Most of us grew up with some version of pizza around – for me, growing up in pre-democratic Poland, it was in form of “zapiekanki”, a halved and toasted baguette topped with cheese, mushrooms, caramelized onions, then smothered in ketchup. I think this is how I developed my secret habit of eating pizza with a side of ketchup… yeah. In Canada came frozen pizza, which, when I was 13, I’d cook from frozen in the microwave until it became this cheesy gloopy slop… I don’t think I began to appreciate what pizza is really supposed to taste like until my late 20’s, after I went to Rome.
I found that the crust is just a thin vehicle for restrained number of toppings. When slid onto a searing hot baking stone, the bottom becomes crispy and the edges bubble up trapping the air inside. Less is more, and the sauce can be as simple as a swirl of passata (strained tomatoes) and a sprinkle of salt… And cheese? Only mozzarella has a perfect consistency for pizza when melted; not too oily and very stretchy, with a mild taste that goes well with tomatoes.
You can’t go a block in Rome without being tempted by pizzerias, and the toppings on the pizzas are so fresh and imaginative. The pizza above contains the following: olive oil for brushing the crust first, sprinkle of salt, swirl of passata, sweet cherry tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil for garnish. In the picture below, the first one on the left also has rocket (arugula) leaves, and the one on the far right has ham and bits of shredded zucchini.
Okay, but let’s get the basics down first – the dough. Authentic Italian pizza calls for high protein flour (called Tipo 00), that is, flour high in gluten. This gives the dough elasticity, as it forms strands which bind together during the kneading process. Air bubbles are trapped among the interweaving strands and expand in heat allowing the pizza dough to rise. During baking, the stretched gluten becomes rigid as the moisture evaporates, and sets the pizza dough. The lower the protein level the lower the gluten level, therefore the dough will not likely holds its shape as well or rise as well.
If you’re going to make pizza at home, it’s worth to invest in a couple of tools: a good baking stone (it will change your life) and a pizza peel. The stone effectively mimics a wood-fired oven surface (sadly, without the smoky flavor). The porous nature of the stone used also helps absorb moisture, resulting in a crispy crust you simply won’t get otherwise. A home made “pizza stone” can also be made by distributing one or two layers of unglazed tiles on top of an oven rack, but these may be prone to cracking, so use at your own risk. A pizza cutter is also very handy.
If you’re looking for traditional italian pizza topping ideas, here are some: (and scroll down for the dough recipe)
Traditional Italian Pizza Toppings:
“Red” Pizza: Tomato and Mozzarella plus these combinations:
Porcini or portabella mushroom
Grilled eggplant, tomato and basil
Grilled eggplant, tomato, arugula, capers and anchovies
roasted red peppers
sliced heirloom tomatoes and basil
Al Mare — clams, mussels and prawns
Four seasons: artichoke, mushroom, olive and ham
Green olive, mussels and fresh basil
“White” Pizza: Olive Oil and Mozzarella plus these combinations:
Prosciutto and shaved parmesan
Roast potato, rosemary and Pecorino
Mushroom, leek, tomato and slivered Parmesan
Pesto, oil and tomato
Smoked salmon and Brie
Mushroom and Brie
Artichoke and Brie
Four cheese: mozzarella, Pecorino, Parmesan and Gorgonzola
Olive, grilled onion and anchovies
If the choices sound like too much, make the simples traditional Italian pizza, the Margherita, a simple pizza that relies on great basic ingredients – Italian Tipo 00 flour, the best San Marzano tomatoes, soft and fresh mozzarella cheese, olive oil, and fresh basil.
Remember, these are only guidelines, so use your imagination and have fun! If you have a glass (or few) of Chianti handy, oh my, do have it too.
Traditional Italian Pizza Dough Recipe – from Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking
- 3 tsp active dry yeast
- 2 cups warm water
- 6½ cups flour, use Tipo 00 for best results, but all purpose is a good substitute
- 2 tbs extra virgin oil
- ¾ tbs salt
- baking stone , baker’s peel
- (These are for a food processor, knead by hand otherwise)
- Dissolve the yeast in ½ cup of warm water and let stand for 10 minutes until bubbly. In the food processor bowl, add 2 cups of flour, and pour the yeast mixture over it when ready. Add 2 tbs of oil, salt, ½ cup of warm water and use a kneading hook to mix until combined (it will be a bit difficult at this point in a large food processor because you're not working with much, you can use a wooden spoon). Now add 4½ more cups of flour and 1 cup of water, and mix. Hold back on both for the last bit – we need dough that is manageable and soft, but not sticky. Keep mixing until a nice elastic ball is formed, about 3-5 minutes.
- Remove from the bowl and knead a few times by hand to shape into a ball. Put in a greased bowl, loosely cover with plastic wrap and then a damp kitchen towel. Let rise until doubled in size, about 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 450F and place the pizza stone inside. Preheat the stone for 30 minutes.
- Remove the dough from the bowl, and flatten to release air bubbles. Use a rolling pin to flatten into thin (1/4 inch) rounds. Generously sprinkle a baker`s paddle with cornmeal and transfer the crust onto it. Put your toppings on the crust. Slide the pizza on to the baking stone and bake until the edges are lightly browned and the cheese is bubbly and browned.