Italians – or to be more specific, Neapolitans – invented it. Americans now think they own the rights. Give or take a few misguided individuals, everyone in the world loves it.
And for something as simple as a few toppings on a piece of baked dough, it sure arouses some strong emotions.
Let’s establish a few ground rules. A slab of thick, baked dough, three feet in diameter, with something gooey woven into its plaited crust, piled high with a dozen different, clashing toppings and cooked in an electric oven isn’t a proper pizza.
And to stick a pineapple ring on top of this concoction and call the end product ‘A Hawaiian’ is an affront to Nature.
And to Hawaii.
A pizza, in case you’re wondering, is – yes – a lump of dough made of flour, yeast and water, then not rolled out, but kneaded, caressed and whirled round the head of the pizza-maker – or pizzaiolo – until it’s about 30 cms wide and certainly no more than a few millimetres thick before the toppings get added.
And when we’re talking toppings, a maximum of four is a pretty good number.
The classic is the Margherita, an Italian-flag combo of tomato, mozzarella and basil named in honour of Queen Margherita during her visit to Naples in 1889.
Probably true to say that the tomato/mozzarella/basil topping was already an established Naples favourite long before 1889, but when the Queen of Italy wants a pizza – and then asks to know what it’s called in case she wants to order another – if you’re as savvy a pizzeria owner as a certain Raffaele Esposito, your quick-as-a-flash reply is, “It’s called the Pizza Margherita, Your Majesty.”
Did Raffaele ever adopt the ‘more is better’ philosophy for toppings ? And then calculate how thick he should make the base to support the weight ? Did he send out for a pineapple ? Did he lie awake wondering how to stuff a crust ? No he did not. And neither to this day do any Italian pizzaioli I’ve ever come across.
And neither should you.
Back to toppings. My favourite pizza – the Napolitano, as lovingly crafted by the Parco Majella, up at the top of a near-vertical, white-knuckle ride of a road called the Colle Luna, in the Abruzzo town of Guardiagrele – has tomato; mozzarella; anchovies; and a judicious sprinkle of oregano.
Another fave – a topping of mozzarella, gorgonzola, pumpkin and a little cream served-up by Le Maschere in the wine-producing town of Tollo.
When you need a purely cheese fix, the Quattro Formaggi, as its name hints, has…er…a four cheese topping: Mozzarella, Gorgonzola and Parmesan are givens. For the fourth, you can exercise a little choice. Taleggio’s good. Actually – very good. So’s Fontina, but creamier and without Taleggio’s bite. Provolone ? So-so. Ricotta ? Possibly. As long as the cheese is Italian, it’s basically fine.
But don’t even think of adding anything non-Italian like Cheddar. Just…don’t. OK ?
Notice a subtle difference here ? That’s right – the Quattro Formaggi has no tomato, making it the prime example of the Pizza Bianca – the White Pizza. To which you can add pretty well any topping you like. As long as tomato’s not one of them.
The Margherita – and my much-loved Napolitano – are both examples of the Pizza Rossa. Red pizza. Which has one big trap into which an over-generous – or unskilled – pizzaiolo can fall. Too much tomato sauce on your pizza crust makes it soggy. As with all pizza toppings, there’s a razor-thin line between just enough and too much.
Red or white. You pays your money, you takes your choice…
If you need a carb fix, try a Bianca Neve (yes, it really does translate as the ‘Snow White’. How cute is that !) based on mozzarella, onions and potato. Incredibly good.
BTW, if you’re from the US and want to avoid disappointment in Italy, never order a Pepperoni Pizza and then wonder why you get a pizza comprising tomato, mozzarella and sweet red and green peppers, with nary a spicy sausage in sight.
Pepperoni Pizza is an American invention and unknown in Italy, where Peperoni, (note the slight difference in spelling), means ‘Peppers. If you want slices of spicy sausage, ask for ‘Salsicce Piccante’ to be added.
Did I mention the absolute and utter necessity for a wood oven fired up to its optimum cooking temperature of around 450C degrees ? (Which, in passing, is around 200 degrees hotter than the hottest you’ll ever crank-up your domestic oven. Hence the reason that home-cooked pizza are never quite as good as you hope…)
A wood oven at 450C will cook your pizza to crisp, blistered, gooey perfection in something between 90 seconds and 2 minutes. This underlines the reason for thin pizza bases.
Any thicker than a few millimeters and at these temperatures, the outside will be burnt before the inside is cooked. And it also explains why a less-is-more philosophy is best when it comes to toppings. Too many – or too heavily loaded – and they’ll either be undercooked, or won’t have combined in that supreme unctiousness that typifies the best pizza.
Which, in a roundabout way, explains why the electric pizza oven is a far more common fixture in pizzerie worldwide. They’re more predictable and take way less skill to handle than a wood-fired oven.
And because they operate at a still pretty hot – but appreciably lower temperature – than a wood oven, this enables them to cook, rather than burn, your thicker pizza base/stuffed crust. And to handle the more-is-better approach to toppings. Not to mention pizza the size of a wagon wheel.
A proper wood-cooked Italian pizza is perhaps the finest fast-food meal you’ll ever find. Hot, crispy, savoury, eatable with your fingers and satisfyingly big. Benchmark price in this neck of Abruzzo at the time of writing’s about €6 – or around $8/£5. Sure, you can pay double, or even triple that for ‘gourmet’ pizza, with strange and costly toppings that maybe don’t even belong on a pizza, but why bother with those when the basic product’s so good ?
Add a beer or a glass of wine and you’ve a feast fit for a king. Or Queen Margherita.
ps. If my favourite pizza’s the Napolitano. What’s yours ?