Most of us have dusted off the barbecue and begun thinking about the menu for the Memorial Day weekend meal that ushers in the summer grilling season.

Hamburgers? Ho. Hot dogs? Hum.

These days, patio parties with real panache feature pizza.

Sure, there are the lucky ducks with bona fide, wood-fired pizza ovens in their backyard; they've become such a hot commodity that the Ascent luxury apartment complex under construction in South San Jose will have one for its tenants. Less expensive, portable, propane-fueled pizza ovens are also going gangbusters at kitchen stores.

Fire up the barbecue. Grilled pizzas are the hautest trend for backyard parties these days. Photographed in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Tuesday, April 22,
Fire up the barbecue. Grilled pizzas are the hautest trend for backyard parties these days. Photographed in Walnut Creek, Calif., on Tuesday, April 22, 2014. (Mark DuFrene/Bay Area News Group)

But it's not necessary to lay out hundreds (or thousands) on fancy ovens to get great results. A humble grill can produce close-to-pizzeria quality pies for a fraction of the cost of going to a restaurant -- and a lot more hands-on fun. Charcoal gets closer because it imparts some char and smoky flavor, but gas grills work well, too.

"A grill is just an oven with an open flame on the bottom," says Stu McMullen, owner and instructor at the recently opened Bay Area BBQ and Grilling School on Treasure Island.

Long before it became trendy, McMullen began grilling pizzas out of necessity, while living in a cabin with no electricity in Vancouver, Washington. He ends most of his classes by showing students how simple it is to grill pizzas directly on the grate.

The key, McMullen says, is keeping the pizzas small ("no bigger than a dinner plate") and using oil with a high smoke point, such as peanut or grapeseed oil, on the dough. He uses an oiled cutting board or cookie sheet while stretching out the dough, then picks the dough up and places it on the grill, oiled side down and closes the lid.

Initially, the dough will stick, but after cooking a couple of minutes it will release so it can be scooted away from hot spots. Once it's golden, McMullen flips it back out onto the oiled cutting board cooked side up and puts on toppings before returning it to the grill for a couple of minutes to cook the other side and melt the cheese.

Although it's intimidating at first to put uncooked dough directly on the grill, it works surprisingly well.

"Both sides have a nice crisp dough," McMullen says. "The crispness can't be beat."

In his cookbook "Live Fire" (Chronicle, $35, 224 pages), celebrity chef Michael Chiarello suggests using a pizza stone on the grill. The bottom gets nice and crisp, but the dough retains more moisture, giving it good chew, which is more similar to a traditional pizza.

Using a stone allows you to make larger pizzas and top the pies before putting them on, but a peel -- a flat wooden spatula or shovel -- is a necessity for transferring the pizza to and from the stone.

When it comes to toppings, Chiarello likes to keep it seasonal and simple.

"I don't like things that are too heavy when you're grilling pizza, because when you cut it, if it's not perfectly crisp, you can have some slippage," he says.

He suggests making one ingredient the star, and one other, like cheese, playing a secondary role. Add no more than two supporting flavors. So his pizza with mushrooms and shallots, is grilled with a pinch of thyme and anchored to the crust with a light sprinkling of fontina cheese.

Grilled pizza lends itself well to parties and the design-your-own aspect is a definite crowd pleaser. One thing to keep in mind, if using McMullen's direct grill method, is to make sure all the toppings are cooked and ready to eat, since they're not going to cook for more than a minute or two once they're on the pizza.

In addition to more traditional toppings, provide seasonal vegetables, barbecued chicken or pulled pork (all done on the grill, of course) along with a variety of cheeses to get the creative juices flowing.

Offer grilled slices of good quality, crusty bread with lightly grilled tomatoes for bruschetta, or a larger pizza topped with prosciutto, arugula and parmesan for guests to nosh while they're creating their own masterpieces and waiting for their turn at the grill.

Chiarello suggests piadine as another appetizer option. It's essentially a grilled crust topped with a flavorful paste and salad. It's light enough so it won't fill everyone up before their own pizzas are ready.

After everyone has eaten, keep the theme going by offering a dessert pizza, perhaps one topped with the nearly unbeatable combination of chocolate-hazelnut spread and bananas.

Whether you use charcoal or gas, a pizza stone or direct grill contact, grilling pizzas is as much about the event as the food.

"It's an activity that's a community effort," Chiarello says. "We call it eatertainment; it's like dinner and a movie."

And everyone around the grill has a starring role.