Comments: We're going out on a limb here, but in America, when we grill, we grill. OK, there are people who use a rotisserie. There certainly are people who smoke (foods). And there are people who use a griddle or hot plate on their grill. But we think it is fair to say in general in the US, people light the charcoal or turn on the gas, let it heat up, and lay their food on a rack over flames or coals.
Outside the US, however, there is more variety in how people cook outdoors. We were delighted to find that so many dishes in Sizzle: Sensational Barbecue Food, by New Zealand author Julie Buiso, are cooked on a solid flat surface or griddle on the grill – and that Buiso simply expects you to own one. It apparently never occurred to her that your grill didn't come with a hot plate.
The Italians are not to be outdone, either. Cooking alla piastra translates to cooking on a flat stone over a hot fire. This piastra, endorsed by Mario Batali, is made from a special granite that will withstand the flames and heat of your grill, and provide even cooking heat.
Obviously you can cook foods that would otherwise fall through the grates, but the heat distribution of the stone opens your grill – and perhaps your consciousness – to foods you might not have grilled before. You can sear and cook seafood, meat, vegetables, and flatbreads, all of which take on the slightly smoky, grilled flavor that they are missing if you are forever cooking indoors. We were delighted with the foods we cooked on the piastra. In particular, chicken thighs were beautifully done and came out with a crisper skin than with our normal grilling method. We fried eggs on it and have done all sorts of non-Italian, non-Batali cooking on it, with great results.
The stone is scored on one side, to be used as a grill, but it is the other side, the flat side, that is the traditional surface of piastra cooking. Preheat the stone for 10 to 15 minutes and brush with oil to keep food from sticking. If you are used to using a charcoal grill or wood fire, you are certainly patient enough; if you use gas, you may have to exercise extra patience in preheating the grill stone. Cleaning is not necessary (although you can scrape off any residue while the stone is still hot), and it will become seasoned with time and use. The manufacturer wants you to protect the stone from contact with concentrated, direct flame, as it could cause cracks.
The stone is not huge, so you can't cook for an army on it, but it will seem huge if you need to get it out of the way to open up your entire grilling surface. You'll generally "store" it right in the grill, but if you have to move it out of the way, make sure it's not hot and that you put it in a safe place.
The stone comes with a few recipes from Batali's Italian Grill – Shrimp Rosemary, Piadina Dough, Pizza Dough, Schiacciata (think pizza with grapes, olive oil and fennel seeds), Beef Braciole (stuffed rolls of meat – a mainstay at street fairs) – but you may quickly find new uses for other recipes and dishes that you might never have thought of grilling before.