Jan 16, 2010

Pizza Part 1

Pizza defines Italy. It plays a very important role in the Italian diet, and I can't feel good about blogging all things tasty without mentioning pizza. Being such a vast subject, this post will be divided into 3 parts. Today I will introduce you to some basic facts, a little history and the recipe for the basic pizza dough. Shall I order the beers while you read? Va bene.

Pizza is the most popular creation of all Italian cuisine, and certainly the best known of the Napoli area. Its roots are much older than the tomato that tops it, and pizza is probably one of the oldest existing foods. The Ancient Greeks covered their bread with oils, herbs, and cheese. The Romans developed placenta, a sheet of flour-based dough topped with ricotta cheese and honey and flavored with bay leaves. An early type of pizza was then developed in the later part of the Roman Empire; it was a round wheat loaf divided into 8 sections. Proof of this is in the lava-preserved artifact on display in the Pompeii museum.

Image © Beatrice 
But la pizza, as we know it today–with basic tomato sauce topping–originated in Italy in the late 1700s. It soon became very popular among the destitute as well as with barons and princes of the Bourbon court. Even finicky King Ferdinand I (1751–1825) loved cooking pizza in Napoli’s ornate Capodimonte porcelain ovens.

After the Italian unification, in 1889, in honor of queen Margaret of Savoy, master pizzaiolo Raffaele Esposito created a patriotic pizza, in which the colors of the Italian flag were represented by the white mozzarella topping, red tomato sauce and fresh green basil. He named it Margherita, dedicating it to the queen, who ate it contentedly.

The real Neapolitan pizza must be cooked in a olive wood-fired brick oven, which usually gets fired early in the morning to be employed for dinner pizza (in serious establishments, pizza is hardly ever baked for lunch for that reason). It is then meticulously hand-made by an able pizziaiolo who molds the dough disc with a thinner middle and thicker outer rim. Some believe tossing the pizza in the air produces best overall results. The spectacular image of foot-long blankets of raw dough being hurled in the air above your head is a thrilling experience. Specially if you’re sitting nearby, and wearing a dark outfit.

The ingredients and olive oil are then quickly spread on the disk, and with a brisk movement the pizza is slid on a long-handled shovel called a pizza peel, glided in the oven where it is spun around a few times in order to obtain uniform cooking.

The dough for making pizza in Italy is commercially sold risen and ready for use in most supermarkets. Homemade pizza is however a kind of antithesis, in fact the genuine flavor, texture and pizza definition can only be sought after in specialized pizzeria restaurants that bake their fares in large brick, wood-fired ovens; handled, flipped, tossed and crafted by specially skilled pizzaioli masters, and moreover made with the special hard water of southern Italy.

If you wish to attempt your own homemade pizza, follow these instructions similar to those for breadmaking. While waiting for the dough to rise, browse websites that market wood-fired brick ovens and acrobatic pizza-hurling classes.

Ingredients for basic pizza dough
50 g (1/4 cup) brewer’s yeast
2 cups warm water, plus more if necessary
1 kg (2.2 lbs) all-purpose flour
6 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing the bowl during leavening
30 g (1 oz) salt
2 teaspoons sugar, leveled

Keep handy the tomato sauce, garlic, fresh basil, mozzarella, oregano, salt and pepper and whatever you might like to top your pizza with.

In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast in a glass of warm water, add the sugar and stir to dissolve both. Set aside until the yeast begins to form bubbles, about 5 minutes. Do the same thing with the salt, dissolve it in a glass of warm water and set aside.

Sift the flour into a large bowl or on a work surface. Mold the flour in a volcano mound–this in Italian is called fontana, 'fountain.'

Pour the yeast mix, olive oil, and the diluted salt emulsion in the crater of your volcano.

Using a spatula, draw the ingredients together. Add the rest of the water slowly and mix with your hands to obtain a solid mass. You may see that you need more water, or if your flour is not too absorbant, you may not use it all. As you keep kneading, a ball of dough will gradually start forming. Sprinkle some flour on the work surface, and transfer the dough on the floured surface. Knead it briefly with your hands pushing and folding it over, just long enough for the dough to take in a little more flour, and until it no longer sticks to your hands.

Grease the inside of another bowl with a little olive oil, and transfer the dough into it. Make a crisscross incision on the top of the ball of dough, and grease it with a very small amount of olive oil. This last step will prevent the surface of the dough from drying and cracking while rising.

Cover the bowl with a kitchen cloth, and set the bowl aside for approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours until the dough doubles in volume. The time required for rising will depend on the strength of the yeast and the room temperature, which should be around 20–24°C (68–75°F), for the dough to rise properly. Avoid drafts and nearby air conditioning venting shafts.

When the dough is double its original size, punch it down to eliminate air bubbles.

Divvy it up into fist-sized pieces, and roll each into a ball. Flatten each ball to make round disks about 20 cm (8 inches) in diameter. Keep at it stubbornly: flattening the dough into a pizza disc is not easy, but don’t let shrinkage and elasticity disourage you.

When your oven has reached Inferno level, dress your pizza with 2 tablespoons of tomato purée (not more!), a thread of olive oil and some crushed garlic. Pop in the oven and bake for 7-9 minutes.

When ready to serve, drizzle more olive oil and sprinkle a dash of dried oregano and salt. Voilà, Pizza Marinara!

For the Margherita variation: spread the same tablespoon of tomato purée on the flattened pizza disc, spinkle it with diced mozzarella and a pinch of salt. Drizzle with olive oil and into the oven it goes, same procedure. When the pizza is baked and the mozzarella has melted wonderfully, drizzle a bit more olive oil, dot the surface with fresh basil leaves torn into bits, and thank Mr. Esposito profusely.

I hope you enjoyed this introduction to basic Italian pizza. Come back on Tuesday for Part 2 of the series, with an in-depth exploration of the various types of pizza, a detailed list of Italian favorites and another delicious recipe...


  1. Now you have my attention. I am a pizza lover from way back. Now I don't have a brick oven but I have been known to make my own dough.

    My son, still at home, will make up his own variation mixing different cheeses but they all end up with some ground peperoncino on it to spice it up, some very hot ones that we grew in the garden last summer.

    I just had lunch but now I am craving a delicious pizza.

  2. Great! You and your son sound like excellent pizza chefs.
    Stay tuned for the next Pizza installment... lots and lots of goodies!

    Ciao xx

  3. How do you manage to make everything look so mouthwatering ??? Yes, please do order the beers ! Gosh, you've done it again, I'm off to the kitchen !

    This is a subject that vast numbers of readers are going to love, I'm sure... who can't relate to pizza ???

  4. Oh wow! I already poured my glass of pinot gris before I started to read this....lovely.

    I have a pizza stone that stays in my oven all the time - it isn't a wood-fired oven (and certainly not olive wood here in the NW of the United States), but I have a pizza peel and slide my home made pizzas onto the stone and they turn out pretty well. My Italian husband approves!

  5. Yes now that's some Pizza!! The best in the world!

  6. I love trying new pizza dough recipes! I'll have to bookmark this page! Thanks!

  7. OMG Lola,
    I could eat my computer, this looks so delicious. And I may have to since i'll never be able to make this. I can't wait to come to Italy to eat the best pizza.

  8. That's wonderful. Thank you Lola. I teach English to culinary students and if you don't mind I may use some of the introductory material in a class.

  9. Thank you for staying for a slice!

    Owen~ Everyone loves a good pizza, but in Italy it's different: it's cultural!
    Laura~ Excellent, I forgot to mention the wonders of pizza stones! Thank you for reminding me.
    Chef C~ I agree!
    ChuckP~ Woo hoo, glad you liked!
    Sook~ Please come back Tuesday for more pizza love!
    Lori ann~ I'll take you to the best of the best. For a sneak preview, stay tuned for Part 2...
    Martha~ That would be great! Tell your students to come visit Aglio, Olio & Peperoncino!

    Ciao friends

  10. You have made me so hungry now! For pizza! It's the local Palio today, so places will be packed I assume.
    And Sunday is my usual Spaghetti Aglio Olio day! :O

  11. Goodness, imagine being able to toss dough as huge as that bottom photo! I don't think I could follow this recipe because I've not seen Brewer's Yeast over here. I'm too lazy as well :) (truth will out)

  12. OOh how divine! I wish I was having a pizza in Italy right now

  13. Lola! I love this post. I put a link to it on my facebook page. I really must try this!

  14. I loved this little history lesson and the picture of the Pompeii pizza was fascinating! I'll come back for you next installment. And contemplate how much I want a pizza oven in my backyard...:p)

  15. usually once a week we make pizza together as a family...so much fun...as long as you can keep the boys from eating all the toppings. smiles.

  16. Stars&Clouds~ great coincidence! Tell us more of the Palio!
    FF~ Don't be lazy! In Italy brewer's yeast is called beer yeast, funny.
    Janet~ Come over and I'll treat you to the best!
    B&Rosemary~ Stay tuned for the upcoming installments! I posted a link on your fb page too!
    Barbara~ Backyard pizza making is pure bliss!
    Brian~ Making it together multipies the flavor!

    Come back tomorrow for Part 2!!!

  17. Have they heard, over there in pizza's birthplace, of the strange variations we produce here in gli Stati Uniti?

    Pizza with pineapple sections and other toppings too humorous to mention?

  18. I'm hungry! Yes, the best pizza comes from those special forni.
    This is the most comprehensive blog of everything Italian.
    You have earned quite a following, deservedly!

  19. Berowne~ I've had pineapple pizza in California. Read about it in Part 2 tonight...
    Louis~ Grazie!
    Rosaria~ It all started thanks to you.

  20. My dear Eleonora, you have outdone yourself. Who can argue that pizza is the one food that draws us all together. And really isn't together how a wonderful pizza be shared. I have to admit that I have hoarded a particular lovely little pie to myself, to savor what is true culinary artistry. I really enjoy your blog, and I am introducing you to as many as possible. Many of my family are now fans. God Bless, and continued success.

  21. To Paulo lol
    Well this is just a basic pizza recipe lol her recipes are very good but this one is the same as every other pizza recipe.

    Also using a pizza stone is probaly the best tool to make high quality pizza at home, also grilling pizza can be quite good.

  22. Enrico~
    Grazie! Scusa m'era sfuggito il tuo commento :)

    Thank you for your kind comment!

    I've never tried grilling pizza, I'm curious to try it.

    Thank you all for your comments.
    Grazie a tutti per i vostri commenti.

  23. Eleonora, I have recently found your blog and love your dedication to your passion - such wonderful stories, tips and recipes - Thank you for sharing! I am now looking through your recipe archive and want to try everything :-) However you pizza recipe looks so amazing, I thought I would start with that, although I am not sure about what yeast I should use? You mention brewers yeast, I have never used this for cooking before, and am not sure it is easy to obtain here, any advice on alternatives please? Grazie! Brian

    1. Ciao Brian, and thanks for stopping by!
      I'm glad you'll be making pizza with my recipe :)

      The main difference between baker yeast and brewer's yeast is that the former ferments much much quicker than the other, and in Italy it's easier to find the brewer's yeast. But for making pizza and bread, you can easily substitute brewer's yeast with active dry yeast, which is easily accessible in markets and stores.

  24. Pizza is a dish that has been around for centuries, and it’s more than just a pizza. Every culture has its own interpretation of what pizza is and what makes it special. Some people like their pizza greasy and stinky with cheese melted on top; others prefer to go for bolder flavors or crispy crusts. Even the origin of the word “pizza” is up for debate, but it stems from the Italian word “pasta,” which means “bread” in Latin.
    More Info: https://wwwpizzahut09.blogspot.com