The Authentic Italian Pizza
There is something so unique and perfect about the pizza made in Italy. It’s thin, it’s crispy, it’s not bad for you and it is delicious. Now, be reminded, I am specifically talking about authentic Italian pizza; not a frozen block or Chicago deep dish. I am referring to the authentic, paper thin version cooked in a wood-burning oven at temperatures in excess of 750 degrees fahrenheit using only fresh buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, Extra Virgin Olive Oil and San Marzano tomatoes. The fresh ingredients, authentic oven and a little “amore” are what makes Italy famous for the pizza we love.
The History of Italian Pizza
Pizza is said to have originated in Naples, Italy, but the etymology of the word pizza is uncertain. The term was first coined in the 10th century in the town of Gaeta, a quaint seaside port located on the western coast of Italy, about 80 miles from Naples. It has been said that a Bishop in the town of Gaeta was to receive 12 pizzas every Christmas Day and 12 pizzas every Easter Sunday. The Greeks have the word pikte that means fermented pastry, later to become the Latin word pita. The Italians have the word pizzicare (to pluck), referencing the need to pluck or pull out the pizza quickly from the oven. And even the Germans (I know, blasphemous) use the word pizzo, which means “mouthful” or “bite.” All of which means no one really knows the true meaning of the word, pizza…a mouthful of pastry that must be taken out of the 750 degree oven quickly and then savored. We should add that it must be eaten and enjoyed immediately after we pizzicare it from the oven. Yes, I wish I had one in front of me right now too!
A pizzeria is somewhat different in Italy than what our minds would conjure up here in the States. They began selling pizzas at open-air stands, pizza bakeries and pizzerias, which typically ONLY served pizza and possibly pasta, but that is about all you will get there. What else could you need?
An Italian named Raffaele Esposito is said to have made the first version of pizza with tomato, cheese, and other toppings and seasonings. The first known pizza shop, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, opened in Port Alba in Naples… and like the Coliseum or Duomo, it is still there today. Legend has it that Queen Margherita paid a visit to Italy in the late 1800s and was said to have tried her first pizza of cheese and tomato, which is where the Italians came up with the traditional Pizza Margherita (my personal favorite). The pizza phenomenon was said to have spread to the United States and Europe after World War Two. War veterans consumed these flatbreads and brought back the idea of a simple meal that did not cost very much to make. In fact, it has been said that in Naples, although an affluent waterfront city, there were droves of working class people who needed cheap nourishment. So, from humble beginnings using only the flour, water and vegetables Italian peasants would harvest, pizza has become the food we all have learned to love with so much amore!
My daughter and I traveled to Italy while my co-founder, Laura, and her girls were living just outside Florence two years ago. The first night we arrived, we were jet-lagged and famished, so we went on an adventure seeking out a nearby pizzeria. We were told that Munaciello had the best Pizza Napoletana or as they would refer to it…Vera Pizza Napoletana (the real Napoletana). So, we walked across the Ponte Vecchio and along the Arno River, meandered around a few side streets and found this little gem of a pizzeria and it did not disappoint. It was molto buona!
Ok, now the good stuff… how to make an authentic pizza dough (in an Italian Pizzeria or at home):
- 600 mL of warm water
- 7 cups (1kg) flour, type “00”*
- 2.5 – 3 tablespoons (25 grams) of fresh yeast
- 6 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
- 1.5 teaspoons salt
- 2 teaspoons sugar
*A note on the flour: In Italy, “00”, or “doppio zero,” flour is the most highly-refined and finest-ground flour available.
1. Sprinkle the yeast into a medium bowl with the warm water. We don’t mean hot, and we don’t mean cold… we mean warm! That’s the kind the yeast likes best. Stir until the yeast dissolves.
2. Place almost all of the flour on the table in the shape of a volcano. (Think Mt. Vesuvius… appropriate since Naples is the king of all pizza cities!).
3. Pour the yeast-and-warm-water mix, along with the other ingredients, into the “crater” of the volcano.
4. Knead everything together for 10 to 15 minutes until the dough is smooth and elastic, keeping your surface floured.
5. Grease up a bowl with some olive oil and put the dough inside. Turn the dough around so the top is slightly oiled.
6. Cover the bowl and put the dough aside to let it rest for at least four or five hours.
7. (optional for those who want their pizza really authentic). Make a cross on top of the dough with a knife. An old Italian tradition, this is seen as a way of “blessing the bread.”
8. Preheat the oven to about 400°F, or about 200°C (traditional ovens, of course, otherwise 750 degrees in wood burning oven for those fortunate souls who have them).
9. Dump the dough out of the bowl and back onto the floured surface. Punch it down, getting rid of any bubbles. (Note: Now’s the time to enlist a kid with more energy than they know what to do with!).
10. Divide the dough in half and let it rest for a few minutes.
11. Roll each section into a 12-inch disc. Now’s your chance to decide how thick you want your pizza to be! Do you want it pizza alta (Neapolitan-style) or pizza bassa (Roman-style)? Just remember, your crust will puff up a little bit as it’s baked!
12. Transfer the dough onto an oiled pizza pan or baking sheet.
13. Add tomato sauce, if you want a pizza rossa (red pizza). Lots of pizzas in Italy are actually pizza bianca, without tomato sauce, so don’t feel like you have to! Brush the edges of the crust with a little bit of olive oil.
14. Bake each pizza for about 10 minutes, then add mozzarella cheese (sliced or grated) on top, as well as any other ingredients.
15. Let the pizzas bake until the crust is browned and the cheese is melted. By lifting up the pizza to peek underneath, you can make sure the bottom has browned, too.
16. Remove your pizzas from the oven and, for a real Italian touch, garnish with a few basil leaves. And enjoy!
Once your dough has risen after a few hours in the refrigerator, you are ready to choose your toppings, but if I may make a suggestion, keep it simple with fresh buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil, fresh San Marzano tomatoes and a little extra virgin olive oil and you will be well on your way to reaching pizza nirvana.