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When Pizza Gets All Dressed Up

It was the day after Thanksgiving, and the last thing on my mind was food. I would have been content to pick at leftovers for dinner.

But when my husband's uncle walked through the door with a stack of large pizza boxes, I was on his heels along with about a dozen family members who appeared simultaneously in the cozy Connecticut kitchen with renewed appetites. Despite two days of cooking and eating, every single one of us had room for pizza.

Pizza's appeal is understandable: It's inexpensive, goes well with beer and sporting events and is just a phone call — or a click — away. It's available in the wee hours for students who are too busy "studying" to leave their dorm rooms. It's customizable, providing a cheesy, doughy common ground where carnivores, vegetarians and picky eaters can be sated, if not with a shared pie, then at least with a shared tab from Domino's.

So if a large two-topping with breadsticks and a free two-liter of Pepsi makes such a fine meal, why I am tossing around recipes for pizza with avocado and grape-gorgonzola pizzettes? Because getting creative with unconventional ingredients means infinite ways to enjoy one of the world's most appealing foods.

It was only a few years ago that I realized the possibilities beyond cheese and pepperoni in my own kitchen. The concept of gourmet pizza can be traced to a diminutive Austrian chef who opened a restaurant in Beverly Hills in 1982. There, celebrities fawned over each other and — if they weren't on a master cleanse diet that day — also fawned over the food.

The Austrian, Wolfgang Puck, hired Ed LaDou, a chef whose creativity with novel California ingredients made a splash on the food scene and on pizza. LaDou went on to consult on the original menu for California Pizza Kitchen, the chain that helped bring gourmet pizza to the masses. LaDou's barbecue chicken pizza is still California Pizza Kitchen's most popular pie and a mainstay in grocers' freezers across the country.

Along with the joys of working in a cubicle and dealing with unscrupulous landlords, I discovered gourmet pizza post-college. My now-husband and I loved to go for pizza at Figs, a small restaurant in Boston's Beacon Hill with a wood-fired oven and a 40-minute wait for a table.

Their prosciutto and fig pizza with feta cheese opened my eyes to pizza's potential. Since eating there every Friday night was hardly practical, I started making pizza in my tiny apartment kitchen-slash-bedroom.

I devised a dough recipe that I've tweaked over the years to suit my taste. My ideal crust is thin, but not cracker-like, dusted with cornmeal and full of flavor from honey and some whole-wheat flour. Thanks to a food processor, the dough is ready to begin its first rise in about 10 minutes.

My gourmet creations started as an alternative to expensive restaurant meals, but soon became my pies of choice for every occasion and the standard by which all pizza experiences were judged.

Why order a pizza with barely recognizable fried eggplant when I could make my own with fresh roasted vegetables? Why confine pizza to dinner when it makes a perfect weekend breakfast topped with runny eggs and Canadian bacon? Why stick to red sauce when you can have the candy-like flavor of roasted garlic?

Why indeed. Homemade pizza can be a canvas on which to try new flavor combinations and ingredients. After all, it's just pizza. It's easy as pie.

One day, after years of avoiding Papa John, Mama Celeste and their entire extended family, life circumstances and a really good coupon led my husband and me to call out for pizza. We got classic pepperoni with perfectly tender-crisp crust, and it was good. Papa John finally found his way back into my eating life, and I have made my peace with him.

I realized that it's pointless to compare good takeout pizza with my homemade pizza because they are two entirely different breeds. Fast-food pizza isn't made for Serrano ham and piquillo peppers, but that doesn't mean it doesn't deserve a place at my table every once in awhile.

If you aren't well acquainted with yeast, pizza is the best introduction to bread baking. Since you will be making the crust yourself, you won't have to settle for the "enriched," or processed, white flour used in commercial pizza dough. Instead, create better flavor and add more nutrients by experimenting with whole grain flours. That way, your homemade pizza can qualify as a healthy, everyday meal instead of an occasional treat. It's also the perfect vehicle for cooking outside your comfort zone by trying new cheeses and toppings that can change with the seasons.

Lest you become completely smitten with your gourmet creations, always remember that the best pizza is the one shared with people you love in a warm kitchen, whether you make it yourself or leave it to Little Caesar.

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Julie O'Hara