I’ve never met anyone who didn’t like pizza. This economic migrant from impoverished Naples is the epitome of the American dream: popularised by the Italian community, adapted to suit new world tastes and then exported around the world, it’s the ultimate immigrant success story.
Of course, Italians can’t take all the credit for what is quite simply the world’s best snack; as the Oxford Companion to Food points out, the linguistic link between pizza and pitta is surely no coincidence – topped breads have been popular around the Mediterranean since classical times, and Etruscans were baking schiacciata in the Tuscan region over 2,000 years ago. The modern conception of pizza, however, is largely based on the Neapolitan version – not as crisp as the Roman variety, the base should be soft and pliable, yet charred and chewy around the edge.
Far from the embarrassment of toppings loaded on to the deep-dish pizza pies of Chicago, the true Neapolitan pizza has the mere whisper of a garnish to set off its freshly baked charms. The city’s famous Da Michele pizzeria opened in 1870, with just one thing on the menu: marinara – tomatoes, garlic and herbs. After Queen Margherita visited the region, 19 years later, it grudgingly expanded its offering to include the new trend – tomatoes, mozzarella and basil, and so it remains today: the only nod to modern excess is a doppio mozzarella.
Pizza, as the American food writer Jeffrey Steingarten discovered in his quest for the perfect version, is a creature of the heat: the Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (pdf) insists that, to earn its seal of approval, they must be baked on the floor of a wood-fired oven, at 485°C.
Sadly, most of us don’t have one of these knocking around in a corner of the kitchen, so I’m going to be working within the necessary limitations of the average home cook, on the basis that, although the results will never be as good as the pizzas at Da Michele’s, they will almost certainly be far better than a pizza bought chilled at the supermarket, or which has spent 15 minutes steaming gently in a box on the back of a scooter.
Giorgio Locatelli explains in Made in Italy that pizza has to have “the perfect balance between a thin crisp base and a softer garnish, which is why you have to eat it within 5–6 minutes of it coming out of the oven, or it will be soggy and spoilt”. This he says, is why, in Italy, pizza comes from the bakers, or street vendors, “not even if they threatened you with six years in prison, would you eat a takeaway pizza delivered on a motorbike!” Case closed.
The language of flours
The Associazione Vera Pizza Napoletana (hereafter to be known as AVPN) is typically strict on this point, specifying finely milled 00 flour – although what it doesn’t point out (assuming, possibly, that anyone even pretending to authenticity would know) is that it comes in different strengths: pizza flour, as its sometimes known in Italy, is 00 with a higher gluten content than that used for pastry, and so on.
This is worth knowing – although, not if you’re using the recipe from Italian cookery bible, The Silver Spoon, which calls for plain flour (preferably Italian type 00), suggesting the milling, rather than the strength, is what informs that preference. The dough is tacky and difficult to handle, but the finished result is good: chewy, crunchy on the underside, and with a pleasant flavour.
The pizzette recipe in Locatelli’s Made in Italy, meanwhile, opts for strong white bread flour (in his restaurants, he says, they use Italian extra strong W300 P/L 0.55, but this isn’t readily available outside its homeland). As he observes, the dough is “very soft and sticky”, to the extent that I find his folding technique difficult, and, once baked, the pizza is, although tasty, rather tough – there’s no meltingly soft middle here.
River Cottage baker Daniel Stevens uses an equal mix of strong and plain white flour, in an echo of Locatelli’s suggested alternative of 00 and strong bread flour. It’s quite fluffy, even when I defy instructions and roll it out thinner than the 5mm specified, but definitely softer in texture than my previous efforts.
The River Cafe Classic Italian Cookbook goes out on a limb with a recipe borrowed from California’s Chez Panisse, which uses a rye flour sponge, left to ferment for about half an hour before being combined with a strong flour dough. This one seems distinctly bready and heavy to me, and the rye gives it an unwelcome wholesome flavour. It sticks out like a sore thumb; this is pizza, California hippy style.
Jamie Oliver suggests a mix of strong flour and semolina – the latter apparently gives the dough “an authentic flavour and texture”. Mine turns out a bit like a cracker however; undoubtedly tasty as a snack food, but not terribly Neapolitan.
Heston Blumenthal, on his own quest for perfection, plumps for 100% pizza flour (aka strong 00) – and makes a small batch of dough the day before, which, due to the longer fermentation time, has had time “to really develop flavour”. Adding this to the mix certainly gives the base a more assertive, slightly tangy character. It has a good texture too: chewy around the edge, distinctly more yielding in the centre.
I decide that, as I’m after a soft base, with a slight crunch to it, strong 00 flour is the way to go – and I’ll keep Jamie’s semolina to dust the base with, to add a bit of interest to the texture.
A state of ferment
Jamie’s recipe is the quickest of the lot; the dough rests for a mere 15 minutes before dividing and rolling, and I wonder if this could be to blame for its failure to rise, and slightly anodyne flavour. As far as I can tell, the longer the ferment, the more complex the flavour of the base – I’m not looking for something that’s going to compete with the topping, but, as it’s the principal element of the dish, it should be able to stand alone if necessary, with perhaps just a little olive oil and salt.
Twenty-four hours seems a little excessive, although it won’t harm the finished product, and, after a little experimentation with a batch of dough, I decide four hours is sufficient to send my bases out in the world with a robust flavour, and enough rise to ensure a beautifully light crust. (Sourdough pizzas, as practiced by Brixton’s Franco Manca, are trendy right now, and with good reason: the flavours are superb, but I’m given to understand that not everyone has a starter hanging around in their fridge.)
The AVPN permits only four ingredients in Neapolitan pizza dough: water, salt, yeast and flour. In fact, it goes as far as to specifically outlaw “all types of fat”. Locatelli adds extra virgin olive oil, and the River Cafe use milk as well. I find these make the dough too soft to work with however: pizza dough ought to be elastic enough to stretch under its own weight (given that’s how the professionals shape it), but the Made in Italy one is seriously hard to handle. I decide to save the oil for the topping instead: in theory, the dough should have enough flavour without it.
Heston adds malt syrup to his dough, which stumps me, until I discover that this is quite common in Italy – it simply helps the crust to brown, and sugar is often substituted if malt is unavailable. I find it in a health food shop, but given my limited skills as a pizzaiolo, the pizza’s aesthetic appearance is the least of my worries, so I leave this out too. In line with the AVPN’s principles, if not their recipe, I’m trying my hardest to keep things simple.
Hot hot heat
As previously mentioned, the insurmountable hurdle faced by the home baker is their oven – they simply aren’t hot enough. However, there are things you can do to help it out. To mimic the floor of a wood oven, Heston preheats an empty pan, and then slides the pizza on to the red hot base before putting it under the grill. I burn myself twice while attempting this, and, although there’s more authentic charring on the sides, I find it’s all too easy to overcook the top while waiting for the base to harden with this technique.
Better, I think, is a pizza stone, or (and more cheaply), a terracotta saucer, heated in the oven (which must, I’m afraid, go on about an hour before you want to cook, turned as high as it will go – the ingredients for pizza may be cheap, but the fuel sadly isn’t.) I’ve also heard good things about pizzas cooked on the floor of AGAs, but, tickled as I am by the concept of a Neapolitan peasant dish coming out of a rural British stove, I can’t vouch for this personally.
It’s important to add the toppings as soon as possible before cooking, so they don’t make the dough soggy, especially if you’re using mozzarella, and to slide the pizza as quickly as you can on to the hot surface (which is another reason why dusting the bottom with semolina makes sense). Then all you can do is wait and pray – and get ready with the plates.
Pizza is well worth making at home: it’s easy, fun, and perfect to tear into with your fingers. All you need is a hot oven and a light and flavoursome dough – the rest is entirely up to you.
Makes 6–8 depending on size
500g pizza flour (or half 00 flour and half strong white flour)
10g fresh yeast (or 7g instant dried, made up as on packet)
½ tsp sugar
320ml warm water
1 tsp salt
Your chosen toppings
Olive oil and semolina flour, to serve
1. Mash together the yeast and sugar and leave for 1 minute. Stir into the water, then add to the flour and mix in a food processor on the lowest speed for about 4 minutes, until it comes together into a soft dough. Add the salt and then turn the speed up slightly and mix for another 4 minutes. Alternatively, mix them together with a wooden spoon, then turn the dough out on to a work surface, add the salt, and knead for 10 minutes.
2. Put the dough into a large, lightly oiled bowl, and turn over to coat. Cover with a damp cloth, or cling film, and leave in a warm place for four hours.
3. Divide the dough into satsuma-sized pieces and roll into balls on the worksurface using the palm of your hand. Put on a lightly-oiled baking tray, cover and store somewhere cool until you’re ready to cook (if you don’t want to use it all, the dough should keep at this point for about a fortnight if properly sealed, but don’t divide it up until you’re going to use it).
4. Turn the oven to its highest setting, and add your seasoned (a new stone should come with seasoning instructions) pizza stone, terracotta or heavy baking tray. Allow to heat for about an hour to make sure there are absolutely no cold spots.
5. Dust a worksurface with a little flour and put a ball of dough on to it. Flatten it using your hand, then knock the air out of it with your fingertips. Lift it up on to your fingertips and rotate it, stretching it out as you go until it’s as thin as possible, leaving a thicker ring of dough around the edges.
6. Slide on to a rimless baking tray or pizza paddle dusted with semolina, and, working as quickly as possible, add the toppings and a drizzle of olive oil. Slide on to the hot surface and cook for about 8 minutes, keeping an eye on them, until crisp and golden. Devour immediately.
Do you prefer thin and crispy Roman style pizzas, soft and chewy Neapolitan ones, or the hefty American versions – and what do you like to top them with? Has anyone any top tips for success, or sourdough recipes they’d like to share … and will anyone admit that, actually, ham and pineapple is a pretty good combination?