How Do You Get Perfectly Shaped Pizza? I Worked in a Pizzeria for a Night to Find Out.

And does tossing the dough make a difference, or is it just for show?

Published Mar. 24, 2022.

I love pizza. It’s my favorite food, and I could happily spend the rest of my life eating it for every meal. So would it surprise you to find out I almost never make it myself?

Why wouldn’t I make my favorite food more often? Simply put, it’s just never as good as it is at my favorite local pizzeria, and that starts with the dough. I can never shape it correctly, and it always looks like a misshapen mess. Plus, I always wanted to toss my pizza dough in the air like you see in the windows of pizza shops, but I never knew how.

So I went to a pizza restaurant to learn from those who do it every single day.

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Dragon Pizza is a pizza restaurant in Davis Square in Somerville, Massachusetts, that serves up everything from classic pies like cheese and pepperoni, to unique flavor combinations like maple, bacon, and cheddar. They’re serving up pizzas for 53 hours every week, so these folks really know their stuff.

brick building with sign that reads Dragon Pizza
The exterior of Dragon Pizza in Somerville, Massachusetts.

I was warmly welcomed in by owner Charlie Redd, along with two of his business partners, Antonio Reyes and Jose Vilorio. Charlie, after putting some Fleetwood Mac on the cassette player that controls the restaurant’s music, walked me through their process and got me tossing some dough.

In the basement, there’s a big industrial mixer where they make their dough fresh every day. (Their dough uses similar ingredients and timing as our Thin-Crust Pizza recipe.) Charlie was adamant on the importance of using high-gluten flour in your dough and then resting it in the refrigerator for at least 24 hours. This long proof time relaxes the gluten, which makes it easier to stretch.

Once the dough is done in the refrigerator, it’s oiled and then brought to room temperature. The dough fills with gas bubbles, and becomes perfectly stretchy.

Once I learned about the dough, Charlie began to stretch. I watched him start to form big mounds of dough into circles with his hand, almost instinctively, like he was driving a car. I looked around and noticed there wasn’t a rolling pin in sight.

I asked him if rolling out the dough was an option. He looked me straight in the eyes, shook his head, and told me no. 

“We never roll,” Charlie said. “Rolling creates a totally different texture. The stretching keeps the gluten strands in a relaxed state.”

Also, when you stretch with a rolling pin, that rolling motion presses out all of the gas that has formed within the dough. This takes your dough from airy and light to tough and unenjoyable. That gas is also essential to the formation of crust and those beautiful bubbles within it that make pizza dough so airy. 

I worked side-by-side with Charlie, Antonio, and Jose as they shaped their dough into sixteen-inch pies. All three used the same foundation of steps but prefer slightly different techniques or conditions, depending on what works for them. For example, Charlie said he prefers his dough a little warmer, while Antonio likes it a little cooler.

But that’s okay, because Charlie drove home the point that stretching and tossing dough is about two things: feel and practice. That is the only way to get it. So that’s what I did. I practiced.

When you've done this a hundred-thousand times, a million times, your mind and your body begin to work together.
Charlie Redd

After stretching and shaping dough alongside them for almost an hour, I was able to fly solo. In fact, I was on the production line for nearly an hour and half of dinner service. I was definitely slow, but my speed and the quality of my dough started to pick up as time went on.

slice of pizza on white paper plate
A piece of one of my pizzas I was particularly proud of. This thick, almost windy looking piece of crust is also called “the whalers rope.”

And as for the tossing? Does it actually serve a purpose, or is it all for show? The answer is a mix of yes and no. You can get a perfectly nice stretch on a dough without tossing, but it does help stretch it faster. (This is good if you’re making a lot of pizzas in a short amount of time, like Charlie and his team is.) The spinning in the air also helps make the pizza more circular.  Between Charlie, Antonio, and Jose, some toss more than others. In fact, Jose has earned the nickname “Mariposa” (which means “butterfly”) because he really lets the dough fly.

Here are the stretching steps I learned from my three pizza Jedis during my time at Dragon Pizza, so you too can pizza like a pro:

Step 1: The Initial Stretch and Forming the Crust

After flouring your surface, use your fingertips to press along the sides of the round and form the crust around the edges. 

Then using the outside edges of each hand, shimmy them along the crust, gently stretching the perimeter of the dough in the process. You want to leave the middle part of the dough thicker, as gravity will naturally stretch it in the next step.

Step 2: The Big Stretch

Once the dough is stretched into about an eight-inch circle, it’s time to pick up the dough. 

I used a trick that Antonio showed me to kickstart the stretching process: toss the dough back and forth between your open palms. Be careful not to drop it, this took me a few tries to get confident!

Next, drape the dough over your knuckles and slide your hands one at a time along the edge, turning the dough as you go, gently stretching it out. Gravity does a lot of the work in stretching it as it spins.

You want to work relatively quickly as you stretch. If you hesitate or stay on one spot too long, it’ll get thinner than the rest of the dough, and may tear. 

If you notice a really thin spot or you get a tear, don’t worry. Continue stretching the dough and skip over the spot. Once you’re done stretching, repair the hole by pinching it closed using the dough around it.

A great trick they taught me when it came to checking for consistency and thin spots was to hold the dough up to the light. When you can see light shine through the windows of the gluten strands, you’ll know it’s stretched enough. Once your whole pizza has consistent light coming through, you know you have an even dough.

Step 3: Let That Dough Fly, Mariposa

If you feel comfortable, give that dough a toss after a few stretches with your hands. Using your fists, toss it up with a spinning motion, and catch it back on your knuckles.

We’ve established this step isn’t imperative, but it is helpful for identifying those thinner spots in the stretched dough because you can see the whole pizza against the light, versus when you check it on your knuckles, and you have to keep turning it to check.

It took me until almost the end of my time at Dragon Pizza to feel comfortable enough to toss a dough in the air (almost 20 pies later). So if you don’t feel ready, don’t worry, just keep practicing. Hey, it’s a great excuse to eat more pizza. Who can say no to that?

Charlie and I after a successful day of tossing and stretching dough.

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