Secrets of pizza-making

by Mirella Facchin

Disclaimer: I have no familiarity with groceries abroad, so some denominations may make no sense at all: I tried, wherever possible, to describe what I meant to allow readers to source the right product, whatever it might be called.

Pizza is a deceivingly simple dish which dates back to the Roman era: Virgil writes in the Aeneid of a threat by the Arpie (evil winged monsters) whereby Aeneas would suffer so much hunger to eat even their “mensae” which were the dough discs distributed instead of plates; once finished and being soaked with sauces and condiments dripping from food, they would be given as food to servants: according to some historian, this is the origin of the pizza we know today.

I had my share of discussions with American friends who genuinely though pizza was invented in the States, but there are XVIII century Italian authors who wrote about pizza as an established, well-known Neapolitan dish.

Finally, the word itself comes from the same germanic roots as “pezzo” and “piece” as well as “bissen” and its English equivalent “to bite” in all likelihood dating back to the Longobardian Kingdom (around VIII Century).

Naples or Rome?

Although the pizza Napoletana is more well-known (thin central disc with a fat border which could also be ricotta-stuffed), there is a very old variant called Romana which is thicker all around and usually sold in rectangular rather than circular servings. Given the tradition goes back to Rome (and not Naples) one should not discount the Romana.

Whatever your preference, the dough is the heart of any pizza, but it so happens the two doughs are very different in preparation and ingredients, so you got to decide which one you will prepare from the get-go.

The two other ingredients that require careful selection are the mozzarella and the tomato, where obviously the adherence to the standard may be limited by their commercial availability.

Flours come in many varieties, but lately a trend is emerging whereby they are classified according to Refinement (from totally refined to whole wheat: Type 00, 0, 1, 2 and WW) and Strength (representing its ability to withstand long leavening, i.e. the gluten level, from below W180 to W360 and above).

Neapolitan dough requires a medium strength flour, while the Romana dough uses the much stronger Manitoba flour (W350+).

Pizza napoletana

  • 750g of T1 W260 flour (if you can’t find Type1, you can use the more common Type0, replacing some with an equivalent amount of whole-wheat)
  • 450ml of water (20-22 °C)
  • 100g of whole-wheat flour
  • 10g of powdered malt or a tablespoon of acacia’s honey (or other not flavored honey)
  • 15g of dried mother yeast
  • 40ml of extra-virgin olive oil
  • 20g of salt
  • 300g of tomato pulp (this is bought in cans, the difference with sauce being it’s a little thicker)
  • 400g of mozzarella filone (regular mozzarella or buffalo mozzarella have too much water in it; despite its processed aspect, this is actually the most appropriate kind)

In a big bowl mix the malt, yeast, whole-wheat flour and all the water; stir with your hands until the mixture is homogeneous; cover with a towel and let it rest for 1 hour in a warm oven (pre-heat to 30°C and turn off). When you take it out, the surface of the mix should be uneven, indicating that the leavening agent has been properly activated.

Add the flour and use your kneader to incorporate (yes, this can also be done by hand, but…); after 5 mins or so at speed 1, add the oil and AT THE VERY END, the salt (should be the very last ingredient you add); continue kneading at speed 2 for another 10 minutes or so until the mix is “incordato” (no idea what’s the English for it, the meaning is that the bowl is completely clean and all the dough is on the kneading hook).

Grease the inside of the bowl with a little oil, make up your dough in a ball and put it at the bottom, cover with the towel and put again to rest in the warm oven (see above) for 2 hours.

Remove the towel, cover the bowl with film and let it rest in your fridge for 24 hours.

Take it out of the fridge and let it reach ambient temperature for another hour, then divide it in as many pieces as you have pans (this amount of dough is enough for two 24x36cm pans).

For a rectangular shape (I have included this shape even though not very popular as it’s a bit easier to manipulate):

  • Grease generously the pans with oil and spread the dough WITH YOUR FINGERS (don’t use a rolling pin !) until it fills the pan leaving about half an inch of space all around; the dough being rather elastic, you may have to do this twice, waiting 5-10 minutes between the two.
  • While the dough rests another fifteen minutes, you prepare the toppings: put the tomato in a small pot, season with salt, pepper one teaspoonful of sugar and a tablespoon of oil and let it simmer for 5 minutes. Spread evenly on the dough, two or three tablespoons per pan should suffice, but this is according to taste. Cut finely the filone and spread it according to taste.

If you’d rather have the classical round shape:

  • flour your pastry board, cut away some dough (this amount should make three pies) spread it with your fingers, then add the tomato, minced filone and other toppings according to your taste. (*)
  • Place the pizza shovel flush with the dough; have someone hold it still for you, or use your belly; grab the borders and with a swift continuous movement, slide it on the shovel (it will deform when you pull, but the dough is elastic enough to easily regain its cirular shape); open the hot oven, place the shovel at its center, then jerk it back to leave the pizza inside.

Pre-heat the oven to 220 °C (more if you use a stone slab base), place your pizzas as low as possible; cooking should not take more than 5-7 minutes. Serve immediately.

Pizza Romana

  • 1kg Manitoba flour
  • 800ml of warm (20-22°C) water
  • 25g (one block) of fresh brewer’s yeast
  • 20g of salt
  • 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil
  • enough durum wheat flour to flour the pastry board

Put the Manitoba in a very large bowl, melt the yeast in the water and pour it all on the flour. Mix with a wooden spoon until you get a sticky, semi-liquid batter: this is right, resist the temptation to add more flour !

Add the oil and only when everything else is perfectly mixed up, the last ingredient, salt. Mix until absorbed.

The compound will NOT look homogeneous or dough-like, but that’s the way it should be, don’t worry. Cover with a towel and leave it to rest for 15-20 minutes (avoid cold drafts).

Grease your hands (the mix is sticky!), spread the mix on the floured pastry board, then fold it: this means folding it in half (the mix is very soft at this stage, you might help yourself with a large spatula), then turn it around 90° and fold it again. The dough should be folded 5 times in total – this is very important as it’s the equivalent of kneading.

Put the mix back in its bowl which should be large enough to contain at least twice the amount, cover with film and put in the lowest shelf of your fridge for 24 hours.

When you take it out the next day, the surface should show big bubbles; spread it in the two well-greased pans WITH YOUR FINGERS (not a rolling pin) leaving half an inch all around, and let it rest another hour.

The official protocol allows for almost any conceivable topping on the Romana: tomato, cheese, anchovies, vegetables, anything (bar the pineapple!) remember that ham or salami is best added AFTER cooking. If you use tomato and mozzarella, see my notes above for the Napoletana

True pizza Romana is rarely done in round pies, and is often sold “al trancio” (in slices); it will be about 3/4 of an inch thick and therefore should bake as described for the Napoletana, only longer (10-15 mins). Serve immediately.

(*) Note on toppings: it’s pointless to argue which is best, but there is one which is the Queen of all pizza toppings: tradition goes that the “Margherita” was so named in 1889 to honour of HRH Margherita di Savoia, then Queen of Italy, with the three colours of the Italian flag: red (tomato), white (mozzarella) and green (basil). Now you know.

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