“If Naples had managed to patent pizza it would now be among the world’s wealthiest cities…” wrote Burton Anderson in “Treasures of the Italian Table”. Of course the idea of baking a flat bread and serving other food on it didn’t originate in Naples; it had been happening for thousands of years in many other cultures and today there is the pissaladière of Provence, the tarte flambée or flammekueche in Alsace that resembles Germany’s zwiebelkuchen, and lahm bi ajeen in Lebanon with its variations found in many other Middle Eastern countries, to name but a few pizza-like dishes. However it is the pizza napolitana that is the archetype of the modern pizza, the dish which along with pasta typifies Italian cuisine to so many.
It is said that pizza started its rise to international fame after it was taken to America by Italian emigrants and nowadays it is available all over the world. This availability is largely due to the proliferation of pizzerias, especially the major American chains like Pizza Hut with over 11,000 branches in 95 countries and Domino’s with 9000+ branches in over 60 countries. Both of these have a presence in New Zealand together with New Zealand’s own chain, Hell.
I think it sad that the delightful simplicity of the Neapolitan ideal has suffered in the hands of the larger commercial enterprises. The Associazione Verace Pizza Napoletana is a movement whose goal is to promote and protect the standards of pizza made in the style and after the traditions found in Naples. The crust for instance must only be made with wheat flour, yeast, salt and water and be allowed to prove naturally. It must be shaped by hand and cooked on the floor of a wood burning, brick oven and not in any pan or dish.
The toppings of the classics are similarly basic, like pizza marinara, topped only with tomato, garlic, oregano and olive oil, no cheese. The pizza Margherita, conceived in the 19th century when King Umberto I and Queen Margherita visited Naples would be the envy of today’s marketing gurus, celebrating Italy simply with a topping in the colours of the Italian tricolore, red tomato, white mozzarella and green basil. Well-made, it is a triumph of the pizzaiolo’s art and delicious.
It is a matter of personal taste, of course, but I find that that too many additions detract from a pizza’s appeal and to my mind the ready-sliced olives and sausage, powdered garlic and dried herbs often found in the larger establishments together with pineapple, barbecue sauce, apricot swirls, Cajun spices, mayonnaise and the like have no place on a true pizza.
So, I turn my back on the giants with their filled crusts, deep dishes, international flavours, lolly water offers and American hype and instead go to the many smaller individual pizzerias who understand what a pizza should be about…but most of the time though I make my own. I try to maintain the standards of the VPN but without the required pizza oven, I have to manage by cooking on a baking stone in an ordinary oven.
The bread recipe in my earlier column, “Give Us This Day” makes a very good pizza crust if rolled very thin or you might like to try this this one…the toppings I leave to you but would add that often less is best.
Underneath The Pizzas
1½ tsp active dry yeast (I use Edmond’s, the one with the yellow top)
250ml lukewarm water
375g plain flour
Extra virgin olive oil
1½ tbsp salt
Dissolve the yeast in the water then add a tablespoon of the flour. Mix then leave for 10 or so minutes until it becomes foamy. Pour the yeast mixture into a large bowl, add a third of the flour and mix with a wooden spoon. When mixed add another third of the flour and mix again then add a tablespoon of the oil and the salt. Mix then add the final third of the flour. The dough should be soft but not sticky; you may need to add a little more flour or water to get this right.
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface and knead by hand for about 10 minutes. Wipe the inside of a clean bowl with a teaspoon of the oil and put in the dough; cover with plastic wrap and leave in a warm, draught-free place for about three hours or until the dough has doubled in size.
At least half an hour before you bake, place the baking stone in the oven and preheat it to 230˚C
When risen divide the dough in half, returning one half to the covered bowl. Roll the dough as thin as you can into a circular shape and place on a floured baking sheet. Put on the chosen topping and slide the pizza from the floured tray onto the pizza stone. Bake for about 20 minutes. Repeat with the remainder of the dough.
This recipe can make two 30cm pizzas.