that bad Red Vines aftertaste when they’re on pizza.
It was finally time to try the black licorice on pizza. Opening the bag of Australian black licorice, I smelled it and briefly regretted my whole life. I prepared myself for the worst, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be: Once again, the cheese mostly overpowered the taste; the smell was the worst part of it. But it was hard to ignore how much better the pizza would be if I simply shook the black licorice off of it. The pizza-makers I spoke to were correct: It wasn’t good. I finished all the other slices, but not this one. I also decided I had been through enough and had earned the privilege not to try the low-sugar licorice, even though I bet it would have at least been better than the black.
A few days later, it was time to bake the licorice pizza recipe Gemignani had sent me. I had never actually made a pizza before, but he assured me, “this is a very easy pizza”—a good starter pizza, if you will. Here are the instructions:
By Tony Gemignani
9–13 oz dough ball
50/50 blend flour and semolina in a bowl for dusting
1½ oz whole milk shredded mozzarella
3½ oz marshmallow crème
1 oz chopped red licorice
Small-to-medium size bowl
Pizza stone or steel
12–14 in wide pizza peel
Pizza wheel or knife
Vegetable peeler or cheese plane
1. Place your pizza stone or steel on the middle rack of your oven. Pre-heat your oven to 525 F for one hour.
2. Dust your dough in the flour/semolina blend.
3. Shape and stretch your dough into a 10–12 inch circle.
4. Place a piece of 12-inch parchment paper onto a pizza peel. Place your dough on the parchment paper. Evenly spread your mozzarella, leaving a ½-in border. Carefully place/slide your pizza onto the stone or steel in your oven, keeping it on the parchment paper.
5. Cook your pizza until it’s slightly golden brown (approximately 8–9 minutes). Carefully take your pizza out of the oven and dispose of the parchment paper.
6. Spoon on the marshmallow crème leaving a ½-in border.
7. Cut your pizza into desired slices. Add the licorice, nonpareil sprinkles, and freshly shaved chocolate. Serve and enjoy warm.
I didn’t have all the equipment he’d listed, so I gave my co-worker who cooks the recipe to look over and asked if she thought I needed a pizza stone. She said I’d be fine without one (I could use a cookie sheet) and also pronounced the recipe “absolutely disgusting.” I had my doubts too, particularly when it came to combining the cheese with all the sweet stuff, but Gemignani said, “The reason why it has a light amount of cheese on it is it keeps it moist and it prevents it from cracking in an oven.” He said that any licorice would work—it didn’t have to be Red Vines—and I could also melt the licorice down and drizzle it onto the pizza if I wanted to, but I didn’t ask him to elaborate on how one melts down licorice. He also advised me to go to an Italian grocer and ask them for a ball of pizza dough, which I didn’t know you could do—how delightful! “One ball of dough, please!”—and which I’m glad I did, because learning to make dough from scratch? Did I really need to put myself through that?
I was alarmed by the instruction to turn my oven up to 525 degrees; I hadn’t known they went that high. Mine didn’t, it turned out, so I set it to 500. Before I started, I watched a couple YouTube videos about how to stretch dough—once again, feeling pretty ridiculous that I was learning to stretch pizza dough for so dumb an endeavor—but I didn’t do a very good job, because my pizza came out with five gigantic bubbles on it. This also didn’t matter that much (maybe this recipe really was idiot-proof) once I managed to get the pizza out of the oven. (One of the bubbles was so big that it was stuck to the rack above it.) I covered them all in fluff. I should have cut my pizza up then, as the recipe said to, but instead I didn’t read carefully enough and put the sprinkles, chocolate, and licorice on it first. It looked pretty good, I thought, and I took some pictures, but then when I actually cut it up, it looked gross, because the chocolate had melted and things weren’t really staying in place. The licorice—I used Red Vines and some Australian red licorice—stayed stuck to the pizza better than on the pizzeria pie I’d ordered but still not very well.
How did it taste? Pretty good, honestly! I thought back to Bello telling me that “If it’s something that goes good with warm bread, it’ll be good on a pizza,” and he was right: This was basically just warm bread with sugar on it. I served it to three people, and they all agreed: Not disgusting! Kind of good! All of them had the same note, though: It would be better without the licorice.