So you think you know how to make the perfect pizza? Think again.

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Forza Forni Executive Chef Mark Hopper preps pizza inside the company's test kitchen in Brewster. (image courtesy of Forza Forni)

Flour, water, salt and yeast.

On their own, these four ingredients aren’t much. But when combined under the right circumstances and with the right care, they’re transformational. Together, they become pizza dough.

“Pizza brings people together. Pizza is eternal,” says Mark Hopper, Executive Chef at Forza Forni, an Italian wood-fired cooking company headquartered in Brewster.

Hopper has spent much of his career making mouthwatering, life-altering pizza for people all over the United States. He was the founder and owner of Pizzeria Vignette, recognized as one of the most popular Neapolitan pizzerias in California’s Bay Area. These days, Hopper’s goal is to empower anybody who wants to learn how to make pizza.

Forza Forni Executive Chef Mark Hopper (image via Forza Forni)

From home cooks who want to own the neighborhood backyard entertaining game to restaurant entrepreneurs prepping to open the latest New York City hotspot, Hopper says there’s a place for all of them in his kitchen. At Forza Forni, Hopper runs courses covering all aspects of pizza making and production, cooking with fire, ingredients, skills and technique and general best practices.

“It’s all about hospitality and how you make people feel,” says Hopper. “I can relate to the guy who has five restaurants, and the guy who has five kids and wants to have a pizza oven in his backyard.”

Hopper’s approach is to meet every student at their level. Regardless of the abilities that attendees walk in with, he says what every student has in common is that by virtue of signing up they have admitted that there is something they don’t know or would like to know more about.

“They come in being a little bit uncomfortable. Our job is to make them comfortable, so the guard drops all the way down,” Hopper says. From there, he can start to fill in the knowledge gaps.

At a typical Forza Forni two-day course, the day starts with a meet-and-greet. Hopper gets a feel for each student and what their goals are. From there, the group moves on to what Hopper says is the most critical part of great wood-fired pizza making: building a fire. Even with perfect dough, the ability to build, manage and work the fire will determine whether someone is successful in turning out quality pizzas.

“If you can’t get the fire right, you’re selling yourself short,” Hopper says. “Just as dough needs proper time and temperature to develop flavor and texture through fermentation, the oven needs the same amount of care with the selection and storing of wood and maintaining that fire through your event.”

Unsurprisingly, with so much focus on the fire, the type of wood matters.
Recommended types vary based on geographic location. Hopper prefers hardwoods, like white birch for east coasters and almond for cooks on the west coast.

After participants have mastered the fires, they move on to what’s called “dough management,” which encompasses forming the dough, storing it, measuring it, dividing it, shaping it and spinning it. For spinning, Hopper’s technique involves advising students to channel their inner hula hooping skills.

With basic techniques down, the group heads outside to start practicing making pizzas from start to finish on Forza Forni’s ovens. They start in small batches, and then increase, working to see how many pizzas they can produce within an hour time period.

A pizza spread during one of Forza Forni's mobile catering courses. (image via Forza Forni)

Hopper says the goal of his classes is to make connections among people who are passionate about cooking. “People realize it’s a lot of legwork to open a business, and some people just want to entertain,” he says. As far as Hopper is concerned, having an outdoor wood-fired oven is the best form of entertaining.

“Any good party ends up in the kitchen. You might as well have your kitchen outside,” says Hopper. “Plus, it’s unpretentiously cool. You just get the fire going, have a glass of wine. Within an hour you could be baking pizzas.”

But what if you want to make the perfect pizza? Hopper says there’s no such thing. “If it makes you happy, and it makes your guests happy, it’s perfect.”

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